April 29, 2016
By Brian Rashid
George Clooney and cofounder Ruben Vardanyan congratulate Marguerite Barankitse as the first recipient of the Aurora Prize.
One time, a man aggressively bumped into my mother in a 7-Eleven. Then I got in his face.
I am not a violent person, but seeing someone intentionally push my mom made my blood boil. This moment on one spring night in Florida was the only real experience I’ve had where I witnessed physical harm to someone I love.
One hundred and one years ago, 1.5 million Armenians were killed. Unlike the small bruise my mother may have received on her arm from this drunk middle-aged man at the gas station, Armenian sons saw their mothers murdered in front of their eyes. Mothers saw the same of their children, as did brothers, sisters, grandparents, and friends. If you were in Armenia in 1915, you were a victim of genocide. So what I’m about to tell you may seem strange.
I recently traveled to Yerevan, Armenia to celebrate the 101st anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
You are likely thinking, "What’s wrong with you. Who celebrates genocide?" I will explain in a moment. But first, a story about George Clooney.
I’ve always admired George Clooney. I grew up watching him. He was (and still is) my favorite movie star. But I also love that he uses his spotlight to do just that -- shed light on issues while the rest of the world turns a blind eye. "Sometimes, I feel suffocated with the constant cameras that follow me around. Then I think, why can’t we turn those cameras to issues that can’t seem to get any media attention? Issues that are much more important than what suit I wore on the red carpet deserve attention," Clooney said. I admired his perspective.
But what does this all have to do with celebrating the Armenian Genocide?
On April 24, 2016, 101 years after the atrocities that wiped 1.5 million lives from the planet, the first annual Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity was held in Armenia. On behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and in gratitude to their saviors, the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity will be granted annually to an individual whose actions have had an exceptional impact on preserving human life and advancing humanitarian causes. The Selection Committee, including Mr. Clooney, consists of nine professionals who bring a diverse background. Only one of them is Armenian. As opposed to many humanitarian awards where organizations nominate potential recipients, the Aurora Prize opened it up so everyone could nominate anyone they found deserving.
To say this was a world-class event would be an understatement. Orchestras greeted guests with their music, delectable spreads of local cuisine lined the tables, and hundreds of volunteers said yes to every request made of them for an entire weekend. Everyone was there to celebrate the Aurora Prize.
The Aurora Prize was founded by three individuals equally as impressive Mr. Clooney. Vartan Gregorian is president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. He also served as the President of the New York Public Library, and in 2004, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Dr. Noubar Afeyan is Managing Partner and CEO of Flagship Ventures, a leading early-stage venture capital firm. During his 25-year career as inventor, entrepreneur, CEO and venture capitalist, Dr. Afeyan has cofounded and helped to build nearly 30 successful startups. Ruben Vardanyan is a well-known entrepreneur, philanthropist, cofounder and Chairman of RVVZ Foundation. Previously, he served as CEO and Chairman of Troika Dialog, one of the oldest and largest investment banks in Russia and the CIS. He leads several initiatives aimed at advancing Armenia, including helping to open UWC Dilijan College, a world-class educational institution in Armenia. During the weekend, the cofounders also hosted the Aurora Dialogues, a series of high-level discussions which unveiled the results of their first annual Humanitarian Index, a global study of world’s most pressing humanitarian issues, including the current refugee crisis.
The Aurora Prize Laureate was honored with a U.S. $100,000 award. In addition, that individual was given an additional U.S. $1,000,000 grant to award to the organization of her choice. The Selection Committee received hundreds of applications, but narrowed it down to four finalists.
Dr. Tom Catena is the only doctor for 750,000 people in the the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. Syeda Ghulam Fatima has freed tens of thousands of slaves from bonded labor in Pakistan. Father Bernard Kinvi treats both attackers and victims in Bossemptele, Central African Republic (CAR). Each of these finalists received a $25,000 award from the Aurora Prize cofounders to support the organizations that have inspired their work.
The winner of the grand prize was a larger than life, soulful, and joyous woman named Marguerite Barankitse. She saved thousands of lives and cared for orphans and refugees during the years of civil war in Burundi. When war broke out, Barankitse, a Tutsi, tried to hide 72 of her closest Hutu neighbors to keep them safe from persecution. They were discovered and executed. They made Barankitse watch the executions. After witnessing such atrocities, she started her work saving and caring for children and refugees. She has saved roughly 30,000 children and in 2008, she opened a hospital which has treated more than 80,000 patients to date. After graciously accepting her prize, she said:
"This $1 million prize is the acknowledgment of the children's suffering. I dream of sending several of my students to Armenia to study one day. Not just because of the classes they’ll take, but the values they’ll learn. The same values I’ve learned over the past three days in Armenia. It has taught me stability, among other things."
I had the opportunity to spend time with Margueritte, George and the other cofounders of the Aurora Prize throughout the weekend. It was clear to me that this was more than a prize, more than a night of celebration. As Vartan Gregorian eloquently stated,
"For 100 years, we wanted to do something like this, but have not been able. We have not had the connections, power, exposure and so on. But tonight, we did. And when you want to make a big change, you do it one small step at a time. Tonight was that step."
Pride beamed from the cofounders as Mr. Gregorian made this comment. Such pride led the cofounders to committing that the Aurora Prize will take place on April 24 for at least the next seven years, although the hope to extend it permanently.
A final thought. When you ask an Armenian, "How are you?" in English, they reply,
"Thank you, good, and you?"
I found this to be perfectly representative of the people, their culture and outlook. One that leads with gratitude. One that despite a century of violence and destruction, have found reasons to be optimistic and see goodness in their lives. Within 30 seconds of conversation, they consistently asked me a few questions.
"Do you like Armenia?"
"Will you please come back?"
My answers to the first two questions were easy to express. They were "I love it," and "I definitely will."
But then came a third question, which was required a more complex answer.
"Is there anything I can do for you?" they asked repeatedly.
My response was a simple, "No, you have helped me enough, thank you." But I never told them what I really meant, which is:
"You have done more for me that you will ever know. In the face of a century of the death you experienced, you have shown me how to live. How can I ever repay you for this gift?"
George Clooney shook Marguerite’s hand as she won the Aurora Prize of $1.1 million. Her life will be forever changed, and she will in turn change the lives of those she lovingly serves.
But for an entire weekend, I was handed something perhaps more valuable than a million dollars. While I was not awarded the Aurora Prize from George Clooney and the Selection Committee, I was on my own stage. And on this stage there were 1.5 million people giving me a gift.
Because the 1.5 million Armenians that were killed 100 years ago are still alive.
They live in the smiles of their beautiful people. The ones we see on the streets. The ones we stand with on the stages. The ones we hold close in our hearts.
So the answer to your third question is, no, there is nothing else you can do for me.
You have already given me everything I’d ever need.
A life of hope, faith and love.
So I guess the winner of the Aurora Prize is...
Brian Rashid is a professional speaker, writer and trainer.