June 18, 2009 02:40 PM

Standing ovations underscored an emotional ceremony Thursday marking World Refugee Day – with some of them led by Angelina Jolie. The star, along with the rest of the audience, was visibly moved as they heard firsthand stories from refugees who have been relocated to the United States. They were also able to cheer, via Internet camera, along with students from a school in a Chad refugee camp.

Due to unexpected circumstances, some expected guests were not able to make the Washington, D.C., event. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had broken her elbow in an accident, while scheduled host Anderson Cooper suffered flight problems, leaving Ann Curry to fill in.

Jolie, obviously choked up with emotion, said of the refugees, “Most of all they are survivors … They are the most impressive people I have ever met.”

Tales of Survival

Recalling a 2001 trip for the United Nations Refugee Agency to Afghanistan, during which she talked with an expectant mother of two, Jolie recalled, “Before we said goodbye to the pregnant lady, she pointed to her young boy with such a sad look and she said, ‘He’s always asking for more food, and it hurts me to say, “We have none.” ‘ A few weeks later the war in Afghanistan began.”

Later in the hour-plus program, Jolie and the rest of the audience sat captivated as honoree Rose Mapendo, a single mother held captive in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for 16 months during that country’s civil war, recounted being forced to witness the torture and execution of her husband, and giving birth to twin sons on the cement floor of her cell.

After the presentation, Mapendo, Jolie and the head of the U.N. Refugee Agency, Antonio Guterres, joined other American and international dignitaries for lunch. Thursday evening, all three will reunite for a gala celebration for UNHCR – before Jolie and her children leave D.C. to head back to Los Angeles, where Brad Pitt is filming Moneyball.

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