YEREVAN (Aurora Prize)—The inaugural Aurora Prize Ceremony took place on April 24 at the Karen Demirchyan Sports and Concerts Complex in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Starting with the foyer, the venue was exquisitely decorated with images of ancient manuscripts. The guests were welcomed with refreshments and musical entertainment from a sextet.
The ceremony began with a heart-wrenching film about Aurora Mardiganian, after whom the prize is named. The film, a powerful combination of still images, archival footage from a century ago, when Ottoman authorities perpetrated a Genocide against their Armenian subjects, sketches, drawings and animations presented a poignant narrative of Aurora’s survival and her subsequent quest to inform the world of the plight of the Armenians through the film “Ravished Armenia.” Directed by Eric Nazarian, the film touched upon those individuals who took great risks to save others from imminent death and sheltered and protected the refugees and survivors. “On behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and in gratitude to their saviors, the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity celebrates the power of the human spirit that compels action in the face of adversity. Anyone, anywhere in the world, is eligible for the prize,” the narrator said. “We salute those who live their lives to enable others to live and make a difference.” The soundtrack for the film included “Aurora’s Dream,” a composition produced by Serj Tankian especially for the Ceremony.
The video was followed by a Ballet 2021 performance, choreographed by Roudolf Kharatian. The “Two Suns” Ballet told a tale based on St. Gregory of Narek’s “Book of Lamentations,” a testament to the cultural contributions of the Armenian nation that have helped to shape world values. The performance culminated with one of the dancers revealing the Aurora Prize statuette. The dancers were accompanied musically by the State Youth Orchestra of Armenia conducted by Sergey Smbatyan.
Journalist and novelist David Ignatius and opera singer Hasmik Papian, the hosts of the evening, welcomed the guests to the ceremony. The sound of a standing ovation ripped through the theater when they introducedShavarsh Karapetyan, the modern-day embodiment of an “ordinary hero,” unafraid to take risks to save others.
The hosts then invited Joyce Barnathan of the International Center for Journalists to take the stage and present the inaugural ICFJ Integrity in Journalism Award to Rukmini Callimachi of the New York Times. After a video clip documenting Callimachi’s work in reporting on the atrocities perpetrated by al-Qaeda and ISIS and the horrifying conditions endured by Yazidi refugees, in which she states that her “Objective is to shine a light of truth on whatever story I am covering,” the laureate took the stage. “I am honored and humbled to receive this award, I want to thank ICFJ, 100 LIVES and the Aurora Prize team for this honor,” she said. “I write my stories with all my heart and hand it over to the world, but it is then in the world’s hands.” Two siblings who are Yazidi refugees living in Armenia joined Callimachi on stage and thanked her for the work she does in illuminating their people’s plight.
The program continued with a tribute to the late Kirk Kerkorian, who excelled in the business world and had an exceptionally kind heart. Dr. Eric Esrailian, the lead producer of Survival Pictures, a film company Kerkorian launched, took to the stage, saying “I also want to extend thank yous to the organizers and to the founders of the Aurora Prize for making Armenia the heart and soul of humanitarian dialogue in the world this weekend.” Dr. Esrailian then shared a trailer of Survival Pictures’ upcoming film “The Promise,” a contemporary motion picture about a couple in love caught in the midst of the devastation wrought by the Armenian Genocide.
An orchestra performance of the “Symphony with Bells,” composed by renowned Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian at the height of World War II, followed. The music accompanied projections of the portraits of dozens of Armenian soldiers killed in the recent four-day war in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Leading into the presentation of the first Aurora Prize finalist, David Ignatius shared a story he “Could never put in a newspaper” – a fable about heaven and hell, where hell is a room with a pot of food on a table and starving people sitting around it, holding spoons with very long handles – too long to bring them to their mouths. Heaven, in turn, is the same room, but the people around the table are satiated and merry because they feed each other. “Heaven and hell have the same shape, the difference lies in us – in our ability to share and cooperate,” said Ignatius.
The hosts invited Dr. Vartan Gregorian, 100 LIVES co-founder and president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and Leymah Gbowee, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, to the stage. Gregorian revealed that 186 nominations from 26 countries had been submitted for the Aurora Prize, described the nomination review and finalist selection process, and passed on a video message from Holocaust survivor and human rights activistElie Wiesel. “What would society be, what would culture be, without memory?…So many Armenians could have been saved, should have been saved in those times…Without our work together, who knows how many people would need words of consolation tomorrow?” Wiesel asked.
