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Women refugees show perseverance and team spirit on UNHCR boat

Women refugees show perseverance and team spirit on UNHCR boat

Two refugee women found their endurance unexpectedly tested again as failing winds meant a 36-hour stay on the UNHCR yacht in Geneva's annual race.
17 June 2002
High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers sees off two women refugees at the Bol d'Or sailing race on Lac Léman, part of the World Refugee Day celebrations on 20 June.

Two women refugees had their endurance tested once again in the Geneva sailing race when failing wind forced them to stay on the UNHCR boat for 36 hours before reaching the shore safely on Sunday.

The regatta is part of a special event commemorating World Refugee Day on June 20, which this year is dedicated to women refugees.

The two women had joined the regular team on the Elite, which sailed under the UNHCR flag for the 64th edition of the famous Bol d'Or race. The High Commissioner, Ruud Lubbers, came to see them off at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning, wishing them good luck.

The Elite, with a Geneva-based businesswoman as skipper, also had two UNHCR staff members on board. It made a good departure and kept abreast of the front runners for most of Saturday. Catching the occasional light breezes, the team turned around the Bouveret buoy, at the other end of the lake, late at night before heading back towards Geneva. However, the continued failing wind on Sunday forced them, along with more than 350 of the 540 boats registered, to give up the race and opt for a safe return before night on Sunday.

But for the two refugee women, and the whole UNHCR team, the sporting performance was secondary to enjoying a new experience. "I had a lot of time to think, and managed to draw a parallel between our two days on the boat and the work of bringing protection and assistance to refugees" said Mbela Nzuzi, a Congolese (ex-Zaire) national now exiled in Romania. "It takes the same qualities of strategic planning, team work, time and patience, and above all, a lot of heart ".

Mbela founded an association to help her fellow women and their children refugees integrate in Romania, where she has been living since 1997. The association also encourages cultural exchanges with local women's groups and endeavours to fight racism and discrimination. On Monday, Mr. Lubbers presented her with an award, along with five other NGO workers and five UNHCR staff across the world, for the outstanding work they are doing on behalf of refugee women.

Mbela Nzuzi and Rasema Omerovic, a refugee from Bosnia and Herzegovina living in Switzerland, both said they enjoyed the experience of sailing, despite the somewhat static pace and a glaring sun. The race, they said, was an enriching experience and a unique opportunity to promote the cause of refugee women around the world. The team also very much enjoyed their presence. "Is there a life after the Bol?" asked one of the team members, Florange de Candia. "It was a wonderful and friendly journey".

Rasema Omerovic (foreground) and Mbela Nzusi relax during the race aboard a participating boat flying the UNHCR flag.

A total of eight boats, including the third-time winner Alinghi and three other catamarans among the favourites, displayed the UNHCR logo on their sails as a sign of solidarity. Alinghi finished the race four minutes ahead of its main contender Ylliam, after 21 hours and seven minutes of hard sailing.

"Being a refugee is a very sad story, but it can turn out to be a positive one if one is ready to learn from past experiences", said Mbela on Monday, hardly showing signs of fatigue after her long journey. And the beaming smile on her face, her determination to go ahead, bore witness to that.