Aurora Humanitarian Initiative honors the life of co-founder Vartan Gregorian

2016 Aurora Prize Laureate Marguerite Barankitse, Vice Chair UWC Atlantic College Jill Longson, Aurora Prize Selection Committee Member Ernesto Zedillo, Human and Labor Rights Activist Syeda Ghulam Fatima, Aurora Humanitarian Initiative co-founder Vartan Gregorian and Aurora Humanitarian Initiative co-founder Noubar Afeyan at the Aurora Dialogues at the United World College at Dilijan on May 27, 2017 in Yerevan, Armenia. (Photo by Victor Boyko/Getty Images for Aurora Humanitarian Initiative)

On June 5, the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative held an Aurora Dialogues Online event titled “Vartan Gregorian. The Aurora Co-Founder,” focused on Vartan Gregorian’s extraordinary life as humanitarian, educator and mentor. 

“[We are here] to pay tribute to the late Aurora Humanitarian Initiative co-founder and my dear friend, the incomparable Vartan Gregorian, who was an inspiration to us all and a man whose intellectual and moral legacy will live on and influence generations of thinkers and scholars,” said Washington Post columnist and event moderator David Ignatius in his welcoming remarks.

Noubar Afeyan, co-founder of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative and founder and CEO of Flagship Pioneering, set the tone for the tribute: “Over many years that I knew Vartan, I always felt he was looking over my shoulder and over the shoulder of all those he knew. What’s even more impressive though is that through his life’s work Vartan also looked over the shoulders of many thousands, if not millions more, most of whom he didn’t know.”

Overwhelmed with emotion, it was hard for Lord Ara Darzi, chair of the Aurora Prize Selection Committee and Director of the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College London, to maintain his composure as he spoke about Gregorian. “He was authentic. He was selfless. He was generous to many, including me. He was poetic. He was a romantic. He was a legend. Also, his wit, his infectious smile and the twinkle in his eyes made him a superb member [of the Selection Committee]. I learned a lot, watching him in action for a number of years,” said Lord Darzi.

“He was the guy who grew up in different cultures, around people of different religions and different beliefs,” said Dr. Tom Catena, chair of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, 2017 Aurora Prize Laureate and medical director of Mother of Mercy Hospital, Nuba Mountains, “And I think this really made him the man he was. He was a guy who could really get along with anybody and I think everybody felt that he was their friend.” 

This sentiment was echoed by 2016 Aurora Prize Laureate and Maison Shalom founder Marguerite Barankitse: “He was a symbol of hope, a symbol of love, of humility, of compassion. He was a holy man. He’s a saint. He has achieved what is written in the Holy Bible. He changed the world into a paradise.”

Samantha Power, USAID Administrator, former US Ambassador to the United Nations and former Aurora Prize Selection Committee member, referred to Gregorian as her “hero friend.” “The loss is immeasurable, but the fact that he had Aurora and the energy that it gave him was incredible. His own courage, his own fortitude, his own resilience are so self-evident. He is the embodiment of a self-made American man, but for any of us who’ve had the privilege of Vartan telling his own story, you would think that he had almost nothing to do with it,” said Power.

Gregorian truly lived by the principles he was striving to instill in others, noted Ernesto Zedillo, Aurora Prize Selection Committee member, director at Yale Center for the Study of Globalization and former President of Mexico: “When I tried to distinguish one element of Vartan’s interaction with the world, with humanity, with the people he had contact with throughout his life, the common element was generosity. And I think it was that generosity that led him to such incredible achievements. And generosity means love, love with which he did everything, and I think that is what made it possible.”

Mary Robinson, Aurora Prize Selection Committee member, chair of The Elders, former President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was captivated the moment she met Gregorian when he was still president of Brown University. “From the beginning, we were absolutely enchanted with this incredible president of the University – his humor, his knowledge. When I worked from New York for eight years, we had a lot of long discussions about human rights and other issues,” she reminisced.

Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, an Aurora Prize Selection Committee member and human rights activist, talked about Gregorian’s unrelenting quest for tolerance, understanding and peaceful coexistence, quoting an ancient Persian tale about the common source of all religions – humanity. “If a group spreads hatred in the name of religion or ideology and considers violence permissible, be certain that they have made a mistake and have gone astray,” said Ebadi, “I would like to pay tribute to Vartan Gregorian, my mentor, and to remember his efforts to spread knowledge, thanks to which he paved the way for peaceful coexistence.”

This was a cause the next speaker, Mirza Dinnayi, 2019 Aurora Prize Laureate and Luftbrücke Irak (Air Bridge Iraq) co-founder, could certainly get behind as someone who has seen his people persecuted for years and continues to fight for their lives today: “When I remember Vartan, I see an Armenian single mother who brought this great man and hero to the world, as a gift to the humanitarian family of the world. So we should also spread this ideology of humanism, of peace, of coexistence.”

Gregorian’s high spirits were a guiding light for many, as were his compassion and commitment, noted Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee, Aurora Prize Selection Committee member and founder and president of Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa: “An eternal optimist, I never ever think that there’s no hope in the world I live in, because not having hope is not having life. Vartan was someone who showed me, in those very short six years, that indeed, remaining indifferent to the suffering of others was not something that he did. He treated everyone like they mattered.”

There was a certain light in Gregorian that shined not only though his words, but most importantly, his actions, added John Prendergast, Aurora Prize Selection Committee member, human rights activist and co-founder of The Sentry: “He believed in the things most of us could not yet see, and he worked to make them happen. The concept of ‘bari luys,’ good light, was very important to him. He saw it as hope for a better future. He was transcendent in his ability to live in hope for a better future and in working to see that better future come to pass.”

As vice president of International Program and program director for Russia and Eurasia at Carnegie Corporation of New York and Aurora Creative Council member, Deana Arsenian had probably spent more time at Gregorian’s side than, perhaps, all of the other speakers combined. She expressed her gratitude for the event and a little sadness due to the inability to “compress my 30-year relationship with a person who can only be described as a force of nature into one moment,” so she could share it with others. She did try, however, telling the audience a touching story of Gregorian finding time in his busy schedule to chat with two five-year-old’s he met on the street during his trip to Yerevan in 2016, adding that it showed his “warm and fuzzy inner personality.” 

Ruben Vardanyan, co-founder of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative and Noôdome closed out the event and revealed his certainty that the cause that was so crucial for Gregorian will still go on, honoring his legacy. “For him, it was critical that we continue, because Aurora for him was important not only as a humanitarian issue. He liked that we found a way to keep this global agenda connected to the Armenian world,” said Vardanyan.

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