Thursday, 28 April 2016

The Life and Work of Audrey Hepburn: Working for UNICEF

by Hermione Barrick


"Nothing is impossible, the word itself says 'I'm possible!' - Audrey Hepburn

Hepburn endured German occupation as a child, feeling greatly fortunating for surviving through this Hepburn decided to dedicate the rest of her life to helping impoverished children in the poorest nations.

Hepburn received many awards and recognitions of her work throughout her life including being appointed Goodwill Ambassador of UNICEF, being presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by president George Bush, in recognition of her work with UNICEF, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences posthumously awarded her the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her contribution to humanity.

Hepburn's travels were made easier by her wide knowledge of languages; besides being naturally bilingual in English and Dutch, she also was fluent in French, Italian, Spanish, and German.

Her family said that the thoughts of dying, helpless children consumed her for the rest of her life. In 2002, at the United Nations Special Session on Children, UNICEF honoured Hepburn's legacy of humanitarian work by unveiling a statue, "The Spirit of Audrey", at UNICEF's New York headquarters. Her service for children is also recognised through the U.S. Fund for UNICEF's Audrey Hepburn Society.

Some of Hepburn's field missions;

Hepburn's first field mission for UNICEF was to Ethiopia in 1988. She visited an orphanage in Mek'ele that housed 500 starving children and had UNICEF send food. On the trip, she said,

"I have a broken heart. I feel desperate. I can't stand the idea that two million people are in imminent danger of starving to death, many of them children, [and] not because there isn't tons of food sitting in the northern port of Shoa. It can't be distributed. Last spring, Red Cross and UNICEF workers were ordered out of the northern provinces because of two simultaneous civil wars... I went into rebel country and saw mothers and their children who had walked for ten days, even three weeks, looking for food, settling onto the desert floor into makeshift camps where they may die. Horrible. That image is too much for me. The 'Third World' is a term I don't like very much, because we're all one world. I want people to know that the largest part of humanity is suffering."

In August 1988 Hepburn went to Turkey on an immunisation campaign. She called Turkey "the loveliest example" of UNICEF's capabilities.  In discussion of her trip she said

"the army gave us their trucks, the fishmongers gave their wagons for the vaccines, and once the date was set, it took ten days to vaccinate the whole country. Not bad."

In October, Hepburn went to South America. In Venezuela and Ecuador, Hepburn told the United States Congress,

 "I saw tiny mountain communities, slums, and shantytowns receive water systems for the first time by some miracle – and the miracle is UNICEF. I watched boys build their own schoolhouse with bricks and cement provided by UNICEF."

Hepburn toured Central America in February 1989, and met with leaders in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. In April, she visited Sudan with Wolders as part of a mission called "Operation Lifeline". Because of civil war, food from aid agencies had been cut off. The mission was to ferry food to southern Sudan. Hepburn said,

 "I saw but one glaring truth: These are not natural disasters but man-made tragedies for which there is only one man-made solution – peace." Hepburn and Wolders went to Bangladesh. John Isaac, a UN photographer, said,  "Often the kids would have flies all over them, but she would just go hug them. I had never seen that. Other people had a certain amount of hesitation, but she would just grab them. Children would just come up to hold her hand, touch her – she was like the Pied Piper."

In September 1992, four months before she died, Hepburn went to Somalia. Calling it "apocalyptic", she said,

"I walked into a nightmare. I have seen famine in Ethiopia and Bangladesh, but I have seen nothing like this – so much worse than I could possibly have imagined. I wasn't prepared for this."

"The earth is red – an extraordinary sight – that deep terracotta red. And you see the villages, displacement camps and compounds, and the earth is all rippled around these places like an ocean bed and I was told these were the graves. There are graves everywhere. Along the road, wherever there is a road, around the paths that you take, along the riverbeds, near every camp – there are graves everywhere."

Though scarred by what she had seen, Hepburn retained hope.

"Taking care of children has nothing to do with politics. I think perhaps with time, instead of there being a politicisation of humanitarian aid, there will be a humanisation of politics."

 "Anyone who doesn't believe in miracles is not a realist. I have seen the miracle of water which UNICEF has helped to make a reality. Where for centuries young girls and women had to walk for miles to get water, now they have clean drinking water near their homes. Water is life, and clean water now means health for the children of this village."

"People in these places don't know Audrey Hepburn, but they recognise the name UNICEF. When they see UNICEF their faces light up, because they know that something is happening. In the Sudan, for example, they call a water pump UNICEF."


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