Gbowee introduced Syeda Ghulam Fatima, general secretary of the Bonded Labor Liberation Front of Pakistan. The highlight of her video story was a successful slave rescue operation, undertaken at nighttime and involving bribing officials in order to reunite a family. The video ended with portraits of just four of the people Syeda has rescued, leaving the audience fighting back tears.
Fatima herself was close to tears when she took the stage to accept the statuette: “When I started my struggle 36 years ago, my own countrymen were against me, they tried to kill me to stop my work…I am here, I am inspired by Madam Aurora. She is alive, live long! Together we will change the world, we will see a world where there is no place for slavery, for injustice, for inhumane practices. Thank you, thank you very much.” Syeda asked the audience to stand in a moment of silence to honor the victims whom humanity has failed to save.
In her video message to the audience, Selection Committee member, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former President of Ireland Mary Robinson spoke of the finalists. “It was very humbling, very moving, very special, to be part of the Selection Committee, to be able to recognize the achievements of those four finalists,” she said.
Introducing the second finalist of the prize, Papian told the story of a multitude of starfish left stranded on the beach by a high tide. A boy came along and began taking the starfish back into the water. “There are millions of starfish here, your efforts won’t make a difference,” the boy’s friend said. “They make a difference for this starfish,” the boy replied, as he threw a starfish he was holding back into the water. Seeing his wisdom, the other boys joined him. “One by one by one, that’s how we do good in the world,” Ignatius said and invitedGareth Evans, president emeritus of the International Crisis Group and former foreign minister of Australia andShirin Ebadi, Iran’s first female lawyer and Nobel laureate, to present the statuette to Dr. Tom Catena. “The founders are very persuasive people, but they didn’t have to work very hard to persuade the nine members of the Selection Committee from all over the world to participate,” said Evans, continuing to draw a parallel between the Aurora Prize and the Nobel Peace Prize. “The objective of the Prize is to compel us not to forget like so many want us to do about the Armenian Genocide.”
With the help of a translator, Shirin Ebadi introduced the story of Dr. Catena. “He is the last hope of the people who are subjected to these atrocities. Yet he has refused to abandon these desperate people, and despite all these atrocities and threats to his life, he has remained behind to help them,” she said. Dr. Catena is the only surgeon in the area, serving 750,000 people, and was thus unable to attend the ceremony, but sent a Skype video message. While recording that message, Dr. Catena was urgently called to the operating room to attend to yet more victims of the ongoing conflict in southern Sudan. Catena’s niece Michela, a distinguished environmentalist, accepted the statuette on his behalf.
100 LIVES Initiative and Aurora Prize Co-Founder Ruben Vardanyan introduced the fourth finalist, Marguerite Barankitse, “a mother of tens of thousands of children.” Co-Chair of the Selection Committee and renowned actor George Clooney joined Vardanyan and lightheartedly introduced him as his friend “Matt Damon.” “You are looking good these days, Matt,” he told Vardanyan. Because, according to Clooney, Armenians love to give toasts, he toasted the three co-founders for “doing the right thing.” “Cruelty has always been at the core — not self-defense, not simply war, but the deliberate destruction of an entire people. It happened to Armenians starting 101 years ago, and we have seen it repeated all over the world since; Germany, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda… I have seen what mankind is capable of at its worst. But I have also seen something else, something much stronger than hate. I’ve seen bravery, and kindness, and incredible acts of love. Tonight we celebrate the best examples of that.” He invoked his own family’s struggle through the Irish potato famine. In honoring the finalists, “We honor the million and a half lives that were lost 101 years ago, and we honor those lives by calling their tragedy by it’s true name — the Armenian Genocide. We all stand on the shoulders of good people who didn’t look the other way when we were in need,” Clooney said. He recalled Adolf Hitler’s notorious words: “‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’ The answer is – the whole world, that’s who!”
In his turn, Vardanyan spoke of the positive things happening in Armenia today and said he hopes to toast to them next time. “I stand here tonight because sometime ago, some stranger saved the life of my grandfather,” he said, comparing Marguerite Barankitse to Maria Jacobsen, a Danish missionary who saved thousands of Armenian orphans during the Genocide. “It is a very emotional day for me personally because it was the dream of Noubar, Vartan and mine many years ago to make this award in Armenia, especially because we know how painful it is to suffer through the Genocide, how painful it is to lose our 18-year-old kids in Artsakh, how difficult it is to continue to see the violence around us,” Vardanyan said. A short film about Marguerite Barankitse’s work in Burundi and the Maison Shalom followed, complete with testimonials from the people who owe their lives to Marguerite’s bravery and defiance. “They buried us, but they did not know that we were seeds,” she says in the film.
