UNHCR Special Representative Marta Dusseldorp
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“They trusted me to tell their story”

Marta Dusseldorp on the inspirational women she met in Jordan.

During her trip to Jordan in 2017, Marta Dusseldorp heard many moving stories from the refugee women she met, but Hadeya’s remains fresh in her memory.

“She was living in a barely furnished house with her three children,” says Marta. “There were no toys, no colour, just a couple of couches in the living room and mattresses on the floor for the children to sleep on.”

Hadeya’s husband had died in his sleep six months earlier. “Unbeknown to her, he’d stopped taking the medication he needed. He said it cost too much when the children didn’t have enough to eat.”

Still paralysed by grief, Hadeya was keeping the children at home, leaving the house only to walk them to school or visit the market. “She was terrified that something would happen to them,” adds Marta. Meanwhile, “her youngest child woke her almost every night to check that she was still breathing.”


Jordan Australia For Unhcr Special Representative Marta Dusseldorp Meets Children At The Unhcr Registration Centre In Amman
Australia for UNHCR Special Representative Marta Dusseldorp at the UNHCR registration centre in Amman, Jordan. © Australia for UNHCR/J.Matas

In the diary she kept of her trip, Marta writes of feeling overwhelmed by Hadeya’s story, but containing her own sadness until later. “I was there to bear witness to her story,” says Marta.

“The women understood that by sharing with me what had happened, I would tell their stories to people who have the means to support them through this extraordinary time.”

As the star of hit television shows such as Janet King and acclaimed drama Stateless, Marta, along with UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Cate Blanchett, is one of our most well-known actors. It was early in her career that Marta realised she could use her growing public profile to advocate for refugees.

“Way back when I was working for Channel 7, I was doing lots of interviews where I was asked about my hobbies – ‘did I like cooking or baking?’ – and I thought, ‘well if you’re going to have a voice, you should probably use it for people who don’t’.”


ordan. Australia For UNHCR Special Representative Marta Dusseldorp Visits Noor And Her Three Children In Amman
Australia for UNHCR Special Representative Marta Dusseldorp visits Noor and her three children in Amman, Jordan © Australia for UNHCR/Jordi Matas

Since 2012, she has been an Australia for UNHCR Special Representative, helping to bring the UN Refugee Agency’s vital work to a wider audience, often by relating what she has seen and experienced in her trips to the field. In Jordan, she visited refugees in Za'atari camp, now home to over 75,000 people, as well as meeting women like Hadeya who are living – like the vast majority of Syrian refugees – in urban areas.

In a camp, you are supported with food and shelter, but your freedom is limited, says Marta. “When you live in an urban area, you have to fend for yourself.” Before the war, Syria was a relatively prosperous country with an educated urban population, and many of these displaced people have now established small businesses in Jordan as well as community groups to improve access to education.

But cultural restrictions mean that there are few legitimate opportunities for women – particularly single women like Hadeya – to earn enough to provide for their families. The message Marta received from these women was stark. “Without help, they would have to return to Syria, or starve.”


This is why UNHCR’s cash assistance program is so important. “Rather than being given vouchers for items they don’t need, refugee women receive funds directly so they can buy what they actually require,” says Marta. “It’s such a simple but effective way of restoring dignity and respect.”

The first project supported by the Leading Women Fund distributes cash assistance to refugee women who, like Hadeya, have found themselves as the head of their household. Every donation of $3,000 (or $230 every four weeks) supports a refugee woman and her family for a year. This covers rent, food and other essentials, meaning she has the security and space to start building a better future.

“The funds Hadeya received from UNHCR changed her life,” says Marta. “She could cover her rent, buy food and clothes for the children. She felt more confident about them going to school.”

In her work with UNHCR, Marta feels she is able to bring skills honed in her acting career. “I’m a good listener. I observe behaviours and I interpret them – that’s part of what I do,” she says. “I don’t judge my characters and I definitely don’t judge other people. I try to understand them.”

Through the pandemic, we’ve realised once again that we are citizens of the world, she adds. “I think connection among communities is really the only way to achieve real change.”



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