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Opinion: Why Syria Needs a Celebrity Ambassador | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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US actress and UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie talking to a young Syrian refugee on February 23, 2014 at a refugee camp near the Lebanese village of Zahle in the Bekaa valley in February 2014 (AFP PHOTO /HO /UNHCR/A.MCCONELL)

Nine minutes. No blood, no tears, no screams and no speeches.

These nine minutes of footage from a refugee camp in Syria were far more expressive than other countless videos I have seen from Syria, which may have now unintentionally transformed the Syrian tragedy into a monotonous tale boring the public and leading them to seek something else to hold their attention.

The nine minutes were used to narrate some of the diaries of a little girl named Hala, and how she lives in a tent for Syrian refugees in the Lebanese Beqaa Valley.

Hala, who is described as the youngest mother in the refugee camp in Beqaa, is an 11-year-old Syrian child. She fled Syria with her five siblings after a shell landed on their house and killed her mother, and after they lost track of their father. Her oldest brother now suffers from epilepsy as a result of the shock, and her other brothers are still young.

Hollywood star Angelina Jolie carried Hala’s story to the world. In nine minutes she narrated Hala’s story. The video shows Hala’s smiles and her concern for her brother when he got dizzy and how she gave him medicine. Language was an obstacle during the visit as the children do not speak English, and Jolie tried hard to understand them before translators stepped in.

Jolie’s calm voice narrated the story and spoke of the horrible magnitude of the problems facing Syrian refugees, especially women and children. She also spoke of Lebanon’s problems, with the country unable to contain the number of refugees now constituting one quarter of its population.

The video with Hala was released as controversy in Lebanon over the issue of Syrian refugees is heating up, and as political and popular rhetoric addresses the issue from a perspective that verges on racist. This has led to calls for a campaign to counter such rhetoric.

This nine-minute video was released and broadcast by global media outlets and revealed the frankest image of both the refugee crisis and Lebanon’s crisis. Lebanese politicians did not make use of Angelina Jolie’s ability to influence public opinion, as they were busy dressing up and taking photos with her. They were oblivious to the real meaning of her visit.

A few months ago, Jeremy Barnicle, chief development and communications officer at the aid organization Mercy Corps, wrote an article entitled, “Why Syria needs George Clooney.” Clooney is the celebrity who, like Jolie, is concerned with humanitarian causes and who played a role in bringing attention to the suffering of refugees from Darfur.

Western public opinion is struck with confusion and boredom when it comes to the Syrian crisis. It does not understand the complex situation and no one sees a solution on the horizon. When public opinion, especially in the West, diverts its attention from the Syrian crisis, politicians and decision-makers find respite from the pressure to resolve it.

In this case, it seems we really need Jolie and Clooney, not for marketing purposes, but for providing a new angle to bring attention back to this tragedy. The pressure that alliances of some celebrities, civil society organizations and journalists can bring to bear has proved effective in the West. Addressing the West is substantial given that solutions are in the hands of Western governments and institutions, rather than ours. Decision-making capitals exist, the UN exists and so do dozens of international aid organizations.

Angelina Jolie’s nine-minute video proved more influential than the dull speeches that exploit the Syrian people’s suffering in pointless disputes.