Once on stage, Barankitse said that the prize is “The victory of love over hatred.” “This morning, when I went to your Memorial, the 24th of April, it reminded me it is exactly the date when I left my country. It is exactly on April 24 of last year that I fled Burundi.” She quoted the last words of a song by her friend Charles Aznavour: “A glimmer of hope, a flame, the wish to take your own fate in your hands and stand, you, Armenia, Hayastan.” “The people of Armenia, thank you for giving me the courage, the strength to think that one day, I will go back to my country and sing our own national anthem. Thank you very much,” she said.
Following Marguerite’s animated and heartfelt speech, all finalists and Selection Committee members gathered on the stage for the announcement of the Aurora Prize laureate. Vardanyan thanked the people involved in 100 LIVES and the Aurora Prize and noted that the last time it was sunny in Yerevan on April 24 was 60 years ago. “God is also with us, he also supports what we are doing,” he said. “Armenia will remember, and we will demand, but we are also thankful and we are giving back.”
Clooney opened the envelope with the laureate’s name, announcing Marguerite Barankitse as the first recipient of the $100,000 award. Barankitse, deeply moved, named the three organizations that will receive the $1 million grant. In a move that caught the audience by surprise, the co-founders pledged an additional $25,000 to each Aurora Prize finalist. The representatives of the three organizations chosen by Barankitse were invited to the stage: Veronique Peterbroeck Mairlot, representing the Fondation Jean-François Peterbroeck, and Patrick Godar, representing Fondation Bridderlech Deelen Luxembourg and Fondation du Grand-Duc et de La Grande-Duchesse du Luxembourg.
After Mairlot gave thanks to the dignitaries in the audience, Godar continued by stating that “It is a great honor for [these foundations] that Maggie will receive the Aurora Prize. We embrace it with gratitude and respect. Thank you for this generous act toward humanity. We would also like to congratulate the four nominees Syeda Ghulam Fatima, Father Bernard Kinvi, Dr. Tom Catena and Maggie and express our admiration and respect for their commitment.”
Mairlot continued, contextualizing the Aurora Prize laureate’s work. “Maison Shalom, Maggie — it’s a long story. First, it’s a story of deep friendship between people for more than ten years. Next, it’s a story on courage and commitment, a story of an exceptional woman. Since 1993, and through often risking her life, Maggie has dedicated her talent to the thousands of orphan victims of violence and civil war that ravaged and, unfortunately, continues to ravage her country. Through Maison Shalom, Maggie has rescued thousands, [she] restores hope and reconciliates children from different ethnic groups who had lost everything. Maison Shalom is also the story of a message, a message of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace. A message that gives hope, that creates a new generation of young people educated [about] forgiveness and respect beyond any ethnic and cultural background. And Maggie, it’s the story of a woman who creates love where others spread hate, who, when facing violence and fatality, opens new possibilities which combine love, creativity with courage and progress. Finally, Maison Shalom, Maggie, is the story of a country, Burundi, where hate will not prevail. We are proud to be a part of this amazing story.”
Gador concluded by touching upon the status quo: “As of April 2015, Burundi has been shaken by a new political and security crisis. Faced with this challenge, Maggie is a refugee in Rwanda and continues against all odds to build and restore hope. Recognized in Rwanda as an international NGO, Maison Shalom has refocused its activities in particular on women and children. We followed Maggie to Rwanda and we will continue to follow her in the future…We would like to congratulate once again the initiative taken by the co-founders of the Aurora Prize. This award is a real encouragement for each and every one of us to take the risk of turning on the light in the middle of the darkness.”
Vardanyan then invited Charles Aznavour to the stage. “I would like to thank the Aurora Prize organizers for everything they did. We are on the verge of launching a new foundation in Armenia and they took us under their wing. When it comes to foundations, I’m like a child. I need people to take care of me, because I have too many ideas and not enough time,” he said, speaking Armenian from the stage for the first time in his career. A performance of Aznavour’s “Pour Toi, Armenie” by Kevork Hagopian and the Hover Choir against the backdrop of video images of Armenia’s landscapes and landmarks ensued.
In signing off, Ignatius said “It’s time we shake off victimization and embrace our common humanity and tolerance. As we leave here, let us take this spirit of shared humanity and do a little of the courageous work we have witnessed here tonight.”
Full video stream of Aurora Prize ceremony here: