Oscar-winning actress, sex symbol, mother, Brad Pitt’s ‘other half’, icon... humanitarian. Angelina Jolie tells Herman Grech she wants to make herself “useful”.
A row of arms stretch through the bars inside Lyster Barracks detention centre hoping to brush against one of the world’s most glamorous stars.
Angelina Jolie stops in her tracks to grab the hand of a male African migrant, eliciting loud cheers, catcalls, and broad white smiles from the detainees. With a comforting smile, the 36-year-old actress chats with the man for a few seconds, who then turns to acknowledge the approving shoulder pats of the other migrants... and some soldiers.
Wearing a black cardigan and her hair pulled back, Jolie proceeds to a room where the atmosphere is altogether subdued. She holds a private meeting with seven detainees who narrate the horror they witnessed in the Libya uprising followed by the treacherous journey at sea before they were rescued and taken to Malta.
Scores of migrants scramble outside the room to catch a glimpse of the beautiful woman who has established herself as one of the most talented actresses of her generation, and in the process became the most sellable face of the UN refugee agency.
Four African women giggle as Jolie proceeds to walk up the stairs towards their quarters. One of them points to a double-sided foolscap where the words ‘Welcome AJ – We Love You’ are scribbled and emblazoned in a heart. A short, stocky woman holding a teddy bear stares in disbelief at the excitement gripping a centre which has more in common with a prison.
As Jolie walks away from the detainees, after listening attentively to the story of a woman who lost a relative at sea, a group of women behind bars burst into tears as they plead for help. Grabbing the hand of one, Jolie’s eyes also well up.
The actress decided to pay an unannounced visit to the detention centre to hear the stories of refugees who fled Libya and to relay a message of hope. It’s what she has been doing for 10 years as the UNHCR’s goodwill ambassador, and with the Arab uprising mobilising tens of thousands, she is working on overdrive.
“I didn’t get a thorough education at school of what it was like to be a refugee. But then I read about the work of UN agencies and NGOs and was struck when I saw a picture of a refugee exodus.
“I couldn’t believe there were millions of displaced people in the world who were fleeing,” she tells The Sunday Times.
Jolie came into direct contact with refugees in her early 20s when she visited Cambodia. She spent two years travelling with them and two years later offered herself as UNHCR goodwill ambassador because of what she described as a genuine deep love and respect for the organisation and its staff.
She donated $1 million for Afghan refugees and insisted on covering all costs related to her missions and shared the same rudimentary working and living conditions as UNHCR field staff on all of her visits.
She has visited more than 20 countries since, from Costa Rica to the bloody environs of Sierra Leone and Iraq, where contrary to her on-screen characters, real bullets whizz past.
“I love spending time with refugees because they teach you so much about life,” she says, adjusting herself on the unglamorous steel bench inside the Armed Forces of Malta lecture room, looking disarmingly natural.
The interview takes place just hours after Jolie flew in from a refugee camp on the Syrian border to re-join her family, temporarily based in Malta where her actor husband Brad Pitt is shooting a film.
Do refugees, most of whom come from impoverished and far-flung countries, know who she is?
“I think most people know I’m ‘that’ woman who works with the UNHCR. They’re very happy that I go meet them and it makes me feel good. It makes me feel I have friends around the world. They know I’m somebody who cares about their situation. I don’t think most of them have seen (my) films,” she smiles.
Juggling a demanding film career, a busy travel schedule, UNHCR commitments and six children in tow seems to be perfectly manageable for the woman who had her fair share of widely-publicised drug and relationship problems in the past.
“This morning Brad went to work on a film. I had breakfast with the kids, went swimming, completed my speech for World Refugee Day and now I’m here. When you’re fortunate to love what you do, when you have a very good partner, strong friends and family, and you’re given an opportunity… it all depends what you do with it,” she says.
And today she is determined to drive the message home that the millions who have left their belongings and fled to neighbouring countries in the wake of the Arab uprising are not doing so capriciously.
“It’s very emotional to do an interview right after meeting these people,” she confesses, her pensive look more in common with the distraught mother she played in Changeling rather than the sexy Lara Croft and Salt characters she has chiselled on screen.
“You meet with so many people in this job. (This morning) I met a woman whose sister died in her arms at sea because the boat engine broke down and they were forced to drink sea water. I met a woman who had a miscarriage on board during the voyage and she was bleeding... she couldn’t get to a doctor. She began to cry. Her husband across the table began to cry as well,” she narrates.
These same migrants have now been placed in detention camps until their refugee application is processed – and their only crime is to flee from a country where they risked being persecuted or shot and move to a country where freedom prevails, Jolie says.
“The people (in detention) here didn’t commit a crime. They sleep, they wake up, and they’re allowed outside for an hour,” she says.
Placing refugees behind bars and putting men in handcuffs when they need to go to hospital only helps to fuel the misconception they are criminals – it is no wonder asylum seekers are often called illegal immigrants. The 1951 Refugee Convention makes it very clear that refugees have every right to travel without documents.
Still, the goodwill ambassador quickly adopts a diplomatic tone not to upset the host country and says the general feeling among migrants she met is that they are very grateful to Malta to have been allowed on shore.
“We spoke with the Maltese government. The UNHCR and myself are grateful to Malta and the Maltese people for giving what they can. The army here has saved thousands of lives over the years and should be commended for that.
