David Ignatius moderating the Aurora Dialogue panel, featuring Marguerite Barankitse, Lieutenant William Keegan and John Prendergast

From Pain to Healing: Aurora Dialogues in Heart of September 11 Tragedy


By Taleen Babayan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

NEW YORK — In the shadows of where the Twin Towers once stood as symbols of American pride and under the reflective gaze of the Statue of Liberty that represents equal opportunity for all those seeking a better life, the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative hosted its Aurora Dialogues on Thursday, March 1, at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.

Dr. Noubar Afeyan

A visionary initiative that launches Armenians onto the world humanitarian platform, the Aurora Initiative hosted the dialogues, titled “Solidarity Beyond Borders: Stepping Up When Others Step Back,” to discuss and champion the tireless efforts of individuals around the globe who strive to create positive change in the face of adversity, much like those who came to the rescue of Armenians during the Genocide over a century ago.

Featuring Aurora Prize finalists Marguerite Barankitse (2016) and Dr. Tom Catena (2017), alongside retired Port Authority Police Department Lieutenant and Special Ops Lieutenant Bill Keegan and John Prendergast, founding director of the Enough Project, the evening’s panel, moderated by David Ignatius, associate editor and columnist for the Washington Post, explored the issue of heroism.

“Tonight we will focus on the best of what people can do,” said Ignatius. “The spirit of heroism and sacrifice that leads people, as happened on 9/11, to step forward, take risk and responsibility for others and make the generous commitment that Aurora is honoring.”

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

In her welcoming remarks, Alice Greenwald, president and CEO of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, said that the evening’s panelists are individuals “who chose, in time of grave danger, to step up in humane ways.”

“Against the backdrop of grief we tell stories of courage that testify to human decency,” she continued, recognizing the site of the 9/11 Museum, where guests had the opportunity to take a special guided tour. “Stories that offer a powerful reminder that in times of darkness, we do shine the brightest.”

She urged the audience to reflect on what kind of society to leave for future generations and to engage in acts of public service and volunteerism while living in an interconnected world.

Dr. Vartan Gregorian

In his remarks, Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, elaborated on the focus of the Aurora Initiative and how it is a byproduct of the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923, when many international organizations came to the aid of the Armenian victims, particularly those from the US. He remembered and thanked former US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Henry Morgenthau, who was the first to alert the US and the world that Ottoman authorities “had issued a death warrant against Armenians.”

“We are here to thank America and Americans for rescuing remnants of the Armenian Genocide and for defending the Armenian Republic,” said Gregorian, co-founder of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative and Board Member of the September 11 Memorial and Museum.

Gregorian noted that Americans efficiently responded to the Armenian Genocide and formed the National Armenian Relief Committee, which later became the Near East Relief Foundation, raising $100 million, the largest philanthropic effort in US history at that point in time. “That is why we are here today, to show that sacrifice matters and that human beings matter.”

Speaking of the Aurora Prize, which awards $100,000 to one recipient a year, along with $1 million to the recipient’s charity of choice, Gregorian said it was created to “give back” and “continue the cycle of giving.”

“We no longer mourn the Armenian Genocide,” said Gregorian, in the traditional way. “We have a nation and major forces in the Diaspora who are trying to give back to those who rescued us.”

“That’s a wonderful thing coming from a small nation that has no resources but has the heart and the will to rescue others,” continued Gregorian. “To stand against persecution and injustice, but most importantly to awaken the conscious of humanity.”

In his keynote address, Dr. Philip Zimbardo, founder and president of the Heroic Imagination Project, spoke about transforming memory into positive action.

Aurora Humanitarian Initiative co-founder Ruben Vardanyan and Anna Afeyan

A lifelong New Yorker, Zimbardo was president-elect of the American Psychological Association when 9/11 occurred and provided treatment to families who lost loved ones and to those who survived the tragedy.

“Moral courage, not bravery, is the core of heroic action,” said Zimbardo, professor emeritus at Stanford University. He noted that heroes are those who are aware of risks but act on behalf of others in need or in defense of moral causes.

