Nigerian lawyer honoured at 2017 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award ceremony

The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR today honoured Zannah Mustapha with the 2017 Nansen Refugee Award at a ceremony in Geneva for founding a school in Maiduguri, Nigeria, the epicentre of the Boko Haram insurgency.

The school has stayed open throughout the conflict with Boko Haram, which has seen some 20,000 killed across the Lake Chad region, and millions more displaced.

The school provides a free education, as well as free meals, uniforms and health care, to children affected and displaced by violence. Those orphaned by the conflict on both sides are welcomed into Mustapha’s classrooms as a sign of the reconciliation he hopes to achieve in the region.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, presented the Nansen medal to the Mr Mustapha and paid tribute to him in an address:   

“Tonight we recognize, we celebrate the achievements of Zannah Mustapha, a man of courage and peace.” said the UN refugee chief.

“He had the courage to build a school. He had the courage to offer education to children affected by violence. I cannot think of any better choice for this year’s Nansen Award.''

In the decade since its inception, Mustapha’s school has swelled from 36 students to 540. Desperate for an education, thousands more children have added their names to its waiting list. In 2016, Mustapha opened a second school just a few kilometres away from the first.

UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie also provided a video messages of congratulation for Mr. Mustapha. In her address she praised his work and its legacy.

“The courage it takes to defend children’s’ rights to education in the face of Boko Haram is extraordinary”, she said. “Zannah Mustapha has brought light to a region that has been terrorised for years.

“Mr Mustapha, you are an inspiration. I hope this award encourages you and others to continue this vital work.”

In his speech Zannah Mustapha thanked all of the teachers and widows he has worked with and praised the students at his schools, “I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would see these children progressing in such a traumatic period in their lives”, he said.  “When I look at the children’s faces I see resilience and stability.

“We are not in a journey to be the same but we are in a journey to understand our differences and overcome our adversity. That we can achieve with education”, he continued.

“There are so many children in conflict zones not able to go to school. We have shown what is possible.”

Mustapha’s work in the region also includes negotiating the release of Boko Haram hostages. When the 21 young women who had been held captive for more than two years were released, Mustapha was there. He had been instrumental in securing their freedom – as well as the release of 82 additional Chibok girls in May 2017.

For more than 60 years, UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award has recognised those who have shown outstanding dedication to the refugee cause.  The 2017 winner was honoured with a ceremony that featured renowned Afrobeat musician Tony Allen, an acoustic set by Japanese artist Miyavi and a classical violin piece from renowned soloist Mariela Shaker. The host for the evening was Anita Rani and the keynote address was given by Syrian refugee Nujeen Mustafa.

The Nansen Refugee Award alumnae include the famous as well as unsung heroes; Eleanor Roosevelt, Graça Machel and Luciano Pavarotti among its laureates, but a number of remarkable unsung heroes, such as Mr.Mustapha, who have dedicated themselves to fighting the injustices suffered by the forcibly displaced:

Notes to Editors

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Photos and video of the 2017 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award ceremony

Media materials about the 2017 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Winner including photos and video

About UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award:

Few humanitarian honours possess the rich legacy of UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award. Established in 1954, the award recognizes extraordinary humanitarian work on behalf of refugees, displaced, or stateless peoples. The award is named after Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian polar explorer and humanitarian who went on to serve in the 1920s as the first High Commissioner for Refugees for the League of Nations. Nansen was awarded the 1922 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his courageous and unfaltering work on behalf of World War I refugees. The Nansen Refugee Award, through its laureates, aims to showcase his values of perseverance and conviction in the face of adversity. The 2017 winner is a remarkable example of these attributes.

About UNHCR:

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), was established on December 14, 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly. UNHCR safeguards the rights and well-being of refugees and stateless people. In more than six decades, the agency has helped tens of millions of people restart their lives. UNHCR is on the front lines of the world’s major humanitarian crises, including Syria, Iraq, Central African Republic, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and countless other emergencies.