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"Refugee Problems and their Solutions" - Address of Dr. Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at Oslo on 12 December 1955

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"Refugee Problems and their Solutions" - Address of Dr. Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at Oslo on 12 December 1955

12 December 1955

On the tenth of December, 60 years ago almost to the day, Alfred Bernhard Nobel died in his villa at San Remo in Italy, 63 years old. The villa bore the name of "Mio Nido" and I do not know whether he himself thus christened his house. Perhaps he acquired it with name and all. Anyway, there is a lot to that name, "Mio Nido", "My Nest". For Alfred Nobel - I use the words of Professor Henrik Schück who ten years ago wrote a biographical sketch of Nobel - was "a lonely man and with his sensitive nature he suffered keenly from the misfortune of being without a home." He spent his youth in different countries and most of his later life he was travelling and living in hotel-rooms, ships and night trains. His interests were spread over many lands. Combining the best qualities of an inventor and a business man, a rare phenomenon, fighting most of his life against increasingly failing health, Alfred Nobel became more and more aware of a painful lack of a sense of belonging, and of man's need for roots in a family and in a community. Ragnar Sohlman, who during the latter years of Nobel's life knew him better than most of his contemporaries, in a sketch of Nobel's closing years, quotes a letter of his, saying: "For the past nine days I have been ill and have had to stay indoors with no other company than a paid valet; no one enquires about me. When at the age of fifty-four one is left so alone in the world, and a paid servant is the only person who has so far shown one the most kindness, then come heavy thoughts, heavier than most people can imagine. I can see in my valet's eyes how much he pities me, but I cannot, of course, let him notice that."

Alfred Nobel was a lonely man, or, in a sense, a "displaced person", a "homeless foreigner". He was by birth and passport a Swede, but in his later days he spoke not so much his mother tongue, of which he had an unusual command, - but mostly English, a language in which he wrote remarkably beautiful poetry. Whereas we may be inclined to combine Nobel's name with the image of a hardboiled businessman, an extremely successful moneymaker, Alfred Nobel was in reality a poet, a dreamer, an adventurer in science, an idealist at heart, a philosopher in essence - he did, in fact, leave a sketch for a novel in which he advocated a form of government along Platonic lines. Even in his most striking inventions, of which dynamite is only one, he saw not ends but means. When Countess Bertha von Kinsky von Chinic und Tettan, later Bertha von Suttner - Nobel Prize winner and world famous through her "Die Weffe nieder!" tried to interest him in her peace-actions (for a short time, in fact for one week only, she had been secretary and housekeeper of the dynamite-maker Alfred Nobel, who was living in Paris), this was his reply: "My factories may make an end of war sooner than your congresses. The day when two army corps can annihilate each other in one second, all civilized nations, it is to be hoped, will recoil from war and discharge their troops." And in 1876 he added, again in conversation with Bertha von Suttner, "I want to invent a material or an engine of such horribly destructive effect that it will make wars impossible."

It is as though those prophetic words are slowly coming true more than 60 years after they were written. Could one not argue that in this atomic age we seem to be near the point where "in one second" two armies, two peoples can indeed annihilate each other? Is it not as if that frightening reality is more behind the "easing of tension" than any real desire for understanding and co-existence? Alfred Nobel, fortunately for his peace of mind, did not foresee the two humiliating wars which mankind was to fight in this century. He firmly believed that his work was a contribution to peace, which in his private life he had never known. And beyond his death he went on, by his will, to foster peace as no one had done before him. It is in his memory and in his honour that this meeting is held, 60 years after his death.

