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Talking with Mia Farrow

Farrow's activism as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador has taken center stage during the last decade.


Mia Farrow would rather talk about Darfur than her movies, which have spanned from Rosemary's Baby and The Great Gatsby to The Purple Rose of Cairo and this year's remake of The Omen. Even when asked about her film career, she sidesteps to discuss the need for more global humanitarian efforts. The mother of well over 10 children, many with special needs and adopted from around the world, Farrow's activism as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador has taken center stage during the last decade. She described to Chicago Life what she witnessed on her most recent trip to Darfur:

You contracted polio when you were nine-years-old, and the first issue you addressed for UNICEF was the eradication of polio. Did your personal encounter with the disease affect your becoming a global health activist? My son Thaddeus, who was born in Calcutta and adopted by me when he was seven or eight, is a paraplegic as a result of polio. [UNICEF] knew I had firsthand experience with the disease and how devastating it is. Few people in this country right now, thank God, have that experience. When I came on board, there were about 350,000 cases of paralytic polio, and now there are less than 2,000. We are within months of seeing an end of polio. There just has to be a really hard last push. There was an outbreak because of radical Islamic extremism in northern Nigeria, and they were not getting the children inoculated. But we are working with them and trying to address it.

You have been to the Darfur region of Sudan, most recently in June. Can you tell what it's like to be there? Darfur is an absolute catastrophe. The entire region has six million people. Of those, four million are actually being sustained by the World Food Programme as they have no way to feed themselves at this point. They couldn't plant their crops, and have been driven from their homes and villages. There are more than two million, mostly women and children, in refugee camps. Terrified people run from their burning villages to refugee camps. Camps are invaded, and then they run across the border. Then they are attacked, and they run back into Darfur. There is no protection and no feeling of safety. Women are branded, burned [and] mutilated. Countless women's tendons have been sliced so that they hobble as a sign that they are raped.

How would you describe the people of Darfur? They are the most courageous and kind people. They who have nothing will give you what they have, their limited rations of food, which by the way, their food rations have been cut to below what is deemed necessary for human survival. This is because of the vast deficit in the World Food Programme. They don't have enough money. It had been cut to 50 percent.

Amid the hardship and violence, do you see heroes in Darfur? Yes. In one camp, there was one doctor serving 40,000 people. They have no ambulance, no operating rooms, no windows, no doors, but he was there for whatever he could do. These are volunteer doctors. These are the heroes, and they are deserving of our full support--UNICEF, yes, but others, too, like Save the Children USA and Doctors Without Borders.

What can we do? We have the obligation to protect [people], yet we do nothing. People there are being kept alive by aid workers, perhaps only to be slaughtered or die of hunger in defeat. They are desperate and are never for one moment of the day or night without terror. They have been in a state of sustained trauma and terror. There is no one in those camps who has not come from a home that has been burned. There is no one there who hasn't seen relatives and family members slaughtered.

Do you recommend any particular organizations? Yes, and people shouldn't feel bad if they can't contribute much money. Even one dollar goes a long way. People can support UNICEF and SaveDarfur.org or Save the Children USA. Most of the time UNICEF has only 20 percent of what it needs to continue its job there. Other organizations have withdrawn because of the security. It's just too dangerous, and they are financially out of money. I figure if the aid workers can put their lives on the line to do this, and they have no more safety than the people in the camps, then the least we can do a half of the world away is care and support them in their work there. We should also contact Congress and our senators and ask them what they are going to do to help, and our local papers and ask them to do a story.

Where did you get your sense of responsibility to help? With the knowledge we have comes responsibility, and we as a human family are responsible when one member of the family is suffering. We all feel it, and if we don't, there is something wrong with us. When our brothers and sisters in Darfur are in this predicament, then we all need to address it. The international community has failed to provide the protection that the people of Darfur are crying for. Surely we haven't reached a point where we have become so self-satisfied or so concerned with our own problems that those 6 million human beings don't matter at all.

Can you tell us about one of the people you met in Darfur? There's a woman I met, Halima, who told me the story of when her baby was torn from her back, and she fought so hard to hold him. She wept when she told me, but she said that they took him from her arms, and they killed him with bayonets. She said that they killed three of her five children and stuffed them in the well. She and her husband lost everything--their cattle and crops. She held my hand and said, tell people what is happening here, tell them to come help us. I promised her that I would. Whenever anybody will listen, I will tell. I will speak for Halima and the millions like her.

What is it like coming back to New York after seeing Darfur? Well, I haven't entirely left [Darfur], as you probably hear in my voice. It changes you. You're not the same person for knowing what I know and having witnessed what I've witnessed. This is just absolutely something we must all try to address. I don't care if I'm a Democrat or a Republican, I'm a human being, and Halima is a human being. She loved her children as I love my children.

Published: August 01, 2006
Issue: Fall 2006