On a weekend visit to refugees, UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie met Afghan and Burmese women who told her how they fled persecution in their homelands and found safety in India.
Relaxed and informal, dressed in jeans and a UNHCR tee shirt, Jolie also sat down on the floor to play with refugee children, commiserated with a hard-working single mother and chatted with teenagers about the joys and challenges of learning a foreign language.
“I am grateful to the refugee families who spent time with me and shared their stories,” Jolie said. “They are remarkable, courageous people.”
On Saturday, the actress visited the UNHCR Women’s Protection Clinic in west Delhi, a place where refugee women from Myanmar can come and air their problems in a safe environment.
Interviews at the clinic also enable UNHCR to better help the women - by getting them medical care, or arranging education for their children, for example. Longer term, many of the women are scheduled to be resettled in countries like Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Norway and the United States. Many of the refugees are from the Chin minority, Christians in officially-Buddhist Myanmar.
Writing notes in a thick notebook, Jolie listened attentively as Burmese refugee women told her that they cannot return to their country as long as the military regime remains in power. While she talked to the refugees, her five-year-old son Maddox played on the floor with Burmese children, overcoming any language barrier with an enthusiastic contest of spinning tops.
“It’s very upsetting to hear about the persecution the refugees have endured,” Jolie said. After a conversation with two Burmese women, one shyly told Jolie: “You look like an actress.” Added the second one: “Are you a film star?”
“That’s why I am in India, making a film,” Jolie replied, “but I came up to Delhi just to visit with you. I am honoured to be able to meet you. You are very strong women. You are amazing.”
The Afghan and Burmese women she met were among the 11,500 refugees in the Indian capital who are directly under the care of the UN refugee agency.
In the crowded narrow streets near the centre, Jolie slipped off her flip-flops and settled down on the wooden bed in a one-room apartment her Burmese refugee host shares with her three children. The woman, whose husband was arrested in Myanmar, fled to India alone with her young children. She cannot work here, she said, because she has her hands full taking care of the children, two of whom were at her side as she talked.
“That’s the hardest work,” said Jolie, who has three children of her own. “It must be very difficult for you to raise three small children in a foreign country.”
Jolie also visited Khalsa Diwan Welfare Society, an organisation run by and for Sikh Afghan refugees in west Delhi, where she dropped in on tailoring, music and English classes. Many of the Afghan Sikhs, who were a persecuted minority in their own country, have been in India for nearly three decades; most of the young refugees Jolie met were born in India and have never seen Afghanistan.
Chatting with a 15-year-old boy who said he loves computers, Jolie joked: “I am terrible with computers.” In an English class, Jolie, who said she has a special interest in Afghan refugees and would like to visit the country one day when it is peaceful, asked the students to teach her a few words in their mother tongue and praised their command of three languages.
Later she said it was tragic these Afghan refugees - who number 9,500 in New Delhi - had languished in exile for so many years. “We often focus on refugee emergencies, but we forget that there are millions of refugees around the world who spend years, even decades, outside their countries,” she said. “The international community really must work harder to find solutions for these forgotten urban refugees.”
On Sunday, Jolie met Indian Minister of State for External Affairs Anand Sharma, and also prominent members of Indian civil society, including academics and lawyers. She thanked both the people and government of India for “their longstanding hospitality to refugees” and for an “open-door policy” to refugees displaced by recent fighting in Sri Lanka.
In addition to the 11,500 refugees cared for by the UN refugee agency directly, India is also home to about 110,000 Tibetan refugees and more than 100,000 refugees from Sri Lanka who are looked after by the Indian government. Since violence flared on the island state in April this year, more than 18,000 Sri Lankans have sought refuge in southern India’s Tamil Nadu state.