On the thirteenth of May, twenty-five years ago, Fridtjof Nansen died at his home at Lysaker at the age of 68. Although his life had been heavily loaded with travelling, although he spent many, many years far from his beloved Norway, as an explorer, as Minister of Norway to England, as Norwegian Delegate to the League of Nations and as League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, he was nevertheless deeply rooted in his country and his people. No "displaced person", no "homeless foreigner", he! A man, as great as Nobel and as much of an idealist, but with a completely different approach to life and its problems. Where Nobel followed the inspirations of his inventive mind - he had indeed a poor scholarly background - Nansen was the conscientious scientific adventurer with the great vision and the warm human heart. Perhaps it is true to say that he too, as any great man, was somewhat torn apart, feeling unable to realize all his projects and equally unable to abandon the hope of realizing them all. International missions and duties kept him far from developing new Polar projects, upon which, however, he continued to work up to the last days of his life. Like Alfred Nobel, he had a keen sense of the significance of "belonging", but whereas for Nobel that feeling became almost an obsession because he had no home, Nansen cherished it because he had one. And having one he fought to provide homes for hundreds of thousands of his fellow-men. When in 1922 the Nobel Prize - richly deserved - was given to him and in 1938 - again richly deserved - to the Nansen Office for Refugees, it would have been appropriate to recall that those distinctions were awarded in memory of a man who himself was painfully aware of having no home.

In my office in Geneva I have hanging on the wall, written by a hand quite unaccustomed to writing, a short German poem which my father found in a caravan of gypsies whom he visited when they passed our little Dutch village many years ago:-

Der Mensch braucht ein Plätzchen
Und wär's noch so klein
Von dem er kann sagen
Sieh' hier dast ist mein
Hier lebe ich hier liebe ich
Hier ruhe ich aus
Hier ist meine Heimat
Hier bin ich zu Haus.

How wholeheartedly would the lonely man, at the villa "Mio Nido", have agreed to that! A man needs a little place, small as it may be, of which he can say: "This is mine. Here I live, here I love, here I find my rest. This is my fatherland, this is my home!" Nobel was poor although wealthy, Nansen was rich although not primarily in earthly possessions. Nobel never really had a home, Nansen not only had one but found deep satisfaction in trying to find one for others. Both these great Scandinavians must of necessity be remembered on this day, when the Nobel Prize has just been awarded to an office for refugees. For the essence of the refugee problem is very, very simple. It is: to find "ein Plätzchen", to find a "Mio Nido" for people who for reasons of persecution have been obliged to leave their native country and who have therefore become "uprooted" and homeless.

The essence of the refugee problem is very, very simple. It is: to find 'ein Plätzchen,' to find a 'Mio Nido' for people who for reasons of persecution have been obliged to leave their native country and who have therefore become 'uprooted' and homeless.

I hope I may be forgiven for this introduction to some remarks about the problem with which the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has to deal. I even feel that the introduction may be relevant. "Mio Nido" is not just a roof over one's head, not just a place to live in. It is the all embracing term for a series of elements which together constitute a man's independence, and therefore his freedom and his dignity. The refugee problem has nothing to do with charity. It is not the problem of people to be pitied but far more the problem of people to be admired. It is the problem of people who somewhere, somehow, sometime had the courage to give up the feeling of belonging, which they possessed, rather than abandon the human freedom which they valued more highly. It is the problem of rebuilding their existences. It is therefore a legal, an economic, a financial problem, complicated in its aspect yet simple in its essentials. "Der Mensch braucht ein Plätzchen." Nobel never really found his "Mio Nido"; Nansen would not have been who he was without his home. And the refugee can solve his problem only by striking new roots.

