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Class Day Exercises address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at Amherst College, Bradley, 22 May 1993

Speeches and statements

Class Day Exercises address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at Amherst College, Bradley, 22 May 1993

22 May 1993

I am very pleased to be here with you today at the 1993 Class Day Exercises at Amherst. My congratulations to all of you on your achievements, both academic and personal - sports, music and art. I hasten to convey my congratulations to the families present here. Amherst means - and will always mean - a lot to you. It also means a lot to me.

Some 100 years ago, a compatriot of mine, Niijima Jyo, came to Amherst as a Japanese exchange student. After graduating from here, he returned to Japan to become one of the leading intellectuals during the Meiiji period and are of the builders of Japanese modernization. Thanks to the foundations laid here, and the opportunities this University provided already then, Niijima Jyo went on to found Doshisha University and thereby opened up the same opportunities to new generations of students. Doshisha and Amherst enjoy a thriving sister relationship and contribute to Japan-US relations.

As I stand here today, I see a lot of Niijima Jyos in front of me. You have worked hard to lay the foundation and create the opportunities for your future life. The challenge before you today is to seize these opportunities and use them in your own interest but, equally important, in the interest of the world around you. As you embark on your next phase in life, the opportunities will be many but there will also be setbacks. Amherst, I am sure - has equipped you not only to seize the opportunities but also to fight and overcome the setbacks.

The work of my Office is also about opportunities and setbacks or in the case of refugees I should say, dangers. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has been active for over forty years. In these four decades, my Office has alleviated the plight and found solutions for some 30 million refugees. Put in another way: 30 million refugees seized the opportunities to find lasting solutions to their problems. Today, they are no longer refugees. Most recently, UNHCR repatriated some 370,000 Cambodians and 1.5 million Afghans. We will shortly begin the repatriation of 1.5 million Mozambicans and hundreds of thousands of Eritreans.

Possibly you are most familiar with UNHCR work from Bosnia and Iraq where our efforts have received considerable media exposure. The UNHCR airlift into Sarajevo, which began in July last year, is the largest humanitarian airlift since the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948. In close to 4,000 flights some 40,000 metric tonnes of relief supplies have been brought in to sustain the nearly half a million residents of the city. In total, in former Yugoslavia UNHCR provides life-saving assistance to close to 4 million people.

In the aftermath of the Gulf War, UNHCR assisted in the reconstruction of some 1500 destroyed villages, allowing some 65,000 Iraqi Kurd families to survive the winter at home. The entire UNHCR operation in Northern Iraq benefited some 1.7 million returning refugees. These are some of the high-profile operations. But most of UNHCR's work occurs away from the glare of cameras in the most inaccessible and harsh corners of the globe. From Ghana to Tajikistan, across the globe, UNHCR serves some 19 million refugees. To achieve this task, UNHCR has 175 offices in 109 countries. Seventy-five percent of our staff are in the field, in the refugee camps, organizing and supervising food distribution, negotiating with soldiers to allow those fleeing to cross borders, setting up camps and helping people, when peace comes, to go home. Our budget this year is US$ 1.3 billion - which might seem enormous to you but it is roughly equivalent to 6 Jumbo jets. The United States provides some 20% of our budget, but per capita the Nordic countries provide 10 to 12 times more than the US.

Three of my most recent visits to refugee situations have brought home to me the aspirations of some, the desperation of others. The opportunities following years of waiting, and the waiting in hope of some opportunities to come. I would like to share some of my impressions form my journeys since I believe that they may offer lessons and advice for the journey you are about to embark upon.

In my trip to Bosnia, I was struck by the sorrow and sadness of the old people, the despair but also the courage and resilience of the parents and the innocence of the children. The refugees in Bosnia are engaged in a desperate struggle to survive. But we know from experience, that one day their struggle will bear fruit. My approach to solutions is necessarily humanitarian based on protecting civilian victims. We are committed to be with them until they go back to their communities and live again normal life in ethnic harmony. There is a lot of hatred to overcome. The process leading to this is very complicated.

In Bangladesh, some 250,000 Moslem refugees have chose the uncertainty of exile rather than the certainty of persecution at home. They had to flee to reach safety. And they now have to wait patiently in refugee camps in Bangladesh for the opportunity to return and recover their dignity.

In Cambodia, I met refugees who had seized the opportunity to return to their country after 3 years in exile. After having been forced for years to live on assistance for their livelihood they were now back to participate in building a new life in a new Cambodia. As I went last March to close the last camps on the Thai-Cambodian border, they boarded buses - with grandparents and children, dogs and hens - and left behind the relative certainty of years in closed camps for a future in relative uncertainty but in freedom. For the first time in a generation, the opportunities are there to seize. It is up to the peoples of Cambodia themselves to make full use of these opportunities.

In Bosnia, we are seeing how through adversity and despair grow courage and hope. The adversity you may meet in your individual lives, will, I hope be less dramatic. But a life without setbacks hardly exists. I hope that the courageous perseverance of Bosnians may serve you as a reminder whenever you may be faced with adversity.

The refugees in Bangladesh have taught us patience. When you are young, patience is a word you can look for only in the dictionary. But, in life, you sometimes have to be patient - with yourself and your aspirations - as well as with your surroundings. Sometimes it is only through patience that the right opportunity emerges.

The returnees to Cambodia remind me of you. After years of what some of you probably think of as a closed camp the world is opening up and the building of the future is your next agenda.

In wishing you all the best as you set off on your new course, may I, once again, hold out the example of Niijima Jyo. Put the knowledge you have acquired here at the benefit of others. Share your wisdom, patience and tolerance with the world around you. And allow me - and Niijima Jyo - to remind you that you are moving out in a world which should know that the beautiful campus of Amherst is not just an ideal, but a spirit. As of today, may I invite you to spread the message of that spirit.

Thank you.