Reaching children in crisis

Less than a week after her appointment as UNICEF Ambassador international film star Audrey Hepburn saw UNICEF’s life-saving work reaching children in crisis.

It was March 1988 and after years of drought, hunger crises and civil war, Ethiopia was one of the most difficult places on earth to be a child – millions of lives were at risk.

While in Ethiopia Ms. Hepburn saw UNICEF-assisted health clinics, feeding programmes, income-generating activities and orphanages.  She met with children, their families and UNICEF’s frontline emergency responders.

In the capital city Addis Ababa Ms. Hepburn told journalists, “UNICEF works in a marvelous way to help people retain their dignity. Given a spade, which UNICEF can give them, they can dig a well. We must now make sure they do not have to dig graves for their children.”

On Ms. Hepburn’s return from Ethiopia she was determined to ensure the world knew about the children and families she had met, giving as many as 15 media interviews a day on the crisis.

In the years that followed, she visited UNICEF programming around the world including polio immunization campaigns in Turkey, projects supporting street children in Ecuador, nutrition projects in Vietnam and camps for displaced children in Sudan.

One of the motivations for Ms. Hepburn’s unwavering commitment to UNICEF’s work was that the organization had supported her when she was a young girl living through war.

“I can testify to what UNICEF means to children, because I was among those who received food and medical relief right after World War II. I have a long-lasting gratitude and trust for what UNICEF does,” she said.

Legacy of humanitarian leadership

From supporting children in post-war Europe to the ongoing emergency operations in Syria, responding to humanitarian crises has always been a core component of UNICEF’s work.

“In both natural and man-made disasters children suffer most severely and require specialized assistance and support,” says UNICEF Canada’s President and CEO David Morley. “UNICEF reaches the most vulnerable children whose lives have been torn apart providing the essentials and ensuring they are safe and protected.”

During an emergency UNICEF delivers medicines, vaccines, safe drinking water and other life-saving supplies while ensuring children have safe spaces to learn and play and are protected from violence and exploitation.

UNICEF has literally been able to stop wars temporarily in conflict affected regions like Afghanistan, Bosnia and El Salvador, in order to vaccinate children against deadly diseases. In a few cases, these “days of tranquility” have led to longer, stronger ceasefires.

Critical time for children in conflict

Every year UNICEF and its partners respond to the needs of children in more than 250 emergencies worldwide. Right now the magnitude of these crises is larger than ever before.

Deadly conflicts in Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan and Syria have children teetering on the edge of catastrophe. Given the scale and urgency of these crises, UNICEF has escalated its emergency response to the highest possible level in all four regions.

“This the first time in history UNICEF has had to address four emergencies of this scale at once,” says Mr. Morley. “Millions of children’s lives are at risk due to conflicts they have had no part in creating.”

UNICEF is one of the few organizations on the ground in all four regions reaching the most vulnerable children. Rapid Response Teams work around the clock to overcome security and logistical challenges delivering life-saving essentials. There are safe spaces for children to learn and receive critical psychosocial support to begin dealing with the emotional distress caused by living through war and displacement.

From devastation caused by the Second World War to famine in Ethiopia and ongoing around the world today, UNICEF continues to reach the most vulnerable children in crises.