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2003 Nansen Refugee Award to Italian humanitarian

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2003 Nansen Refugee Award to Italian humanitarian

15 April 2003

15 April 2003

NAIROBI/GENEVA - Annalena Tonelli, an Italian woman who has devoted more than three decades to helping Somalis in remote corners of the Horn of Africa, has been named this year's Nansen Refugee Award winner.

Announcing the award, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers said Tuesday that the Nansen Award Committee had picked the 60-year-old Italian humanitarian in recognition of her selfless dedication in the service of the Somali community, the majority of them returned refugees and displaced people. A lawyer by profession, Dr. Tonelli also has diplomas in tropical medicine, community medicine and control of tuberculosis.

The Nansen Refugee Award is given annually to individuals or organisations that have distinguished themselves in work on behalf of refugees.

Dr. Tonelli has spent the last 33 years working with the Somali people in Kenya and Somalia - the last six years with returnees in Borama, a remote corner of north-west Somalia also known as "Somaliland." She currently runs a 200-bed hospital in Borama.

Single-handedly, Dr. Tonelli has set up outreach clinics to support her 30-year-old fight against tuberculosis among the nomadic Somali communities. She has raised funds, on her own, to run the clinics, care for the patients, and raise awareness on HIV/AIDS and the harmful effects of female genital mutilation (FGM) practised by Somali communities. Fluent in Somali, she has also established a school for the deaf in Borama and organizes visits by surgeons from a German charity who have so far restored sight to more than 3,700 people.

High Commissioner Lubbers noted that the Italian doctor had chosen to live simply and humbly, taking no payment for her tireless work.

"Dr. Tonelli lives a modest life, eating the same food she gives her patients and she owns no property," Lubbers said in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. "Over the past three decades, and particularly in these troubled and rapidly changing times, her quiet devotion to helping those in need is living proof that individuals can still make a tremendous difference."

Dr. Tonelli says she lives a life of "radical poverty" in order to be accepted and effective among the poor and suffering. She has resisted joining any organization, preferring to work entirely independently, and sees her life as one of "pure joy" rather than sacrifice.

The Nansen Refugee Award, named after Fridtjof Nansen - world-famous Norwegian polar explorer and the world's first international refugee official - was created in 1954. Previous recipients include Eleanor Roosevelt, King Juan Carlos I of Spain, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, Médecins Sans Frontières, the late Tanzanian President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, the people of Canada, Graça Michel and Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti. Last year, the award went to the captain, crew and owner of the Norwegian container ship, "Tampa," which rescued hundreds of shipwrecked asylum seekers in the Indian Ocean in August 2001.

The award, which includes $100,000 for a refugee project of the recipient's choice, will be formally presented to Dr. Tonelli on 25 June at a ceremony in Geneva, Switzerland.