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Behind the scenes with UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Johann Olav Koss in Sudan

© UNICEF/2006/Silverberg
UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Johann Koss listens to community leaders at El Fateh, an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp of approximately 200,000 people on the outskirts of Khartoum.

By Fran Silverberg

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to accompany UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and former Olympic speed-skating champion Johann Olav Koss on a trip to Sudan.

This was his first UNICEF mission to Sudan and my first time traveling with a Goodwill Ambassador. It was an exciting new experience – albeit a challenging one.

We departed from separate cities, and the plan was to meet up at the scheduled stopover in Frankfurt before flying together into the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. Having worked with Mr. Koss previously, I was sure I would spot him immediately, or so I thought.

When the passengers started boarding the plane in Germany and there was still no sign of him, I started to get nervous, thinking: “Number-one rule when traveling with a celebrity – don’t lose him!” My mind immediately leapt ahead to arriving at the Khartoum airport and trying to explain to UNICEF staff and media why Mr. Koss wasn’t with me.

My thoughts snapped back to reality when I suddenly saw him walk toward the gate with a sleepy smile on his face. “Where were you?” I asked, realizing I should try not to sound alarmed. He explained very calmly that he had been napping in the lounge.

© UNICEF/2006/Silverberg
Johann Koss visits a UNICEF-supported therapeutic feeding centre for malnourished children during a visit to Juba, Southern Sudan.

First stop, Khartoum

Our first stop in Sudan was Khartoum, where we met with UNICEF staff and had press briefings, interviews and meetings with government officials and non-governmental organizations. The main activity was our visit to El Fateh, a camp housing approximately 200,000 displaced people on the outskirts of the city.

Due to years of conflict and drought in Sudan, an estimated 2 million displaced people are living in camps similar to El Fateh. UNICEF and its partners continue to provide food, water and medicine to support displaced families in Sudan.

As soon as we arrived at the camp, women and children gathered around Mr. Koss. They did not know exactly who he was, but as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador he was still a star. He charmed everyone with his down-to-earth, playful manner, and his knowledge and intelligence (Mr. Koss holds both an MD and an MBA).

The community leaders spoke to him about the abhorrent conditions in the camp. He listened and served as their witness and spokesperson to the media.

© UNICEF/2006/Silverberg
Johann Koss photographing the children at a school that is part of UNICEF’s ‘Go to School’ initiative in Juba, Southern Sudan.

‘Coping mechanisms’ in place

Our next stop was Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan. The UNICEF staff greeted us at the airport and took us to our tents, where some of the staff members reside. On our first night we experienced the beginning of the rainy season – a huge downpour lasting for hours.

The next day our scheduled three-hour road trip to a village called Terekeka had to be cancelled, as the roads were impassable. Instead, we visited UNICEF-supported projects in town, including several brand-new schools being built as part of the ‘Go to School’ initiative. We also toured a shop that manufactures and fits prosthetic limbs, as well as a health and feeding centre.

Afterwards I asked Mr. Koss how he was dealing with all we were seeing. He replied that he had traveled to numerous countries and seen hundreds, maybe even thousands of children living in difficult circumstances – so he had his “coping mechanisms” in place.

I told him his face had visibly changed while speaking with a boy and his mother in the health centre. “That boy had polio,” he said, with frustration rising in his voice. “He’s now disabled for life. And just one simple oral vaccine dose could have prevented this. These are preventable diseases!”

I understood at that moment that no matter how many field visits a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador makes, he or she will never get used to seeing children suffer and die needlessly.

© UNICEF/2006/Silverberg
UNICEF Senior Communication Assistant Fran Silverberg (left) with Johann Koss and aid workers during an unscheduled stopover in El-Obeid. Mr. Koss is wearing a shirt from Right to Play, the athlete-driven international humanitarian organization he heads.

Endurance and perseverance

Mr. Koss showed his true mettle on our return trip to Khartoum. Due to a sandstorm, we had to make an unscheduled stopover in El-Obeid, 700 km southwest of the capital in one of the most arid areas of Sudan. It was 43 degrees Celsius and we hadn’t eaten since around noon, but none of this seemed to bother Mr. Koss, who was busy making friends with aid workers on the plane and at the airport.

I remembered then that he was an Olympic athlete; he knew a thing or two about endurance and perseverance.

We finally arrived back in Khartoum at mid-morning with barely enough time for a quick shower and change before wrapping up. We still had a final meeting at the UNICEF office, a media interview and a lunch with the Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports, before heading to the airport to return home. Mr. Koss sailed through all of the remaining activities.

If you ever have the opportunity to travel with a Goodwill Ambassador, here’s my advice: Try not to lose him or her, bring enough energy bars and water for those unscheduled stopovers, and just relax.

You might feel jittery at first, but just remember that you are spending time with someone who cares deeply about the world’s children, with a compassionate heart just like yours and mine.

Fran Silverberg is the Senior Communication Assistant in UNICEF’s Celebrity Relations office in New York.




2 May 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Sabine Dolan reports on UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Johann Koss’ visit to camps for displaced families near Khartoum.
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