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Friday, April 17, 2015

Interview with UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mark Levengood

Mark Levengood, UNICEF Goodwill
Ambassador,
Photo: Stellan Herner 

The Work of a Goodwill Ambassador

We must stop thinking nation states. We must stop mixing religion with politics.

There are today around 30 international UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors and 200 national UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors from different countries in the world.

Sweden has six UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors: Lill Lindfors, Liza Marklund, Kajsa Bergqvist, David Hellenius, Eva Röse and Mark Levengood. Their job as Goodwill Ambassadors is to speak for the children in various contexts and to spread awareness of UNICEF's work for the world's children.

Mark Levengood, born 1964 in a military base in North Carolina, USA, is a Swedish-speaking Finn who grew up in Helsinki, Finland. He is a journalist, writer and very popular TV personality. He is married to Jonas Gardell and they have two children. Mark Levengood is every year a host of the Victoria Day (the Birthday celebration of the Swedish Crown Princess Victoria) in Öland, Sweden.

I recently had the great honor to interview Mark Levengood, one of Sweden's six UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors. Here is that interview.

Interview with Mark Levengood, UNICEF Sweden


Why did you become a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and how did it happen?
It was a very long process that started when I went to school in Finland and sold Christmas cards for UNICEF. Then I was 8-9 years old. Since then I have always been involved in various ways. Eventually, when I became a journalist, I began to travel. I went to El Salvador in 1995, for example, and began making reports. I became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 2008.
What is the best thing about being a goodwill ambassador?
The best part is that we get so much done. We are very effective. In crisis situations we are very quickly on the spot. But also to be involved in building the future for the children of the Earth. You never need to ask yourself ”why” regarding that kind of thing, because you know it will be a good thing.

On Children in Gaza

You visited Gaza in 2013, is that correct? Yes.

What is your strongest memory from there?
It's the kids. I remember we visited a youth center in Gaza City with the help of UNICEF. They showed us around there and there were a lot of activities. Then I heard a small tape recorder. I asked what it was, but they said it was ”not important”. Then I saw a tiny, tiny backyard where there was a ballet lesson for girls between five and eight years. The teacher was wearing a completely covering burqa. And that is not so good when you are a ballet teacher. But this showed that also in Gaza girls can dance ballet. All the kids are dreaming of a future there as well as in other places. Those were some of my thoughts.

This is of course an extremely difficult question, but how do you think we can best help Palestinian children today?
Today we can best help them by going through major recognized organizations such as UNICEF or Save the Children or the Red Cross. I think the established channels have the knowledge and contacts to help on the spot. If you start to collect stuff that you send yourself, it does not reach the children. Many people underestimate the difficulty of reaching crisis areas. But if you really want to help, so go ahead to raise money. We promise it will help.
What do you think are the most important prerequisites for peace?
We must stop thinking nation states. We must stop mixing religion with politics. There I think we have two very good prerequisites for peace.

A Blind boy in Ethiopia

What has Astrid Lindgren's children's books meant for you?
A lot, of course. I grew up with Astrid Lindgren. I work a lot now with Ilon Wikland, who was also Astrid's illustrator. We came out with a book in October 2014, called "Peter and the Wolf". I'm very proud to work with Ilon, who many people associate with Astrid. Astrid was somehow a "pillar" throughout my childhood.
Do you have any favorite book by Astrid Lindgren? The Brothers Lionheart.

You have been in Ethiopia with UNICEF? Yes, I have been in Ethiopia twice.

What can you tell me about it?
Ethiopia was magical. It is an absolutely amazing country despite having much trouble. Also problems with the government. And human rights is a difficult thing in Ethiopia. 
But it is an amazing country. I remember I met a boy who was blind. He lived in northern Ethiopia and he was abandoned by his family when he was four years old.
I asked him about his thoughts about the future, which of course is really tough.
I asked: ”What do you want to be?” He said: ”I'll become a lawyer.” Then I asked: ”But, are you able to become a lawyer?” Then he said: ”I am able to do all things because I am smart.”

Horrible, but terribly instructive

I read that you have been in Paraguay and met street children and children in prison. Can you tell anything about that?
We can conclude that children do not belong neither in orphanages nor in prisons. Both are evil places to educate future generations on.
Which was your first trip as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador?
The trip that was perhaps my life's most important trip was to El Salvador, but then I was not yet an Ambassador. But it was a terrible trip. It was the first time that I seriously got in touch with the reality that many children today live in, i.e. the total poverty. It was a very, very educational journey. As a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador my first trip was to Paraguay.
Did you have a mission as a journalist when you went to El Salvador?
The war had just ended, and UNICEF was working at high pressure, so I went there to document the work that UNICEF was doing. It was an incredibly torn country and it was an extremely violent country. I remember that everything was very dangerous. The worst that could happen was that the police stopped a person. For ”ordinary” people it was enough to rob a person. But police officers robbed a person and then shot the person. Everything was just horrible, but terribly instructive. I think that El Salvador is better today, when 20 years have passed. There always become very deep wounds in a nation where the war is raging.

Children want to play

What is your happiest memory so far, as a Goodwill Ambassador?
I have so many happy memories. Despite being exposed to a lot of poverty and misery, you become so incredibly happy when you see how much that is actually happening. Children who are almost dying of starvation get liquid because they need fluid in the body and then they can start to eat something. Often they already the second day start to play. It is so obvious that children want to play and with the help of playing explore the world and become great and good. You see how everyone wants to survive and everyone wants to live. It makes me so incredibly happy.
Do you have any special project going on right now with UNICEF?
We are working hard with children's rights principles, where we try to get the big organizations to get into their organization that they are prohibited to have operations which exploits children or put vulnerable children into danger. This is very important.

by Maria Veneke Ylikomi, Globcal International Goodwill Ambassador
Ambassador Maria Veneke is a global advocate for human rights and the environment. She specializes in scheduling International Observances and promotes global citizenship. Maria has been a Globcal International Goodwill Ambassador since 2013 in Sweden, in 2015 she has begun traveling to third-world and underdeveloped states as a global citizen.