21 February 2007

1446) The Role of the ARF in the Diaspora

In this part of the world, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation is over 110 years old. It came ashore with the earliest immigrants, was established and worked and helped to maintain a small part of our nation on faraway shores. Our Lowell, Mass., chapter, the oldest, was established in 1894, and our Armenian-language newspaper, the Hairenik, is the longest-running Armenian newspaper we have. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation today is a presence in most every city in the U.S. with an Armenian population.

We have to remember the past because here, as in most every corner of the Diaspora, the history of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation is the history of our people. And the struggle of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation has been the struggle of the Armenian nation, the struggle to liberate our people and to ensure their future. For the Diaspora, this effort has meant two things: building for our national survival and working towards Hai Tahd.

When you stand up for your rights, you have freed yourself from years of persecution, oppression and the lingering shadows of a genocide. The work which the Armenian Revolutionary Federation pursues in the political arena, our Hai Tahd, is an assertion of our rights as a nation, is a statement to all that Armenians not only survive, but lay claim to justice as citizens of this world. This effort has defined an entire generation of our youth, has created a political identity in all of us, and has helped invigorate our communities. We have risen to this challenge not alone, but with the support of our entire community. It has been possible to lead, because this nation trusts the Armenian Revolutionary Federation to pursue these goals. It is the trust which you have in the Dashnaktsoutiune which enabled us to establish ourselves in the center of Washington last year with the purchase of our new ANCA building. It is this trust which brings a Senator like Menendez or Biden to work with us, and not only for our financial support only, but for the grassroots and shared ideals which we represent. It is the fact that the Armenian Revolutionary Federation feels the pulse of our nation, and that the Armenian Revolutionary Federation is accountable always and only to the Armenian nation.

And so we have worked hard to support our friends in the American political system, supporting people like Congressmen Schiff, Pallone and Knollenberg in their election campaigns. We have also worked with Sen. Menendez to put a hold on the nomination of Mr. Hoagland as U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, because we, as our friends, believe in truth and in a cause that is just.

We are making every effort now to realize the Genocide Resolution in Congress with our friends on both sides of the isle. The Genocide Resolution is not only a condemnation of Turkey's crime committed over 90 years ago, but is also a condemnation of its reluctance to come to terms with its past, a condemnation of the kind of oppression and limits on speech that foster hatred and racism. A poisoned public opinion fueled by years of lies which results in desecration and attacks against Armenian churches and cemeteries, destruction of symbols of Armenian cultural heritage, and even assassinations'like that of Hrant Dink.

Whether it is in Washington or in the Illinois State House, whether it is a genocide resolution or aid to Armenia, or a high school Genocide curriculum, we never tire of these goals because we bear the trust our nation has in us to defend our political and human rights. And we know that in this effort, together we will prevail.

But this is only part of what the Dashnaktsoutiune does.

For any political effort to succeed, you first need to establish vibrant, viable Armenian communities. Ten or 20 or even 80,000 Armenians in an area such as New Jersey do not become an Armenian community just by being there. A community needs centers, it needs churches, it needs schools, it needs cultural activities, it needs newspapers, it needs to see each other, to gather together, to learn of each other, to share lives with one another. This is what a Diasporan community is about. And this is the work, the supreme effort which the Armenian Revolutionary Federation has engaged in from the beginning, the struggle, which has meant really the survival of a nation.

When you establish an Armenian Revolutionary Federation chapter in New Jersey, it means you are forming, organizing the New Jersey community. It means one day you will build a church, and one day you will open a school, and then a center, then youth clubs and cultural associations and newspapers and picnics and dances, and you have given space for a fragment of our nation to breathe and to prosper. It is the same story in every community. And it is this same effort the Dashnaktsoutiune has always been engaged in. In the Diaspora, our struggle has been one of national survival, not just as individuals, but as Armenians. It has been to create the conditions for generations of Armenians to retain their identity, to realize their dreams and to come to the aid of Armenia.

