Angelina Jolie on her work with refugees: ‘I just wanted to be a part of the real world’

Angelina Jolie celebrated her 20th anniversary with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees this year. It was in 2001 that she was first appointed a goodwill ambassador to the UNHCR. Eventually, her title was upgraded to special envoy to the UNHCR. She not only travels to refugee camps around the world, drawing attention to targeted situations, but she also has expanded her portfolio of activism and advocacy to gendered violence, rape and assault in warzones, the rights of children and more. As part of Angelina’s People Magazine cover story (in the current issue), she spoke more about what led her to this work, and the kindness she’s been shown from refugees:

The kindest thing to ever happen to her: In the middle of unthinkable hardship and atrocity, Angelina Jolie has witnessed incredible grace and generosity. In fact, it was while visiting the Syrian border that a young girl shared one of the few items she still had. “This little girl came up to me and offered me some biscuits that she had in her pocket. Knowing what she’d come from, knowing what she was heading into, knowing everything she’d experienced, yet in that moment she wasn’t thinking of herself or everything she had lost. She wasn’t sitting with self pity. She just saw me—I must have looked tired and she just walked over and thought to just be kind. That’s what makes human beings so wonderful.”

Her commitment to finding solutions for refugees: “My spirit has benefited, my life has benefited, from being allowed to be in the company of people who are surviving very difficult things. It’s been a gift to me. I don’t like the idea that it’s some burden, that it’s so nice of somebody to go out of their way to help somebody else. It’s not. I don’t ever see this idea of charity.”

She learned a valuable lesson from an Afghan grandmother. “She was raising her grandchildren because her children had been murdered and she was in a refugee camp. I remember I started to cry and she said, ‘I don’t need you to cry, I need you to help me.’ That was a big lesson. The thought that sitting and feeling sorry for somebody is this luxury because you can be in your feelings and they don’t have that time to feel sorry for themselves.”

When she first began working with the UNHCR: “I realized there are people around the world who want their lives to be dedicated to helping others, finding solutions for others, being a part of the world with each other. It changed my perspective. I just wanted to be a part of the real world. And I wanted to have a life of some meaning.”

Her work in Cambodia: Her largest effort has been the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Project, run entirely by local staff serving and supported by their communities. “It’s a foundation set up in one of the areas of Cambodia that was most affected by the conflict and genocide (in the late ’70s, by the Khmer Rouge, led by brutal dictator Pol Pot)… We started out nearly 20 years ago, removing landmines from the ground so that local people could return to their homes. Today we help protect a large area of tropical forest in the Cardamom Mountains (southwest part of the country) that is threatened by illegal logging and land encroachment. And we fund two clinics and 16 healthcare staff, serving thousands of patients a year, as well as six primary schools and one secondary school. We also run a women’s empowerment program.”

Her work in Namibia: Recently, Jolie and her daughter Shiloh worked with a top conservation organization in Namibia, the Naankuse Foundation, to create Shiloh’s Wildlife Sanctuary. The sanctuary is primarily a safe place for elephants and rhinos that have been injured or orphaned due to poachers. “They have recently had to move different animals because of the desert expanding, the lakes drying up,” she explains.

Her book, Know Your Rights: “Children are on the front lines of the struggle for human rights today. We want to ensure every child knows and understands their rights, and how to claim them. It’s intended to be a practical guide. It was written for young people and the stories of youth rights activists we consulted are the bedrock of the book. We wanted the book to be open and honest and not to pull punches. That’s why I wrote at the start some adults won’t want young people to read it. I hope that this is a book that might inspire a conversation between parents and children. And that it might remind governments that child rights are as real as those of adults.”

Why she went to DC to speak about the reauthorization of VAWA: “I am asking for protections for children in the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization, which is currently in the hands of the Senate. There’s a child health emergency in our country, caused by the hidden effects of domestic violence. I’m asking for trauma care, training for judges and non-biased forensic evidence collection all to be included in the act.”

On kindness: “I don’t think of myself as a kind person. Generosity of spirit, I think that’s a better way of putting it. When you go to sleep at night and you feel like you’ve been of use to another human being, whether it’s your friend, your child or someone, that’s a life worth living.”

[From People]

She’s so inspiring. I’m so happy that I’m an OG Jolie Stan. That’s fascinating about her book and how she’s trying to inform children how to stand up for themselves and their own rights, and how there are many adults who won’t like that. Her list of accomplishments is amazing, and the way she just listed off everything that the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation has done in Cambodia is such a badass move. She’s fundamentally changed thousands of lives for the better just in Cambodia.

Photos courtesy of Avalon Red.

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