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Surprising Facts About Audrey Hepburn's Life as a Humanitarian

Beyond anything she had accomplished, Audrey Hepburn considered her humanitarian efforts as the greatest work of her career.
IMAGE Paramount-photo by Bud Fraker/ PUBLIC DOMAIN/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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She was a superstar and fashion icon, but for Audrey Hepburn, these are all immaterial compared to discovering her true calling as a humanitarian worker.

Here are some facts about Hepburn’s life as a humanitarian that may surprise you.

Her experience of war compelled her to support humanitarian efforts.

Born in 1929 in Belgium, Hepburn grew up in a world recovering from the calamity of the First World War, and on the cusp of the second. When World War II erupted in 1939, her family moved to the Netherlands thinking it would not be occupied by the Germans. They were wrong.

Biography Online details her experience of war. “I have memories,” recalled Hepburn. “More than once I was at the station seeing trainloads of Jews being transported, seeing all these faces over the top of the wagon.”

She saw her uncle and mother’s cousin shot in the street by the Germans. She also witnessed how people starved and froze to death as Dutch rations were seized by the enemy.

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These traumatic scenes left a profound mark on Hepburn who eventually used her influence to raise awareness on starvation and severe malnutrition of children around the world. 

As a child, she was a recipient of humanitarian aid from UNICEF. 

One of the reasons that molded Hepburn to become a humanitarian was that she had been a recipient of the same aid when she was a child.

“I was in Holland during the German occupation,” Hepburn said, according to UNICEF. “The last winter was the worst of all. Food was scarce and whatever there was went to the troops.”

“I was among those who received food and medical relief right after World War II,” she added. “There's a big difference between dying of starvation and malnutrition, of course, but I was very, very undernourished. I've known about UNICEF all my life."

The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund or UNICEF was created in 1946 to provide aid to children severely affected by the ravages of war. 

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Her friends discouraged her from doing humanitarian work. 

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Not everybody around her was eager to see her do tiresome humanitarian work in impoverished countries, considering her age and the toll it would take on her health. 

In 1988, at the age of 59, she became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. Her first mission was in Ethiopia where she visited an orphanage that housed 500 starving children.

“I went with so many people telling me how harrowing and dreadful it would be to see the extent of the suffering, the death and the despair,” said Hepburn. “But I came from Ethiopia feeling exhilarated and optimistic.” 

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She was an unknown figure in her humanitarian missions.

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Her fame and identity were unknown when she did humanitarian work in Africa, and she was happy about it. UNICEF Australia details Hepburn’s experience in humanitarian work.

“People in Ethiopia and Sudan don’t know Audrey Hepburn,” Hepburn fondly admitted, “but they recognize the name UNICEF.

“When they see UNICEF, their faces light up, because they know that something is happening. In Sudan, for example, they call a water pump ‘UNICEF’.”

She sold her most famous dresses to fund humanitarian missions.

From 1988 to 1992, Hepburn auctioned off some of her dresses she had worn for her most famous roles. These helped provide clean water, food, and medicine for children in Asia, Africa, and South America.

She used her platform as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador to mobilize governments.

Hepburn was one of the most powerful ambassadors that UNICEF ever had. Because her popularity matched her talent for public speaking, governments and the general public were made aware of the deathly and dire situations of suffering children.

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She recounted how she witnessed the effects of atrocities while visiting underdeveloped countries where children were in danger due to the risk of starvation, violence, and unsanitary living conditions.

However, she retold it with a most hopeful tone: Small help does work miracles. This mobilized governments and people to do “small help” because it is simple and easy. 

"Anyone who doesn't believe in miracles is not a realist,” Hepburn said.

“I have seen the miracle of water which UNICEF has helped to make a reality for a village in Central America, where for centuries young girls and women had to walk for miles to get water. Now they have clean drinking water near their homes. Water is life and clean water now means health for the children of this village."

Here platform was so successful that she continued to work with UNICEF and various governments such as Bangladesh, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Sudan, Turkey, Venezuela, and Vietnam to improve the lives of families. 

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She visited Somalia in 1992 and called it “apocalyptic.”

Somalia was Hepburn’s last mission, and also her hardest.

“I walked into a nightmare,” said Hepburn, describing the trip she took four months before she died.

“I have seen famine in Ethiopia and Bangladesh, but I have seen nothing like thisso much worse than I could possibly have imagined,” she said. “I wasn’t prepared for this.”

“You see the villages, displacement camps and compounds, and the earth is all rippled around them like an ocean bed. And those were the graves. There are graves everywherealong the road, around the paths that you take, along the riverbeds, near every campthere are graves everywhere,” Hepburn painfully recounted.

Hepburn’s son, Sean Ferrer, tells about his mother’s last trip there. “Nothing ever prepared her for going to a camp and meeting a little kid and coming back the next day and he wasn't there anymore,” he says.

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Though severely shaken and traumatized, Hepburn persisted with her work for the sake of the children.

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