Nansen Award winner Kanai uses prize to help in Armenia and Azerbaijan

News Stories, 19 April 2007

© FujiOptical Co Ltd
Japanese optometrist Akio Kanai, who is shown testing the eyes of a girl in Armenia, has used all prize money that came with his Nansen Refugee Award to help refugees and internally displaced in Azerbaijan and Armenia.

GENEVA, April 19 (UNHCR) Japanese optometrist Akio Kanai has used all the prize money that came with his Nansen Refugee Award to assist refugees and internally displaced in Azerbaijan and Armenia, countries where he has been helping victims on both sides of the conflict for almost a decade.

The UNHCR gives the annual award, consisting of a medal and a US$100,000 monetary prize, to a person or group for outstanding services in supporting refugee causes. Dr. Kanai was awarded last year's Nansen Refugee Award for providing free eye testing and spectacles to almost 110,000 people over more than two decades.

Since receiving the award last June, Dr. Kanai has used the prize money to fund humanitarian aid for people who became refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs) during the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The funds were evenly divided between aid in Armenia and Azerbaijan, two countries where he and his devoted team of specialists have been volunteering work for almost a decade to benefit victims on each side of the conflict.

Dr Kanai and his Fuji Optical company had already donated vision services and appliances to thousands of displaced people in Azerbaijan. In his latest act of generosity, in addition to other support, he helped UNHCR to fund a water supply project implemented with the Norwegian Refugee Council in the IDP settlements at Yeni Khojevend and Tug. The project would not have been implemented otherwise.

The project, which began in October and ended in January, entailed drilling a new artesian well and rehabilitating water distribution systems in the settlements, which house some 2,000 people originally from Khojevend in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Many fled their homes in the early 1990s.

UNHCR worked closely with experts from Azerbaijan's ministry of ecology and resources on the project. After tenders were issued, an experienced company was selected to conduct the successful drilling, which followed failed attempts by other parties to find potable water. The new well is estimated to produce six tonnes of water per hour, more than enough to meet UNHCR standards.

Inhabitants of the two settlements expressed their gratitude for the valuable assistance. For the past six years, they had had to pay for water supplies brought by vehicle from other villages.

Fuji Optical is expected to conduct another Vision Aid Mission to Azerbaijan in June, when it will be testing the eyes of IDPs, and UNHCR hopes to bring Dr. Kanai to Yeni Khojevend settlement to officially inaugurate the new well.

In neighbouring Armenia, the money donated by Dr Kanai enabled UNHCR to fund a project aimed at helping 2,167 vulnerable refugees and former refugees in Yerevan, Kotayk, Aragatsotn, Armavir and Gegharkunik provinces starting from October.

These Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan the bulk of them in Yerevan and Kotayk had been left out of earlier assistance projects handled by implementing partner Mission Armenia because of a lack of funds.

Mission Armenia used some US$30,000 of Dr. Kanai's gift to provide supplemental food, furniture and hygiene goods, pay for electricity bills, provide vocational training and organise community events. Mission Armenia and UNHCR staff donated used clothes and provided entertainment at Christmas.

The agency used the balance to construct a cottage for an extremely vulnerable family of six, including two handicapped children, who originated from Azerbaijan. They had been living for almost two decades in a dilapidated shipping container in Ararat province close to neighbouring Turkey.

In order to start the project, which began last October and wrapped up earlier this year, Mission Armenia consulted refugees about their requirements. This detailed needs assessment focused on refugees who had been left out of prior assistance projects.

The project was designed and implemented by Mission Armenia in close cooperation with UNHCR and community representatives. Mission Armenia provided all administrative and human resources as well as transportation needed to implement and monitor the project.

The model established in this pilot project will enable UNHCR to design and implement in future years a countrywide programme addressing social and economic needs of the most vulnerable refugees. UNHCR hopes to continue assistance to extremely vulnerable refugees in 2008 and 2009.

"The project implemented with the funds donated by Dr. Kanai should be seen as a pilot and model for UNHCR's strategies and activities in the years to come," said the report on the project.