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An American surgeon who has saved thousands of lives in a war-torn region of Sudan received on Sunday an international humanitarian award created in memory of the 1915 Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey.

Tom Catena, the sole doctor permanently based in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains, was awarded the 2017 Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity at a solemn ceremony in Yerevan. He was selected by an international committee from more than 550 nominations submitted from 66 countries.

The selection committee comprises dignitaries such as the Hollywood star George Clooney, Iranian human rights campaigner Shirin Ebadi, Mexico’s former President Ernesto Zedillo and former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans.

The annual award was established in 2015 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.

Armenia - The founders of the annual Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, Ruben Vardanyan (L), Vartan Gregorian (C) and Noubar Afeyan, at a ceremony in Yerevan, 28May2017.
Armenia - The founders of the annual Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, Ruben Vardanyan (L), Vartan Gregorian (C) and Noubar Afeyan, at a ceremony in Yerevan, 28May2017.

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. It was first awarded to Marguerite Barankitse, a humanitarian worker from Burundi, at a similar ceremony held in Yerevan a year ago.

“I appreciate the Aurora initiative and what they are doing because my goal is to help to publicize a bit the plight of the people of the Nuba Mountains who have suffered tremendously over so many years,” Catena said after receiving the prize carrying a $100,000 personal grant.

Like Barankitse, the Catholic missionary doctor was also awarded an additional $1 million to donate to organizations that inspired his work. He chose three charities based in the United States and Germany as its recipients.

For almost a decade Catena has worked at the sole hospital in the rebel-held Sudanese region ravaged by an ongoing civil war. He was among the four finalists who were shortlisted for the inaugural Aurora prize in 2016.

Armenia - The award ceremony for the 2017 Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity in Yerevan, 28May2017.
Armenia - The award ceremony for the 2017 Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity in Yerevan, 28May2017.

Catena could not visit Armenia to attend last year’s award ceremony because of his busyness. He was able to fly to Yerevan this time around after three Armenian doctors travelled to Nuba to fill in for him at the local Mother of Mercy Catholic Hospital.

“Sometimes people ask me: ‘What is the most difficult part of your job?’” Catena said at Sunday’s event. “The answer is very easy and it comes very readily. The most difficult part is having to watch your patients die. It’s the most excruciating pain you can imagine.

“At that point you feel that all the sadness and the grief in the world are sitting on top of your head,” he added. “They are inside your chest, squeezing you. You can’t even breathe.”

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