CANBERRA – Bad news is all around us. The world confronts the possibility of a sexist, racist ignoramus occupying the White House next January. Unreconstructed authoritarians already are in charge in Russia and China. Populists of varying ugliness are winning elections from Poland to the Philippines. And Islamophobia is overriding compassion in almost every country, including my own, that must respond to the current refugee crisis. What Abraham Lincoln described in his first inaugural address as “the better angels of our nature” seem to have gone into hiding.
But every now and then, stories of people emerge that give us reason to hope for the ultimate triumph of human decency. Four such stories I have recently come across may be particularly helpful in dispelling some of the prevailing gloom. Celebrated last month in Yerevan, Armenia, at a ceremony to award the inaugural Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, these people’s stories are worth more global attention than they received at the time.
One of the finalists, Father Bernard Kinvi, leads a hospital mission serving a large area in the middle of the Central African Republic. When the vicious sectarian war between Muslim rebels and Christian militias flared across the country, tearing apart the community he served, he treated the wounds of fighters and hid victims from both sides without fear or prejudice. He did this at immense personal risk for months on end, repeatedly threatened by leaders on both sides for aiding the enemy.
Then there is Syeda Ghulam Fatima, who runs the Bonded Labor Liberation Front from a storefront in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Physically beaten on multiple occasions – and both shot and electrocuted – she has fought for decades to release from de facto slavery workers bonded to brick kiln owners. The Front has freed more than 80,000 bonded Pakistanis, more than two-thirds of them women and children.
Tom Catena is the only doctor serving a population of more than a half-million people in the Nuba Mountains of southern Sudan, which has been a war zone since 2011. With bombing and shelling of civilian areas an almost daily reality, he refused the evacuation option taken by other expatriates, accepted the risks, and worked without respite over the last five years to save the lives and health of many thousands of men, women, and children.
Finally, Marguerite Barankitse, a Burundian of Tutsi ethnicity, tried to hide scores of her Hutu neighbors in a church during the bloody convulsions of 1993. When they were discovered, she was stripped, tied to a chair, and forced to watch their murder by machete. Undeterred, she rescued the orphans of those killed – and many more like them. Then, supported by Christian charities in Luxembourg, she created the Maison Shalom centers, which have protected and nurtured thousands more orphans of war and AIDS. Today, with fear of genocidal violence in Burundi rising again, Barankitse, personally threatened by the current government, is establishing a reception center in neighboring Rwanda for those fleeing the country.
Any of these four antidotes to cynicism could have carried off the prize for which they were finalists – just as many more of the 186 nominees from around the world could reasonably have joined them onstage. In the end, it went to Maggie Barankitse, the “Mother of Burundi” – not least, perhaps, because the spotlight of recognition may help to prevent her unhappy country from sliding back into civil war.
The Aurora Prize, named after Aurora Mardiganian, who survived the Armenian genocide of 1915-1917 and did more than almost anyone else to keep its memory alive in subsequent decades, is the brainchild of the Russian-Armenian philanthropist Ruben Vardanyan. Its rationale is to recognize that ordinary people, when confronted with man’s inhumanity to man, can mobilize extraordinary reserves of courage, compassion, and commitment, and have a major life-saving impact.
The prize, to be given annually, carries with it not only $100,000 for the winner, but – uniquely in the world of humanitarian and human-rights awards – $1 million for one or more organizations that will help carry on the winner’s work.
As a member of the Prize jury – sitting (rather out of my pay grade) alongside a posse of Nobel Peace Prize winners and globally recognized humanitarians like Mary Robinson, Vartan Gregorian, and that most genuine of celebs, George Clooney – I can’t pretend to be completely objective about all of this. But it does seem to me only a matter of time before the Aurora Prize acquires a status close to that of the Nobel: A powerful way to recognize and celebrate our common humanity and everything that is most dignified and decent in human life. We need such affirmation in today’s world as much as we ever have.