“One day I'm going to help these kids when I become a famous artist.”
Shakespeare once wrote, “What’s in a name?” In the case of internationally renowned performer, record producer and model Shakira—quite a bit.
Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll, the only child of Nidia Ripoll and William Mebarak Chadid, was born on February 2, 1977 in Barranquilla, Colombia. Her paternal grandparents emigrated from Lebanon to New York City and then to Colombia when her father was five years old. Along with her Middle Eastern heritage, Shakira has Spanish (Catalan and Castilian) and Italian roots from her mother. In a prophetic symbol of her life to come, the name Shakira comes from the Arabic word meaning "grateful.” In this way, her name became her destiny as Shakira has spent more than half her life showing her gratitude for her talents by giving back to others less fortunate than herself.
Growing up in Barranquilla, Shakira exhibited a gift for the creative arts at the age of four when she wrote her first poem, "La Rosa De Cristal" ("The Crystal Rose").
It wasn’t long before she discovered the typewriter and asked for one as a Christmas gift. By seven, she was clicking away at the keys and became prolific at writing poetry, some of which would later be developed into songs.
Although discovering poetry would be instrumental in her future as a songwriter, it was not the only art form that Shakira embraced early on in her childhood. At the same age that she wrote her first poem, she also began her love affair with music. It was at a local Middle Eastern restaurant where at four she first heard the doumbek, a traditional drum used in Arabic music and typically played with belly dancing. She was so inspired by its rhythmic beat that she began to dance on the table and now as an adult says the experience made her realize that she wanted to be a performer.
Music and poetry had opened up Shakira’s mind to creativity, but it was her father who opened her eyes to something difficult but essential: empathy. One day, he took her to a local park, so she could see for herself the orphans who lived there. For the first time, she realized that there were children less fortunate than her, and she said was so moved by the experience that she told herself, ‘one day I'm going to help these kids when I become a famous artist.’
In the years that followed, Shakira would continue to develop her musical talents and release her first album in 1991, but it would not be until 1995 with her third album, Pies Descalzos (Barefoot), that she would achieve international fame and recognition. Two years later, she would finally make good on the private promise she made that day in the park by founding the Pies Descalzos Foundation, a charity with special schools for poor children all around Colombia. Funded by both international groups and individuals (including Shakira herself) the foundation is dedicated to helping children in vulnerable and displaced conditions (see sidebar for further information).
In addition to her work with The Pies Descalzos Foundation, Shakira has also used her celebrity to advance many other causes. She was named a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 2003 and is one of their global representatives.
"Shakira, like all our Goodwill Ambassadors, was chosen based on her compassion, her involvement in global issues, her deep commitment to helping children and her appeal to young people around the world. We're very pleased to have Shakira join the UNICEF family. I know she'll help bring UNICEF's mission to the audience who will have the most impact on our future – young people themselves," UNICEF's Executive Director Carol Bellamy said.
As part of her role with UNICEF, Shakira visited Bangladesh in December 2007, going to help the victims of Cyclone SIDR. For three days, she visited schools built by UNICEF to help children affected by the disaster and participated in the distribution of family kits and warm clothes. She said that little was left of the school she visited in the village of Mirzapur, but it still provided an "oasis" for the children.
"I am more convinced than ever that education is the key to so many of the difficulties that our children face in countries like mine or in developing countries like this one. It's the key to a better and safer world," she said at the time.
Over the next seven years, Shakira would continue to raise funds and awareness for the causes that most affect children around the world. After entering into a relationship with the Spanish football player Gerard Piqué, the two became expectant parents for the first time in 2012, and Shakira used her own pregnancy as another opportunity to help babies less fortunate that her own.
“Gerard and I had the idea of putting together a different kind of baby shower to celebrate the birth of our first baby--we wanted to give something to other parents and babies around the world who live in conditions of extreme poverty and vulnerability, but whose lives can be improved greatly by small contributions from others. Having worked with UNICEF in the past and knowing the kind of reach and expertise that they have in these areas, we worked together to launch a baby shower campaign in which people could buy ‘inspired gifts’ comprised of life-saving items to help babies around the world survive and thrive.”
This innovative idea was a great success and ultimately raised 3.8 tons of therapeutic food packets to save children from severe malnutrition, nearly 100,000 polio vaccines, 200,000 rehydrating salts and 1,000 mosquito nets to protect against malaria. In 2014 when Shakira and Gerard were expecting her second child, she decided to launch a social media campaign to encourage people to contribute.
“There are millions of kids in the world who die daily from preventable causes, and with your help we want to change this permanently,” she said at the time. “While we are thrilled with the results of the first run, we would like that long after our own son is born, thousands of kids continue to receive the aid they need.” Like her first baby shower, this new concept was another huge success and has become an ongoing global campaign for children.
And yet despite her accomplishments, Shakira isn’t one to rest on her own laurels.
"Let's not forget that at the end of this day when we all go home, 960 children will have died in Latin America,” she said when she was honored at the U.N. ceremony in 2006 for creating the Pies Descalzos Foundation. It is this simple statement that reflects how she is still the grateful, empathetic person that she was years ago in that park in Columbia and will continue to find more ways to help others now and in the future.