The Heroic Imagination Project, a non-profit Zimbardo established in 2010, inspires youth in schools across the country to become everyday heroes and “teaches people to stand up, to speak out, and to take action in order to change the world.”

Zimbardo presented case studies and emphasized the power of one and the importance of extending compassion. His program has been implemented in several US states and across the world, including in Hungary, Australia, Iran and Poland, among others, where students learn to be wise and effective heroes.

During the panel discussion, Ignatius asked each guest to share his and her personal stories.

Aurora Prize Laureate Marguerite Barankitse, founder of Maison Shalom, a children’s center, discussed the violent conflict between two warring tributes in her home country of Burundi during its civil war. A teacher, Barankitse had adopted seven children of different backgrounds to demonstrate the possibility of living together in unity. In the face of violence she sought to rebuild on harrowing sites, including “a swimming pool to wash away the sinners.”

“I want to show we don’t want revenge,” said Barankitse, who witnessed the massacre of close to 100 people in her hometown. “We stand up and we will say we refuse the hatred because love will always win.”

Founder and president of HEART 9/11, a non-profit organization of first responders who help rebuild and recover natural and man-made disasters, Bill Keegan was on duty at the World Trade Center when the initial attack on the Twin Towers occurred in 1993 and found himself at the same devastating site on September 11, 2001. Although he and his team were highly trained in rescue, they quickly realized they had to transition to recovery, “which was hard for us to accept.”

His team soon repurposed itself because “the need shifted to recovery and we repurposed ourselves to the other needs out there in the world.”

He spoke of the “moment of collective love” when, after months of physical and emotional draining on-site 9/11 recovery efforts, the Port Authority officers raised the steel-beam cross that became the site’s symbol.

John Prendergast, who works in crisis areas in Congo, Rwanda and Darfur, spoke of the positive role celebrities can play in preventing and shining light on genocide. He highlighted Darfur, which “has no strategic interest for the US or Europe” and the influence of George Clooney to the region.

“We said never again to the Armenian Genocide, to the Holocaust, but here it is happening again,” he said as he cited Darfur as the first genocide of the 21st century.

He commended Clooney for taking an active interest in not only bringing attention to the matter but also trying to find a way to help on the ground, such as implementing satellite imagery to bring more awareness to an area where journalists and human rights organizations couldn’t enter. They began building dossiers and turning them over for the international community to take a step forward in helping resolve the crisis.

“George is a great example of the evolution that can take place when someone is given a chance to go from bystander to upstander,” said Prendergast.

In his video address, 2017 Aurora Prize Laureate Dr. Tom Catena, physician at the Mother of Mercy Hospital in the Nuba Mountains, the only surgeon in those parts of Sudan, said “all lives have inherent worth and value” and that “all of us have the capability and potential to do heroic things.”

Viewers had the opportunity to see Catena’s work in the mountains, where he is on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, tending to patients who have been harmed by the violence there or in need of surgery or other medical attention.

In his closing remarks, co-founder of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, Noubar Afeyan, explained the reasons why he and his fellow co-founders, Ruben Vardanyan and Gregorian, embarked on creating this organization, which was established on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.

“During the centennial, we asked ourselves, as survivors, what we can do to take the memory of the Armenian Genocide and turn it to good,” said Afeyan, who along with Vardanyan, spent 17 years working in Armenia, encouraging its economic and social growth as the country emerged from Soviet rule.

“We went through the process of merely surviving to reviving and now thriving and we became strong enough to think about gratitude,” continued Afeyan. “For us, Aurora is about second chances and finding meaning in a movement that allows survivors to revive and thrive.”

The Aurora Humanitarian Initiative seeks to empower modern-day saviors to offer life and hope to those in urgent need of basic humanitarian aid. Every year the Aurora Prize, (named after genocide survivor Aurora Mardiganian who spent her life raising awareness) is awarded to an individual who has the courage and commitment to fight against injustice and violence.

The Initiative hosts the Aurora Dialogues, an international platform where leading humanitarians, academics, philanthropists and members of civil society come together to discuss some of today’s most pressing humanitarian challenges.

For more information visit www.auroraprize.com and 911memorial.org.


Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: