Italian woman named recipient of UN refugee award for work with Somalis

Italian woman named recipient of UN refugee award for work with Somalis

Dr. Annalena Tonelli tends to a Somali patient
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) today named an Italian woman who has spent more than three decades helping displaced Somalis recipient of its annual humanitarian award.

Announcing the Nansen Refugee Award - given to individuals or organizations that have distinguished themselves in work on behalf of refugees - UNHCR chief Ruud Lubbers said the selection committee had picked 60-year-old Annalena Tonelli in recognition of her selfless dedication in the service of the Somali community, the majority of them returned refugees and displaced people.

Ms. Tonelli has spent the last 33 years working with the Somali people, both in Kenya and those returned home. She currently runs a 200-bed hospital in Borama and has also established a school for the deaf in the same area. Ms. Tonelli also organized visits by surgeons from a German charity that have so far restored sight to more than 3,700 people.

A lawyer with diplomas in tropical medicine, community medicine and control of tuberculosis, Ms. Tonelli has single-handedly set up outreach clinics to support her 30-year-old fight against tuberculosis among the nomadic Somali communities. She has raised funds to run the clinics, care for the patients, and raise HIV/AIDS awareness and the harmful effects of female genital mutilation.

"I have always tried to stay hidden, and refused any publicity," Ms. Tonelli said at her hospital in northwestern Somalia. But she decided to accept the Nansen Award in hopes of refocusing the international spotlight on the chronic problems of Somalia, long since overshadowed by other world hotspots, she said.

"Dr. Tonelli lives a modest life, eating the same food she gives her patients and she owns no property," Mr. Lubbers said, noting that the Italian doctor had chosen to live simply and humbly, taking no payment for her tireless work. "Over the past three decades, and particularly in these troubled and rapidly changing times, her quiet devotion to helping those in need is living proof that individuals can still make a tremendous difference."

The award, which includes $100,000 for a refugee project of the recipient's choice, will be formally presented to Ms. Tonelli on 25 June at a ceremony in Geneva. It was created in 1954 in honour of Fridtjof Nansen, a world-famous Norwegian polar explorer and the world's first international refugee official.