Svana Friðriksdóttir receiving the Nansen Award in 1971.
Half a century ago, in 1971, Svana Friðriksdóttir, a 19-year-old Icelandic girl scout, received the prestigious Nansen award on behalf of young Nordic volunteers. They had collected USD 5 million for refugees in Africa. The Nansen Award is one of the world’s most prestigious humanitarian award after the Nobel Peace Prize.
The first Nansen Laureate in 1954 was the human rights and humanitarian campaigner Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the coming years, the laureates were European royals, distinguished scholars and campaigners for the cause of refugees.
Girl scout, student and chambermaid
Svana Friðriksdóttir, however, was far from being a royal born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She was raised by her grand-parents who have now passed away. Svana was studying at a teachers college and working nights and weekends as a chambermaid in a hotel, to make ends meet.
She somehow also had the time to be an active girl scout. She and her fellow scouts heeded a pan-Nordic call to participate in a collection for refugees in Africa.
In 1971 the bloody “Biafra” civil war in Nigeria (1967-1970) had recently been concluded. This was the first time that images of starving Africans with ‘Biafra bellies’ were shown on western television screens. This was also the year of the campaign for refugees in Bangladesh led by ex-Beatle George Harrison.
“I think volunteers knocked on doors in virtually every house-hold in this country,” Svana Friðriksdóttir recalls. Her girl scout group in the town of Kópavogur was not an exception. Many humanitarian associations such as the Red Cross associations and NGOs actively participated.
“I devoted quite some time to this effort and several of us girl scouts were quite active in preparing the country-wide collection.”
A distant refugee problem
The Pan-Nordic campaign was a success. It was decided that each of the Nordic countries would nominate five young participants for the Nansen prize. It is not quite clear why Friðriksdóttir was chosen as a Laureate on behalf of the Nordic youth. “I felt it was a bit odd, because I didn´t think I did more than others,” Friðriksdóttir says.
The efforts of the Icelanders did not, however, go unnoticed. Sadruddin Aga Khan the head of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, said when he announced the Nansen Laureate that Icelanders had been extremely generous, donating ISK 40 on average. “This is also noticeable because how distant Iceland is form Africa and Asia where the refugee problem is worst.”
Svana Friðriksdóttir received the award from the hands of High Commissioner Aga Khan in Geneva 4 October 1971. “Svana Friðriksdóttir represents all the volunteers who participated in the collection with such force that they may have visited every home in the five countries,” Aga Khan said.
“I gladly accept it on behalf of the thousands of volunteers from the Nordic countries who really should have taken my place today. I am sure they feel, as I do, that our action stems from the desire to share with less fortunate people and even more so to participate in a practical effort towards building a better world.”
In local news in Iceland, Svana was presented as a girl scout, student, and chambermaid. For some reason, the chambermaid title was dropped in the presentation in Geneva.
However, it was a student and chambermaid who succeeded kings and queens, princes and princesses at the Palais des Nations in Geneva and collected the prestigious award. She did not have a long dress, so it was sewn especially for her for this occasion.
“Everyone was very positive and cheerful in Geneva,” Friðriksdóttir said.
Soon after graduating from teachers college, Svana moved to the USA where her husband Jóhann P. Malmquist did a PhD in computer science in Pennsylvania. She later studied arts and architecture and took up teaching when the family returned to Iceland. Retirement is on the horizon since she will be turning seventy on 31 December 2021.
On 4 October 2011, when 40 years had passed since the award, she offered colleagues drinks and snacks at work to celebrate. “Otherwise, I haven´t talked a lot about it.”
Her three children knew of course about it, not least because they used to play with the Nansen award medallion with their mother´s name inscribed upon-it. She does not exclude that she will share the story with her grandchildren on the 50th year anniversary.
Friðriksdóttir says that she has not followed-up much with participation in humanitarian or volunteer work. “Maybe I had a bit of a bad conscious because of this.”
Among princesses and presidents
The Nansen Refugee Award is named after Fridtjof Nansen, the explorer, who headed the Refugee Agency of the League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations. Many well-known individuals and associations are among the successors of Friðriksdóttir such as Richard von Weizsäcker the President of Germany, Valéry Giscard d´Estaing the President of France, Norway´s Crown Princess (later Queen) Sonia, US Senator Edward Kennedy, Opera singer Luciano Pavarotti, South African first lady Graça Machel, as well as Doctors without Borders and Handicap International.