When a chamber maid won the Nansen prize on behalf of Nordic youth

Half a century ago, in 1971, Svana Friðriksdóttir, a 19-year old Icelandic girl scout, received the prestigious Nansen award on behalf of young Nordic volunteers. They had collected $5 million for refugees in Africa. The Nansen Award is one of  the world´s most prestigous humanitarian award after the Nobel Peace Prize.

The first Nansen laureat in 1954 was the human rights and humanitarian campaigner Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the coming years the laureats were European royals, distinguished scholars and campaigners for the cause of refugees.

Girl scout, student and chamber maid

Svana Friðriksdóttir, however, was far from being a royal born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She was raised by her grand-parents who had passed away at this point in time. Svana was studying at a teachers´ college and working nights and week-ends as a chamber maid in a hotel to make ends meet.

She somehow also had the time to be an active girl scout. She and her fellow scouts heeded a pan-Nordic call to participate in a collection for refugees in Africa.

In 1971 the bloody “Biafra” civil war in Nigeria (1967-1970) had recently been concluded. This was the first time that images of starving Africans with ‘Biafra bellies’ were shown on western television screens. This was also the year of the campaign for refugees in Bangladesh led by ex-Beatle George Harrison.

“I think volunteers knocked on doors in virtually every house-hold in this country”, Svana Friðriksdóttir recalls. Her girl scout group in the town of Kópavogur was not an exception. Many humanitarian associations such as the Red Cross associations and NGOs actively participated.

“I devoted quite some time to this effort and several of us girl scouts were quite active in preparing the country-wide collection.”

A distant refugee problem

The Pan-Nordic campaign was a success. It was decided that each of the Nordic country would nominate five young participants for the Nansen prize. It is not quite clear why Friðriksdóttir was chosen as a laureat on behalf of the Nordic youth. „I felt it was a bit odd, because I didn´t think I did more than others,“ Friðriksdóttir says.

The efforts of the Icelanders did not, however, go unnoticed. Sadruddin Aga Khan the head of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, said when he announced the Nansen laureat that Icelanders had been extremely generous, donating 40 ISK on average. „This is also noticable because how distant Iceland is form Africa and Asia where the refugee problem is worst.“

Svana Friðriksdóttir received the award from the hands of High Commissioner Aga Khan in Geneva 4 October 1971.

„Svana Friðriksdóttir represent all the volunteers who particpated in the collection with such force that they may have visited every home in the five countreis,“ Aga Khan said.

„They should have taken my place“

„I gladly accept it on behalf of the thousands of volunteers from the Nordic countries who really should have taken my place today. I am sure they feel, as I do, that our action stems from the desire to share with less fortunate people and even more so to particpate in a practical effort towards building a better world.“

In local news in Iceland Svana was presented as a girl scout, student and chamber-maid. For some reason the chamber maid title was dropped in the presentation in Geneva.

However, it was a studend and chamber maid who succeeded kings and queens, princes and princesses at the Palais des Nations in Geneva and collected the prestigious award.  She didn´t have a long dress so it was sewn especially for her for this occasion.

„Everyone was very positive and cheerful in Geneva,“ Friðriksdóttir said.

Soon after graduating from teachers´ college Svana moved to the USA where her husband Jóhann P. Malmquist did a PhD in computer science in Pensylvania. She later studied arts and architechture and took up teaching when the family returned to Iceland. Retirement is on the horizon since she will turn 70 31 December.

4 October 2011 when 40 years had passed since the award she offered colleagues drinks and snacks at work to celebrate. „Otherwise I haven´t talke a lot about it.“

Her three children knew of course about it, not least because they used to play with the Nansen award medallion with their mother´s name inscribed upon-it. She doesn´t exclude that she will share the story with her grand-children on the occasion of the 50 year anniversary.

Friðriksdóttir says she hasn´t followed-up much with participation in humanitarian or volunteer work. „Mabey I had a bit of a bad conscious because of this.“

Among princesses and presidents

The Nansen-award is named after Fridtjof Nansen, the explorer, who headed the Refugee Agency of the League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations. verðlaunin heita í höfuðið á Friðþjófi Nansen. Many well-known individuals and associatons are among the successors of Friðriksdóttir sucha as Richard von Weizsäcker the President of Germany forseta Þýskalands, Valéry Giscard d´Estaing, the President of France,  Norway´s Crown-Princess (later Queen) Sonia, US Senator Edward Kennedy, Opera singer Luciano Pavarotti óperusöngvara, South African first lady Graça Machel as well as Doctors without Borders and Handicap International.

The Current laureat is Mayerlín Vergara Pérez from Colombia for her work with refugees from Venezuela.

However, Friðriksdóttir is the last girl scout cum chamber maid to receive the award.