By Ara Darzi

When the coronavirus pandemic struck the UK and Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the nationwide lockdown in March, I knew I had to do something to help my patients and my colleagues. This was a national and international health emergency and there was a lot of fear. I wanted to set an example by working in intensive care myself, though I am a surgeon by training. My colleagues at London’s St Mary’s Hospital pointed me to some online training and, with a certain amount of trepidation, I donned protective gown, mask, visor, and gloves, and began working alongside them.

It was a case of all hands on deck as we worked to care for our patients and support each other. The whole experience was a great leveler in the hospital. The nurses were heroes.

This pandemic has wreaked terrible suffering across the world. But, as with all crises, it has brought us together and reminded us of our common humanity.

The Aurora Humanitarian Initiative is doing just that – reminding us of our common humanity, bringing people together and transforming the way we deliver humanitarian aid to those in need across the globe. Today, its efforts are needed more than ever in response to the global spread of COVID-19 and I am proud to be a part of it.

The initiative was named in memory of Aurora Mardiganian, a teenage survivor of the 1915 massacre who escaped to tell her story, in print, on stage and in film, helping to alert the world to the Genocide. Her determination to bear witness, and similar accounts of courage and transformation from her fellow refugees, inspired Noubar Afeyan, Vartan Gregorian and Ruben Vardanyan to launch 100 LIVES — the first project of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative — in 2015.

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The initial vision — to tell the stories of the survivors and the courageous people who stepped forward to help them in their hour of need — has since brought to light hundreds of accounts, which have been translated into six languages and inspired readers across the world. It also led to the movement Gratitude in Action, which seeks to empower people to help those in need of urgent humanitarian aid. Saying “thank you” was not enough; a bigger commitment was sought.

From the beginning, the Aurora Co-Founders wanted to make the initiative universal. They were joined by a group of Nobel laureates, former heads of state and globally renowned humanitarians, including the late activist and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel to form the Aurora Prize Selection Committee, with the aim of empowering modern day heroes to help ensure the past tragedies are never repeated.

In 2019, I was humbled to be appointed Chair of the Committee, the expertise of whose members is undisputed. Our task of choosing the Aurora Humanitarians and Laureate among so many worthy candidates is an honour and a privilege, but also a huge responsibility. Every year, hundreds of extraordinary candidates are nominated, and we learn stories of awe-inspiring courage, commitment, and impact.

For example, Marguerite Barankitse, the 2016 Aurora Prize Laureate, cared for thousands of orphans and refugees during the years of civil war in Burundi. Dr Tom Catena, the 2017 Laureate, saved thousands of lives as the sole doctor permanently based in Sudan’s war-ravaged Nuba Mountains.

These heroes do not seek recognition, but they deserve it. Aurora honors their life and work by organizing special events in Armenia. In 2018, the Aurora Prize Ceremony took place at dawn in Khor Virap. Entitled “Aurora: Awakening Humanity”, the timing and location of the event were symbolic. As the sun rose over Mount Ararat, the guests joined in a circle to dance Kochari, the folk dance that has marked celebrations in Armenia for over a thousand years.

This year marks the fifth anniversary of the Aurora Initiative. To date, it has supported 28 projects in 16 countries, benefitting 950,000 vulnerable people while the #AraratChallenge movement has given a second chance to those who desperately need it. Less tangibly, but equally important, it has helped bring about a subtle shift in the Armenian mentality. Instead of habitually seeing ourselves as victims, which we have done for too long, today we see ourselves helping those less fortunate than ourselves in honour of our ancestors’ saviours.

At the launch of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, the co-founders pledged to maintain it for eight years from 2015-2023, in commemoration of the eight years of the Armenian Genocide. But we have the power to extend their legacy. To stand still is to fall back, and as we mark this fifth anniversary, I urge all Armenians across the world to join this movement and support its efforts. If there was ever a time to unite our people to help realize our vision, now is the time.

(Professor the Lord Darzi of Denham, OM, is a surgeon, a member of the UK House of Lords, and Director of the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College London. H was a health minister in the UK Labour Government from 2007-9.)


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