TORONTO — When actor and humanitarian Mia Farrow comes to Toronto next month as the keynote speaker for Ve’ahavta’s Tikun Olam Awards Ceremony, she’ll convey to her audience that “with knowledge comes responsibility, and none of us get off the hook.”
On Nov. 8, Ve’ahavta’s annual Starry Nights event in Toronto will feature an address by Farrow, who has starred in more than 40 films, including Rosemary’s Baby and Hannah and Her Sisters, and has been a high-profile advocate for children’s rights as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. Ve’ahavta will also recognize honorees such as Skylink CEO and humanitarian Walter Arbib and television producer and philanthropist David Shore.
In an interview with The CJN, Farrow said it wasn’t until she was asked to speak at the event that she learned about Ve’ahavta, the Toronto-based, non-profit Jewish humanitarian organization.
“Its commitment to justice, assisting the needy, both locally and abroad – I just thought, ‘That is exactly what I’m all about,’” Farrow said.
She said that as she understands it, Ve’ahavta is founded on the understanding that the world we live in is a beautiful place, but with that comes responsibilities.
“We enjoy all of these things, but if we’re in a position to alleviate suffering, then we need to step up. I like their core message, and it’s one that I try to pass on to my own children.”
She said she often tells her 14 children that “with knowledge comes responsibility” and that we’re all “part of a larger human family.
“Most people turn away rather than intervene and help… I adopted 10 children and gave birth to four children, and I thought that that was my contribution. I hope it’s one of them.”
Farrow said that she couldn’t pinpoint the moment or event that triggered her commitment to humanitarian work, but said she was deeply affected by the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
“I think all of us can only feel like abysmal failures when we think of Rwanda and all the ways our countries, our best institutions, our churches, all failed the people of Rwanda. I feel a very personal sense of failure. I didn’t know, but I don’t think that’s an excuse,” she said.
“The press failed also. What were we doing during the Rwandan genocide that was so important that nobody noticed while a million people were hacked to death? I Googled that time, and people were watching the O.J. Simpson trial and reading about that.”
She said that when she first learned about the situation in Darfur in 2004, about the genocide, “it was one of those jaw-dropping moments when I thought, ‘This time I can’t claim that I didn’t know.’”
Farrow said that it was in 2004 when she made her first of 11 trips to the Darfur region of Sudan, where a conflict over land between African farmers and Arabic nomads began in 2003 and escalated into a violent war between African guerrilla groups and the Janjaweed. This war led to the murder of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of three million people in refugee camps, some of whom are dying from hunger and disease.
It was on the plane ride home that she realized “it was incumbent” on her to do her utmost to bring an end to the suffering she had witnessed.
“I hope that doesn’t sound presumptuous, because I didn’t presume for one minute that I could end what I had seen, but that I needed to do my utmost as a human being. I needed to step up in all the ways that were available to me.”
She said she has since given countless interviews to talk about what she had seen, she’s written opinion pieces about the situation, she’s taken photographs and started a website (www.miafarrow.org) where she posts photographs and updates for all to use as a resource.
“I used to think that if people know, they’ll surely do something, but now I think it’s way worse than that, that people don’t care,” Farrow said.
“Elie Wiesel put it best… ‘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.’”
Farrow, who has travelled to other “places of extreme misery,” including the Congo and the Central African Republic, said her job is to be a messenger.
“I can tell you what I’ve seen and I can show pictures… with the hope that a person will be galvanized to do their utmost.”
Farrow said she doesn’t allow herself to become discouraged by the apathy of others.
“I refuse to indulge myself in that way. I think our worst enemy here is our own tendency to feel helpless, and the saddest thing of all is the person who did nothing because they felt they could only do a little, or the person who didn’t even try because they felt it was pointless.”
“I don’t allow myself to feel overwhelmed, because [Darfur refugees] demonstrate such courage, and if they can maintain hope, who am I to be overwhelmed or to allow myself to feel helpless and walk away?”
In 2008, Farrow was selected by Time magazine as one of the year’s most influential people. She said that while she was honoured and humbled, she’s had a hard time wrapping her head around that idea.
“If I really was one of the most influential people in the world, there would be a few more changes around here,” she said with a laugh.
“I’m not seeing those changes.”
For more information about the event, visit www.veahavtastarrynights.com or call 416-964-7698.