Nansen Awards honour Greek volunteers for bringing hope to thousands of refugees

Wow, what an unbelievable day I’ve just had. I started out this morning in the Netherlands saying goodbye to my wife and children. From there I flew to Geneva to meet up with about 20 IKEA colleagues from different parts of the world and from different business units; but all sharing a common connection…refugees. We had all been invited to attend the Nansen Refugee Awards 2016, hosted by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

The Nansen Refugee Awards is a highly prestigious annual event that honours and recognizes those that have gone above and beyond to support refugees. It has been described as the Nobel Peace Prize for humanitarian work and, for me, is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Jonathan, Lorenz, Shamvi and Blance waiting for the ceremony to start

This year’s winners are Konstantinos Mitragas, who accepted on behalf of the Hellenic Rescue Team, and Efi Latsoudi. Both have helped thousands of refugees as they arrived onto Greek shores during the 2015 crisis.

The winners on stage with Philippo Grandi

I received an invitation to this event about a month ago and initially thought: “Why me?” I don’t work with refugees. I work with sustainability at Inter IKEA Systems. But then I realized that in some very small way I was involved. Inter IKEA Systems is in the process of making some donations of our home furnishing products in order to furnish facilities and improve the current living situation for the many unaccompanied children that have entered Greece.

I believe that this small step is part of a bigger journey for our company that will truly contribute to a better IKEA. I was very happy and also humble to accept the invitation to UNHCR’s 2016 Nansen Refugee Awards where I, and many other IKEA colleagues, have been treated to a truly memorable experience.

Fridtjof Nansen
Fridtjof Nansen

This is my first time at the awards ceremony, but I think it was different from many others in the past. Previous winners have been connected to countries very far from the host city of Geneva, and from my own home in the Netherlands. Previous winners have been connected to countries that we might normally associate with the refugee crisis. But this year the joint winners are both from Greece—so much closer to home and to my reality, and probably to many of you who are reading this blog.

Konstantinos and his 2,000 fellow volunteers made countless trips into the sea, saving 2,500 lives and rescuing 7,000 others to get to land. Once there, Efi and her team at the PIKPA village, on the island of Lesvos, hosted around 600 refugees a day. This now adds up to a staggering 30,000 people in need of help, food, a blanket, or simply a hug or a shoulder to cry on. During 2015, 850,000 refugees entered Greece via the sea, 500,000 arriving on Lesvos alone. Konstantinos and Efi are truly heroes, but very humble.

They accepted the awards, of course, but they were both very keen to highlight the teams that supported them in 2015, and still continue to do so today. Even though the refugee situation in Greece isn’t on the news as frequently as it once was, much ongoing support is still provided. Konstantinos and Efi continue to be heroes today and my IKEA colleagues and I will meet them for breakfast tomorrow. I can’t wait.

Earlier in the afternoon, my colleagues and I gathered in Geneva and did one of the things that we do best at IKEA. We had a “Fika” (Swedish tradition with coffee and a snack and a chance to chat) with Per Heggenes, CEO of the IKEA Foundation, to share what we and our businesses had each done to support the refugee crisis. Colleagues from Belgium, Croatia, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Serbia, Sweden and Switzerland shared fantastic and inspirational stories of programmes and initiatives that they have developed and implemented in their own countries.

A group selfie - Jonathan together with other IKEA Sustainability managers from around the world
A group selfie – Jonathan together with other IKEA Sustainability managers from around the world

One of my colleagues, Anders, from Norway told of a fantastic event held in IKEA stores there. Two hundred refugees and 200 local Norwegians were invited to a joint dinner at IKEA in order to try to better support integration and to offer a helping hand from the local community. Anders told me that some of those friendships and connections continue today. I think that is awesome.

The event this evening was a celebration. It was a celebration and recognition of the amazing generosity and spirit of two individuals and their volunteer organisations, united by a common commitment to reach out and help very vulnerable and desperate people, in search of a better and safer life. Of course, the stories are not all happy and we saw reminders of the terrible tragedies that have become part of the overall story of human kindness.

The ceremony was kicked off by the BBC’s acclaimed journalist Lyse Doucet, a Canadian of Irish descent. I would guess 90% of the audience raised their hands when Lyse asked who was not living in their home country. Of course I don’t pretend that I know everyone’s story, but I assume that almost all the 90% in the room had not fled their homes in the middle of the night, grabbing whatever they could carry, risking their own safety and that of their family for the want of a better life somewhere else.

During the evening, we heard and saw performances from Senegalese singer Baaba Maal, 2015 World Poetry Slam Champion Emi Mahmoud and The Grey People dance troupe. I’m definitely not much of a dancer, and I don’t usually go in for poetry, but all these performances touched me, and the audience.

A dance performance underway
A dance performance underway
A musical performance
A musical performance

In my relatively short (almost) 10 years with Inter IKEA Systems I have never felt so proud to be part of the big IKEA picture. In fact in my 25 year professional career, I have never felt more proud of who I work with, who I work for, and have never been more inspired to continue to try to do more.

Before I sign off, I would like to leave with one thought. Did you know that there are currently 65 million refugees in the world today, with another 24 adding to that number every minute? So in the time it takes you to read this blog, there are as many as 100 more refugees in the world. With such kind and generous people as Konstantinos and Efi, and the many more who stand beside them, until the root cause of the issues are solved, at least there is some hope.

    Jonathan North