The UNHCR paid lavish tribute on Monday night to award-winning American actress Angelina Jolie and Yemeni humanitarian aid group Society for Humanitarian Solidarity (SHS) for their outstanding work for refugees over many years.
SHS founder Nasser Salim Ali Al-Hamairy makes an acceptance speech as Angelina Jolie and UNHCR chief António Guterres look on
Before an audience of 200 government officials, diplomats, donors and aid workers, Jolie was recognized for completing 10 years as UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, while the founder and 290 staff of SHS received the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award for their live-saving work helping tens of thousands of desperate boat people arriving on the coast of Yemen from the Horn of Africa.
“This award motivates us to increase our effort to helping those who are in need,” said SHS founder Nasser Salim Ali Al-Hamairy, while Jolie told the audience, “It is an honour to work on behalf of refugees and I look forward to the next 10 years.”
Lauding Jolie, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said, “She is the very best of the goodwill ambassadors that exist in the humanitarian world.”
In a slick ceremony presided over by former British politician and broadcast journalist Sir Martin Bell, Norwegian musician Sivert Hoyem warmed up the audience with two songs before a tribute to Angelina Jolie and her work for UNHCR was screened in Geneva’s distinctive 19th Century Bâtiment des Forces Motrices, a former water pumping station on the River Rhone.
“I’m so grateful to the many refugee families that I have had the honour and privilege to spend the last years with. From them I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned to become a better person, a better mother,” Jolie said. “They’ve inspired me by showing me every day the unbreakable strength of the human spirit.”
The actress, who was presented with a gold pin, has visited almost 30 countries worldwide as UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador over the past decade, including Tunisia, Turkey, Malta and Italy this year alone.
In the highlight of the evening, Jolie and Guterres presented the Nansen Refugee Medal to SHS founder Al-Hamairy, whose non-governmental humanitarian organization has since 1995 been helping people fleeing by smugglers’ boats across the Gulf of Aden. SHS also helps needy local communities.
SHS has been particularly busy this year. So far in 2011, more than 60,000 people have made sea crossings to Yemen – as many as the combined number of arrivals in the last three years. It is estimated that at least 120 people drowned trying to make the journey this year.
SHS staff work around the clock to monitor about a third of Yemen’s 2,000 kilometre-long coastline, pick up survivors, provide emergency care and, all too often, bury those who die en route.
“I do think they deserve the recognition of the international community,” said Guterres, while Jolie also paid tribute to the Yemeni aid workers. “The staff of SHS often risk their own lives to save others,” she said, describing their life-saving assistance as “extraordinary.”
Colombian humanitarian and musician Juanes also took part in the tribute, performing two of the songs that have made him a superstar in South America. The Grammy winner has helped spread awareness about the suffering of hundreds of thousands of forcibly displaced people in his country, including indigenous people. Somali sister band Sweet Rush also performed.
The Nansen Refugee Award was created in 1954 in honour of Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian explorer, scientist, diplomat and politician who in the 1920s became the first international High Commissioner for Refugees.
It is given annually to an individual or organization for outstanding work on behalf of refugees and consists of a commemorative medal and a US$100,000 monetary prize donated by the governments of Switzerland and Norway. The winner can donate spend the funds on a project approved by the Nansen committee.
Past winners include Eleanor Roosevelt, Tanzania’s late President Julius Nyerere, King Juan Carlos I of Spain, Graça Machel, late Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti and last year’s winner, photographer Alixandra Fazzina. A number of humanitarian organizations, and partners of UNHCR, have also won the award, including the League of Red Cross Societies. Médecins Sans Frontières, Handicap International and the UN Volunteers. In 1986, the Nansen went to the people of Canada.
Monday’s event was supported by the Swiss and Norwegian governments, the Canton of Geneva, the City of Geneva, the IKEA Foundation and the Norwegian Refugee Council, which also helped to organize the presentation ceremony.