In June 1921, the Council of the League of Nations, spurred by the Red Cross and other organisations, instituted its High Commission for Refugees and asked Fridtjof Nansen to administer it. As UNHCR’s first High Commissioner, he accomplished memorable achievements.
In 1922, Nansen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on behalf of people displaced by the First World War and related conflicts.
The Nansen Refugee Award, named after this diplomat, explorer and great humanitarian, was established in 1954 to recognise extraordinary service given to those forcibly displaced by war and persecution.
This year, I had the privilege to attend the Nansen Award ceremony on behalf of the IKEA Foundation, together with some colleagues, and special invitees from IKEA retailers, who also supported refugees by training them and harnessing their talent.
The ceremony started in the impressive Bâtiment des Forces Motrices in Geneva. This 19th century factory, that delivered pressurised water from the river Rhône to the city of Geneva, was converted a century later to the magnificent theatre we were about to visit!
The evening was full of surprises: from Anita Rani, the BBC presenter who kept the momentum going throughout the evening, to Mariela Shaker, a Syrian refugee who created magic playing her violin accompanied by her fiancé playing the piano. We also had a chance to hear from Nujeen Mustafa, the incredible advocate for refugee youth who, despite her disability due to cerebral palsy, fled Syria with her sister and not only managed to get a normal life and education but is today “the human face of dehumanised crisis,” according to UNHCR.
The highlight of the evening was, of course, the Nansen Award winner himself, Mr Zannah Mustapha.
Mr Mustapha, a lawyer and mediator, was given the award in recognition of his efforts to improve the living conditions of widows and children who suffered due to the violence inflicted by Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria. In this extremely dangerous environment, Mr Mustapha founded The Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School for displaced children and other vulnerable children in Maiduguri in 2007. Today, this school provides free education and lunch for 540 pupils and there is a waiting list of more than 2,000!
It was amazing listening to the stories Mr Mustapha shared with us: how the school curriculum was decided together with the Boko Haram widows, how he failed at his first attempt to mediate between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government but his conviction led him to take a mediation training course in Geneva where he got the basic skills needed for his second, successful, attempt! Using education as his only weapon he managed to bring a glimmer of hope to the devastated villages in Northern Nigeria.
For all of us not speaking the local language, it is worth noting that Boko Haram stands for “No Western Education,” which puts Mr Mustapha’s efforts into perspective.
Enjoying some good food and drinks after the presentations, I reflected on Mr Mustapha’s last words: “Since the age of 22, after I finished law school, I was committed to do something to help humanity.” And you sure did, Mr Mustapha…it was an honour meeting you!!!