Annual Nansen Refugee Award presented to Japanese optometrist

News Stories, 3 October 2006

© UNHCR/S.Hopper
High Commissioner António Guterres presents the 2006 Nansen Refugee Award to Dr. Akio Kanai.

GENEVA, October 3 (UNHCR) The prestigious Nansen Refugee Award was formally presented to Japanese optometrist Akio Kanai in Geneva on Monday night for his work in improving the sight of tens of thousands of uprooted people around the world over the past two decades.

In a ceremony at the headquarters of the UN refugee agency, Dr. Kanai said he was "deeply honoured and grateful," adding that the award was "testimony to the significance that the role of optometry plays in the future of refugees by improving their sight and thus empowering them to secure a 'future in focus.'"

The award, which comes with a medal and a cash prize of US$100,000, is given out yearly to a person or group for outstanding services in supporting refugee causes. Dr. Kanai said he planned to use the money to help vision-impaired displaced people in Azerbaijan and refugees in Armenia.

The Nansen Refugee Award committee selected Dr. Kanai, 64-year-old chairman and chief executive officer of Fuji Optical, for his practical commitment to humanitarian work and dedication to easing the plight of refugees by improving their eyesight.

The committee found the doctor had "rendered exceptional service to the refugee cause" and had made a huge and genuine contribution to uprooted people in human as well as financial terms. Dr. Kanai's company is based in Japan's northern island of Hokkaido.

"We are very proud that we are the partner of Dr. Akio Kanai and that the partnership has been extremely important for the lives of more than 100,000 refugees," High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said before handing over the Nansen medal to the Japanese winner.

Dr. Kanai, himself forcibly displaced from the northern Pacific island of Sakhalin at the end of World War II, first became interested in volunteer humanitarian work when he was in the United States training to become an optometrist.

He began his humanitarian optometry work in 1983 in Thailand with Indochinese refugees, many of whom had lost or broken their glasses while fleeing. He has since conducted more than 20 missions for UNHCR to help uprooted people in Nepal, Thailand, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Dr. Kanai has donated more than 108,200 pairs of glasses, provided optometry equipment, made cash grants and trained local medical staff. Fuji Optical, which is UNHCR's longest-serving corporate partner, also undertakes regular Vision Aid missions. Scores of employees have taken part in these missions, using their holidays to work in refugee camps.

"Without the dedicated and caring support received through our partnership with the UNHCR, the success of the Vision Aid missions simply would not have been possible," Dr. Kanai said at Monday's ceremony.

The Japanese humanitarian said his work with UNHCR was exciting, full of life-changing experiences and had "enriched my life immensely." He said he planned to continue with his work with refugees and internally displaced people.

"I hope this award demonstrates that sometimes, small individual efforts can play an important role in the lives of refugees and internally displaced persons," Dr. Kanai said.

The Nansen Refugee Award, created in 1954, is named after Fridtjof Nansen, the celebrated Norwegian polar explorer and the world's first international refugee official. Previous recipients include Eleanor Roosevelt, Médecins Sans Frontières, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands and Graça Machel.

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The Nansen Refugee Award

The Nansen Refugee Award

Given to individuals or organizations for outstanding service in the cause of refugees.

Nansen Biography

Fridtjof Nansen was a scientist, polar explorer, diplomat, statesman and humanist, with a deep compassion for his fellow human beings. In 1921 Nansen was appointed the League of Nations' first High Commissioner for Refugees and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year in recognition of his work for refugees. UNHCR established the Nansen Refugee Award in his honour in 1954.

Nansen Biography

Nansen Award presentation for the late Senator Edward Kennedy

UNHCR's annual Nansen Refugee Award was posthumously awarded to Senator Edward Kennedy at a ceremony in Washington DC on October 29 for his life-long commitment to refugee rights. Kennedy's wife, Victoria, accepted the award on behalf of her late husband. In presenting the award, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, praised the "vision and commitment" of Senator Kennedy in his support for the displaced.

The prize money of US$100,000 will be donated to the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, where it will be used to train the next generation of leaders dedicated to the cause of refugee advocacy. The Nansen Award is given to an individual or organization for outstanding work on behalf of refugees. It was created in 1954 in honour of Fridtjof Nansen, Norwegian polar explorer, scientist and the first global High Commissioner for Refugees.

Nansen Award presentation for the late Senator Edward Kennedy

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The line-up, which also includes classical singer and UNHCR Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador Barbara Hendricks, Swiss star Bastian Baker and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Madam Leymah Gbowee, will pay tribute to this year's Nansen Refugee Award laureate.

TV presenter Isabelle Kumar will be the Master of Ceremonies on 1st October. The winner of this year's Nansen Refugee Award will be announced in advance of the award ceremony at 10:30 am on September 18 at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

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