Just back from Chad, Jolie says her work with the U.N. changed her life

By Pete Norman
Updated March 12, 2007 08:15 AM

Angelina Jolie says that, when she became interested in working with refugees, she first had to convince the United Nations to overlook her rebel image.

“I approached them. I think they thought I was a little crazy,” she tells Newsweek in excerpts of an interview published Sunday.

Jolie first contacted the U.N.’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, six years ago. “I was very nervous to call the U.N. agency at the time,” she says. “I [was] considered a rebel in Hollywood. At the time I was also a bit of the wild child.

“So first I went to Washington [to the UNHCR office] and I sat with everybody there and said, ‘You know, I know you don’t know me. You might have heard things about me. … And I don’t want to bring negative attention to your agency. If you could just help me, I’ll pay my way.’ ”

She spent the next year and a half visiting camps in Africa, Pakistan and Cambodia. “With no cameras and with no press [I] had the opportunity to have this great education before I spoke at all. … I was transformed in such an amazing way.”

Asked if her work ever causes her to despair, she says, “Certainly, at times. The first two years I just cried constantly like a woman does.”

But she has little patience for those who accuse her of “celebrity tourism” and say that she could be getting in the way of aid work. “If I felt that I was ever getting in the way, I wouldn’t do it,” she says. “Because I do care about the opinion of the aid worker, I do care about the opinion of the refugee. I care less about the opinion of the person who’s never been in the field but has an opinion about celebrity.”

After her most recent trip overseas, to a camp housing Darfur refugees in Chad, Jolie returned to New Orleans, where she and Brad Pitt had set up home with kids Maddox, Zahara and Shiloh while Pitt filmed a movie and worked on post-Katrina rebuilding efforts.

“[We] realized it was a place we liked, we liked the people, I liked the school for the kids,” she says of the Big Easy. “They’re very diverse. I liked the other parents.

“I feel very comfortable with them. We’re happy having our children here. Brad is working on rebuilding here. … But for me, just as a mom, I love the other parents and the kids and the schools. I’m starting to work on the education here and the school system here. There’s a lot of work to be done.”