Aurora Prize

UNITED FOR A GOOD CAUSE: (Left) Celebrities such as George Clooney (second from left) and singer Charles Aznavour (second from right) have joined the Aurora Prize finalists on stage in support of advocating humanitarian work.

All the world needs is more love and compassion

By Anna Yazijyan

“All of us here tonight, are the result of someone’s act of kindness,” a captivating man in a sharp black suit on stage—just a few meters away from me—said.

Academy Award-winning actor and humanitarian, George Clooney, added that his “family fled a famine in Ireland to come to the United States where their survival required a room, a meal, a helping hand.”

Pausing for a while, he continued: “We all stand on the shoulders of good people who don’t look away when we were in need. If we were to survive as a people, we simply can’t look away. Not from the people of Syria or South Sudan or Congo. We call them refugees, but they are just people, like you and me.”
Four people from across the globe had joined Clooney on stage that night. They were being honored for their heroic contributions to humanity. But despite their remarkable humanitarian work, only one of them walked away with the Aurora Prize on April 24.

The Unsung Heroes of Modernity: Burundi’s Horrors
“When you have compassion, dignity and love then nothing can scare you, nothing can stop you—no one can stop love. Not armies, not hatred, not persecution, not famine, nothing,” Marguerite Barankitse, this year’s winner from the Maison Shalom and REMA Hospital in Burundi, said after receiving the award from Clooney.

Barankitse has a tragic story of her own.

During the civil war in Burundi, Barankitse, a Tutsi, tried to hide 72 of her Hutu neighbors but they were discovered and murdered in front of her eyes. She has since managed to save the lives of thousands and has cared for orphans and refugees, as well as roughly 30,000 children. In 2008, she opened a hospital, that has treated more than 80,000 patients.

Fighting Slavery in Pakistan
Syeda Ghulam Fatima, one of the prize’s finalists, and a benevolent Pakistani, shares resilient spirit and passion to help as Barankitse.

The secretary-general of the Bonded Labor Liberation Front in Pakistan—an organization that has liberated thousands of Pakistani workers from bonded labor, including 21,000 children—has received numerous death threats. Her life was at jeopardy on multiple occasions, with one attack wounding and scarring her, and disabling her brother for life.

In an interview with Newsweek Middle East, Fatima spoke of the horrors of slavery in Pakistan, where human beings are kept from anywhere between dozens of years to until they have repaid their debt, or even death.

“My father was a trade unionist and activist, and people would always come to our house. There were many workers telling him about their miseries and sufferings. One day I asked my father, who are they, why are they coming? Why are they suffering? The answer was: slavery.”

Oftentimes, in order to rescue and free those enslaved, Fatima has to bribe officials. The three biggest challenges Pakistan is facing right now, she says are: corruption, energy and terrorism.

“The energy crisis is a big problem and because of it there are a lot of new kinds of slavery [sic],” she said.

“Yes, we have lots of challenges like terrorism, but now the situation is to some extent controlled, as the whole Pakistani nation is determined to fight it.”

As I gazed into her deep brown eyes, I could see hope and optimism.

“I have a very bright vision of Pakistan because the nation is waking up,” she said.

Fatima was only 15 at that time. She said she couldn’t sleep for many days after that, but from that moment on, she knew what she was going to do.

Sudan’s Misery
Dr. Tom Catena, or Thomas Catena, one of TIME’s most influential people in 2015, is also the only permanent doctor at Mother of Mercy Hospital in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. The hospital is close to the country’s border with South Sudan.

Catena has served, to date over 500,000 people forced to flee their homes because of the ongoing fighting.

The news would have been rather normal for any humanitarian medic who has served in conflict zone countries, had it not been for the fact that Catena had defied and continues to defy any ban on humanitarian aid in Sudan.

He’s been relentlessly working in the country since 2008 despite a long blockade on nongovernmental organizations and humanitarian aid groups by Khartoum at one point. Catena refuses to leave. Though the restrictions were somewhat eased in 2012, yet Sudan continues to be a challenge for NGOs wishing to travel there to help innocent people.

Religious Wars in Central African Republic
Meanwhile, the fourth finalist, a recipient of the 2014 Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism, was none other than Father Bernard Kinvi.

Father Kinvi left Togo to live in in Bossemptele, in the Central African Republic (CAR), where he leads a Catholic mission consisting of a school, church and hospital.

Despite a civil war that broke out in December 2012, the real crisis in CAR did not begin until March 2013, in the predominantly Christian nation, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The “mostly Muslim Seleka forces overthrew the government and unleashed a wave of violence, burning villages and killing people. In response, the anti-balaka militias, recruited from the majority Christian population began attacking Seleka bases and the Muslim minority. As Seleka leaders were forced from power and fled, Muslim civilians faced the wrath of anti-balaka forces. In town after town, the Muslims were attacked and massacred, their homes and mosques destroyed,” according to a HRW report.

Father Kinvi provided refuge and health services to those on both sides of the conflict, without any prejudice or discrimination.

Three of the finalists received $25,000 each, while the winner received $100,000 and $1 million was given to the winner’s nominated organization.

Why The Aurora Prize?
Founded by three Armenian descendants of survivors of the “genocide” committed by the Ottomans at the turn of the 20th century, one of the founders, Noubar Afeyan, reveals to Newsweek Middle East, that it was a “personal experience” that got him to endorse the project. Had it not been for a few German officers in the early 1900s, who saved his grandfather’s life, he wouldn’t have been where he is today.

“My grandfather and his brother Bedros and Nerses Afeyans lived in a town called Ada Bazar just outside Istanbul, and they were initially taken away [by the Ottomans] in 1915. They bribed people on the route to escape and they made their way back to Istanbul where they stayed for a short period of time. They were arrested again and charged for escaping deportation, and were taken away by trains,” said Afeyan.

“Along the way, the train—quite by luck—was under the control of the German military as they were at the time building the famous Berlin-Baghdad railway. So my ancestors escaped through the generosity of Germans who, instead of deporting all those Armenians, saved their lives.”

It was my final day in the Armenian capital Yerevan, and the brisk but sunny day added charm to the old city. Stories I had heard at the ceremony still weighed on me from last night. I headed to lunch with three other fellow journalists, three of the four of us were Armenians living in diaspora. We were some of the millions of Armenians, whose families were forced out of their ancestral homeland at one point or another.

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