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Refugees International's Advocacy Awards


Author: Lucy Adkin Published: 01/07/2021

Review of the Refugees International's Advocacy Awards in LA, USA. 25th May 2021.





On Tuesday 25th May 2021, Refugees International hosted their annual awards ceremony honoring those who have shown outstanding commitment to advocating on behalf of human rights. Over a year after the pandemic began, COVID era awards ceremonies are no longer a novelty. We have become used to peering at the carefully curated bookshelves in our bosses home offices, seen celebrities spend hours pouring themselves into ball gowns just to sit and smile at their computer screens. The clumsy danger of theatre flip seats replaced by faux leather swivel chairs, and prolonged technical glitches not nearly as exciting as reading the wrong name from an envelope. When you sign up to a Zoom webinar by Refugees International, you know there will be no podiums, no statuettes, or rapturous applause- you’re a person who has only recently been told by the state not to assemble freely, trying to learn what it’s like to not have ever known freedom. You log in and steel yourself because it goes without saying that the next hour is not going to make your world view any less complicated.


What Refugees International achieved that evening went beyond their raison d’être of ‘advocating for change’. Through empathetic interviewing and the accidental Zoom format, they reinforced a truth about displaced people that all of us know on some level- where they live is not their home. The power imbalance between the audience and the honorees felt too pervasive. The majority of the audience was made up of those who had benevolently signed themselves up to an NGO’s mailing list then decided to set aside an hour of their time to enrich their social consciousness before signing off to relax with the family in their childhood home. The honorees on the other hand were in a corner of a room in a country they’d been forced to resettle in, talking about a home they could not get back to even if there wasn’t a global health crisis standing in their way. From her current home in Germany, Dr Amani Ballour, this year’s recipient of the Exceptional Service Award, reminded us ‘no one wants to be a refugee’, the obvious yet forgotten idea that underscored the entire event.



The result of defining a ‘refugee’ as a ‘migrant’

Dr Ballour’s words were so significant because they are the truth that is denied by the rising xenophobic right wing.

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, as academics analyzed the framing of the ‘Leave’ campaign, one key word appeared time and time again: ‘migrants’.

Although ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ are two very distinct legal categories, the Leave campaigners often used them interchangeably until in the minds of the public ‘refugee’ referred to someone who had the choice to leave their homes, as opposed to fleeing for their own safety. To maintain an ‘us’ and ‘them’ narrative you need to give agency to the outsider so that they are to blame for their suffering. This in turn enables the majority to believe in their own inherent superiority because they would never find themselves in such a situation in the first place.


The Refugee International event


In its forty year history, Refugees International has operated from its base in Washington D.C. to advocate for better support for displaced people, including both refugees and internally displaced people. They do not accept United Nations or government funding, although they do have strong ties to key players in the global community.

Over the course of the ceremony, we heard from a number of prominent activists, with UNHCR Head of Communications Melissa Fleming acting as moderator. Sudanese Poet Emi Mahmoud performed a reading of ‘Mama’ and ‘Doctor’, in addition to a prerecorded message from UN Special Envoy, Angelina Jolie. Over twenty years Jolie has carried out almost 60 field missions, and consistently seeks to raise awareness of harms that are inflicted on women and girls in conflict zones. In her speech she draw attention to the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, asking the question ‘when did the mass rape and abuse of women become normal?’.




The McCall Pierpaoli Award


There were two awards to be handed out: the Exceptional Service Award and the McCall Pierpaoli award. The latter was named after David McCall and Yvette Pierpaoli, two dedicated humanitarians who died in a car accident in 1999 while they were working with Albanian refugees. Past winners include actor Forest Whitaker, UNESCO Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation as well as Christiana Figueres, a Costa Rican diplomat and former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.


This year’s McCall Pierpaoli honoree was ‘Nadia’s Initiative’ and its founder Nadia Murad. A former UNODC Goodwill Ambassador, she had already captured international attention for her humanitarian efforts. In 2018 Murad and Congolese gynecologist Denis Mukwege were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. That same year she founded Nadia’s Initiative, a nonprofit organization ‘dedicated to rebuilding communities in crisis and advocating globally for survivors of sexual violence.’ Through her work with the United Nations, she seeks to pioneer a survivor-centered approach, having stated that ‘survivors know best what they need to heal and recover’. In her acceptance speech for the McCall-Pierpaoli award,

Murad reinforced the importance of survivor-led initiatives, stressing the need to build ‘sustainable solutions to displacement by centering the communities they serve’.

Of course the natural implication of her ideology is the need for refugees to be part of the effort to rebuild their countries. Nadia is a survivor of ISIS’s ethnic cleansing of the Yazidi people. Both her and Jolie noted in their speeches that no help came when her village was encircled by ISIS forces for two weeks in 2014. Seven years on, she called on the international community to ‘facilitate the safe return home for Yazidi people.’


The Exceptional Service Award

Dr. Amani Ballour received the Exceptional Service Award. If you don’t already know the name, you might better know Dr. Ballour as the ‘Syrian Cave Doctor’, the subject of the Academy Award nominated documentary ‘The Cave’. When Civil war broke out in Syria nearly ten years ago, Ballour was training to become a pediatrician. Her dream of working in a hospital was destroyed when the Assad regime began targeting hospitals where its own citizens were being treated. The hospital went underground and Ballour continued to work as a pediatrician in an improvised emergency room and went on to manage the hospital for the following two years. Altogether she spent six years working underground in a hospital while the war continued above ground. In her interview with Melissa Fleming, Dr. Ballour explained how women and girls were the most vulnerable people caught up in the crisis because often they had lost their fathers or husbands to the war, leaving them responsible for everything. It is important to note that in any conflict zone, women and girls are the most vulnerable to human rights violations- an estimated one in three women around the world are affected by gender-based violence, and in conflict settings that number goes up by more than 200%. From her current home in Berlin, Dr. Ballour is continuing to advocate on behalf of Syrians by setting up a foundation called ‘Hope’ to help women and girls affected by conflict, especially those living in the Syrian countryside, which faced a massive economic downturn prior to 2011. To conclude the interview, Fleming asked if she had a message for her fellow refugees, and her answer was very much in tune with Murad’s vision of hope and sustainable development through working with displaced people. She said, ‘our country [Syria] needs us so we have to continue…to do everything we can do to help others to come back to our country and rebuild it.’


The Zoom format meant there was the occasional glitch but all things considered it was a successful use of the technology we’ve all had to master this past year. Naturally, the adoption of an online ceremony also did wonders for accessibility. Not only was the event free to attend, the organizers managed to create an inclusive event for deaf people too. Two American Sign Language interpreters were on screen at all times for recorded messages as well as the main spoken segments. It was great to see such a prominent organization open up its audience to those who for various reasons wouldn’t normally be able to attend their events, even if they are all uploaded to their YouTube channel. It will be interesting to see how Refugees International builds on the success of this year’s virtual ceremony when in person events once again become the norm.


Lucy is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh. She is majoring in French and Russian studies. She is from the United Kingdom, has a passion for writing and a special interest in women’s rights and in South Africa.


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