UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award runners-up transform lives

Between them, those shortlisted for this year's prestigious humanitarian award have helped thousands uprooted from their homes and forced to flee.

Head teacher John Bosco Okoboi addresses a class at COBURWAS Primary School, Kyangwali refugee settlement in Uganda's Hoima District.
© UNHCR/Isaac Kasamani


From promoting education among refugees in western Uganda to welcoming LGBTI asylum-seekers fleeing persecution in Central America, the five runners-up for this year’s annual UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award illustrate the commitment and dedication of those who support people displaced by war and conflict.


Between them, they have helped thousands of people uprooted from their homes and forced to flee in search of safety for themselves and their families.

The prestigious humanitarian award was established in 1954, in memory of the first High Commissioner for Refugees, Fridjtof Nansen.

The 2017 winner will be announced on 18 September and the current High Commissioner, Filippo Grandi, will present the award and a cash prize of US$150,000 at a ceremony in Geneva on 2 October.

Among the runners-up was the non-government organization COBURWAS (Congo, Burundi, Rwanda and Sudan) International Youth Organisation to Transform Africa (CIYOTA), founded by young refugees of different nationalities in the Kyangwali settlement in Uganda.

Its mission is to transform the lives of young refugees, particularly girls, through education.

“By giving refugee children a quality education, we really open to them a big world.”

The group first aided unaccompanied minors and conducted lessons themselves. Their activities quickly evolved, supporting primary and secondary education, securing scholarships to institutions worldwide and creating livelihoods programmes.

CIYOTA is now an established NGO with a global reputation for excellence, led entirely by young refugees.

Joseph Munyambanza, 25, is its co-founder and executive director. Joseph became a refugee at the age of six, fleeing war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Frustrated at the opportunities available in the camp, he joined forces with three other refugees from Burundi, Rwanda and Sudan to create CIYOTA.

CIYOTA

“By giving refugee children a quality education, we really open to them a big world where they are free but also where they bring something special – their skills, their talent, their confidence to really contribute to creating a better world,” he said.

Near the Guatemalan border in Mexico, Friar Tomás González Castillo runs the La 72 shelter for people fleeing violence, extortion, forced recruitment and human rights violations in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

It also provides a place of safety for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, collectively known as LGBTI, who have suffered discrimination and homophobia in their home countries.

Friar Tomás, a member of the Christian religious order of Franciscans, has championed the rights of asylum-seekers in Mexico, including members of the LGBTI community.

With UNHCR support, the shelter has built dormitories and developed a programme to provide assistance and protection for LGBTI refugees.

“La 72 is not just about feeding a few people, but about getting involved in their future.”

“La 72 is not just about feeding a few people, but about getting involved in their future,” Friar Tomás said. “I try to be part of their lives and give them a boost.”

Syrian doctor Ihsan Ezedeen, 73, has been nominated for his dedication in supporting internally displaced Syrians.

Dr. Ezedeen began practising medicine, specialising in paediatrics, in 1968 and opened a free (or donation-based) clinic in Jaramana City near Damascus in 1975, becoming widely known as “the Doctor of the Poor”.

  • Hej Främling! was set up with the goal of connecting Swedish communities to refugees and asylum seekers through cultural and physical activities, such as ski-ing and running.
    Hej Främling! was set up with the goal of connecting Swedish communities to refugees and asylum seekers through cultural and physical activities, such as ski-ing and running.  © UNHCR/Johannes Poignant
  • Dr. Ihsan Ezedeen speaks to a patient at his clinic in Jaramana City, near Damascus. Over a period of seven years he is estimated to have provided medical care to 100,000 internally displaced people.
    Dr. Ihsan Ezedeen speaks to a patient at his clinic in Jaramana City, near Damascus. Over a period of seven years he is estimated to have provided medical care to 100,000 internally displaced people. © UNHCR/Vivian Tou'meh
  • Brother Bernard Wirth has worked with urban refugees and asylum seekers for over twenty years at the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) in Bangkok, Thailand.
    Brother Bernard Wirth has worked with urban refugees and asylum seekers for over twenty years at the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) in Bangkok, Thailand. © UNHCR/Roger Arnold
  • Friar Tomás González Castillo, director of the La 72 migrant shelter Tenosique, Tabasco, Mexico, has championed the rights of asylum-seekers, including members of the LGBTI community.
    Friar Tomás González Castillo, director of the La 72 migrant shelter Tenosique, Tabasco, Mexico, has championed the rights of asylum-seekers, including members of the LGBTI community.  © UNHCR/Markel Redondo

After the internal conflict began in 2011, hundreds of displaced families began arriving from Idleb, Homs and Aleppo, with few resources and a range of medical needs, he opened the doors of his clinic to them.

Dr. Ezedeen works 16 hours a day and, after hours, travels to the homes of those too sick or injured to make it to the clinic. Treatment is free, or for a nominal fee of 25 cents for those who can afford it. Over a period of seven years he is estimated to have provided medical care to 100,000 internally displaced people.

He told UNHCR: “I chose to take care of the vulnerable and poor people because I lived in this community and witnessed the conditions they live in.

French Christian missionary Bernard Wirth, known as Brother Bernard, has been in Thailand since 1971. He originally went to help improve conditions in the slum areas of Bangkok. However, he ended up as a university lecturer, and later professor, at Silpakorn University, teaching French. He completed a master’s degree in education and a PhD in Thai history.

“It’s totally inhuman and nobody is concerned about that.”

In 1996, the Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees invited him to visit the Immigration Detention Centre in Bangkok, where he first met refugees from various countries including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Cameroon.

Without a national framework to protect refugees and asylum seekers in Thailand, many are considered illegal, and are at risk of arrest and detention on immigration violation charges.

With a compassion for detainees, and a strong view that refugees should not be detained, Brother Bernard committed himself to helping and supporting those in need. He spends his time listening, solving problems, and whenever possible, securing bail. As guarantor, Brother Bernard has secured bail for over four hundred refugees and asylum seekers, and many more have benefited from his support and friendship. Those with whom he has spent years working consider him family.

He has emphasized to UNHCR that it is important to spend time with refugees in detention, listening to them, and to ensure that they feel as much like people on the outside as possible.

“The main thing I have learned from the refugees is that they live in a terrible situation, in a situation they really should not live in,” he said. “It’s totally inhuman and nobody is concerned about that.”

“We see joy every time we go and spend time with our friends, we are overwhelmed by laughs and love.”

Sweden’s Hej Främling! (Hello, stranger) project was set up in 2013 by friends Emma Arnesson and Anne Lundberg in Östersund, Sweden, with the goal of connecting existing Swedish communities to the newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers through cultural and physical activities.

The organisation believes in promoting existing grassroots initiatives and becoming a catalyst to develop and nurture ideas of integration from refugees themselves and the host community. It believes this will create a strong bond between the two and will promote integration.

Arnesson and Lundberg began volunteering to help asylum-seekers housed at a disused army base at Grytan in the middle of a forest. Hej Främling! has developed into a network of different clubs, each the organisation has since expanded to offer a range of activities in cities throughout Sweden.

Co-founder Emma Arnesson, speaking at a TED talk in Östersund in 2015, said the idea took shape when she and her friends realised that no-one was taking responsibility for the refugees, other than to house and feed them.

“They have a roof over their head, they had a bed to sleep in and food in their stomachs, but that is it.”

She said residents who took part in activities for the refugees found it highly rewarding.

“We see joy every time we go and spend time with our friends, we are overwhelmed by laughs and love.”