Actress Tea Leoni chokes up while recounting scenes from a refugee camp

Téa Leoni, UNICEF ambassador and U.S. Fund for UNICEF national board member, speaks about the crisis in Syria in Washington (Courtesy of UNICEF)
Téa Leoni, UNICEF ambassador and U.S. Fund for UNICEF national board member, speaks about the crisis in Syria in Washington (Courtesy of UNICEF)

Celeb: Actress and UNICEF ambassador Téa Leoni, who returns to television next season in the CBS drama “Madam Secretary.” She plays a former CIA agent turned college professor who gets called back to Washington after tragedy strikes.

Cause: The 5.5 million Syrian children affected by the years-long conflict in their country.

Scene: A private fundraiser for about 100 people at the airy and modern Georgetown home of race car driver Will Langhorne and his wife, Samar. Dressed in a black-and-white power sheath, Leoni spoke passionately about her time at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, mixing in facts effortlessly with tales of the people who crossed her path there.

At one point, while recounting the tale of a woman whose brother was beaten to death, a tearful Leoni had to take a break. This, Leoni said before taking the stage in the middle of the Langhorne’s living room, was what she had been afraid of. “I hesitated because of all my visits this has been the most difficult to talk about.”

“What is it that gives you a sense of hope?” asked Lynn Stratford of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, the NGO that Leoni’s grandmother, humanitarian and silent film actress Helenka Pantaleoni started in 1947. Leoni answered with another story. This one of a 7-year-old-boy she called “the mayor” of the camp. After giving him a “protein biscuit,” Leoni watched as the boy immediately shared it with his siblings. “If that kid can share half of his nothing,” said Leoni, swallowing her last syllable as she held back more tears, “then we can do better. That’s the hope.”

Soundbite: “For me, the humanitarian issue is not the Band-Aid, it’s the way out.”

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Helena Andrews is the co-author of The Reliable Source. Follow her on Twitter @helena_andrews, and send your hot tips, sightings, and gossip to reliablesource@washpost.com.
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