A personal recollection of UNHCR’s 2003 Nansen Refugee Award laureate Annalena Tonelli


Annalena Tonelli tending to a Somali patient at her tuberculosis hospital in Borama

By: Guido Ambroso

Somalilandsun – As we approach the 2013 Nansen Refugee Award ceremony, we pause to look back on the achievements and extraordinary life of the laureate celebrated a decade ago, Annalena Tonelli, whose untimely death took place a mere five months after joining the Nansen Refugee Award family.

“I am nobody,” she often said, but in reality she was a truly extraordinary person. “Since I was very young I felt a call to serve the poorest of the poor.”

Annalena’s journey began in 1969 as a high school teacher in Wajir, in northeast Kenya, an area populated in large part by ethnic Somalis. It was there that Annalena first met individuals affected by tuberculosis (TB), an encounter that would shape her life thereafter. “The moment I saw TB patients,” she reflected, “I fell in love with them and it was for life.”

Annalena subsequently began training for what she saw as her “true calling,” earning diplomas in tropical medicine, community medicine, specializing in the control of tuberculosis and leprosy. She said that she did not practice medicine per se, but rather the control of tuberculosis, emphasizing the importance of management over medical intervention in a successful TB control programme.

Annalena later cooperated with the World Health Organization (WHO) in developing a TB treatment strategy called DOT – Directly Observed Treatment – among communities in Kenya and Somalia. In line with the DOT strategy, she insisted that patients remain in her care until the completion of their course of medication, an essential element in the effective prevention of multidrug-resistant TB.

In addition to her work with tuberculosis, Annalena’s passion was also for Somalis, whom she first met in Wajir, Kenya. In 1984 she left Kenya following events in Wajir and Wagalla where thousands of ethnic Somalis were killed in a number of incidents. She relocated to Merka, Somalia, where she pushed ahead in her indefatigable work for TB patients, staying on even in the midst of civil war and political anarchy after the fall of Siyad Barre’s regime in 1991. It was only in 1996 that Annalena left Merka, kidnapped during the looting of her hospital, relocating to Borama, in northwestern Somalia.

It was in Borama that I had the honor of meeting Annalena, while I was working as a Repatriation Officer in 1997. By then, she had resumed her assistance to the “poorest of the poor,” and her TB hospital was in full swing with over 200 beds. As if this was not enough, she also opened a school for the blind and hearing impaired, complete with literacy and Koranic classes.

A devout Catholic, Annalena was different from the evangelizers travelling to Africa with a sack of food in one hand and a Bible in the other. Her faith was inspired by selflessness, respecting the Muslim faith of nomadic Somalis and joining them in their austere ways of life – even mastering the Somali language. Annalena herself lived a life of poverty, rarely leaving her hospital.

Annalena shied away from the limelight. When she received the Nansen Refugee Award, she confessed to me that she would not read the web story about her life, as it would have been “a sin and a mistake to waste time when my patients are agonizing and need someone only devoted to them.” She remained humble even in the face of financial hardship. While UNICEF, WHO and UNHCR assisted her in the construction of her hospital and providing needed materials, Annalena maintained the hospital’s operations despite shrinking philanthropic donations. Annalena’s humility was not, however, weakness. She touched the hearts of everyone she met, irrespective of their faith and nationality, until the end of her life.

It is not clear who killed Annalena Tonelli on October 5, 2003, only a few months after receiving the 2003 Nansen Refugee Award. What remains unquestionable is the dedication and bravery we will remember her by, virtues that animated her tireless efforts to protect the poorest of the poor, the world’s most vulnerable, whom she had fallen in love with so many years earlier.

Guido Ambroso is with UNHCR’s Policy Development and Evaluation Service.

Who will be honored with this year’s Nansen Refugee Award? Find out in September. Until then, stay tuned with this series of articles about past laureates.