Geneva / United Nations

The Butterflies & the Nansen Refugee Award

Last year, when I started at UNHCR in December, I was given an empty desk. The blank bulletin board to the right of that desk contained the only adornment in sight: a pinned postcard of that year’s Nansen Refugee Award winner, Sister Angélique Namaika, walking with her bicycle in hand and a huge smile on her face. Sister Angélique helps women and girls who have been forced from their homes and abused, mainly by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), in a remote north-east region of Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

This year I was lucky enough to be working here for the naming of the 2014 Nansen Refugee Award winner, which is given either to an individual or an organization, but always “in recognition of outstanding service to the cause of refugees, displaced or stateless people.”

The group Butterflies with New Wings Building A Future (Red Mariposas de Alas Nuevas Construyendo Futuro), or simply Butterflies, was presented with the award, also marking the 60th anniversary of the Nansen Award. The Butterflies are a group of women living on the Pacific coast of Colombia in Buenaventura, working with women survivors of displacement and abuse. Buenventura is a city gravely affected by high levels of poverty and violence. In this challenging environment, these women risk their own safety to seek out other women that they suspect are in need. Following the announcement that the Butterflies had won the award, UNHCR held an award ceremony in their honor, flying in three representatives from the group – Gloria, Maritza and Mery – to Geneva.

Prior to the Awards Ceremony: The Making of the Butterflies Video

In preparation for the Awards Ceremony, the Video Unit at UNHCR was tasked with making a short video about the Butterflies and their work in Buenaventura. Because Gloria, Maritza and Mery spoke in Spanish during their recorded interviews with UNHCR, they needed different people to do English voice-overs of their statements. Thanks to Malin, a good friend working in the Division of External Relations, I was given the opportunity to be a part of this project. The person in charge of producing this video was looking for Colombians or Spanish-speakers who would give the video a special touch, with their “authentic voices” – in other words, with their accented, Sofia Vergara-like English.

I actually didn’t fit the bill too well, since I have the least prominent ‘Spanish accent’ of the girls chosen to do these voice-overs (I always tell people that I have a Miami accent; case in point, “Shit Miami Girls Say” parts 1 and 2), but I was very happy to be able to contribute to the production of the video nonetheless. In many ways I felt like my part was the most important. I was the voice of Marta, the woman they interviewed who was rescued by the Butterflies. Reading the script to yourself is not the same as sitting in a recording studio, with a microphone hanging in front of you and large headphones over your ears, saying out loud, “He put a gun to my head,” over and over again. It was a humbling moment, and an emotional one.

Here’s the finished product:

The Day of the Ceremony

The ceremony was held in the historic Batiment des Forces Motrices, the beautiful building where F and I had been during my first weekend ever in Geneva – at a chocolate expo held there. António Guterres, the High Commission for Refugees (and former Prime Minister of Portugal), was present and shook the hands of every passerby at the entrance. Wine, hors d’oeuvres and a modest dinner were served for all attendees, too. The ceremony began promptly at 8 p.m. and featured moving performances by Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, Rokia Traoré of Mali, and Swedish singer-songwriter Maher Zain at different intervals, as well as impactful videos recounting the history of the Nansen Refugee Award (including the Butterflies video I was a part of; you can view these at stories.unhcr.org), and a virtual greeting from UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie. When the Butterflies came out to receive their award, they were met with a long standing ovation and one of them, Maritza, just couldn’t stop crying.

Seeing Maritza cry will stay with me forever because she was probably crying for so many reasons that we could never really understand. For one, because of all of the trials and tribulations she had to endure and overcome, which brought her, Gloria and Mery to that stage. Two, because of that feeling we’re overwhelmed with when we are finally recognized for our efforts. Third, because despite being flown all the way to Geneva, to stay for a week in a fancy hotel and be constantly interviewed, showered with gifts, and wined and dined before receiving this award, I’m sure all she could think of was of the stark difference between Geneva and daily life in Buenaventura.

So now, whenever I look at the new postcard I keep on my desk of Gloria, Maritza and Mery standing over a wooden plank pathway leading to someone’s home in Buenaventura, I am reminded of the importance of humility and of staying grounded enough to give importance to the things that actually matter.

I remember that week, some of my colleagues were reluctant to go to the ceremony because Angelina wasn’t actually going to be there (apparently she was the year before); another colleague was refusing to fulfill her administrative duties, but will not retire because her early retirement package was not ‘generous enough’; even I was so caught up in gossip that night and in having shaken Tony’s hand that the significance of that moment didn’t quite hit me until seeing the three of them on that stage. That’s the nature of working at headquarters in Geneva, sheltered and disconnected from the reality on the ground.

This is, in my opinion, the UN’s greatest challenge to date.

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