Women That Helped Change the World, The Series: Audrey Hepburn and her work with UNICEF

Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn

Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF


“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…”

Audrey Hepburn, an actress most known for her roles in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)and My Fair Lady (1964), was also incredibly dedicated to her work with children through UNICEF, The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. In fact, in 1991, President George H.W. Bush himself honored Audrey for her dedication to UNICEF by awarding her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  It is the highest award a civilian can receive in the United States.


On May 4, 1929, Audrey Kathleen Rushton was born in Brussels, Belgium to a Dutch Baroness mother (Ella Van Heemstra) and an English banker father (Joseph Hepburn-Rushton).  Her mother had a prior marriage which provided Audrey with two older half-brothers.  Ella divorced Joseph when Audrey was just six year old.  Ella moved with her children to England where they would live until the war. In September 1939, World War II broke out in Europe when Audrey was just ten years old.  Ella moved her family to the Netherlands because the country remained neutral and she thought they would be safe, however, the Netherlands were invaded by Nazis only one year later. Audrey’s brothers were taken away and forced into the German Army.  It is said that during this time, Ella changed Audrey’s name to Edda for fear that Audrey’s English sounding name may cause trouble with the Nazi’s. The Nazi occupation would continue for the next five years.

During the war, Audrey took ballet lessons and about a year before the war ended she had learned enough to perform.  In her screen test for her role in the movie Roman Holiday, Audrey explains how she “gave performances to collect money for the underground which always needed money.”  When she was asked what the Germans thought of this, she smiled coyly and said, “They didn’t know about it.”   In a documentary  about her life, it was said that she assisted the underground (the resistance to Nazis) by passing notes back and forth because children could move around more freely than adults. Obviously, by her own words and actions, Audrey was always a fearless fighter for a cause she believed in.

Shortly before the war ended in September 1945, Audrey and her  mother were caught in the crossfire of the Battle of Arnhem.  The Battle of Arnhem was an air and land offensive that was the single greatest Allied disaster of the war.  The small town of Arnhem was completely destroyed along with the home in which Audrey and her mother lived. Amazingly, Audrey and her mother were among the lucky ones to escape the battle relatively uninjured.  However, food which had been scarce was now impossible to find and according to an interview with Audrey’s life partner,  actor Robert Wolders,  Audrey and her mother were forced to eat tulip bulbs and cooked grass to stave off starvation.  Audrey suffered from malnutrition at this time and she would suffer the after-effects of it for the rest of her life.  The United Nations Relief Fund, the forerunner to UNICEF, was there to provide much needed food and medical supplies to Audrey and her family when the war ended soon after.


After the war, Audrey continued to study ballet and acting in London and Amsterdam.  Audrey stood out on film and, after only a few small roles, she was on her way to becoming a star.  Only eight short years after the war had ended, Audrey won her first academy award for her role in the film Roman Holiday.

After a lengthy and successful film career,  Audrey decided to retire in the 1980’s. In 1988, she began a new chapter in her life; she became a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF.  In her timestatic.origos.hu with UNICEF, Audrey traveled around the globe to Ethiopia, Turkey, South and Central America, Mexico, Sudan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam, and Somalia. In total, she made over 50 trips to other countries on behalf of UNICEF.

“I have a long-lasting gratitude and trust for what UNICEF does.”

Despite Audrey’s past reluctance to interact with the press, when she was not www.unicef.orgtraveling as an ambassador, she was speaking out on behalf of UNICEF to raise awareness and promote their work. Among other things, she gave innumerable interviews and speeches, helped with many fundraisers and benefits, and even testified before the United States Congress twice.

“I have been given the privilege of speaking for children who cannot speak for themselves, and my task is an easy one, because children have no political enemies.  To save a child is a blessing, to save a million is a God-given opportunity.”

Shortly after her return from Somalia on one of her many trips for UNICEF, Audrey suffered severe stomach pain.  Thinking she had contracted a virus from her trip, she saw her doctor only to be told she had advanced stage cancer and she had only three months to live. The brave, beautiful, talented,  and compassionate Audrey Hepburn lost her battle with cancer at her home in Switzerland in January 1993 at the age of 63.  In 2002, a statute called “The Spirit of Audrey” was unveiled at the UNICEF headquarters in New York City.  It was dedicated to her posthumously in recognition of her work with children through UNICEF. As her friend Harry Belafonte said, “She was touched by and deeply moved by the role UNICEF played in her own life.  It wasn’t just benevolent, it was a passion to her.” Audrey Hepburn will be forever known as the elegant beauty on screen but remember her as well as a dedicated savior of children.

“Remember, if you ever need a helping hand, it’s at the end of your arm. As you get older, remember you have another hand: the first is to help yourself, the second is to help others.”

– Audrey Hepburn



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