Leigh Foster, Chief of Events, Campaigns and Goodwill Ambassadors, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Switzerland; Member of the Award Committee, Henley & Partners Global Citizen Award
House keys, diplomas, mobiles, and phone numbers are just some of the things people carry with them when escaping from violence. In the moment they flee, refugees cast a last desperate look around their homes and grab a few vital possessions to take into exile. Highlighting their harrowing choices, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Goodwill Ambassador Cate Blanchett and friends launched a powerful film to support UNHCR’s #WithRefugees campaign and petition. The film, based on What They Took With Them, a rhythmic poem by Jenifer Toksvig, is inspired by stories from refugees and the items they took with them when they were forced to flee their homes.
“As soon as I read Jenifer Toksvig’s poem, and even more so after I took part in an early performance of it, I was struck by its immense power,” says Blanchett. “The rhythm and words of the poem echo the frenzy and chaos and terror of suddenly being forced to leave your home, grabbing what little you can carry and fleeing for safety.” Blanchett performed the poem alongside fellow actors Keira Knightley, Juliet Stevenson, Peter Capaldi, Stanley Tucci, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kit Harrington, Douglas Booth, Jesse Eisenberg and Neil Gaiman. This powerful film highlights how UNHCR Goodwill Ambassadors and supporters play an important role in bringing the refugee cause to global audiences. As messengers and advocates they bring their voice and support to the public eye. With displacement levels at their highest ever recorded, these voices help draw attention to the individual human experiences behind the overwhelming statistics. “Over 65 million people across the world have been forced to leave everything behind them — everything — and start their lives again from scratch,” continues Blanchett. “As a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, I believe the very least each of us can do is work together to ensure refugees have the basics with which to rebuild their lives. I hope this film will urge people to go to withrefugees.org and sign the petition.”
The focal point of UNHCR’s #WithRefugees campaign is a petition that aims to build public empathy and support for refugees, calling on world leaders to act with shared responsibility for the people forced to flee their homes. The petition has three specific requests: Ensure that every refugee child receives an education, that every refugee family has somewhere safe to live, and that every refugee will have the opportunity to work or learn new skills to make a positive contribution to their community. The petition was drafted to motivate governments to find solutions that go beyond survival needs and will enable refugees to rebuild their lives.
UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, supermodel and former refugee from South Sudan, Alek Wek, travels across the globe using her voice, her fame and her story to support UNHCR and refugees at events, conferences and in the media. Wek was only nine when civil war broke out in Sudan and 14 when she arrived to London only speaking Arabic and Dinka.
“Life as we knew it came to a devastating end,” she remembers. “Our parents tried to shield us from the conflict but the sounds of gunfire and the vibrations of explosions filled us with dread. Dead bodies filled the landscape.” Wek and her family fled their village and survived in the bush, foraging for food and taking shelter in abandoned huts until they managed to escape to the Sudanese capital Khartoum, from where Wek’s mother sent her and one of her sisters to London. “I knew with all my heart that she was doing what was best for us, but that didn’t ease the pain,” says Wek.
Having lost so much, education became the only thing that mattered to Wek and so she was fiercely devoted to learning. The lack of access to education for refugee children is a main concern for UNHCR, who published a report in September 2016 showing that more than half — 3.7 million — of the 6 million school-age refugee children have no school to go to. “As the international community considers how best to deal with the refugee crisis, it is essential that we think beyond basic survival,” says the High Commissioner, Filippo Grandi. “Education enables refugees to positively shape the future of both their countries of asylum and their home countries when they return someday.”
On 16 September, refugees and high profile supporters delivered the petition to the UN Secretary General and the President of the UN General Assembly ahead of the historic UN Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants on 19 September, in which the New York Declaration was adopted.
The handover ceremony also included a performance by award winning Sudanese-American slam poet Emi Mahmoud, which was dedicated to Alan Kurdi, the three year old Syrian boy whose image made global headlines after he drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015. Afterwards there was a reading of the objectives of the #WithRefugees petition by American actor Ben Stiller and a group of refugees. Refugee Olympic Team athletes Yusra Mardini from Syria and Yeich Pur Biel from South Sudan also attended, with Biel speaking about the importance of refugees having a safe place to live. Wek provided the opening remarks, saying “There is no doubt that I would not be where I am today if people had not stood with me when I was a refugee. The #WithRefugees campaign demonstrates that people all over the world want to see governments come together and support refugees.”