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UNHCR Nansen Awards Ceremony – Geneva, Switzerland

samira nansen.jpg

The 2018 Nansen Award Ceremony hosted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

This last week marked a milestone for Women of the World Founder and Executive Director, Samira Harnish, the awarding by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) of the 2018 Americas Region Nansen Award Finalist. The award ceremony was held on October 1st in Geneva, Switzerland. Geneva serves as the European headquarters for the United Nations and as the global headquarters for the UNHCR.

The UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award is awarded annually by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to an individual, group, or organization in recognition of outstanding service to the cause of refugees, displaced, or stateless people. There are finalists from each of the regions (Americas, Europe, Africa, Middle East, and Asia) and one overall winner. This year Samira Harnish was recognized in the Americas region for leading Women of the World in supporting the women refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants that have fled their homes and resettled in Utah.

Samira Harnish has been recognized by numerous groups and by Salt Lake City for her work with refugees but this is her first international recognition. Below is a brief description of Women of the World’s co-Founders’ (Samira and Justin Harnish) travels to Geneva to receive the award and some of the insights that gained from meeting with the professionals at the UNHCR.

One of the first things that you notice about Geneva is how cosmopolitan it is. Just based on its geography, residents speak three languages fluently and most speak four or more. Everyone we met at the UNHCR spoke at least four languages — English and French, the two main languages of the UN, and some combination of Italian, Spanish, or German.The next thing that you recognize is that Geneva is committed to diplomacy and global approaches to collaboration. At the airport, there is a special lane for diplomats that always has someone moving through it.

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But as much progress as has been made, the art in front of the Palace of Nations building at UN Headquarters in Geneva continues to challenge us to always struggle for peace. Called Broken Chair, the 39-foot tall sculpture is a three-legged chair that symbolizes the damage done by landmines and cluster munitions. It is a monumental sculpture in wood by the Swiss artist Daniel Berset, constructed by the carpenter Louis Genève. This stands in front of the flags of the nations of the world and is a stark reminder of the work ahead of humanity.

On Monday during the day, we visited the UN and the Palace of Nations building. The tour starts in the modern UN buildings and ends in the Palace of Nations building initially constructed for the League of Nations after WWI. The art on the walls and ceiling of the Council Chamber that houses meetings of the Disarmament Committee is still relevant today. The industrial gold and sepia murals, painted by the Catalan artist José Maria Sert, depict the progress of humankind through health, technology, freedom and peace while the ceiling raises the possibility of all the peoples of the regions of the world.

There was newer art in the halls that our UNHCR handlers had commissioned for the #WithRefugees campaign. #RefugiArte is a powerful exhibition by Latin America artists in the Palais des Nations in Geneva aimed at raising awareness on the situation of forcibly displaced individuals. This art is poignant, tugging at raw emotion in every new depiction of the refugee struggle.

We got to attend a session of the Executive Committee where delegates from all countries discussed their concerns on human rights and refugee issues. We watched both the Liberian and Chad delegations before we had to leave to prepare for the Nansen awards ceremony.



The UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award Ceremony was held at the beautiful Batiment des Forces Motrices in Geneva. This was the perfect venue for a couple of engineers with its exposed turbines and pumps, reclaimed to their industrial beauty if not usefulness.

Since 1954, UNHCR has recognized the extraordinary service of individuals or groups whose work directly impacts forcibly displaced or stateless people. In 2018, the UNHCR awarded the Nansen Award to Dr. Evan Atar Adaha who has dedicated twenty years of his life to providing life-saving medical care to displaced people in both Sudan and South Sudan.

The program for the awards ceremony included musical performances by Anoushka Shankar and Sigrid, a dance performance by Syrian refugee Ahmad Joudeh, and keynote address by Cate Blanchett. The finalists were honored together in a well-made video of all of their efforts. From the program, Women of the World’s efforts were recognized on a full page, stating :

Ten years ago, Samira Harnish was climbing the corporate ladder in Salt Lake City, Utah. But after encountering many recently resettled refugee women, who were clearly struggling to integrate into life in the United States, she decided she wanted to help. Harnish launched “Women of the World,” a non-profit organization which now supported more than 1,000 refugee women to become self-reliant in the United States. Each woman receives advice, emotional support and practical solutions.

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There are no words for being celebrated for work you do in service of others. This is the work of holding hands and telling someone it is going to be okay, even in those times when you are not sure how. It is slow, diligent work. It is rewarding in and of itself, not glorious, but full of time with kind people who appreciate you just for being there. The world is very troubled. Humans have continued to find ways to be cruel to one another. Our wars now persist for decades and turn homes to rubble. Over 65 million people have been forcibly displaced, the majority of whom are women and children. But what may be worse still, is that so many people that could help, instead turn a blind eye. They shake off the problems of the unfortunate with little thought and no action. Fortunately, the darkness of our inhumanity is constantly displaced by those shinning the light of care and compassion into every corner of the world.

The individuals that gathered at Batiment des Forces Motrices on 1 October 2018; UNHCR staff; NGOs representing work from refugee camp administration to PTSD recovery and national forgiveness; and delegates from Norway, Switzerland, and South Sudan to name a few put their vast emotional intelligence, geographic insight, and humanistic morality to work every day for the betterment of the present and posterity. Each individual that genuinely thanked Women of the World for its work in the final stage of the refugee process, some welling with tears thinking back on what they had seen on the front end of this path in the war zones they had served, deserves thanks for being a part of the world’s collaborative and enlightened force in the fight for the forcibly displaced.

To be in the company of these heroes of refugee diplomacy, individuals that sacrifice their time to help the unfortunate amongst us stranded in strange lands, that have developed language and listening skills to improve the lives of the impoverished, and that often stay far from their families to help strangers was the greatest award. To now count on them as friends and to be considered as a peer with these career service professionals ensures a brighter future for the clients of Women of the World. I am humbled to be a finalist and be a regional Nansen awardee.

Now back from this trip, I am working to redouble my efforts, to contact my new friends to strategize legislative approaches that will improve the lives of our refugee, asylee, and immigrant women, to challenge the state government to do more to be the unquestioned champions of compassionate conservatism, and to use this recognition to raise awareness. I am excited to build on the work we’ve already done and enable a more diverse clientele to reach self-reliance.

Page from the 2018 Programme Ceremonie de remise de la DISTINCTION NANSEN POUR LES REFUGIES.  See full program .

Page from the 2018 Programme Ceremonie de remise de la DISTINCTION NANSEN POUR LES REFUGIES. See full program.


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