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Jolie talks to Syrian refugees

Published September 11, 2012 11:39 am

Special envoy • The visit aimed to attract more funding to help the conflict victims.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Zaatari, Jordan • Her eyes welling up with tears, actress Angelina Jolie said she heard "horrific" and "heartbreaking" accounts from Syrian refugees she met Tuesday during a visit to a camp in Jordan that has provided shelter for those fleeing the civil war in the neighboring country.

The Hollywood star, who is also the U.N. refugee agency's special envoy, spoke after meeting a group of women refugees at the Zaatari camp, which hosts about 30,000 Syrians displaced by the 18-month conflict.

"I am very concerned, the world is very concerned," Jolie said during a high-profile visit U.N. refugee agency's special envoy aimed at focusing international attention on the plight of Syrian refugees and attracting more funding to help them. "What is very heartbreaking is when Syrian people ask you why you think no one is able to find a solution for them."

Jolie met separately with the Syrian refugee women as U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh toured the sprawling tent city. She also went to the border late Monday and met with Syrian refugees as they crossed into Jordan.

"What they described on the ground, hearing it from them is so horrific," she said, adding that the children's stories were especially moving, including some who said they had witnessed people being pulled apart "like chickens."

"When you meet so many innocent people and civilians, the people of Syria are asking who is on their side. 'Who is going to help us as the months go on?" she added.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled the chaos as an uprising against President Bashar Assad has become increasingly violent, with activists saying at least 23,000 people have died since the conflict began in March 2011.

According to Guterres, Jordan alone has taken in some 200,000 Syrians — the largest number in the region. Both the U.N. refugee agency and Jordan said the figure reflects actual numbers of Syrians housed in the kingdom as opposed to a smaller figure of those Syrian refugees who have registered with the UNHCR or who are awaiting registration.

"This mission that we are sharing has a key objective. It is to draw attention to the international community to express a much more stronger solidarity with Syrian refugees and the host countries that have kept their borders open to all those fleeing the conflict," Guterres said.

The refugee chief acknowledged the sheer numbers are taking a toll on Jordan's economy and resources, stressing that the "camp needs massive international funding" and that its conditions were "still not acceptable."

UNHCR says it has so far only received a little over $9 million in aid for a regional appeal it has made for the Syrian refugees.

Despite hardships faced by Zaatari residents, including insufficient supplies of electricity and water, persistent dust and delayed schooling at the camp, Jolie said at least the refugees have found some measure of safety.

"I'm grateful to Jordan and all the border countries for keeping their borders open, for saving these people's lives," she told reporters gathered under a Bedouin tent. "They are dying in Syria. If they were unable escape with their families, many of the people here, many of people I met today would in fact be dead. It's an extraordinary thing that they are doing."

Jolie, who has six children with Brad Pitt, also expressed concern for the alarming numbers of children who are reported dead, wounded or unaccompanied after their parents were killed.

"It's impossible to imagine any mother standing by and not stepping up and doing something to prevent this," she said. "We encourage the international community to support the people here until one day they go back home."

The UNHCR in April promoted Jolie from serving as its goodwill ambassador to special envoy due to her exceptional work for the agency.

Jordan opened the Zaatari facility for Syrians in July after long delaying a decision on whether to set up refugee camps, possibly to avoid Assad's autocratic regime by showing images at his doorstep of civilians fleeing his military onslaught.

Jolie was also to visit Syrian refugees and meet authorities in Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq during the rest of her trip to the region.

In Geneva, the UNHCR said Tuesday that while the agency has 253,106 people registered or awaiting registration as Syrian refugees, the real number is likely far higher since tens of thousands are believed to have not yet registered. Some are getting help from family or friends, while some are afraid to register for fear of possible consequences from Assad's regime. Agency spokesman Adrian Edwards said that figure includes 85,197 in Jordan, 78,431 in Turkey, 66,915 in Lebanon and 22,563 in Iraq as of this week.

Diplomatic efforts have so far failed to stop the bloodshed in Syria, but the new U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi plans to travel to Syria this week in a bid to revive them. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Brahimi will sit down with President Bashar Assad during an upcoming visit, although the date has not been announced.

"First and foremost, the violence must stop by both sides, regardless of their political grievances or problems may be. That is not acceptable," Bah said at a news conference in the Swiss capital of Bern.