Aurora in Yerevan

The Second Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity took place this past weekend in Yerevan, Armenia. The Aurora Prize was created by philanthropists and Co-Founders Ruben Vardanyan, Noubar Afeyan and Vartan Gregorian.  Aimed to coincide with the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, the founders of the Aurora Prize felt compelled to create an award with a sizable cash prize to aid modern day humanitarians working in some of the most dangerous areas around the world saving lives.  

The birth of this idea is seeded in the humanitarian legacy created during the Armenian Genocide.  The Armenians that survived the mass deportations and massacres between 1915 and 1923 were aided by local and international missionaries, caregivers and samaritans.  These individuals including Maria Jacobsen, Fritjof Nansen, Bodil Bjorn and several others sheltered survivors from the Middle East to the Caucasus. These humanitarians treaded the razor’s edge, doing their utmost to rescue the Armenians escaping wholesale slaughter by the Ottoman army, Kurdish Hamidiye regiments and their local and armed mercenaries.  The story is well known to the rest of the world but tragically continues to be denied in Turkey.  

The Aurora Prize is named after Aurora "Arshaluys" Mardiganian, a survivor of the Genocide who witnessed the slaughter of her family in Chemeskatsag in the Dersim Province as a young teenager. She was sold as a slave for the equivalent of 85 U.S, cents, escaped, was captured and escaped again, enduring a very dangerous year and a half journey through the Anatolian mountains until she arrived in Russian-occupied Erzerum where she was finally evacuated and rescued by American missionaries aiding the survivors and victims. She traveled from Western Armenia to Tiblisi and Norway, finally arriving in New York where she struggled to find her last surviving brother.  

At that time, the booming Hollywood motion picture film industry was experiencing its first era of success in the age of Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. Producers and screenwriters saw an opportunity to tell Aurora’s story on film that was emblematic of the Armenian massacres and deportations regularly being reported on by the New York Times.   

The film, Ravished Armenia (Auction of Souls) was made in Hollywood in 1919, based upon Aurora’s story.  She was cast in the lead role, playing herself in a fictional film that dramatized her nightmarish journey of survival.  Aurora became a star in the silent film era for a brief period.  The film premiered in 1919, being the first film ever made in America about the Armenian Genocide.  The profits of the film, estimated to be in the range of $30 million dollars, aided 60,000 orphans in the Near East.  

The Aurora Prize honors this legacy of international humanitarianism that saved Aurora Mardiganian and countless other survivors.  Without the commitment of benevolence of so many saviors who aided the Armenians fleeing the atrocities and massacres, many would not have survived.  

Tragically, the world today continues to experience the same deportations and massacres, one hundred years later. The Syrian people, Yezidis and so many other ethnic groups globally are now being deported and massacred in the brutal war that continues, a century after the Genocide.  This is where the Aurora Prize becomes relevant and timely in our current era of shifting geopolitical tides, forced migrations and wholesale massacres. 

This past weekend in Yerevan, five humanitarians doing remarkable work in Sudan, the Congo, Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria, were honored for their bravery treating survivors of war, rape, domestic violence and mass trauma.

The Prize that was awarded to one of the finalists consisted of a $100,000 grant to the winner and $1,000,000 to be donated to three charities of the award recipient’s choice.  I only wish all five of them would have been awarded the same prize because the air of competition feels so unfair when it comes to true humanitarianism in action which is anything but competitive.  Every single one of the nominees deserved this prize, truly.  

The nominees for this year’s Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity were the Somalian mother and daughter team, Fartuun Adan and Ilwad Elman of the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre in Somalia. They aid, educate and shelter civilians and young boys struggling to rebuild their lives and avoid the ravages of becoming child soldiers.  

Jamila Afghani from Afghanistan works to educate women in the post-Taliban era. Having survived polio and a bullet in the head, this brave woman continues to advocate for education and human rights in Afghanistan.

Dr. Tom Catena is the only doctor based in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains.  He is a Catholic doctor working in the only hospital in the region, aiding and operating on patients around the clock.  From malaria to shrapnel wounds suffered by constant aerial bombardments by the Sudan Air Force, Dr. Tom continues to serve the Nuba people suffering the ravages of the ongoing war.  This year, Dr. Tom became the recipient of the 2nd Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity.  His speech was humbling and deeply inspired a sense of duty and selflessness in all who witnessed this brave human being speak with duty and love about the people he serves daily.  

Dr. Denis Mukwege is a gynecological surgeon in the Congo who treats victims of rape and sexual violence.  A mild-mannered physician, Dr. Mukwege founded the Panzi hospital in the Congo that tragically remains the “rape capital of the world.” Dr. Mukwege struggles day to day in trying to heal the ravages of rape in the hospital and also provide trauma therapy to the patients.

Merely in his twenties, Muhammad Darwish, a dentistry student was forced to become a doctor operating on Syrian victims of the civil war in Madaya.  Facing unbelievable trauma and pressure, this young doctor has become a savior to thousands of survivors and victims.  Sadly, Mr. Darwish was unable to travel to Yerevan for the Aurora Prize due to the ongoing war and travel restrictions.  

From May 26 until May 29 in Yerevan, we experienced these heart wrenching stories of survival and humanitarianism with choked up hearts as we listened to these heroes share their plight and remarkable dedication with deep humility.  As an Armenian and a filmmaker, I found myself silently feeling deep anger yet again for the state that our world has fallen into.  We are in a leaderless world with power hungry authoritarians who feed the vicious cycle of violence on innocent civilians.  Heroes do not fall out of the sky in our world as they do in Hollywood movies.  They rise from the earth like these humble and dedicated women and men with incredibly brave souls and hearts that never falter in the face of injustice or violence.  

The five nominees of the Aurora Prize became heroes for many of us attending the dialogues and the Aurora Prize ceremony. They remind us that we are all human and cut from the same human cloth.  In our world today marked by so much pain and suffering, these humanitarians are the true leaders who remind us that we must never abandon the call of human duty to aid victims of trauma and find the goodness and presence of mind that we all have within us.  We must heal and seek meaningful human dialogue.  That is the true mark of leadership, not power, guns, money or territory.  


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Eric Nazarian