Guardians of the world’s refugees
Top: Masako Yonekawa speaks to refugee women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo courtesy Masako Yonekawa
Bottom: Yoko Akasaka greets people in Sri Lanka returning home from refugee camps. Photo courtesy Yoko Akasaka
Ask Japanese Rotarians what the acronym UNHCR stands for, and most will correctly answer that it's the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, headed by Sadako Ogata from 1991 to 2000.
UNHCR was established in 1951 as the UN agency responsible for handling refugee issues. That same year, Ogata went to the United States as the second Rotary Foundation Fellow (now called Ambassadorial Scholars) from Japan.
Following in Ogata's footsteps, seven Japanese former Foundation scholars and a Rotary World Peace Fellow have worked for UNHCR.
Yoshida fulfilled her dream of working for the UNHCR after graduate school with her first assignment, to Nigeria, in 1991. She later served in Sudan, at UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, in Côte ďIvoire, and in Afghanistan. Now general manager of UNHCR’s office in Juba, South Sudan, Yoshida oversees field operations supporting refugee resettlement. (1988-89 Ambassadorial Scholar to USA, sponsored by Rotary Club of Fukuchiyama)
Yonekawa joined UNHCR in 1996, serving in Rwanda, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 2003, she became assistant to the UNHCR in Geneva. After supporting post-tsunami resettlement efforts in Aceh, Indonesia, and a short stint in South Sudan, Yonekawa headed the UNHCR office in Goma, Congo. She now works as a guest expert in peace-building at the Japan International Cooperation Agency. (1990-91 Ambassadorial Scholar to UK, sponsored by Rotary Club of Takarazuka)
Akasaka has worked since 1997 for UNHCR, serving in Ukraine, Moldova, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka. She is now a senior protection officer in Islamabad, Pakistan, helping to ensure the safety of Afghan refugees and internally displaced persons in Pakistan. (1992-93 Ambassadorial Scholar to USA, sponsored by Rotary Club of Tondabayashi)
Shirato joined UNHCR in 1998 and has worked in Turkey, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Angola, Armenia, Sudan, and Ukraine. Today, she is a senior protection officer in the North Caucasus office in Russia. In 2008, she assisted the evacuation of people from Georgia to North Ossetia during the conflict in South Ossetia. (1995-96 Ambassadorial Scholar to USA, sponsored by Rotary Club of Koshigaya)
Koyama began working in 2005 in UNHCR’s Moscow office, where she was responsible for approving refugee status for people displaced from Afghanistan. She now works in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, helping Afghans repatriated from Pakistan to rebuild their lives. (2001-02 Ambassadorial Scholar to Australia, sponsored by Rotary Club of Gifu North)
Hosoi joined UNHCR headquarters in Geneva in 2006. Now an external affairs officer for the Asia Pacific region, she helped provide emergency assistance to victims of Cyclone Nargis that struck Myanmar in May 2008, killing more than 140,000 people.
"The people affected remained calm and tolerant despite the chaos," Hosoi says, adding that it was "great to see the generosity of people around the world contributing to the victims and enabling us in the emergency relief team to do our job on the ground." (2003-05 Rotary World Peace Fellow to USA, sponsored by Rotary Club of Kobe)
Kondo retired from UNHCR in 2007, after working 24 years in its Geneva headquarters, Somalia, Pakistan, Indonesia, Japan, Bangladesh, and Sweden.
"The opportunity The Rotary Foundation gave me was the key that opened the door for me to actively engage in humanitarian works in international arenas," Kondo wrote in a message to the Foundation, expressing her appreciation to Rotarians. "It was as if I was given huge wings to fly around the world freely. I thank you all." (1973-74 Ambassadorial Scholar to USA, sponsored by Rotary Club of Omiya)
Nakamura joined UNHCR in Geneva in 1989, and later was assigned to Tokyo and Myanmar. Senior manager for UNHCR in Japan, she works in fundraising and public relations in support of refugee assistance.
"Just as Sadako Ogata once did, my fellow former Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholars and Rotary World Peace Fellows, who were given opportunities to study abroad, are working at the forefront to assist refugees," Nakamura says. "These colleagues are reporting to us the harsh realities beyond what we can imagine in Japan and the stories of refugees with unyielding will and strength in spite of their lives in adverse circumstances." (1983-84 Ambassadorial Scholar to France, sponsored by Rotary Club of Matsudo East)
Reconnections from an article by Megumi Nakamura in the February issue of Rotary-No-Tomo, the official Rotary regional magazine of Japan.