Under the mandate of the Office of the UNHCR come about 2,200,000 refugees, of whom more than fifty per cent are in Europe. Of these some 300,000 had at the beginning of this year not been able to solve the problem of their independent existence, 70,000 of them are still living in some 200 camps in Germany, Austria, Italy and Greece, and some 15,000 of them are unfit for economic integration anywhere, as they are too old or for some other reason disabled. Outside Europe there are still unsolved problems; in the Middle East, scattered groups of refugees in the Lebanon, Syria, the Kingdom of Jordan, Egypt and Iran - and in the Far East, particularly on the Chinese mainland where some 13,000 refugees of European origin are endeavouring to leave China in order to resettle elsewhere. The mandate, given to the Office by the General Assembly in 1950, is not, however, geographically limited, neither has it a dateline. In principle every victim of racial, political or religious persecution who is or will be at some time during the life time of the Office - that is until the end of 1958 - outside his own country, and who no longer wishes to avail himself of the protection of the authorities of that country, is or will be a refugee under the United Nations mandate. Within the time-limit of the existence of the Office the continuing character of the refugee problem and the world-wide scope of the activities of the United Nations have thus been recognized in the mandate. Still, hundreds of thousands of refugees - in the wider sense of the term - do not come under it. In particular those for whom a special organization has been established - such as the Arab refugees for whom the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine and the Near-East is competent - are not within the mandate of the Office. Neither are those refugees who, although they left their homes, are considered to have the rights and privileges of citizens of their countries of present residence, such as the refugees from Eastern Germany now living in the Federal Republic, the Moslem refugees who fled from India to Pakistan, or the Hindu refugees who fled from Pakistan to India. Theoretically it could be regretted that these latter groups are excluded from the United Nations mandate, but practically it must be admitted that a wider definition would include so many millions of uprooted people as to paralyse the Office and make it quite impossible to work out any programme. Moreover, it should be remembered that these groups of refugees are essentially different from the ones which come under the mandate of the Office in that they consist of people who in principle have a country to live in, and a government ready to protect them and even to treat them as full citizens. For the Federal Republic of Germany, for India and Pakistan, for Turkey - a country which a few years ago generously received some 150,000 Bulgarians of Turkish ethnic origin - the problem of their "national refugees" is certainly a pressing one and one which is hard to solve. Nonetheless it is more a problem of increasing the economic absorption capacity of these countries through capital investment and industrial development than a refugee problem in the proper sense of the word. The political refugee under the mandate of the United Nations is an alien, and being an alien is his fundamental disability. He does not have the rights of a citizen in his country of asylum, he is not regarded by the population as "one of us", but rather as a "Fremdkörper". In addition to his economic difficulties, which are in themselves far from easy to overcome, he suffer from disadvantages of a legal nature. It is on this front that the first attack of the problem must be made.

Protection of refugees covers a wide field of activities. It begins, or rather should begin, immediately after the refugee has crossed the border of his country into a country of asylum. Is he within the mandate of the United Nations and "eligible" for the benefits of the Convention on the Status of Refugees, written in 1951 and now ratified by fifteen parliaments? It is easy to see that in a decision on this vital point the United Nations Office for Refugees should already play a part. Otherwise the newly arriving refugee will see his fate unilaterally decided by the authorities of the country in which he seeks asylum. In the course of the years different procedures for establishing the "eligibility" of a refugee have been worked out between governments and our Office. They vary from leaving the decision in principle to our representation in the country concerned - as is to case in Belgium - to our having an observer on the national committee in charge of ruling on the eligibility of refugees. Ever since the 1951 Convention came into force in April 1954 the importance of co-operation between governments and our Office in matters of eligibility has increased. For the refugees a favourable decision me obtaining a reasonable "status", whereas an unfavourable decision would mean lasting uncertainty and perhaps an "illegal" existence, even expulsion. Moreover, a fair trial of the newly arriving refugee has become increasingly important, because "integration" into the economy of the country of asylum is only possible when the refugee has a legal status upon which to base his efforts to establish himself.

However, international protection covers many other activities. In saying this at present a quarter of a million refugees have not yet solved their problems, I do not wish to imply that all the other refugees under the mandate - wherever they may be - are only theoretically covered by it. Refugee-status comes to an end through the acquisition of citizenship of another country. As long as that process has not been completed, the refugee, even if well on his way to firm establishment in a country of immigration, may run into difficulties arising from his defective legal status, and if that happens he will appeal to the Office for international protection. Clearly international protection is something basically different from general legal assistance. Much as the refugee may be in need of such assistance, it would be virtually impossible for the Office to provide it in hundreds of thousands of individual cases. As a matter of principle the United Nations do not and should not go beyond assistance, the need for which arises from the status of the refugee who asks for it.

There are in the realm of international protection of refugees certain problems of particular concern to our Office. To mention only one of them, there is a group of refugee seamen, unknown in numbers but probably a few thousands, which constitutes a problem sui generis. These refugees have either no papers at all or inadequate papers to establish their "status". Inasmuch as they have no right of residence in any country they can never leave the ships on which they are serving. Cases have come to our knowledge of people who for two, three or four years have spent day and night aboard ships without ever feeling solid earth under their feet. We also know of cases where a refugee seaman could not bear that kind of life any longer and decided to take the risk of going ashore. Often he would end up in jail, as in our complicated world a man without identity papers and without a right of residence in any country is hardly considered as a human being. We have in the past few years registered hundreds of cases of this kind, and are greatly encouraged by the fact that a conference of governmental experts coming from seven countries and convened on the initiative of the Dutch Government, has recently tackled this problem in a way which promises much for the refugees concerned.

