UNICEF Chief Catherine Russell meets Pope Francis in a call for peace and protection of children affected by poverty, conflict and climate crises

26 May 2024
On 25 May 2024 at the Olympic Stadium in Rome, Italy, UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell stands with children wearing UNICEF T-shirts while being interviewed by Italian anchor Carlo Conti during the Vatican’s first children’s day.

ROME/NEW YORK, 26 May 2024 – UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell today ended a three-day visit to Rome where she met with Pope Francis and joined thousands of children at the Vatican’s first children’s day event to help galvanize global action for the millions of children affected by poverty, conflict, and climate crises.

“It is not easy to be a child in the world today. Hundreds of millions of children continue to have their lives torn apart by war and violence, by poverty and inequality, and by the impact of climate change, like droughts, wildfires, stronger storms and pollution,” said Russell. “Pope Francis has warned about a globalization of indifference. We must turn indifference or disregard for the rights and well-being of children into a globalization of peace, kindness and caring for every child, everywhere.”

On Saturday, Russell joined Pope Francis and tens of thousands of children from all over the world, including war torn countries, along with parents, local celebrities and hundreds of UNICEF volunteers at Rome’s Olympic Stadium. During the event, organized by the Holy See's Dicastery for Culture and Education, Russell urged children in the stadium and those watching around the world, to help create a more peaceful, equitable and liveable world.

On Sunday, Russell, accompanied by 10 children, met privately with Pope Francis at the Vatican, who was accompanied by Father Enzo Fortunato and Mr. Aldo Cagnoli. Russell handed the Pope two paintings by children from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Both the Pope and Russell have visited the conflict-torn country in recent years, where children are reeling from horrific violence and deprivation.

“In any conflict or disaster, children always suffer first, and they suffer the most,” said Russell. “We need to listen to the voices of children and deliver on a world that is fit for every child. We cannot be complacent when children are being killed, harmed and deprived of their futures.”

Some 400 million children – about 1 child in every 5 – are living in or fleeing from conflict zones, in places like Gaza, Haiti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Ukraine and Yemen. Meanwhile, more than 1 billion children currently live in countries that are at ‘extremely high-risk’ from the impacts of climate change.

On the first day of her visit, Russell met with the President of the Italian Republic, Sergio Mattarella, to discuss ways to better protect vulnerable children around the world, including those living in humanitarian emergencies, and migrant and refugee children. She was joined by UNICEF youth advocate Hannah Imordi, now 23-years-old, who spoke about a harrowing journey from her native Nigeria to Italy at the age of 17. She now uses her experience to empower others and amplify the voices of unaccompanied children, and young migrants and refugees.

Russell’s visit coincided with marking 50-years of advocacy and fundraising efforts by UNICEF’s National Committee in Italy this year. During the visit, Russell thanked the Government and the people of Italy for their longstanding support for UNICEF’s work on behalf of children around the world.


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