YEREVAN, Armenia — Academics, former world leaders, humanitarian heavyweights and human-rights defenders descended on the Armenian capital this weekend for a heavy dose of altruism and idealism.
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While the most pressing issue to emerge was refugees, it soon became clear that the elephant in the venues of Yerevan was U.S. President Donald Trump.
They had gathered for the Aurora Dialogues, a two-day conference on global humanitarian issues that is one of the programs of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative. The organization was founded by three philanthropists of Armenian descent in 2015, the centenary of the Armenian genocide, in which up to 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey were killed. The organization's Aurora Prize is awarded annually to an individual who has made a contribution to advancing humanitarian causes, receiving $100,000 and an additional $1 million to allocate to organizations that inspired their work.
Actor-humanitarian activist George Clooney presented the prize last year. This year, there was an air of urgency as the increasingly calamitous Trump administration entered its fifth month. The Aurora Dialogues coincided with the G-7 summit in Sicily, where Trump’s team managed to scupper plans by the Italian hosts for a comprehensive initiative to support the rights of the millions of migrants who cross into Europe.
According to a report issued by the United Nations last year, as of the end of 2015 there were more than 65 million refugees and internally displaced people around the world, surpassing even the numbers after World War II. “The refugee crisis has reached a critical point,” Edward Djerejian, who served as U.S. ambassador to Syria and later to Israel, told Haaretz. “It’s a cruel reality that the refugee crisis has proved to destabilize the regional and international orders.”
Many of the speakers in Yerevan viewed Trump’s presidential win as a symptom of a much larger, more global phenomenon of nationalism and the rise of the right. His nativism has so far led to a campaign promise to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border at the Mexicans’ expense (a plan which is yet to materialize), the creation of the controversial so-called Muslim ban and the reduction — and then reluctant backtracking — of the number of refugees the United States will accept each year. “We all know that building a wall will not help. The Roman Empire couldn’t keep their walls up,” said Ruben Vardanyan, one of Aurora’s founders.
Jamila Afghani, the driving force behind educating Afghan girls and women and a nominee for the Aurora prize, expressed her dismay at watching the refugee situation in Syria and other countries unfold, saying it reminds her of Afghanistan during and after the Soviet war of the 1980s, when a third of her country also fled. “I never thought I’d see it again. We must try educate the children who are refugees, or they could lose their whole future,” said Afghani, who grew up in a Pakistani refugee camp.
According to a new survey conducted by Aurora of over 6,000 people in 12 countries, most mistakenly believe that the West is doing more than others in accommodating refugees. The majority of respondents thought that the United States, France and Germany took in the most refugees, whereas in reality the lion’s share belongs to Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, believed to have given shelter to some 10 million people over the last decade. The Russians, who have come under international criticism for taking in few Syrian refugees despite its two-year military role in the war there, were the most reluctant to take in refugees. Only 17 percent of those polled saying they would welcome them. Around 44 percent of Americans polled said they would welcome refugees, whereas Kenya topped the list, with 87 percent of respondents saying they welcomed them.
And while the survey was conducted when Trump was already in power, over February and March, perceptions could alter as the Trump administration appears increasingly allergic to cooperation with other powers. Attending his first NATO meeting in Brussels last week, Trump chastized fellow members for not paying their dues (even though the military alliance does not collect payments that way), shoved the Montenegrin president out of the way for a photo op and trailed behind his European colleagues as they walked through the streets of Sicily — in a golf cart. “If the U.S. diminishes its role in multilateralism, other countries could follow suit, and this could create an even worse situation globally,” warned former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo.
In sharp contrast to Trump’s European tour involving a slew of gaffes, his trip to — and $110 billion weapons deal with — Saudi Arabia has been cause for particular alarm in the human rights community. “What President Trump doesn’t understand is that governments who violate the human rights of their own people are fomenting terrorism, they are part of the problem,” said Elisa Massimino, president of the New York-based Human Rights First. “By visiting Saudi Arabia, he sends a signal to countries that America is not going to mess around with your human rights record, and we’re going to see more of that.” Massimino gave the example of Bahrain, which suffered a deadly government attack on an opposition rally two days after Trump reassured King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of their good relationship. “Trump has given the green light,” Massimino said.
The genocide experience of tiny Armenia — its population is a mere three million — means the landlocked state is uniquely positioned to help others. “We’ve been traveling the globe for a hundred years. We know what it means to have to live in a different culture, different places,” said Vardanyan, whose idea to create Aurora stemmed from the millions of Armenians who helped their fellow compatriots during the horrors. The eight-year genocide, which came to an end in 1923, flung Armenians around the globe, and the active diaspora alone is thought to number around eight million. Similarities between the Armenian and Jewish experiences are obvious, although Israel has not formally recognized the Armenian genocide, fearful of further weakening ties with Turkey. (Twenty-eight countries have called what happened genocide, including Russia, France and Canada, but not the United States).
“As a Jew, I’ve been struck by the dramatic clarity of the message: we are here because we were saved, therefore it’s our obligation to save more people, and that’s for human rights around the world,” said Ruth Messinger, global ambassador for the American Jewish World Service. “That’s one of the messages I want to bring to the American Jewish community.”