Optometrist vows to use refugee award prize money to help UN assist displaced

3 October 2006

A Japanese optometrist who has won the world’s top award for assisting refugees has pledged to pour the prize money back into the work that led to the honour – working with the United Nations refugee agency to help displaced vision-impaired people in Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Akio Kanai, chairman and chief executive officer of Fuji Optical and himself forcibly displaced from the northern Pacific island of Sakhalin at the end of World War II, was given the 2006 Nansen Refugee Award by UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) António Guterres at a ceremony last night in Geneva.

The Nansen Refugee Award consists of a medal and $100,000 prize money, supplied by Norway and Switzerland.

The award committee, which gives the prize annually to a person or group for outstanding work in supporting the refugee cause, found that Dr. Kanai had “rendered exceptional service” by improving the eyesight of thousands of displaced people in Nepal, Thailand, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Since 1984 Dr. Kanai has donated more than 108,000 pairs of eyeglasses, provided optometry equipment, given cash grants and trained local staff during at least 20 missions for UNHCR. Fuji Optical also undertakes regular missions with the UN agency, and many of its employees have used their holidays to work in refugee camps.

Presenting the medal last night, Mr. Guterres said “we are very proud that we are the partner of Dr. Akio Kanai and that the partnership has been extremely important for the lives of more than 100,000 refugees.”

In his acceptance speech Dr. Kanai said “the award is testimony to the significance that the role of optometry plays in the future of refugees by improving their sight and this empowering them to secure a ‘future in focus’… Eyesight can change one’s life. My dream is that a simple pair of glasses can change the lives of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) for the better.”

Voicing his desire to keep working with refugees and IDPs, he said he hoped the grant will be used to help those in Azerbaijan and Armenia, “populations with which I feel emotionally connected.”