Optometrist with global vision awarded UN-backed refugee-assistance prize

5 July 2006

A Japanese optometrist who has provided vision services to over 100,000 uprooted people around the world over the course of more than two decades will be awarded the this year’s top prize for assistance of refugees, the United Nations agency dealing with their plight announced today.

The 2006 Nansen Refugee Award Committee found that Dr. Akio Kanai, chairman and chief executive officer of Fuji Optical, based in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, had “rendered exceptional service to the refugee cause” for his dedication to easing the plight of refugees in Nepal, Thailand, Azerbaijan and Armenia by testing their eyes and providing them with more than108,200 pairs of glasses, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.

The award, created in 1954, is named after Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian polar explorer and the world's first international refugee official. Previous recipients include Eleanor Roosevelt, Médecins sans Frontières, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands and Graça Machel.

Last year, the prize went to Margarita Barankitse, also known as the “Angel of Burundi,” in recognition of her work with separated children whose lives have been devastated by war and HIV/AIDS.

The prize includes a $100,000 grant from Norway and Switzerland for a refugee-related project of the winner’s choice and is scheduled to be presented in October during the annual gathering in Geneva of UNHCR’s governing Executive Committee.

“Tens of thousands of displaced people living in extremely difficult circumstances have been given a new outlook on life thanks to Dr. Kanai,” High Commissioner António Guterres said. “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 marginalization.”

Dr. Kanai, himself forcibly displaced from the northern Pacific island of Sakhalin at the end of World War II, started his humanitarian 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.

He began cooperating with UNHCR in 1984, and has since conducted more than 24 missions with dozens of his staff assisting, providing, beside the thousands of spectacles, optometry equipment, cash grants and training for local medical staff, UNHCR said.

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.”


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