Q & A: Barbara Hendricks on the UNHCR, Compassion & Refugees

By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: © UNHCR/Markel Redondo)

Opera audiences may know Barabra Hendricks for her historical operatic performances and her forays into jazz. But for the past 35 years, Hendricks has dedicated her work to the UNHCR as the longest-serving Goodwill Ambassador.

She has traveled to Mozambique, Zambia, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, and Cote D’Ivoire as an ambassador and visited refugee camps. She has also given a concert for peace in Dubrovnik, Croatia, which was then a city under fire; was the President on the Board for Sweden for UNHCR and then became a Trustee for S4U; and delivered an impassioned speech at the Treaty of Rome 60th Anniversary Ceremony in the European Parliament. 

This year the UNCR celebrated the 70th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention and Hendricks spoke to OperaWire about the work that she has done with the organization.

OperaWire: You have also been named UN Refugee Agency’s Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador on the 70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention. Tell me about this title?

Barbara Hendricks: It’s an honorary title because I have worked with the U.N. Refugee Agency for 35 years as a Goodwill Ambassador and after 20 years I thought I would retire and instead they asked me to stay on and make me the Goodwill ambassador for life. July 28 was the 70th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention. There were many things that rose up after the second world war and one of them was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The first article states that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. And therein doubt with reason and conscience should behave towards one another in the spirit of brother and sisterhood. But there is another article in that declaration that says that everyone should have the right to seek and to enjoy asylum in other countries when they are fleeing persecution. And that article is what the 1951 convention was built on and established the UNHCR. It outlined the legal obligation of the refugee that states have to protect the rights of refugees and not to send them forcibly back to places where they may be in danger.

OW: How did you first get involved with the UNHCR and what have you learned throughout the time you have worked with the organization?

BH: I started out when I was contacted by the UNHCR when they were just beginning this program because it had been so successful for organizations like UNICEF which had people like Audrey Hepburn. The UNHCR had been funded by member states of the U.N. but those funds started to be reduced in the 1980s and there were people in the UNHCR that said “we need to go out to the general public to find more funding.” And I was one of the first people that was asked to be a Goodwill Ambassador. It was supposed to be for one year but during the time I worked with them, I became quite attached to the refugees because I could see the connection between protecting human rights that were dear to me. This was an example of how I could work and protect human rights.

I grew up in Arkansas during the time of Segregation, the American Apartheid, and I was told that I was born free but it was not until 1964. Before that, we lived under these rules of segregation and apartheid. I was too young to participate in the Civil Rights movement but I was inspired by it and I discovered that this Universal Declaration of Human Rights answered my questions especially since the Women’s Rights and Gay Rights movements happened after the Civil Rights movement. I always thought that there needed to be something that existed that included all of us so we could march for Human Rights for everyone’s rights and not everyone off in their corner. We are so interconnected. That is why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is something so important to me and the work with refugees gives me the opportunity to defend that and defend their rights because conflicts are caused by a lack of respect for rights. And we want to try to right that wrong.

The UNHCR has saved millions of lives and helped more than 60 million people who have been able to return home or be resettled in another country. They have been doing this even though the amount of refugees has just been growing. When I started it was 5 million refugees and today there are I think 82 million refugees and people who are displaced. Our work is to help protect their rights and safeguard their wellbeing and try to help them prepare for their eventual solution to their problem. So the frustrating part is that we cannot defend conflict but the work that has been done has been extraordinary. So what started out as a one-year commitment became 35 years.

OW: When the organization asked you to be a Goodwill Ambassador, did you know you wanted to do it?

BH: To be honest, I didn’t know much about the organization because, before that, it had not been out to the general public. So I studied what it did and it was the part that connected to human rights that I thought was great. I thought if I could help, it would really coincide with my belief in the importance of life with conviction and respect and what I wanted to do with human rights. It was like what I did in my profession, with my family and friends. Living with respect for each human being.

So after learning about the organization, I said of course. I had no idea what it was going to be but I think my role has been being the ambassador for refugees. The refugee situation is political and complex. The problems are different and therefore the solutions are different. So I want to be able to try to put a face and a story and a family. If I think in terms of numbers, I will never be able to make a difference. But one family at a time does make a difference and that is what has kept me going. And of course, my colleagues’ devotion to the work has also been inspiring and the refugees especially the women in these situations where they are extremely vulnerable and they have children and maybe elderly members of their family to take care of and they don’t give up. With enormous dignity, they continue to fight and so to meet women like that, I thought, “If they don’t give up, then I don’t have the luxury to give up either.” They were my incredible inspiration to continue as long as I have.

OW: Do you think an artist has the responsibility to do humanitarian work?

BH: I think that everyone has a civic duty to do what they can and to add something to society. In 1964-65 when the Civil Rights Act was passed, I thought for the first time that I could be a citizen. I also thought that I could now exercise my responsibility to society. That is what makes me feel free because I feel responsible for society. And I think that everyone at their level should be productive and positive citizens. If you are an artist and you have the platform that you can use to send a message and you are able to pass on the message then you should. It’s difficult in today’s media landscape because you get five minutes to talk about complex problems and you should be able to pass on that message because that is what is important. That is what changes minds.

I want people to change their minds on the world refugee. I want them to understand that when they hear the word, it is not a negative connotation, it is one who has been forced to flee not someone who is trying to come and push themselves into your homes. I would say that 99 percent of all refugees want to return home because they love their home even though they have a difficult time. They love their home, their country, and their culture. They are refugees because they needed to save their lives and the lives of their children. So if you are able to get that message then you are welcome to do this work. It’s hard to get that message out and I find that sometimes if some parts of your life are too much out in the public, it makes it hard and you have to compete with yourself. People hear the things that make the most noise. So if you have the commitment and the ability to bring the message, then you should do it.

OW: Throughout your time with the UNHCR, you have had many milestones. What is the most memorable moment that has impacted you?

BH: I had a very moving experience after the genocide in Rwanda where I was in a camp on the border and I was in a feeding center for malnutrition children. There was a mother breastfeeding her child and by her side was an older one. She could not get the older one to eat and I looked into her face and she had to accept the fact that this child was dying at her side. She had to keep her strength because she was nourishing another child. As a mother it was heartwrenching. But the fact that she had the courage to continue to provide for that baby just showed me the spirit we have as human beings. That we have the ability to do something positive and we just have to make the choices in life. I always say that a humanitarian action always begins at home with your family and at work with your colleagues. If we do that on a regular basis, then we can be more open to dealing with someone who is different and comes from a different culture. We will realize that we are the same. This work has enriched me and made me a better person.

OW: You need compassion for this line of work. How do you learn compassion?

BH: I know it’s hard but I think we have to try to show compassion to those who don’t think they have the ability to do it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. You may have a difference with your family and it won’t work and you can’t give up your life doing it. But I think there are so many people that are in need of love and compassion. If you try to look for the love in their hearts that you can connect with, this is the only way to do it. Facts and information will never work because they won’t believe it. Of course, you have to do this without putting yourself in danger.




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