Each year on Yom Kippur, Caryl Stern mourns her father at Yizkor, the traditional prayer chanted to honor lost loved ones. In 2008, she also prayed for Fatima, a 6-day-old infant in Sierra Leone whom Stern watched die because the vaccine needed to save her life was unavailable to her.
This year, Stern, president and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, said the children of Syria were on her mind.
“Most in the U.S. see Syria as the enemy, and therefore don’t understand the real plight that Syria’s children are still children,” she said.
The millionth Syrian child just crossed the border out of Syria in August, she added. It was a milestone that most others overlooked.
The phrase “children are still children” echoes like a mantra throughout Stern’s third book, “I Believe in Zero: Learning From the World’s Children,” which was published October 1 by St. Martin’s press. The book’s title is a reference to a UNICEF mission she spearheads: 18,000 children under the age of 5 die each day from preventable causes — and Stern firmly believes that the number can be reduced to zero.
“It’s an aspirational goal,” Stern said. “But no death can ever be okay.”
In clear and not overly sentimental prose, “I Believe in Zero” recounts the evolution of Stern’s global consciousness. She chronicles trips to eight developing countries — Mozambique, Sudan, Haiti, Brazil, Peru, Sierra Leone, Bangladesh and Kenya — during which she visits UNICEF projects. She witnesses the daily plights of impoverished children and women, visiting a sparse schoolhouse in Brazil’s Amazon jungle and spending a day with child laborers in Bangladesh, for instance. Each chapter recalls a particular people, place and UNICEF project.
“We have a responsibility to ensure that as many children as possible are not robbed of their childhood,” she writes in the book.
But Stern’s story is not simply about highlighting her organization’s work. “Being able to help is a privilege, not a choice,” she emphasized several times during our conversation. In the book and during our interview, she reflected on how two aspects of her identity — religion and gender — inform her humanitarian outlook and work in the development world.
Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service, said that those two identity markers, which she shares, can be powerful tools in development work.
“I’m not at all surprised that’s how Caryl defines her work,” Messinger said.