Conversation with the 2021 Aurora Humanitarians

Conversation with the 2021 Aurora Humanitarians

The Aurora Dialogues Venice discussion titled “Conversation with the 2021 Aurora Humanitarians” took place on October 8, 2021, during the 2021 Aurora Prize events in Italy. This meeting with the exceptional modern-day heroes was organized at the Venice International University Auditorium located on the picturesque San Servolo Island (Isola di San Sèrvolo). 

Opening the first event of the Aurora weekend in Venice, Italy and welcoming people who gathered from different parts of the world during these pandemic times, Noubar Afeyan, Co-Founder of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, reflected on the last six years of the Aurora describing it as a humbling experience for all Aurora Co-Founders to see all the inspiring stories of human perseverance and courage during this period.

“We’re all gathered here because we all believe the world can be better, and in our own ways and in our own fields, we're working to make it so. Being here, with these extraordinary humanitarians whose spirit motivates them to save others, underscores all the ways in which we can help others not only survive, but revive, which is the theme of our gathering this weekend, and eventually, thrive,” said Noubar Afeyan, who remembered Aurora Co-Founder Vartan Gregorian who sadly passed away in April 2021. Dr. Afeyan stressed that while he was no longer with us, his spirit and inspiration fueled everything Aurora did. 

This was the first time that Dele Olojede, Aurora Prize Selection Committee most recently joined member, was present at the Aurora events as a part of that big humanitarian family. Before opening the discussion session with 2021 Aurora Humanitarians as a moderator, he conveyed the message from Benjamin Ferencz, Aurora Prize Selection Committee Honorary Co-Chair, who is only a few months away from turning 102 and was, unfortunately, unable to attend the Aurora weekend in Venice: “We share one goal with the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, and that is to create a more humane society for all the people of the world. Today, you gathered in Venice to pay tribute to modern-day heroes. Being heroic means to be persistent in trying to create a more peaceful world, however difficult or dangerous that might prove to be. If we want to see a better future, we must be persistent in our kindness, persistent in our compassion, persistent in our gratitude to those who help others.”


At the beginning of the event, Lord Ara Darzi, Aurora Prize Selection Committee Chair, welcomed 2020 Aurora Prize Laureate Fartuun Adan. She and her daughter Ilwad Elman were named Aurora Prize Laureates online due to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. This year, there finally was a chance for everyone to celebrate Fartuun Adan in person and to give her the Aurora Prize statuette. “I have the privilege of completing the year 2020 [that was] incomplete due to the pandemic, and that is the announcement of the Aurora Prize winner who we know, because the announcement was made last year, but we really never had the opportunity to meet the winner, and that is Fartuun and her daughter, Ilwad Elman. Both are human rights activists and heads of the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center in Somalia. Both were named Aurora Prize Laureates last year for their work in protecting women’s rights, promoting peacebuilding and rehabilitating the child soldiers, exemplifying the spirit of shared humanity that embodies all the work that Aurora is so proud to celebrate and support.”

Dele Olojede, the moderator of the discussion, recalled the basic formula of the importance of the recognition that was coined by an Archbishop he has known in Africa: “People are people through other people. It is the recognition of the essential humanity in the other person, and it is a particular privilege for me to moderate the conversation amongst this year’s humanitarians.”

Then, one by one, 2021 Aurora Humanitarians took the stage and told the audience their courageous and selfless stories. Dele Olojede asked them about resilience and how it was possible to deal with human disasters for so long and meantime to stay strong and continue helping the victims of wartime sexual violence. “When you live in a country full of pain and suffering and in every step, you meet women and children horrifically subjected to violence, you cannot afford not to act. When you see their needs, you have to do something. You see terrible things but when you also see the impact of your work, the change; the transformation of victims becoming victors, the inner courage that they find to continue their life, you realize that you have no right to stop,” said Julienne Lusenge, a Congolese human rights defender. 

“How do you prevent yourself from going mad?” This was the question that could have been addressed to all of the Aurora humanitarians. And all of them have the reason to go on and keep on helping others despite all odds and pain. “You just throw away your fears and do your job. When I was threatened, persecuted and forced to hide for a while, everybody was asking the same question: “Why do you go back?” But I knew that peasants really needed my help. I have been doing my work with love and never have thought that I could be happy in another place,” said Ruby Castaño, a human rights activist who protects the rights of thousands of Colombian peasants subjected to persecution. 


“Human dignity is the most essential thing that we must fight for. In Africa, this dignity is taken away from the people with mental illness. They are totally neglected. Mental illness is a shame and a stigma, and these people mostly are chained and left to die. When I first met such a person, I was frightened, but then I found God in these people, and found my vocation.” Grégoire Ahongbonon, mental health activist, brought a chain to Venice to illustrate the gruesome reality of his work. A person with mental illness had been chained to the ground for seven long years with that very chain before finally being liberated by Mr. Ahongbonon. 

Paul Farmer, a medical anthropologist, shared his experience as a specialist and humanitarian who has co-founded Partners In Health that brings the benefits of modern medical science to those who need it the most: “What I did learn from Haitian experience, which served as well from Siberia to West Africa, was that people kept saying: “What we need is a cultural competence. That should be our goal.” But after all I knew that cultural competence was a farse. What you need is cultural humility. And that sometimes means just being quiet and listening. That’s what Julienne described – a lot of her work is about listening. And it’s clearly the same for Ruby and Gregoire. And I think I learnt it in Haiti, to shut up, be quiet. And that’s not my nature – to be quiet. But that’s really the trick. Cultural humility is so much important than cultural competence.”

Four of the five 2021 Aurora Humanitarians were in Venice, Italy, to introduce their work and share the experience they have had. Only Yemeni physician Ashwaq Moharram was unable to come to Venice, but the audience had a chance to learn more about her work by watching a film that showcased her selfless journey and commitment to the starving population of Hodeida. 

“It’s amazing to see people from 27 countries coming together to pay tribute to humanitarian issues, which we believe is very critical, especially now, in pandemic world. I just want to say thank you to all of you that you exist. Thank you for what you are doing. And we really hope we can continue our movement and expand it,” said Ruben Vardan, Co-Founder of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative in the closing remarks of the event.