Audrey Hepburn is most known for her work as an Academy Award-winning actress and her classic beauty; however, what is most often overlooked both regarding her and many other influential young women, was her capability to maintain a fruitful career in addition to being a model global citizen, dating all the way back to her ‘spy days’ as a young woman! Her awareness of the world at large began when she was a young girl in Nazi-occupied Belgium. She had no choice but to develop an acute awareness of global injustices due to the conflict in her own home-soil. In an interview, she disclosed her history with UNICEF before her work as an ambassador because as a young girl, she needed to utilize the food and medical trucks provided by UNICEF to combat starvation in the middle of WWII.
Her work as a United Nations (UN) ambassador speaks volumes to her wide skill set, as she had experience working with individuals in a multitude of countries, fighting insurmountable inequalities along the way. Some of these countries where her efforts were most important are Ethiopia, Turkey, and Venezuela, though there are at least six to seven more where she had offered aid and assistance in UN programs. Though, the most interesting work of hers that I have discovered took place before her work in these countries, and before her acting career. Miss Hepburn aided her mother in Dutch espionage against the Nazis occupying Belgium in 1914. It is also rumored that Hepburn’s family protected and housed Jewish families in their own homes. Her espionage work was done under the guise of entertainment, as she had come to be known in her hometown for her excellence as a ballerina. Her ballet skills were put to the test at “black evenings” where Nazi officials and high-ranking officers would go to the local theater to watch the most excellent performances available.
She made the following comment about her involvement with the resistance at these evenings: “Guards were posted outside to let us know when Germans approached. The best audiences I ever had made not a single sound at the end of my performance.” This is all to say that, despite terrifying circumstances, the young starlet showed incredible bravery and humbly accepted praise for all that she had accomplished throughout her life. She was not only talented, beautiful, and wise, but she had a remarkable sense of bravery that goes unnoticed.
She was outraged by the injustices she experienced and used those to propel her humanitarian stances, which only further amplified her voice by the fame she was met with after moving to the United States. In another interview, she reflected on a particularly harrowing instance in the war that horrified her and acted as a call to action during the years she worked with Dr. Hendrik Visser ’t Hooft at those Black Evenings where she raised money for the resistance: “I remember, very sharply, one little boy standing with his parents on the platform, very pale, very blond, wearing a coat that was much too big for him, and he stepped on the train. I was a child observing a child … Then I realized what would have happened to him.”, acknowledging her awareness for the horrors around her never impeded her bravery, but rather pushed her to continue, not for the accolade or praise because at the time it would have gotten her killed, but for those families that were unjustly terrorized in such dark times.
Audrey Hepburn later began to work with UNICEF and Goodwill in the respective years of 1988 and 1989, stating that she has immense respect for these organizations due to her own need for them as a child. Her very first trip was to Ethiopia to aid in raising money, offering resources, and later participating in Global conferences to educate world leaders on the systems UNICEF had been working on there.
From Ethiopia she then traveled to Turkey, to work with children in desperate need of healthcare.
“In Ankara, Miss Hepburn visited institutions providing mother and
child-care and a health center where she talked to staff and mothers, and
administered oral polio vaccine to several infants.”
-UNICEF’s Profile on Audrey Hepburn
There are, of course, a great number of quotes from her that further illustrate her humanitarian spirit, but frankly, her work speaks for itself. One of my favorite quotes from her on injustice and the recognition of it in the global system is as follows:
“Since the world has existed, there has been an injustice. But it is one world, the more so as it becomes smaller- more accessible. There is just no question that there is a moral obligation for those who have, to give to those who have nothing.”
There is much more to be said about Audrey Hepburn as a survivor of war, a dancing spy, an actress, and a humanitarian, most of all, (and I encourage you to do your own research)! However, I think we can all stand to learn from her experiences, in the way that her activism was not fueled by ego, but by genuine sympathy and care for the world, she lived in. Good global citizens are not considered as such simply because one is wealthy and using that wealth to take advantage of a ‘market’ as a business mogul, but because one has a reason and peaceful conviction for the betterment of the global society in their humanitarian work. Audrey Hepburn’s platform as a world-renowned actress simply aided in boosting the message she delivered later in her life. I believe, to do the best work for our communities suffering from similar inequalities, we must first listen and understand how and when we are needed and allow the voices of those communities to act as a guiding light for our actions, as opposed to a spotlight for our own perceived ‘goodness’. All this stands to ensure we are moving with good intentions AND respect for those who fought long before us.