Refugee problems can only be solved in three different ways: - through voluntary repatriation, through resettlement overseas and through integration either in the country of present residence or in combination with intra-European migration. Of these solutions voluntary repatriation is no longer of great importance. Immediately after the war the vast majority of the "displaced persons" had the desire to return to their countries from which they had been forcibly recruited by national-socialist Germany. Those who refused to return - and there were a few millions of them - became refugees instead of "displaced persons", a term which, in the service of clarity, we should now altogether abolish. Whereas some nine million "displaced persons" were repatriated by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency between 1945 and 1947, the International Refugee Organization between 1947 and 1951 repatriated only a further 70,000, and since then repatriation has become sporadic, as the refugees simply do not wish to go back to their countries of origin. When a refugee expresses the desire to return to his home-country - and any refugee is at any time perfectly free to do so - he "re-avails" himself of the protection of his national authorities and is therefore no longer a refugee. The task of our Office can only consist of establishing contact between such a refugee and his authorities; thereafter it is for the latter to repatriate him. The United Nations are not called upon to influence the decision of any refugee. Freedom of decision is the inalienable right of the refugee himself. It is his wish that counts, and the United Nations, within the limits of the Statute, try to fulfil that wish, no matter what it is - repatriation resettlement or integration.

Freedom of decision is the inalienable right of the refugee.

Whereas repatriation does not play a significant role in the solution of the refugee problems of today, resettlement overseas, particularly in the United States, Canada and Australia, is the dream of most refugees. "Mio Nido" is, for hundreds of thousands of them, a house and a job in one of the new countries. The International Refugee Organization specialized in resettling refugees overseas, whereas the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration specialized in the repatriation of displaced persons. During the lifetime of the I.R.O. no less than a million refugees crossed the oceans by sea and air. That highly commendable operation had, as we all know, the character of a selective process. It is often forgotten that there is national sovereignty over every square meter of our globe and that admitting a refugee is therefore always the sovereign decision of a sovereign state, entitled to put up whatever conditions for admission it sees fit. Demographically any organized migration is therefore a sort of reversed Darwinistic process: not the "survival", but the "exodus" of the fittest. Those refugees, or members of their families who suffer from some disability and therefore cannot meet the rigid requirements of the admission legislation of the country to which they would like to emigrate, have to remain behind. Clearly refugee emigration must gradually decrease. Refugees who seek asylum do not arrive in selected categories, as regards health, skills and age. Many times whole families come over, including aged and sick members. It is only when it comes to transfer from the asylum-country to the country of immigration that the principle of selection is applied in all its rigidity. If, in addition, one takes into account that the immigration countries have a wide choice of nationals from over-populated states, and also that the capital market in theoretically under-populated areas, particularly in Latin America, does not allow for the investment of the sums required to create the general conditions for mass-immigration, it will be clear that integration of refugees into the economy of their countries of present residence becomes more and more - whether one likes it or not - the major answer to refugee problems.

Any organized migration is a sort of reversed Darwinistic process: not the "survival", but the "exodus" of the fittest.

Integration is not assimilation, which covers a much wider field. The United Nations cannot do more than assist in establishing basic conditions for assimilation: a status, a resettlement opportunity, a house, the chance of a job.

Thereafter the difficult process of assimilation has to begin. It is a process in which anyone who lives near a refugee can participate. Only when the refugee has friends around him, when he feels that he is a member of his new community, will he consider his house as "Mio Nido", as his real home.

The difficult process of assimilation ... is a process in which anyone who lives near a refugee can participate.

There are encouraging signs that at least part of the integration-solution can be effected in combination with intra-European migration. There is a growing awareness in governmental and private circles in Europe of the existence of a still very tragic and real refugee problem. That awareness has found expression in many ways: admission to the territories of European States of a considerable number of old and disabled refugees, generous contributions to the United Nations Refugee Fund by a number of governments in Europe, successful fund-raising in the private sector of some countries. But a particularly welcome demonstration of European interest in the prevailing refugee situation has been the development, by a few European governments, of schemes for the admission to their territories of limited numbers of refugees under criteria far more liberal than those of the average overseas country. It is the ardent hope of my colleagues and myself that during the period of economic prosperity and consequent shortage of manpower which now prevails in Europe, many new opportunities for refugees can be created.