And so we have the Hairenik Building, the Hairenik newspaper, the Armenian Weekly, the Armenian National Committee of America, the local Armenian National Committee chapters, the local Armenian Revolutionary Federation chapters, the Armenian Youth Federation, the Armenian Relief Society, the Hamazkayin, the Homenetmen, the Prelacy and the parish churches, the schools and the community centers, and all the activities in our communities across this region that have allowed us the freedom to stay Armenian.

Dozens of people have joined the ranks of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation recently in this region, and many hundreds internationally. They join because they see the Armenian Revolutionary Federation as the organization that has for over 100 years struggled to secure a future for the diaspora and for Armenia, and they see the Armenian Revolutionary Federation as the embodiment of the most noble ideas in our national character, of sacrifice and of dedication to a national ideal.

But whether it is in Hai Tahd, in community building or securing and helping Armenia, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation has never been alone in its efforts. Just as we share the stage every day with those joining to help us, we share our work also with all the churches and our entire community. And it has always been so. It is only in that spirit and together that we have succeeded and prevailed in the past, and it is the only way we will ever succeed and prevail in the future as a nation.

Hayg Oshagan is the chairman of the ARF Central Committee, Eastern USA.

From Lebanon to the World, and Back An Interview with Harut Sassounian (Part 1) By Khatchig Mouradian

When I read the press release issued by the United Armenian Fund (UAF) saying that $4.5 million would be allocated to the Armenian schools in Lebanon, my mind went blank for a while. I had left Lebanon shortly after what became known as the `34-day War' in the summer of 2006, and I was deeply concerned about the economic hardships the Lebanese in general and the Lebanese-Armenians in particular were facing.

This intervention by the UAF could not have come at a better time.

Six months later, the political and economic situation in Lebanon remains unstable, to say the least. A community that was once the jewel on the crown of the Armenian Diaspora is now facing serious hardships.

In this interview, conducted by phone from Watertown, Mass., I talk with Harut Sassounian'journalist, activist and president of the UAF'about some of his memories of Lebanon and impressions from his most recent visit, when he delivered the first half of the $4.5 million in financial assistance to the Armenian schools there.

***

Armenian Weekly'In your column `Lebanon: the Revival of a Vital Armenian Community,' you write: `I am confident that Lebanon will rise like a phoenix from the ashes and take care of not only its own needs, but also reach out to those in other Armenian communities throughout the Diaspora and Armenia.' From where do you derive this confidence?

Harut Sassounian'For a long time, Lebanon was the center of the Armenian Diaspora, the heart and soul of the Diaspora, providing many teachers, artists, intellectuals, clergymen, etc., to different Armenian communities in the world. Lebanon is currently in dire straits. It is my honest belief that once the political and economic problems in Lebanon are resolved, the Lebanese-Armenian community will bounce back and resume its role as the provider of the needs of the Diaspora's various Armenian communities.

A.W.'You spent your entire youth in Lebanon before leaving for the U.S. in 1969. Did your emotional attachment to Lebanon have any bearing on your decision to provide financial assistance to Armenian schools there?

H.S.'As an Armenian, I care about all Armenian communities. However, I've lived in Lebanon, I went to school there, and those years have great emotional significance to me. Therefore, the developments in Lebanon particularly attract my attention. For a long time, I have been hearing stories about Armenian schools shutting down or joining other schools, etc. So when the opportunity came to do something, I was all for it.

A.W.'Share with us your memories of Lebanon.

H.S.'Teenage years are the best times, because we don't have to worry about financial burdens, community affairs or other matters. We are just growing up and learning. I will recount one memory that is very relevant to the subject matter of this interview. One year, when my parents could not afford to pay the tuition for my high school in Lebanon, I was sent home'even though I was the top student in my class. That left a scar on me, and I learned early on how money could derail a young person's educational pursuits. Fortunately, I was asked to return to school a few days later and was told that an anonymous donor paid my tuition. I insisted on knowing the identity of that person in order to thank him or her, but my request was refused.

Years later, I found out that my tuition was paid by my English teacher, Miss Olivier Balian, who cared so much about my education that she took a cut from her measly salary to pay for my tuition. During my recent visit to Lebanon, I visited her, accompanied by several classmates of mine, and thanked her. She was very touched by the fact that I remembered her gesture some 40 years later. She thought that it was very fitting for a student who was unable to pay his tuition to return years later and provide financial help to Armenian students unable to pay theirs. Visiting her was one of the highlights of my Lebanon trip.

