stanford medicine


Mia Farrow and refugee child

Special Report

Mother Courage

Mia Farrow’s calling

On her blog, Mia Farrow writes about the plight of children in war-torn regions around the world.

A tone of urgency, a feeling of passion and a sense of disgust leap off the page. “We live in a world of sorrow,” says the 65-year-old activist actress. “We have inflicted immeasurable suffering upon each other, and it is the world’s most vulnerable who suffer most. It seems we have learned nothing since we first declared ‘never again.’”

The pictures on her blog,, illustrate the tragedy she has seen in Darfur, Congo, Gaza, Somalia and Haiti as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador. There, amid murder, mutilation and brutality, she is far from the sound stages of her movie career and her fabled childhood as the daughter of Hollywood royalty. Farrow was born in posh Beverly Hills, the daughter of Oscar-winning screenwriter James Farrow and actress Maureen O’Sullivan.

Perhaps it was contracting polio at age 9 that fueled her enormous empathy for the vulnerabilities of children. She is somewhat of a magnet to children in crisis. The mother of 14 — 10 adopted, four biological — says that one day she might give up acting altogether and start an aid organization in Africa.

At the end of a December phone conversation from Farrow’s home in Connecticut, medical school executive communications director Paul Costello asked if, when traveling to some of the most desperate places on Earth, she was ever fearful. “I have normal fear, but it doesn’t stop me. I’ll dive to safety with the best of them, but it doesn’t stop me.” They spoke again shortly after the devastating earthquake in Haiti on Jan. 12.

Costello: What have we learned from Haiti?

Farrow: There’s a need for a response corps — an international response corps backed with contingency planning for sites known to be at risk of natural disaster. There’s a need to set up a coherent game plan capable of putting rescue teams on the ground in any country with the same level of organization that we use when we have a military objective, because no matter how good an ad hoc response is, it will never be quick enough to stabilize in those first chaotic days of a catastrophe.

Costello: What’s the long-term outlook?

Farrow: A possible silver lining is that now with this focus there will be a serious attempt to help Haitians build an infrastructure that is self-sustainable, finally. Hopefully we will stay with them until something better is in place, better even than they had.

What the Haitian people have going for them is their own spirit. They have an amazing and deep faith. You’ve seen people being pulled from the rubble after five and even six days, bursting into hymns, praising God. This sense of readiness to celebrate life, however it presents itself, is an astonishing attribute of the Haitian people. And, the children have this.

Costello: Is your passion to help children living in desperate conditions all-consuming?

Farrow: Pretty much. I have to say that what I’m trying to do now has eclipsed everything in my life except my children. I don’t want to act anymore. This is what I care about. I’ll do what I can, and then maybe, God willing, I would like to move there at some point. To Congo, eastern Chad or central Africa, and start my own aid organization.

Right now, I am archiving the traditional cultures of the tribes targeted for extinction by the Sudanese government. The Fur, the Masalit and the Zaghawa tribes’ children’s stories, the dances, songs, the traditional ceremonies. I’ve got approximately 40 hours of songs, dances and tribal culture, oral history, and I want this for a museum when peace comes some day — God willing, please God — to Darfur. I would put a museum in the middle of Darfur for the children, a place where they can go to reclaim what is theirs.

Mia Farrow
A starving 9-year-old boy is carried in to a feeding center in Congo A starving 9-year-old boy is carried in to a feeding center in Congo.

Costello: You seem to have developed a sense of fearlessness while in these dangerous places. Is that right?

Farrow: Maybe. I was afraid of becoming a patient, because I think everybody is afraid of that. But I did find that I’m not afraid of knives and bullets. You know, I have the normal fear of that, but it doesn’t stop me. I’ll dive to safety with the best of them, but it doesn’t stop me.

I wish I had a medical degree. I could be more use to the children and to people. When I see a child torn apart by a land mine or unexploded ordnance, slashed by knives or shot by a bullet, or suffering from cholera, malaria, I wish I had the expertise to treat such children. I wish I had a doctor with me who would know what to do.

Costello: What are the conditions under which the children of Darfur are living today?

Farrow: It is a struggle to convey through words. Here you have children driven from their homes and homelands under the worst sorts of circumstances. The children describe morning skies filling with gunships dropping bombs upon homes and families as they sleep, as they’re cooking breakfast, as they’re saying their prayers, as they’re going out to their fields, as they’re going to school. And then these aerial attacks were followed by ground attacks, by tribes that have come to be known as Janjaweed or “devils on horseback,” that come on horseback, on camels and more recently in vehicles stolen from aid workers. They come shooting people as they run, as they’re trying to gather their children.

Countless women have told me that they were raped, children were torn from their arms and bayoneted before their eyes. They describe the older people covering the children’s mouths at night so they can’t make a sound while Janjaweed hunt for those who survive.

And then, when they finally make it into the camps, there’s humiliation and deprivation as the years pass. On food distribution day, they wonder: Will there be soap this month? Will there be salt this month? Will there be the usual ration of sorghum — which is barely sufficient to keep human beings alive? The water, even, in the camps is muddy. You wouldn’t dare drink it. And now people, as six years have passed, are dying more of disease and hunger and despair in the camps.

Costello: The psychological problems for these children must be just astronomical.

Farrow: Yes. The psychological problems from the circumstances I described, and from the fact that the camps themselves are not safe. They’re continually invaded by all sorts. Janjaweed invade for the food, to prey upon the women, the children, to kidnap. Also, government forces invade the camp. And then, there are marauders and rebel forces recruiting children from the camp. So, there is never a point that the children are feeling safe.

Costello: Why do you think it has taken the world so long to recognize the severity of the problem and take action? Why have we been so acquiescent?

Farrow: Well, because we don’t care. We don’t care enough. After the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel wrote: “The victims [of the Holocaust] perished, not only because of the killers, but also because of the apathy of the bystanders. What astonished us after the torment, after the tempest, was not that so many killers killed so many victims, but that so few cared about us at all.” And I think that sort of says it.

Are we not defined by our action or inaction? If we are permitted one final lucid moment, can we say to ourselves, “I lived my life in the best way I could”? And does that include helping those who are the most vulnerable? Are we doing it to the maximum of our ability? And if we’re not, you know, when? If not in the face of a genocide, when is it time?

I mean, to me, I’d say it’s past time.

Costello: Last spring you went to the length of depriving yourself of food to bring attention to the problems of Darfur. Why did you choose this dramatic action?

Farrow: I felt there was nothing left to be done. I only lasted 13 days because my blood sugar dropped. You don’t know how your body is going to let you down, and for me it was my blood sugar, and I would have gone into convulsions and then a coma. I promised my children I wouldn’t go to death. And then, all these people stepped in, and an organization had formed around my hunger strike, and I think it’s continuing to this day. Members of the U.S. Congress and businessmen and all sorts of people took over the fast, doing one day each.

Costello: So, it did culminate in a positive outcome.

Farrow: Well, culminate is too big a word. I did feel, when the Congressional Black Caucus invited me to come to Washington, D.C., and declared that they wanted to fast, that on that day, that the people of Darfur’s voices were being heard in the nation’s capital, and I thought how they would have been pleased. But you know, in fact nothing has changed for them.

Costello: Where do you get your inspiration daily?

Farrow: It’s the children. Every child that I look at, there’s hope in their face. In Congo I spoke to children who had been on the run — they’d moved six, seven, 10 times — and they all had a dream. And every woman, every mother, is hoping for a better tomorrow. So I come back from those places that seem to be most hopeless, filled with hope.

Mia Farrow
Darfuri women requesting a well for clean water Darfuri women requesting a well for clean water in a refugee camp.

And I have a screensaver of a little girl whose parents had been killed. I don’t know if she’s still alive. She was surrounded by her attackers — and I’m looking at her right now — but her face is so full of hope that I don’t allow myself the luxury of feeling hopeless.

Costello: What can ordinary people do to help?

Farrow: I would say to people who are listening, that we have a voice as long as we live in a democracy. The late Sen. Paul Simon put it best, saying of the Rwandan genocide that, if just 100 people from every district had phoned in or contacted their leadership, then we would have taken action.

So there is a number, 1-800-GENOCIDE, that people can call at no cost. Take a couple of minutes. You can be plugged into your local leadership or to the White House. You don’t have to be an expert, but you can say, “Look, it’s unacceptable to me that 3 million people are in these camps now for six years in Darfur and still they’re not safe. I want our government to do more.”

Costello: What do you hope that physicians and professionals in the pediatric medical community take away from hearing you talk about the plight of children worldwide?

Farrow: I wish that in the most forgotten places, doctors could donate a little bit of their time at some point in their lives, if not every year. And right now, as we struggle for health care for 40 million uninsured people, I wish they would also do it right here in America.


This interview was condensed and edited by Rosanne Spector

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Photo by UNICEF / NYHQ2009/Giacomo Pirozzi





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