South Sudanese surgeon ‘humbled’ to receive 2018 Nansen Award

Dr. Evan Atar Adaha runs the only working hospital in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State, where he treats people forced to flee conflict and persecution.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, presents the 2018 Nansen Refugee Award to Dr. Evan Atar Adaha, a surgeon and medical director at a hospital in north-eastern South Sudan.
© UNHCR/Mark Henley

At a ceremony showcasing multiculturalism, with a touch of Hollywood glamour, Evan Atar Adaha, a surgeon who runs a remote hospital in South Sudan, received the prestigious 2018 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award on Monday.

The South Sudanese doctor was chosen for his 20-year commitment to providing medical services to people forced to flee conflict and persecution in Sudan and South Sudan, as well as to the communities that welcome them.

Dr. Atar runs the only functional hospital in Upper Nile State, an area larger than Ireland or Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Located in the town of Bunj, in Maban County, it serves more than 200,000 people, including 144,000 refugees from Sudan.

Presenting the award in Geneva’s Bâtiment des Forces Motrices, Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said he could think of “three or four reasons” why Dr. Atar was chosen to receive the award.

“This award is not for me as an individual. The award is for my team back in Maban.”

He said most of the doctor’s patients were refugees and he had lived through displacement himself, after fighting forced him to close his first hospital in Kurmuk, Sudan. In addition, he embodied “not only solidarity, but courageous solidarity” with his refugee patients, “two commodities that are very scarce in today’s world.”

He noted that that the South Sudanese government had just signed a revitalized peace agreement adding: “I have a message for the leadership of South Sudan … one of your compatriots shows the way.”

The doctor is the latest in a long line of “ordinary people doing extraordinary things” to be honoured with the annual award, named after the first High Commissioner for Refugees, the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen.

Originally from Torit, a town in southern South Sudan, Dr. Atar studied medicine in Khartoum, Sudan, and afterwards practised in Egypt.

UNHCR/Mark Henley

In 1997, as war ravaged Sudan’s Blue Nile State, Dr. Atar volunteered to work there. In 2011, increasing violence forced him to pack up his hospital and flee with his staff and as much equipment as he could transport, a journey that took a month.

In his acceptance speech, Dr. Atar said he was “humbled” to receive the prestigious award adding: “However, this award is not for me as an individual. The award is for my team back in Maban.”

“Let us continue tirelessly, sparing no effort, in the search for peace… in our country.”

He said his message to the world was: “Let us continue tirelessly, sparing no effort, in the search for peace, the search for peace in Africa, in our country, in my country.

“The world has to continue searching for peace so that we have a better place for all of us to live, and in harmony.”

The keynote speaker at the event, actor Cate Blanchett, who is a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, earlier told the audience: “The award tonight marks a great humanitarian achievement.

“It is a formalised way of saying ‘thank you’ to one person specifically, but more importantly, it carries with it the inexpressible thanks to all who work in the humanitarian fields – often at great personal cost.”

She continued: “Hope is embodied by the field workers and volunteers, like our Nansen laureate tonight. People who bring refugees and host communities together. In these people we have not just the ground force, but the beating heart and moral impulse to achieve change.”

Blanchett concluded: “People like Dr. Atar inspire us to build a better future for everybody.”

The event was hosted by South African actress and advocate for UNHCR’s LuQuLuQu campaign Nomzamo Mbatha.

She introduced the evening’s performers including Indian sitar player Anoushka Shankar, Syrian dancer and choreographer Ahmad Joudeh and Norwegian singer Sigrid.

British radio and television presenter Anita Rani hosted a Facebook Live stream of the ceremony on the UNHCR Facebook page.

For more information on this topic please contact: