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. The tribute was moderated by David Ignatius, Associate Editor and Columnist for the Washington Post, with speakers including Aurora Co-Founders, Aurora Prize Selection Committee members and Aurora Prize Laureates. The viewers also had a chance to watch several videos featuring Vartan Gregorian over the years and hear him speak about the issues closest to his heart.
To kick-of the event, David Ignatius greeted all participants and the audience. “[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 Mr. Ignatius, turning the floor over to Aurora Co-Founder Noubar Afeyan.
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.”
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 remain composed and not overwhelmed with emotion as he spoke about Vartan 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’ve learned a lot, watching him in action for a number of years,” said Lord Darzi.
One of the people who have experienced Vartan’s life-changing touch was Dr. Tom Catena, Chair of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, 2017 Aurora Prize Laureate and Medical Director of Mother of Mercy Hospital, Nuba Mountains: “He was the guy who grew up in different cultures, around people of different religions and different beliefs. 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 Marguerite Barankitse, 2016 Aurora Prize Laureate and Founder of Maison Shalom, who said: “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.”
Other speakers were also eager to list Vartan Gregorian’s achievements while simultaneously highlighting his unwavering modesty. Samantha Power, USAID Administrator, former US Ambassador to the United Nations and former Aurora Prize Selection Committee member, referred to Vartan 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 Ms. Power.
Vartan 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.”
It was his unique personality that had Mary Robinson, Aurora Prize Selection Committee Member, Chair of The Elders, former President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights captivated the moment she met Vartan Gregorian when he was still President of the Brown University – and not only captivated her, but also her husband, as she warmly remembered. “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 8 years, we had a lot of long discussions about human rights and other issues,” she reminisced.
Shirin Ebadi, Aurora Prize Selection Committee Member, Nobel Laureate, Iranian lawyer and a human rights activist and Founder of Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran, talked about Vartan’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. <…> 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,” said Shirin Ebadi.
This was a cause the next speaker, Mirza Dinnayi, 2019 Aurora Prize Laureate and Co-Founder and Director of Luftbrücke Irak (Air Bridge Iraq), 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.”
Vartan’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 you like you mattered. He treated everyone like they mattered.”
There was a certain light in Vartan that shone 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 has probably spent more time at Vartan’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 Vartan finding time in his busy schedule to talk to 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.”
In conclusion of the event, Ruben Vardanyan, Co-Founder of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative; Co-Founder of Noôdome, thanked everyone and revealed his certainty that the cause that was so crucial for Vartan Gregorian will still go on, honoring his legacy. “Vartan had an important role in doing many projects in his life, but this was a unique project for him because he was one of the Co-Founders of Aurora, together with us. 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 Mr. Vardanyan.