Royal Nansen Refugee Award for "Angel of Burundi"

News Stories, 23 June 2005

© UNHCR/J.de Tessières
Marguerite Barankitse receiving the Nansen Refugee Award from Princess Mathilde of Belgium (left) and Deputy High Commissioner Wendy Chamberlin in Brussels.

BRUSSELS, Belgium, June 23 (UNHCR) Marguerite Barankitse, known to many as "the Angel of Burundi" for her tireless work on behalf of children affected by war, poverty and disease, received the 2005 Nansen Refugee Award last night at a ceremony in Brussels. The Nansen medal was presented by H.R.H. Princess Mathilde of Belgium and UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Wendy Chamberlin.

The Deputy High Commissioner applauded Barankitse's contribution to building a more peaceful world by teaching children of all ethnic origins that co-existence is possible. "Throughout her work with her organisation, Maison Shalom, Marguerite Barankitse sends a message of hope for the future," said Chamberlin. "Her actions are clear evidence that individual courage and commitment can make a difference in our world."

High Commissioner António Guterres, who was on mission in Uganda, sent a videotaped message congratulating Barankitse with the award: "Your story is a shining example to those who may have lost everything that there are still wonderful people in this world who deeply care about others."

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.

Barankitse, a Burundian Tutsi, was spurred to action in October 1993, when civil war broke out in Burundi. She had already adopted seven Hutu and Tutsi children. When all of them survived the massacres, she decided to devote herself to saving the lives of other children.

"I never expected that the bloodshed would last so long," she told journalists at a press conference. "I felt such an immense anger, I wanted to stop this violence by all means." Among the many people she helped were Burundian refugees returning to their country after a long exile in Tanzania.

Barankitse opened three centres for traumatized and orphan children and has assisted over 10,000 children since then. "Educating children for peace can save the world," she said. She is driven by an intense belief in mankind and in the power of love: "Nothing resists love, that's the message that I want to spread."

H.R.H. Princess Mathilde warmly congratulated Barankitse, whom she described as "an exceptional woman, guided by courage and determination, but mostly by her love for children and young people, regardless of race, ethnic origin or gender. All children, refugees and others, are welcome in the home of Maison Shalom."

Princess Mathilde reminded the audience that poverty reduction, which lies at the heart of the UN's Millennium Development Goals, is key to building a better world for all children. "UNHCR contributes to the eradication of poverty by searching for durable solutions to the refugee problem. It gives refugees the means to escape dependency on humanitarian aid and to become self-reliant whether in exile or upon return to their own country."

Finding durable solutions also lies at the heart of Barankitse's work for children, the Princess said. "What I find most impressive is that she searches for durable solutions to integrate these children in their host country or in their country of origin, thus contributing to development in the broadest sense."

The Nansen award ceremony took place in the heart of the capital of Europe, at Concert Noble, an elegant historical venue built in 1873 during the reign of King Leopold II. The ceremony and the reception that followed were sponsored by UNHCR's corporate partner, Microsoft EMEA. The participation of Princess Mathilde, who is a special emissary for the International Year of Microcredit (2005), was further evidence of her long-standing commitment to activities on behalf of children and other vulnerable people.

Belgium's Minister for Development Co-operation Armand De Decker and European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel paid tribute to Barankitse and the work of Maison Shalom and spoke of the importance of peace and development in Africa's Great Lakes region.

Renowned Burundian singer Khadja Nin recalled her long friendship with Barankitse, going back to their school days. Congolese refugee and comedian Pie Tshibanda offered her an old Congolese lullaby: "If ever your children cannot sleep, you can sing this for them." The whole audience joined in as the stately Concert Noble resounded to the rhythm of an age-old African chant for Barankitse.

French singer and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Julien Clerc expressed his admiration for Barankitse: "I salute your courage to confront the murderous frenzy, as well as the courage of refugees to regain control of their lives and to offer their children hope for a better future." Award-winning British photographer Stuart Freedom contributed an exhibition of his striking photographs of Barankitse and her children.

With typical modesty, Barankitse refused to take credit for her achievements. "This isn't my work, it's the work of the children: they should have been standing here in my place. They have given me the joy to live and realize my dreams."

The appreciation given through the Nansen Refugee Award is an important moral support for her, she told journalists. In addition to the award, she received a prize of US$100,000 to help pursue her projects to help children.

"I'm going to build a maternity clinic in Ruyigi, so that young women will receive instruction and hygiene care in order to prevent mothers dying at birth. In this way, we can stop babies becoming orphans!" she said.

Created in 1954, the Nansen Refugee Award is named after Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer who was the League of Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees. As such, he was the world's first international refugee official. The prize is given annually to individuals or organizations to honour distinguished service in the cause of refugees. Last year's prize went to the Russian non-governmental organisation, Memorial Human Rights Center. The winner is selected each year by a Committee composed of the governments of Norway and Switzerland, UNHCR, the Council of Europe and the International Council of Voluntary Agencies.

By Judith Kumin, Diederik Kramers in Brussels, Belgium