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Cate Blanchett on the Syrian refugee crisis and her roles as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Cate Blanchett visits a TIGER workshop in the community centre in District 2 of Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan. 
TIGER, "These inspired girls enjoy reading," is a group of adolescent girls who gather for
extracurricular education, including life skills sessions, Arabic, English, and Information &
Communication Technology, a reading club, and sessions to discuss adolescents’ issues. (Caroline Irby for UNHCR)
UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Cate Blanchett visits a TIGER workshop in the community centre in District 2 of Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan. TIGER, "These inspired girls enjoy reading," is a group of adolescent girls who gather for extracurricular education, including life skills sessions, Arabic, English, and Information & Communication Technology, a reading club, and sessions to discuss adolescents’ issues. (Caroline Irby for UNHCR)

It’s been 12 years of the Syrian refugee crisis, yet the current situation isn’t any less dire than it was back when it began.

Since 2011, more than 14 million Syrians have been forced to leave their homes to escape political violence. And the recent earthquakes in southern Turkey and Syria caused a new wave of refugees.

Many sought asylum in neighboring countries, including Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. But despite over a decade passing since the conflict began, not much has been done to reach a solution on the political front. Syria remains the world’s largest displacement crisis to this day.

Cate Blanchett, actor andUnited Nations High Commissioner for Refugeesgoodwill ambassador, recently went to Jordan to meet with Syrian refugees.

Half of the people at the Za’atari camp in Jordan — displaced through no fault of their own — are under the age of 18, Blanchett says.

“While we wait for these diplomatic and intergovernmental solutions to happen, there’s a massive waste of human capital, of human opportunity,” she says. “And I think as a parent, that is heartbreaking to witness.”

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Cate Blanchett visiting a Syrian family. (Courtesy of Caroline Irby for UNHCR)

3 questions with Cate Blanchett

What’s an image or conversation that stays with you from your recent trip to Jordan to visit Syrian refugees?

“Last time I was there in Jordan was seven years ago. And when I started to work with UNHCR, the number of people who were internally displaced or externally placed from their homes was around 61 million. And now it’s upwards of 103 million; so 1% of the global population, one in 78 people around the world, are displaced.

“Jordan is a country that has been incredibly welcoming to Syrian refugees in the past 13 years, as has Lebanon. And standing on the high point of the Za’atari camp in Jordan, you see this vast camp which has sort of almost become a city of 80,000 people. You can see the hills of Syria from this camp.”

What does the poem, “What They Took With Them,” by Jenifer Toksvig capture?

“It captures just how precarious the situation is. And when I was in Jordan — a country that has been incredibly welcoming to refugees — the refugees who are in an urban setting, their situation is incredibly precarious. They’re invisible in a way until you hear them speak. And then Jordanians can hear their accent. And I think with the increasing stigmatization of refugees who are given a label of refugee, it seems to often contain the pejorative sense that they are a burden, that they are a problem, and they are something that needs to be eradicated or sent home or dismissed. I think there’s this terrible pull between needing to be invisible for safety in certain parts of the world, but also wanting to be seen and wanting to be heard.

“They are people who love food, they love football, they love pigeons. They have hobbies. They have an incredible array of skills. The people I’ve met are engineers, they’re doctors, they’re lawyers, they’re people, they’re psychologists, they’re teachers. They’re people who have so much to offer their host community and ultimately communities that either help them return to their homeland when it’s safe to do so, or to be resettled. And I think we forget that. And we forget just how dangerous the day-to-day existence can be for refugees and how important organizations are like UNHCR to provide safety, particularly for women and girls.”

Are there limits to what celebrities can do in these situations? 

“I am in no way setting myself up as being an expert in foreign policy, nor on immigration policy. But I do know that since the 1951 human rights convention, everyone has a right to seek asylum. It’s a fundamental human right and it’s a parlous state of affairs that it takes an actor to get a tiny bit of air time to sort of remind ourselves of our own humanity and that our own humanity, those of us who are not refugees, is in peril if we turn a blind eye to inhumane policies being enacted on our watch. It’s a collective international responsibility.

“But I think when you hear the numbers, when you know that there’s upwards of 103 million people around the world displaced, it can be overwhelming and you can turn off. My job as a goodwill ambassador for UNHCR is to point to the individual to try and put a human face on the crisis. It would be incredibly important going forward to the Global Refugee Forum that refugees themselves are at the center of the solution, it’s absolutely vital that their voices are heard. Anything that I can do to help provide a platform or to point people to try and listen to that. I think the more one connects, the more one is able to connect.”


Hafsa Quraishi produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O’Dowd. Quraishi adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.