As far as we can predict, voluntary repatriation will in the years to come account for not more than one per cent of the solutions to refugee problems still to be solved, and it should be remembered that the effect of repatriation may be offset by the arrival of an equal number of refugees. On the other hand, not more than twenty per cent of the refugees today in difficulties may find a solution to their problems through resettlement overseas. Consequently, it is reasonable to suppose that approximately eighty per cent will have to look towards integration into the economy of their countries of present residence.

Clearly the problems of a quarter of a million uprooted people cannot possibly be solved by one method alone. On the contrary, the richer the choice of method the greater the chance of finally reaching a solution for all concerned. We, in our Office, are equally in favour of all existing methods for the solution of refugee problems, and in addition we try to use our imagination in order to devise new variations. An office trying to deal efficiently with refugee problems should not be afraid of a bold experiment. It is better to develop one new method through a number of failures than at all times to follow the beaten track.

An office trying to deal efficiently with refugee problems should not be afraid of a bold experiment. It is better to develop one new method through a number of failures than at all times to follow the beaten track.

Five years ago, when the General Assembly of the United Nations decided to set up a High Commissioner's Office for Refugees, a far-reaching principle was agreed upon, of which I am, on the whole, in favour - that is that the Office was to be: "non-operational". It was to be a relatively small unit, mainly charged with providing international protection and assisting governments to find solutions for refugee problems. For its activities it was to rely heavily on the many excellent voluntary agencies working in this field. Moreover, the United Nations were not to pay more from their regular budget than the administrative expenses involved in the running of a Head Office in Geneva and Branch Offices wherever they might be established. For these reasons our budget has never been higher than 650,000 dollars and our total staff at Headquarters together with our thirteen Branch Offices numbers not more than 123 people. Originally I had no right even to appeal for funds. There was a general over-optimistic assumption that the refugee problem for all practical intents and purposes had been solved, and that the governments of the countries of residence of the refugees, to which the responsibility for the administration of the camps had already been transferred, would bear the burden of providing such material assistance as was still needed.

During the five years of its existence our office has had to fight many battles, of which the most difficult has been to persuade governments that there was still a tremendous, tragic and increasingly difficult problem to be solved. I would like to pay a heartfelt tribute to the Third Committee of the General Assembly of the United Nations for its understanding of the difficulties and for the appropriate action which it has taken in three stages. The first stage came in 1952 when it decided to authorize me to establish the United Nations Refugee Emergency Fund, designed to give emergency aid to the most needy groups amongst the refugees. The second stage came in 1953. As the High Commissioner had been elected by the general Assembly for a period of three years, a decision as to the prolongation or discontinuation of his Office had to be taken at the end of 1953. By that time the Office itself was firmly convinced of two things. First of all it had been given most generous support by the Ford Foundation in the United States which made nearly 3,000,000 dollars available for experiments in the field of integration. A long series of projects had been carried out through voluntary agencies and it had become clear that integration could really work. On the other hand, it was also clear that our Office, limited to another term of only three years, could not adequately plan ahead. Therefore, if there were to be any prolongation it should, we felt, be for at least five years. We had no doubt that such a prolongation was necessary. Both the Economic and Social Council and the General Assembly concurred with these views and by the end of 1953 we had the certainty that we could work out a plan on a longer-term basis. The decisive action - and this was the third stage - was then taken by the Ninth Session of the General Assembly in 1954, when it approved a four years' programme for permanent solutions and emergency aid, to be financed from voluntary governmental contributions to the extent of 16,000,000 dollars over a period of four years. An Executive Committee, consisting of the Representatives of twenty States, Members and non-Members of the United Nations, was established to direct the programme.

