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.

2008 Nansen Refugee Award

The UN refugee agency has named the British coordinator of a UN-run mine clearance programme in southern Lebanon and his civilian staff, including almost 1,000 Lebanese mine clearers, as the winners of the 2008 Nansen Refugee Award.

Christopher Clark, a former officer with the British armed forces, became manager of the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre-South Lebanon (UNMACC-SL) n 2003. His teams have detected and destroyed tons of unexploded ordnance (UXO) and tens of thousands of mines. This includes almost 145,000 submunitions (bomblets from cluster-bombs) found in southern Lebanon since the five-week war of mid-2006.

Their work helped enable the return home of almost 1 million Lebanese uprooted by the conflict. But there has been a cost – 13 mine clearers have been killed, while a further 38 have suffered cluster-bomb injuries since 2006. Southern Lebanon is once more thriving with life and industry, while the process of reconstruction continues apace thanks, in large part, to the work of the 2008 Nansen Award winners.

2008 Nansen Refugee Award

2007 Nansen Refugee Award

The UN refugee agency's Nansen Awards Committee has named Dr. Katrine Camilleri, a 37-year-old lawyer with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Malta, as the winner of the 2007 Nansen Refugee Award. The Committee was impressed by the political and civic courage she has shown in dealing with the refugee situation in Malta.

Dr. Camilleri first became aware of the plight of refugees as a 16-year-old girl when a priest visited her school to talk about his work. After graduating from the University of Malta in 1994, she began working in a small law firm where she came into contact with refugees. As Dr. Camilleri's interest grew in this humanitarian field, she started to work with the JRS office in Malta in 1997.

Over the last year, JRS and Dr. Camilleri have faced a series of attacks. Nine vehicles belonging to the Jesuits were burned in two separate attacks. And this April, arsonists set fire to both Dr. Camilleri's car and her front door, terrifying her family. The perpetrators were never caught but the attacks shocked Maltese society and drew condemnation from the Government of Malta. Dr. Camilleri continues to lead the JRS Malta legal team as Assistant Director.

2007 Nansen Refugee Award

The Nansen Refugee Award 2005

Burundian humanitarian worker Maggy Barankitse received the 2005 Nansen Refugee Award for her tireless work on behalf of children affected by war, poverty and disease. The Nansen medal was presented at a grand ceremony in Brussels by H.R.H. Princess Mathilde of Belgium and UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Wendy Chamberlin.

Accepting the award, Barankitse said her work was inspired by one single goal: peace. "Accept your fellow man, sit down together, make this world a world of brothers and sisters," she said. "Nothing resists love, that's the message that I want to spread."

Sponsored by UNHCR corporate partner Microsoft, the ceremony and reception at Concert Noble was also attended by Belgium's Minister for Development Co-operation Armand De Decker, European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel, renowned Burundian singer Khadja Nin, Congolese refugee and comedian Pie Tshibanda, and French singer and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Julien Clerc. Among others.

The Nansen Refugee Award 2005

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