“At the same time, we will always encourage better conditions, the speed in processing applications. These are people like all of us who not only want to be out of a barred area but want a chance to work and send money back to their families at home. They feel they’re sitting idle, and with every passing month they’re here they’re losing touch with their future…
“Even the Maltese government acknowledges it would be important and humane to give them something to focus on and clear their mind.” The UN ambassador says she is encouraged to hear the local authorities talking about building educational, recreational and physical programmes for migrants.
She dismisses suggestions that the majority of those fleeing Africa are merely economic migrants in search of a better life.
Organisations like the UNHCR work meticulously with governments to identify the illegal migrants from those who need protection, those in danger of being killed if they returned home, she says.
None of the migrants Jolie met last Sunday said they had intended to move to Europe. “Some of the ones I spoke to have been in Libya for 15 years and they’ve been sending money home because they couldn’t make a living in their home country. So they went to Libya, which they described as the heart of Africa, and worked for a pittance. Now it’s blown up.”
Asked whether she believes the Western world is downplaying the gravity of the Arab refugee crisis, she says the international community is clearly not doing enough, although she is quick to exonerate Malta.
“I think Malta should be separated because it’s been doing quite a lot. I think the international community should give more support. People are running for their lives. It’s a very unusual time. Absolutely everyone should be doing more – and better.”
Refugees are not the kind of people one should turn away from, she says, describing them as hard-working, strong individuals who love the community.
Admitting her reluctance to give interviews about asylum seekers because of misinterpretations which could inflame situations, Jolie says it is up to the media and governments to educate citizens to realise refugees are no threat.
After 20,000 refugees poured into neighbouring Italy from the uprising in Tunisia and Libya, Italian Home Minister Roberto Maroni said Italy was alone in suffering a negative impact because as long as there are bombs, refugees will flee and need assistance.
Does she think politicians should be more careful with the language they use?
“Yes, politicians should be more careful. The people who are really suffering are the refugees, the children who are being killed, and not the countries who are questioning the numbers they should permit – those are not the victims. We’re going to Lampedusa and the authorities there should be proud for saving these good people. Why focus on the negative?”
During her recent visit to the Syrian border, in particular, it was very clear that people were not fleeing simply in search of a better life, but because the conflict was endangering lives.
Children in Syria told the UNHCR ambassador they saw bombs hit their houses, their brothers being shot. “It was a group of kids speaking honestly. Why should they lie?” she asks rhetorically.
“There’s a lot of fear of the unknown. There are a lot of people who don’t know other cultures and communities. And there are politicians and irresponsible journalists who decide to use this situation to put the blame on someone else and I think it’s very irresponsible.
“It causes hatred. It doesn’t give these people the chance to do the good things they could do. And people very rarely read the positive things refugees do – or listen to their wonderful stories.”
The problem is not just exclusive to Europe, Jolie insists, saying she finds it very difficult to comprehend arguments in her native US where the very nature of immigrants is questioned.
“For heaven’s sake, the Statue of Liberty is meant to symbolise the willingness of the US to open its doors. It’s very strange to hear this idea that an immigrant is a negative thing.”
While based in Malta for the next few weeks, and so close to the developing Arab revolution, Jolie intends to use her celebrity to raise awareness, despite the bad reputation of Hollywood liberals and their political posturing.
In reality, her visit to the Malta migrant centre was kept under the media radar, away from the scrutiny that has dogged her personal and public life since winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing a mental patient in the 1999 film Girl, Interrupted.
Jolie has got the looks, the career, the man, the talent, the money, and half a dozen children, three adopted. How does she reconcile the real-life poverty she experiences in her ambassador role with the glamour of cinema, especially when she returns to the film set?
“I live my life every day. I wake up as a mum, that’s who I am and that’s my focus. And then I’m a citizen of the world and I want to do my part to be useful.
“And then a very distant third I’m an artist who has been very fortunate to do a successful job that I find very creative and fulfilling. But that’s not why I wake up in the morning.”
As her assistant taps her watch to remind her of the plane waiting to fly her to the refugee camps in Lampedusa, Jolie is asked about the values she teaches her children.
“I try to teach them about the world instead of trying to teach them values by numbers or by telling them something is good or bad. I try to show them, I travel with them, teach them how they should interact and how to respect people.
“Thanks to travelling, they’ve made friends all over the world. They’ve seen many different ways of living and I hope by just being aware of the world as it really is they will be better people.”
• Born June 4, 1975, to actor Jon Voight and Marcheline Bertrand.
• Winner of one Oscar, two Screen Actors Guild and three Golden Globe Awards.
• Married actor Jonny Lee Miller in 1996, and divorced three years later.
• Married actor Billy Bob Thornton in 2000, divorcing three years later.
• First humanitarian field visit to Sierra Leone in 2001.
• Named UNHCR goodwill ambassador in August 2001.
• Addressed the World Economic Forum in 2005 and 2006 and lobbied humanitarian interests in Washington.
• Launched the National Centre for Refugee and Immigrant Children in 2005.
• Met actor Brad Pitt in 2006, making them one of the most sought-after couples in the world. They set up the Jolie-Pitt Foundation, which has made significant donations worldwide.
• Adopted three children from Cambodia, Ethiopia and Vietnam, and had three children with Pitt.
• Named ‘Sexiest Woman Alive’ and ‘Sexiest Movie Star of All Time’ by several newspapers and magazines.