‘Taking care of children has nothing to do with politics. Politics has nothing to do with one’s helping a dying child. Survival, that’s what it’s about. I think perhaps with time, instead of there being a politicization of humanitarian aid, there will be a humanization of politics.’
She is today probably recognized as one of the greatest film legends of American cinema and a fashion icon. Some also regard her as the most naturally beautiful woman of all time. That is how most us know Audrey Hepburn. However, what many of us may not know is that she dedicated a substantial part of her life in helping impoverished people in the poorest nations.
While living in Arnhem, Netherlands during World War II, she suffered from malnutrition, developed acute anemia, respiratory problems, and edema. In 1944, the Allied forces attacked the city and living conditions became worse as the Germans had blocked the resupply routes of the food and fuel. Many people starved to death but she somehow managed to survive by making cakes and biscuits out of Tulip bulbs. When the country was free, United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration trucks arrived and the situation improved. However, the pain that she had already experienced in her childhood ignited a fire within her to work for the cause of humanity during the latter part of her life.
After a successful career as an actress, she decided to devote most of her time for the cause of humanity. She was appointed the Goodwill Ambassador of UNICEF in 1987. On her first mission she visited Ethiopia, a country that had been savaged by famines and years of civil war. She visited an orphanage with food sent by UNICEF where 500 children were starving. Appalled by the state of affairs, she said ‘I have a broken heart. I feel desperate. 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.” This visit further strengthened her resolve to work for the needy.
The next year, she visited Turkey, where the mission was to vaccinate all the children against the six diseases: measles, tuberculosis, tetanus, whooping cough, diphtheria and polio. The entire mission was carried out in 10 days. She then visited Venezuela and Ecuador and the focus was education of street children. She told the US 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.’
She was later part of ‘Operation Lifeline’ in Sudan, a nation that had been torn apart by war. The food from aid agencies had been cut off. Hepburn along with other volunteers helped ferry food to the areas that had been ravaged by war. She later 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.’
She wanted to aid the people of Bangladesh after floods in some areas and famines in the other had devastated the country. She said, ‘I want to go there and be with them and promote their cause.’In October 1990, she led a mission in Vietnam whose main drive was to persuade the government to support water and immunization programs of UNICEF.
Her most challenging mission came in 1992, when she went to Somalia. Talking about the mission she said it was ‘apocalyptic’ and further remarked that ‘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.’
When she was not on field visits, she was espousing the cause of UNICEF at various forums. She commented that ‘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.’ She was appreciated for her relentless efforts and presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992 and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences posthumously awarded her the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her contribution to mankind. In 2002 UNICEF honored her legacy of humanitarian work by unveiling a statue, “The Spirit of Audrey”, at UNICEF’s New York headquarters.
She deserves appreciation for her efforts in helping those who are affected by nature’s fury in the form of famines and floods and also those who are caught in the middle of mindless civil wars.