Fighting for Change: Life Stories of Aurora Modern-Day Heroes

Fighting for Change: Life Stories of Aurora Modern-Day Heroes

“We’re all here today, on Nelson Mandela Day, to hear about and from people who have dedicated their lives in service of others and to humanity – very, very befitting of a day in honor of Nelson Mandela. For those who have gathered today, this is a fitting tribute, and I would encourage everyone to think about or hear and listen for the behaviors, the decisions, the small everyday tasks that we can all take onto ourselves to better reflect those values,” noted Armine Afeyan, Executive Director of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, as she kicked off the 2023 Aurora Dialogues Online event that took place on July 18, Nelson Mandela International Day. 

The discussion titled “Fighting for Change: Life Stories of Aurora Modern-Day Heroes” was organized by the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative in partnership with The New Humanitarian and moderated by Heba Aly, CEO of The New Humanitarian. The event featured exceptional human rights and social activists from Aurora’s network who have followed in Mandela's footsteps, namely Michael Lapsley (South Africa), founder of Institute for Healing of Memories and anti-apartheid activist; Sunitha Krishnan (India), 2018 Aurora Humanitarian and co-founder of Prajwala; Mahienour El-Massry (Egypt), 2022 Aurora Humanitarian and political activist; and Marino Cordoba (Colombia), human rights activist and founder of AFRODES. These heroes come from different backgrounds and work in different fields, but they all share a common commitment to social justice, human rights, and equality. 

“We’ve won some formal battles, but to change the systems and attitudes is a much greater challenge. There’s lots to be depressed about, but we also should celebrate the gains that have been made,” said Father Michael Lapsley, founder of Institute for Healing of Memories. “We’re against racism, we’re against gender discrimination, we’re against human trafficking. The question is, what is our vision? And that question is redefining every generation,” he added.

Some of the activists talked about finding inspiration in unusual places and not shying away from negative emotions that are rarely brought to the forefront in the field of humanitarian work. “Anger has driven me for the last 30 years. It triggered [my activism], it nurtures it, it pushes it, it drives it, it sustains it. At the age of thirteen, when I was gang-raped by several men, it left me with a deep, deep outrage of not the rape per se, but how the world viewed me. The entire society, the entire community treated me as somebody who committed the crime. That was the trigger of the first anger that made me what I am today. The anger is growing, and so is my motivation,” explained Sunitha Krishnan, 2018 Aurora Humanitarian and co-founder of Prajwala.

Mahienour El-Massry, 2022 Aurora Humanitarian and political activist, echoed this feeling and quoted her middle-class childhood as the reason she became an activist. “For me, it’s anger against myself that drives me – that I was privileged, that I didn’t do anything to deserve that more than others, who probably would be better than me if they had the same chances and opportunities. It’s somewhat selfish as well. If you want to live in peace, if you want to keep your privileges, then you have to seek the same privilege for everyone. I see progress not as a linear process. It’s more like steps forward and then backwards. There is no sacrifice, there is no work that ever goes in vain,” said Mahienour.

However, for many representatives of vulnerable groups the choice to fight for their rights remains, of course, something that is often forced on them. “One of the challenges for the Afro-Columbian population was, first of all, slavery. Our ancestors were brought from Africa to Columbia as slaves. It was very difficult for them to gain freedom. In my time, I’ve struggled, and the community, we’ve been suffering, because the government, the state of Columbia was paying no attention to us. We had poverty and conflict. We had a choice – to join those who do nothing for our community or to fight for justice, for liberty, for peace,” noted Marino Cordoba, human rights activist and founder of AFRODES, when talking about the historical causes that affect the standing of his people in Columbia. 

“I have heard regularly through this conversation that with privilege comes responsibility, that fighting for human rights is a choice that we can all make, and that the anger that some of us may feel and what we at The Humanitarian call a “calm moral outrage” can be channeled in a way that is restorative, and that we can gain a lot by being inspired by others,” said Heba Aly, CEO of The New Humanitarian and the event’s moderator, on the biggest lessons learned from the discussion as she rounded it up.

You can watch the full video of the discussion below.