A woman who saved thousands of children in Burundi from extermination received on Sunday a new international humanitarian award created in memory of the 1915 Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey.
Hollywood star George Clooney awarded the first Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity to Marguerite Barankitse, a humanitarian worker from the African state, at a ceremony held in Yerevan.
The award was established last year by three prominent Diaspora Armenians: philanthropists Ruben Vardanyan and Noubar Afeyan and Vartan Gregorian, the president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. It is designed to honor individuals around the world who risk their lives to help others.
The prize is named after Aurora Mardiganian, an Armenian genocide survivor who witnessed the massacre of relatives and told her story in a book and film.
Barankitse, the founder of an orphanage in Burundi, was one of four finalists picked last month by an international selection committee co-chaired by Clooney and Elie Wiesel, a prominent Holocaust survivor. The committee also includes three other Nobel laureates: Iranian human rights campaigner Shirin Ebadi, Costa Rica’s former President Oscar Arias and Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee.
Barankitse, who had to flee Burundi last year, has saved some 30,000 children who became orphans as a result of bloody ethnic conflicts that plagued her country as well as neighboring Rwanda over two decades ago. Her Maison Shalom charity has sheltered and educated them.
“This is a victory of love over hatred,” Barankitse said at the award ceremony timed to coincide with official commemorations of the 101st anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
“Marguerite Barankitse serves as a reminder of the impact that one person can have even when encountering seemingly insurmountable persecution,” Clooney said for his part.
The American actor and director emphasized the importance of the award. “Tonight’s award celebrates heroism and bravery far beyond what most of us can do in a lifetime,” he said.
“We also honor the 1.5 million lives that were lost 101 years ago, and we honor those lives by calling their tragedy by its true name: genocide, the Armenian genocide,” added Clooney. “Hitler once famously said, ‘Who remembers Armenia?’ The answer is the whole world.”
Australia’s former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, another member of the Aurora selection committee, made a similar point. “The driving impulse of the prize was to ensure that we never forget, as some people want us to do, the Armenian genocide, and that we do continue to understand the incredible risks there are in so many places around the world of going back to the edge of that particular volcano,” Evans said at the ceremony.
The prize carries a $100,000 personal grant to Barankitse. She was also awarded $1 million to donate to organizations that inspired her work. Barankitse chose three charities from Luxembourg as its recipients.
The committee co-headed by Clooney also awarded $25,000 to each of the three other finalists: Tom Catena, an American doctor running the sole hospital in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains, Syeda Ghulam Fatima, a Pakistani advocate of destitute workers, and Rev. Bernard Kinvi, a Catholic priest who has saved the lives of over 1,000 Muslims in the Central African Republic.
Unlike the other finalists, Catena, who is based in a rebel-held region in southern Sudan, was unable to travel to Armenia for the ceremony. Addressing it by Skype, he appealed for urgent international humanitarian aid to the region.
“We are sort of a small Syria in a lot of ways,” he said, accusing Sudan’s ruling regime of perpetrating a “quiet genocide” there for the past two decades.
100 LIVES, a pan-Armenian group which launched the Aurora Prize, also teamed up with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) to give its first Integrity in Journalism Award to Rukmini Callimachi, an investigative reporter with “The New York Times.” Callimachi has written extensively on the ordeals of thousands of Yazidi women in Iraq captured and used as sex slaves by the Islamic State extremist group.
“In bearing witness to the suffering of these women, I hope that one day that suffering may end,” Callimachi said as she received the award at the Yerevan ceremony.