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South Sudanese surgeon wins UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

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South Sudanese surgeon wins UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

25 September 2018

South Sudanese surgeon Dr. Evan Atar Adaha has been named the 2018 winner of UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award.

Known as Dr. Atar, he is being honoured for his outstanding 20-year commitment in 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 is based in Bunj, in north-eastern South Sudan, where he runs the only functional hospital, serving more than 200,000 people. These include 144,000 refugees from Sudan’s Blue Nile State and the local Maban County population of about 53,000.

His team at Maban hospital carries out an average of 58 operations per week in difficult conditions with limited supplies and equipment. There is no provision for general anesthaesia, meaning doctors work with ketamine injections and spinal epidurals.

The only x-ray machine is broken, the only surgical theatre is lit by a single light, and electricity is provided by generators that often break down. Since it is the only hospital in Upper Nile State, it is often crowded with patients and wards extend into the open air.

South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, gained independence from Sudan in 2011 after a peaceful referendum.

A civil war now in its fifth year has created South Sudan Africa’s worst refugee emergency in terms of numbers and the world’s third biggest refugee crisis. It is the fastest-growing refugee situation In Africa. Almost 1.9 million people are displaced internally and another 2.5 million have sought refuge in neighbouring countries.

“The crisis in South Sudan has had a devastating impact on millions of people uprooted from their homes, or whose lives have been torn apart by conflict, violence and food insecurity,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “Yet, even in the midst of tragedy, acts of heroism and service to others have emerged.  

“Dr. Atar’s work through decades of civil war and conflict is a shining example of profound humanity and selflessness. Through his tireless efforts, thousands of lives have been saved, and countless men, women and children provided with a new chance to rebuild a future.

“Often risking his own safety, his dedication to serving victims of war and conflict has been extraordinary and deserves global attention and acknowledgement.”.

Originally from Torit, a town in southern South Sudan, Dr. Atar earned a scholarship to study medicine in Khartoum, Sudan, and afterwards practised in Egypt. In 1997, as war ravaged Sudan’s Blue Nile State, Dr. Atar volunteered to work there, establishing his first hospital from scratch in Kurmuk and working at the heart of a large-scale conflict, often under direct aerial bombing.

In 2011, increasing violence forced Dr. Atar to pack up his hospital in Sudan’s Blue Nile State, fleeing with his staff and as much equipment as he could transport, a journey that took a month.  

Arriving in Bunj, he set up his first surgical theatre in an abandoned local health centre, stacking tables to create a raised operating table. Since its establishment, Dr. Atar has worked tirelessly to secure funding and train other young people to become nurses and midwives.

In 2017, refugees accounted for 71 per cent of surgical patients, but his commitment to treating all those in medical need regardless of their background has earned him the respect of all refugee and local communities.

“We treat everyone here regardless of who they are -- refugee, internally displaced, host community,” says Dr. Atar. “I am most happy when I realize that the work that I have done has saved somebody from suffering or has saved his life.”

Dr. Atar can sometimes work 48 hours non-stop and is on call at all hours. The personal sacrifice he makes is huge. He lives in a canvas tent near the hospital and his family is in Nairobi, Kenya. He is able to visit them three times a year during short breaks to recover from his gruelling medical work.

South Sudan hosts nearly 300,000 refugees, of whom 92 per cent are Sudanese from the South Kordofan and Blue Nile regions close to the South Sudanese border.

UNHCR currently only has 15 per cent of the money requested to deal with this emergency and provides funding for Dr. Atar’s work through its partner organisation, Samaritan’s Purse (SP).

UNHCR and SP have been working together since 2012 to provide health services at Maban hospital in the absence of functioning national services. Since it opened, the hospital has been upgraded every year since 2012 but more is needed. 

UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award honours extraordinary service to the forcibly displaced. Recent winners include Sister Angelique Namaika from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zannah Mustapha, a lawyer and mediator from Borno state in north-eastern Nigeria, and the Hellenic Rescue service and Efi Lafsoudi from Pikpa Village on the Island of Lesvos.

The 2018 award ceremony will be held on 1 October in Geneva, Switzerland, featuring a keynote address delivered by UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and actor Cate Blanchett and hosted by South African actress and advocate for UNHCR’s LuQuLuQu campaign Nomzamo Mbatha.

This year’s ceremony boasts an incredible lineup of performances; including globally renowned sitar player Anoushka Shankar, Syrian ballet dancer Ahmad Joudeh and Norwegian pop star Sigrid. British radio and television presenter Anita Rani will also be hosting a Facebook Live stream of the ceremony.

Notes to Editor

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About UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award:

UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award recognizes extraordinary humanitarian work on behalf of refugees, internally displaced or stateless people. The award includes a commemorative medal and a US$150,000 monetary prize generously donated by the governments of Switzerland and Norway. In close consultation with UNHCR, the laureate uses the monetary prize to fund a project that complements their existing work.

The Nansen Refugee Award program is funded in partnership with the Swiss Government, The Norwegian Government, the State Council of the Republic and Canton of Geneva, the Administrative Council of the City of Geneva and the IKEA Foundation.


UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, leads international action to protect people forced to flee their homes because of conflict and persecution. We deliver life-saving assistance like shelter, food and water, help safeguard fundamental human rights, and develop solutions that ensure people have a safe place to call home where they can build a better future. We also work to ensure that stateless people are granted a nationality.