A Yazidi activist who has helped civilian victims of atrocities committed by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria has received an annual humanitarian award created in memory of the 1915 Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey.
Mirza Dinnayi was named the winner of the 2019 Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity at a weekend ceremony in Yerevan attended by members of the Aurora Prize Selection Committee, including former Presidents Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Mary Robinson of Ireland.
Dinnayi, who lives in Germany, was awarded the $1 million prize for helping more than 1,500 Yazidi women and children seek medical treatment in Europe. He decided to donate the money to his organization, Air Bridge Iraq, and two other aid groups helping victims of the ISIS.
The prize runner-ups were Zannah Mustapha, a lawyer who set up a school for children affected by violence in northeastern Nigeria, and Yemeni lawyer Huda Al-Sarari, who investigated human rights abuses in the war-torn country. They received a $50,000 grant each.
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.
The international 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.
“The Aurora Humanitarian Initiative empowers those who risk everything for the sake of others and show extraordinary courage and conviction in situations of adversity, and Mirza Dinnayi is a perfect example of that,” Gregorian said at the award ceremony. “He embodies the power of compassion, of personal commitment, of a burning desire to save lives.”
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian also spoke at the solemn event. “Mr. Dinnayi, what you have been doing for the friendly Yazidi people in Iraq reminds us of the activities a century ago, during the Armenian genocide, of Western missionaries and other individuals that had helped to save thousands of Armenian lives,” Pashinian said. “I also want to thank you on behalf of the Yazidi community of Armenia.”
In January 2018, Armenia’s parliament unanimously passed a resolution recognizing as genocide the 2014 mass killings of Yazidis in Iraq perpetrated by the ISIS. The National Assembly also called on the international community to track down and prosecute those directly responsible for the killings.
About 7,000 Yazidi women and children were seized by the ISIS when it overran Iraq's northwestern town of Sinjar in August 2014. Almost 3,000 of them remain unaccounted for. The town was regained from the jihadist group in late 2015 and dozens of mass graves of Yazidis have since been found there.
The U.S. government officially declared in March 2016 that the ISIS is “responsible for genocide” against Yazidis as well as Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria. A subsequent report released by United Nations investigators similarly concluded that the Islamist militants’ actions against Yazidis meet a 1948 UN convention’s definition of genocide.
“The recognition of genocide is the first step in order to satisfy the victims,” Dinnayi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. He said Yazidi families will not feel safe returning to their homes in Iraq until ISIS militants involved in the atrocities face justice.
The 46-year-old doctor also expressed concern about the Turkish offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria. He said it could further hamper efforts to see justice done by providing militants jailed there with a “big opportunity” to escape.