Celebrity Visits to the Embattled Middle East

A more eclectic-sounding group would be hard to imagine, but Hollywood’s Angelina Jolie, boxing gold medalist Oscar de La Hoya, and a group of Indy-Car drivers all do, indeed, share a commonality this Spring: each has abandoned the security and comforts of home to visit, for personal and professional reasons alike, various sections of the increasingly unstable Middle East.

According to reports from Us magazine Jolie, an American actress well-known for taking gestured, highly publicized tours of conflict-beleaguered lands, is currently visiting Tunisia in her capacity as United Nations Goodwill Ambassador. The actress along with her entourage arrived in Tunisia Tuesday, April 05, in an effort to publicly praise the African nation and its citizens for providing thousands of Libyan refugees a place of rest and asylum from civil-war torn Libya. In an excerpt from the U.N.’s News Centre website, Jolie is quoted to have publicly lauded the Tunisian people for their generosity in welcoming and taking within its Libyan-adjoined border nearly two-hundred-thousand refugees. Before departing for the second leg of the tour, which was later canceled due to a near-riotous crowd of overzealous Tunisian admirers, Jolie addressed reporters with her hopes that other relevant entities would join in on Tunisia’s efforts, stating, “We would encourage others, individuals and governments, to continue to support and assist with needs on the ground (here).”

The actor’s Jolie-Pitt Foundation is also credited with assisting on the tour, financing a flight for more than one-hundred-seventy refugees’ return home to their original countries.

In March of this year, Olympic gold medalist Oscar de La Hoya, accompanied by several young boxers from his fighting stable, visited U.S. Army bases located in Iraq and Kuwait, among others. During the USO-sanctioned tour, de La Hoya’s group was forced more than once to take cover from incoming artillery–both mortar and missiles.

According to the Twin Cities’ StarTribune, the boxing great volunteered for the week-long tour, contacting the USO personally to gain permission. Given his choice of itinerary, de La Hoya chose some of the most embattled base spots currently in service in the Middle East– a number of them he was not even at liberty to discuss, much less disclose. During an interview granted to the AP, de La Hoya described his personal reasons for choosing the destinations he did. “I wanted to go to these camps where soldiers are not exposed to outside life,” the boxer told reporters. “When we got to one of the camps in Basra, they were just so appreciative of us being there. All I can do is praise them, and tell them how much we respect them.”

“It was long overdue, and I’m sure glad I did it,” de La Hoya added about his visit. “It was an unforgettable experience, to witness and feel what these soldiers are going through.”

According to the AP interview, the boxer was impacted enough by what he saw on his tour to make arrangements for a return trip, next year.

In January, Indy-Car drivers Mario Andretti, Sarah Fisher, Al Unser, Jr., and others kicked off a ten-day goodwill tour of American base troops in both Europe and the Middle East. According to Racer.com, the tour, sponsored in part by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis Racing Experience, was in celebration of the one-hundredth anniversary of the Indianapolis 500, and was planned with the troops in mind. “The troops are always happy to get a taste of home,” Lt. Col. Kathleen Weatherspoon, tour organizer, was quoted. “And nothing says ‘˜America’ more than bringing these amazing drivers to share their stories and thank our men and women in uniform.”

Beyond the thrill of getting to meet and greet some of Indy-Car’s greatest, a few select troops stationed in the Middle East also got to experience exactly what those mind-blowing g-forces and breakneck speeds inherent in racing, can do to a body. A specially modified Dallara two-seater accompanied the tour, and the lucky troops selected were invited to climb aboard for a ride–shotgun style– with racing immortals Andretti and Rutherford, in turn, behind the modified’s wheel.

The ten-day visit by the drivers, known officially as the Indy 500 Centennial Tour, included entertaining more than ten-thousand American troops, men and women serving both on-base, and at sea.

Us Weekly magazine
The Independent, UK
Twin Cities StarTribune
United Nations News Centre