Nansen Refugee Award to Dr. Akio Kanai
Formerly known as the Nansen Medal, this Award is named after the Norwegian arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who was appointed in 1921 by the UN's predecessor, the League of Nations, to be the very first High Commissioner for Refugees. The Award, consisting of a medal and a $100,000 monetary prize, is given out yearly to a person or group for outstanding services in supporting refugee causes. This year's (2006) winner is Japanese optometrist Dr. Akio Kanai of Fuji Optical, who over more than two decades has improved the quality of life of over 100,000 uprooted people around the world by testing their eyes and providing them with spectacles. The Nansen Refugee Award Committee selected Dr. Kanai, chairman and chief executive officer of Fuji Optical, for his practical commitment to humanitarian work and dedication to easing the plight of refugees by improving their eyesight.
The committee found Dr. Kanai had "rendered exceptional service to the refugee cause" and had made a huge and genuine contribution to uprooted people in human as well as financial terms. "I am deeply honoured and grateful to have been chosen as the 2006 Nansen Refugee Award recipient. This award is testimony to the significance that the role of optometry plays in the future of refugees by improving their sight and thus empowering them to secure a 'future in focus,'" Dr. Kanai said from Japan.
"Tens of thousands of displaced people living in extremely difficult circumstances have been given a new outlook on life thanks to Dr. Kanai," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres. "The gift of sight is precious. Restoring it makes a huge difference in individual lives, making learning possible for children and adults and pulling them back from the fringes of marginalisation." Dr. Kanai, himself forcibly displaced from the northern Pacific island of Sakhalin at the end of World War II, started his humanitarian optometry work in 1983 in Thailand with Indochinese refugees, many of whom had lost or broken their glasses while fleeing. Many were undergoing courses ahead of being resettled and needed glasses to study. Dr. Kanai checked the sight of the refugees and, in doing so, started a long engagement with refugee work.
He began cooperating with UNHCR in 1984, and has since conducted more than 24 missions to help uprooted people in Nepal, Thailand, Azerbaijan and Armenia. He has donated more than 108,200 pairs of glasses, provided optometry equipment, made cash grants and trained local medical staff. Dr. Kanai said the missions would not have been possible without the support of UNHCR. "In continuing partnership with the UNHCR, we look forward to a long and productive future empowering refugees by serving their essential vision needs."