Arguably the 21st century’s first true sex symbol and a perennial obsession of the global media, particularly since the start of her relationship with fellow Hollywood superstar and now husband Brad Pitt, she is one of the few stars to steadily balance art-house cachet with blockbuster commercial success. But this is only half the story, and Jolie’s true contribution to the world runs much deeper than mere showbiz glitz.
Having spent almost 15 years as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Angelina Jolie has created global awareness for the plight of children, the poor and millions of refugees around the world. Not only has she discussed policy and relief efforts with leading politicians in Third World regions, but she has also donated upwards of US$20 million of her personal fortune to humanitarian organisations such as those providing food and shelter to people caught in the middle of conflict zones or drought-stricken areas. At least US$5 million of that money has gone directly to the UNHCR alone.
“People often put down charity as a responsibility, but the truth is it benefits your own soul and your own knowledge of life,” says Jolie, 40. “I’ve learned more from refugees than anybody in my life – more about being a mother, a stronger person, survival – so I can only hope to give something back.”
Jolie adds that, as an A-list Hollywood star, she “felt a visceral need” to “escape the bubble I had been living in” and do good in the world. “Without my work in places like Africa and Cambodia and elsewhere,” she says, “I would have lived a very shallow life and felt empty. My work for UNHCR has given me so much purpose, and I feel honoured to have been able to help bring some relief and hope to the survivors of war and refugees and children who are suffering so much around the world.”
It’s this kind of personal commitment that has made Jolie one of the world’s most important humanitarians. Her high profile attracts millions in donations from wealthy individuals and corporations, while she has personally lobbied the leaders of both developed and developing nations to ramp up efforts to take care of the world’s most helpless and defenceless citizens.
Together with husband Brad Pitt, Jolie has created a family that itself is a miniature version of the League of Nations. Their eldest son, Maddox, now 14, was adopted in 2002 while Jolie was visiting his native country of Cambodia. Daughter Zahara comes from Ethiopia, where Jolie spent months involved with relief efforts in the drought-stricken and war-ravaged region. Shiloh, Pitt and Jolie’s first biological child, was born in Namibia while she and the actor were exploring Africa together. The couple then adopted their son Pax from Vietnam in 2007, and Jolie gave birth to twins Knox and Vivienne in Nice, France, in 2008.
Together, she says, her six children are “my beautiful world family, and my love for them is as great as my love and dedication to children all over the world who have no parents and very little prospect of leading a happy life.”
Jolie places great importance on making sure that her children are aware of the significance of her official visits, and has even been known to bring them with her on humanitarian trips. “When I go on UN missions, I always sit down with [the children] and explain where I’m going,” says Jolie. “They often know about that particular area, especially from watching the news, so they’re pretty well informed. I tell them I’m going to meet with other kids like them to make sure everyone is okay. Sometimes they give me little things to bring as gifts.”
Jolie adds that she is actively attempting to make her children globally aware. “My mother [the late actress and producer Marcheline Bertrand], as open as she was, we just didn’t travel much, but she always taught me to be a good person and was interested in a lot of things,” she says. “She took me to my first Amnesty International dinner when I was nine. She was part Native American and always talked to me about issues, but didn’t live outside of America. We weren’t as at home in the world.
“With my family, I’m trying to raise them to have respect for all people, and to make friends around the world and to feel at home around the world. It’s what’s forming them. Of course, I make sure they do their math and their science, but the world perspective is the most important thing.”
Since being appointed a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador in 2001, Jolie has visited more than 20 countries to perform her role. Pitt, meanwhile, is one of the founders of Not On Our Watch, an organisation that aims to focus global attention and resources on stopping and preventing genocide, such as that seen in Darfur. In 2006, the couple set up the Jolie-Pitt Foundation, which has donated large sums of money to various conservation groups and organisations such as Doctors Without Borders. In recognition of her work, Jolie received the Freedom Award from the International Rescue Committee in 2007.
In addition to her work for UNHCR, Jolie continues to travel to observe and support disaster relief, vulnerable children, environmental conservation and international law and justice efforts worldwide. In 2003, she started the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation project dedicated to conservation in Cambodia, which later expanded to include agriculture, education, healthcare, vocational training, infrastructure, rural planning and microcredit programmes.
Two years later, she launched the National Center for Refugee and Immigrant Children, an organisation that provides free legal aid to young asylum seekers. And in 2008, she partnered with Microsoft to launch Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), a pro bono movement of law firms, corporate law departments, NGOs and volunteers committed to providing legal advice to unaccompanied immigrant children in the United States. She also co-chairs the Education Partnership for Children of Conflict, which helps fund education programmes for children affected by war.
Her unending devotion to humanitarian work is driven by a heartfelt desire to contribute to finding solutions to ongoing and increasingly desperate refugee crises in Africa, Asia and now Syria. It’s a humanitarian journey that makes Jolie one of the most important non-governmental leaders in the fight to help refugees and provide aid for the world’s most despairing populations.
It is, admits Jolie, a long way from the trappings of Hollywood. And for that she is thankful. “I was looking for something that I could point to, and to find a purpose and direction for myself,” she says. “I enjoyed acting but it always seemed that the characters I was playing had much more interesting lives than I had. So when I started working with UNHCR and doing humanitarian work, I felt that I was finally able to do something very real and constructive with my life, and accomplish something.”
Words by Jan Janssen
Photography by Alexei Hay/Trunk Archive/Snapper Media