Rightly the emphasis of this new programme is on the dissolution of the still existing refugee camps, in which 70,000 refugees - not to speak of some 30,000 to 50,000 others in the so-called "unofficial" camps - are living, many of them for as long as ten years. These camps are black spots on the map of Europe and should burn holes in the conscience of those who are privileged to live in better conditions. Everything possible must be done to close them. But dissolution of camps is a process which is much more complicated than appears at first sight. The building of houses is by no means enough. The refugee, in order to solve his problem, must be able to maintain his family and himself. He must, if he has lost his skill, be re-trained in a trade for which there is a demand, and his house must be within a reasonable distance from his work. If he intends to set himself up in a small business he may need a loan at a moderate interest. If he is not sure how he can solve his problem he will need counselling. If he hopes to emigrate, his papers must be put in order before he can leave. Clearly, a programme for permanent solutions of refugee problems must be broken down into a series of concrete projects, all co-ordinated with the appropriate governmental authorities in the countries of implementation. Those countries are called upon to support such projects with their own governmental contributions. They almost double the amount of the international funds put into the programme. In addition, moneys disbursed on a loan basis can be used more than once; in other words, the greatest economic use will be made of available funds. If in the years 1955-1958 the 16,000,000 dollars should be forthcoming from governmental sources, it would be fairly safe to assume that altogether some 40,000,000 dollars would benefit the refugees who are at present faced with an unsolved problem.

Unfortunately, there is still a difficult battle to be won. For 1955 the governments, so far, have not made available more than just over 55 per cent of a target of 4,200,000 dollars. An Office which has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace has perhaps no right to be discouraged, but should it be necessary for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to spend such a considerable part of his time on fund-raising? In a world where there are so many insoluble problem we can ill afford to neglect one which is soluble. And there can be no doubt that by a combination of efforts, the present refugee problem - rebus sic stantibus - can be solved.

But there is a grave periculum in mora. Everyone who knows the conditions in which tens of thousands of refugees still live must feel ashamed on their behalf. He must also feel admiration for the fact that most of them are still law-abiding, decent people, ready to make their own last effort to liberate themselves from their miserable plights. But above all he must feel the urgency of action when he realizes that there are amongst "the waiting people" so many who have lost hope to get back to a normal life again because they are too old and too sick. To be a refugee is distressing enough - to be an old or sick refugee, however, is the most tragic fate imaginable.

When people get older, they develop a nostalgia for "Mio Nido"; this was true both for Alfred Nobel and for Fridtjof Nansen. But whereas Nobel and Nansen were free to go back to their fatherlands whenever they wished, the aged refugee knows that he will not see this own country again. For him the only hope is for a quiet room in an old people's home, or, if he is sick, a bed in a decent hospital. Nothing is more deeply moving than to see old and sick refugees for whom warmhearted people have undertaken to provide some comforts in their last years. On their walls they hang photographs featuring themselves in beautiful uniforms from the days when they proudly served in the armies of their countries, and pictures of the landscapes of their fatherlands. Sitting on a bench in a garden they revive memories of old times. Sometimes one can even see them with a bundle of shares in some Imperial Russian company, unable and unwilling to believe that they are just printed paper now. For them the past is glory, the present is at its best bearable, but no longer is there any future. No wonder that my colleagues and I feel that something must be done, and done quickly, to find these old and sick refugees a place, even if it is only a substitute for a real home.

Nothing is more deeply moving than to see old and sick refugees for whom warmhearted people have undertaken to provide some comforts in their last years.

There can be no real peace in this world as long as hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, through no fault of their own, but only because they sacrificed all they possessed for the sake of what they believed, still remain in camps and live in misery and in the greatest uncertainty of their future. Eventually, if we wait too long, the uprooted are bound to become easy prey for political adventurers, from whom the world has suffered too much already. Before anything of that sort happens, let us join our hands in an all-out effort to solve their problem.

Many years ago I participated in a discussion on the problem of international education. After many experts had presented their complicated theories, an old headmaster of a certain school got up and quietly said: "There is only one system of education, through love and one's own example." He was right. What is true for education is true also for the refugee problem of today. With love and our own example - example in the sense of sacrifice - it can be solved. And if in the cynical times in which we live someone might be inclined to laugh at "love" and "examples" as factors in politics, he would do well to be reminded of Nansen's hardhitting, direct and courageous words, based on a life full of sacrifice and devotion: "Love of man is practical policy".