GENEVA – In a glittering ceremony showcasing resilience and hope, Zannah Mustapha, a Nigerian lawyer, has received UNHCR’s prestigious Nansen Refugee Award for 2017 for providing orphans of Nigeria’s Boko Haram insurgency with an education.
A star-studded event on Monday evening (Oct 2) at Geneva’s Batiment des Forces Motrices saw the modest former barrister turned property developer become the latest in a long line of “ordinary people doing extraordinary things” to be feted with the annual award.
Mustapha set up the school for orphans and vulnerable children in 2007 after witnessing growing numbers of children on the streets of the capital of Borno state, Maiduguri, the heart of an insurgency which has cost an estimated 20,000 lives and displaced some 2.3 million people.
Presenting the award, Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, hailed Mustapha, 58, as “a man of courage and a man of peace”, the same qualities as those possessed by Fridtjof Nansen, the first High Commissioner and the man after whom the award is named.
Mustapha set up the school after he feared growing insecurity and the ensuing military crackdown was producing a generation of children with no education and that this would, in turn, cause even more problems for one of the poorest regions of the country.
In his acceptance speech, Mustapha dedicated the award to the children, widows, teachers and his own family who, he said, had shown enormous courage in difficult times.
British journalist and broadcaster Anita Rani hosts UNHCR’s 2017 Nansen Refugee Award ceremony at the Bâtiment des Forces Motrices in Geneva, Switzerland. © UNHCR/Mark Henley
“We have witnessed unprecedented destructions to human beings in north-east Nigeria. The level of devastation to children and women is unparalleled in the history of the region,” he told a packed auditorium.
Mustapha described his two Future Prowess schools as an oasis for children where they could once again have “hopes, dreams and a future.”
“I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would see these children progressing in such a traumatic period in their lives. When I look at the children’s faces I see resilience and stability. I feel utter contentment when I walk through the school gates,” he said, adding: “I have a vision for peace in Nigeria. That one day these children will heal the wounds that have been left behind by the insurgency.”
Earlier Grandi had stressed that education was often the first casualty of war and conflict.
“When bombs start to fall schools inevitably close… The reality is stark- refugee children are four times more likely to be out of primary school. And only one per cent go on to university,” he said.
The event was hosted by British broadcaster Anita Rani, herself the grand-daughter of refugees.
She introduced a host of performers, including Syrian violinist Mariela Shaker, Japanese rock star Miyavi, and Nigerian Afro-beat drummer Tony Allen, interspersed stories of refugee heroism.
To a standing ovation Mustapha concluded: “Before I leave this ceremony I have an important message for you. We are not in a journey to be the same but we are in a journey to understand our differences and overcome our adversity. That we can achieve with education.“