Last weekend, an Edelman team saw the fulfilment of years of endeavour in helping launch the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, an annual $1m award to shine a light on unsung humanitarians. The Prize is part of a process of illumination, a process of showing the world people who work in defiance of menace, violence and awful circumstance to save lives.
The four finalists for the Prize exhibited extraordinary levels of commitment, compassion and an almost reckless lack of regard for their own safety and wellbeing. The prize was awarded in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, on the day that nation remember the 1.5 million people who died during the genocide that was raging 100 years ago.
Syeda Ghulam Fatima freed more than 80,000 people, many children, from slavery in Pakistan, victims of forced labour who worked in the most horrendous conditions making bricks. She has been abused, threatened with violence and seen her brother beaten so badly that he is permanently disabled. Her campaign to free children and adults from bonded labor continues.
Dr Tom Catena is the only resident doctor working in the harrowing conditions of the Nuba mountains of South Sudan. For more than 5 years, he has worked day and night in a remote and poorly equipped hospital treating the injured from Sudan’s largely forgotten civil war. A Skype call recorded for the Aurora Prize ceremony with Dr Tom was interrupted by the arrival of a truck load of casualties.
Father Bernard Kinvi has treated the victims of the Central African Republic’s brutal civil war without judgement or prejudice. He has helped those caught up in sectarian violence, described as “massive ethnic religious cleansing”, and offered sanctuary and safety to hundreds of children. He does this in spite of witnessing death up close, including the murder of his younger sister in their native Togo. His own life has been threatened countless times.
BUT, the first Aurora Laureate whose nominated charities received $1m was Marguerite Barankitse from Burundi. Marguerite bore witness to the most heinous acts of violence, dismemberment, beheadings, torture and massacres and the murder of her own children. But despite all of this, she believes that universal humanity transcends all obstacles.
Ms Barankitse, has walked into war zones to rescue children, offering a second chance through her charity, Maison Shalom to more than 20,000 children orphaned by the civil war or AIDS. Today she campaigns to free imprisoned children throughout Burundi and those refugees who are now in neighbouring Rwanda.
But these weren’t the only heroes of last weekend. Representatives from most of the large NGOs and humanitarian organisations were represented, as well as other activists working on the ground.
This group included the inspirational Josephine Kulea, a young woman who has so far rescued over 1,000 young girls from abuse and forced marriage, some of them as young as 7 and placed them in schools. A woman whose work has been recognised by President Obama, Miss Kulea was in action just days before flying to Armenia, rescuing an 8-year-old girl who had been forced to marry a 50-year-old elder from the Samburu tribe.
Alongside, the Aurora Prize, I had the privilege of chairing a humanitarian conference, the Aurora Dialogues. The event we hope will become an annual meeting of humanitarians designed to share best practice and focus on some of the most pressing issues we face. It was no surprise that one of the biggest topics during the day of discussions was the current refugee crisis.
Research conducted in six countries by Edelman, The Humanitarian Index, revealed the paradox at the heart of tackling the refugee crisis. Everyone ranks the refugee crisis as one of the world’s most pressing, and they believe the international community should be responsible for resolving it, however, they feel this isn’t happening. Not only that, at an individual level there is a sense that nothing can be done. Individual action cannot change the tide of misery.
But that shouldn’t be the case. Gareth Evans, President Emeritus of International Crisis Group, and former Foreign Minister of Australia, pointed to public opinion as one of the most influential drivers of policy change. “Put the political heat on,” he said, “action happens when politicians feel they are under siege”. The media, journalist David Ignatius, pointed out, played a vital role in reporting on the crisis and galvanising public opinion.
While institutions like governments and media, are critical, if the weekend taught us anything, it was that personal actions matter. As Marguerite Barankitse put it, “don’t ever sit down”. She and the other finalists, and women like Josephine Kulea, demonstrate that one individual can have a disproportionate impact on humanity. These people show us that we can make a difference and we can do that by impacting one life at a time.
They show us that, even when confronted with the most unimaginable horror, humanity will still arise, like the dawn, every day.