A.W.'The United Armenian Fund provided $4.5 million in financial aid to Armenian schools in Lebanon. How was this money allocated?

H.S.'The sum of $4.5 million was calculated based on the specific needs of each of the 28 schools in Lebanon. We tried to cover the needs of schools in three different areas: 1) Tuition. We contacted the schools and asked about the amount of tuition for each class as well as the number of students who were unable to pay their tuition fully or partially. Based on that information, we allocated about $3.25 million for tuition. Five thousand out of the 7,000 students in Armenian schools benefited from this amount. 2) We obtained from the schools the amount of the salaries of the teachers and other staff, and the number of months they hadn't been paid. The amount needed to cover these salaries'for more that 500 teachers and staff'was around $750,000. 3) We provided an additional $500,000 to the schools for general expenses. The money was allocated based on the number of students. Each school received $10,000-50,000.

A.W.'What steps were taken to ensure that these funds serve the intended purpose?

H.S.'Once we had all of the details, we issued a press release announcing that we were providing financial assistance, so that the Lebanese-Armenian community would be aware that there was a sum of money with which student tuition would be paid and teachers would receive their back pay. Then I flew to Lebanon for the first time in 37 years, met with the leadership and staff of all schools, explained what were doing, and handed the checks personally to the principal and board of each of the 28 schools (24 in the Beirut area, 1 in Tripoli and 3 in Anjar). I also asked for a full report. We paid the tuition for the first half of the year, and the second half will be paid in the spring of 2007, just to make sure the funds are being used appropriately before providing the second half. I did not want to take any measures beyond that because that would have indicated a lack of trust in the Lebanese-Armenian community. I did not, for example, interview teachers and ask them whether they got their salaries. I did not visit students' homes and ask whether their tuition was paid. Just because a community is in a crisis because of war and economic problems, they should not be treated as if we are doing them a favor. These are hard working and proud people. They have done a lot for Armenians worldwide for decades and we ought to treat them with trust and respect. If anybody shows any signs of have done something wrong, we can deal with it accordingly later on.

A.W.'After leaving Lebanon, you obtained two Masters degrees (in international affairs from Columbia University and from Pepperdine University), worked for Procter and Gamble, and served 10 years as a non-governmental delegate on human rights at the United Nations in Geneva. How did the shift to journalism and helming the California Courier happen?

H.S.'The company I was working for in LA laid off many workers, including me. I was looking for a job. One day, I ran into George Mason, who had founded the California Courier in 1958. We had never met before. We talked for a few minutes and there was nothing we agreed on, whether it was Armenian issues, American issues, football, etc. The next morning, he sent word that he was very impressed by me and wanted to offer me the job of editor of the California Courier. I was stunned. I did not have any background in journalism. But we talked and I took the position. In those days, the Courier was mostly a social paper with no hard-hitting material on the Armenian cause.

He asked me to write an editorial the first day of the job. I barely knew how to write a regular article, let alone an editorial. That week, Turkish ambassador Sukru Elekdag denied the Armenian Genocide. I sat down and, after agonizing, wrote an editorial titled `Sukru Elekdag should be expelled from the U.S. as persona non grata.' That was my first editorial. When I wrote it, I had no idea what I was doing. I just wrote from my heart on the cause that was dear to me, having spent years and years in Armenian activism. It was just a matter of putting it on paper.

The Courier readers were not used to hard-hitting editorials. A lot of people were unhappy with the sudden appearance of this strange person. They asked what happened to the social paper that they had read for years.

But I continued in the same vein.

Little by little, people came around. And then, other Armenian papers in the U.S., as well as in Canada, Europe, Armenia, Iran and Lebanon started reprinting my columns. The Armenian Weekly, for example, has been printing my columns for 15 years. Some of them are also posted on the Huffington Post and many have been translated to Turkish.

Khatchig Mouradian is the editor of the Armenian Weekly.

By Hayg Oshagan
AWOL

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