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Our Institutions Cannot Stand Alone

Community—“a group of people sharing a common place, interests or goals” as defined through a Google search. Before the Genocide, the Armenian nation consisted primarily of an indigenous people living on their historical lands. One of the outcomes of the Genocide was the creation of the diaspora. Prior to 1915, the number of Armenians living outside of the homeland was relatively small, and many of those considered their situation to be temporary.
My paternal grandfather came to this country in 1913 as an unmarried 18 year old to earn money for his family and return to his native Sepastia. The evil intentions of the Young Turks changed his reality. He did return but as a volunteer in the Armenian Legion. When the final betrayal happened in 1920 in Cilicia, he returned to America, married with a child on the way and became a member of the diaspora.
By 1923, the Armenian nation consisted of those who remained in the homeland under Soviet control and survivors of the genocide rebuilding their lives around the world, including the United States. They built Armenian communities. We called them places like Watertown, Lowell, Indian Orchard, Granite City, Detroit or the lower east side of Manhattan. In some cases, the living density of the neighborhoods was such that they were literally neighborhoods. As time went on, they continued as communities , usually centered around the church, to meet the communal needs of a people living this dual life—loyal citizens of where their feet resided, but also servicing the faith and heritage that lived in their hearts.
These communities thrived and sustained on a single premise—commitment. Today we tend to think that everything revolves around wealth and education. Well there was a time when in the absence of both, commitment was the key ingredient. Much of our community infrastructure here in the United States was built during the time of the Great Depression (no money) and during the post-war period of the 50s (busy raising families). Yet look at what we have inherited in terms of physical facilities, churches, schools, cultural and educational organizations, media organizations and much more.
Like many of you, I grew up in a modest but comfortable loving family. Our parents were always at church for “meetings.” We were the kids whose parents were late to Little League games or Cub Scouts Programs because they had a parish council or “Garmeer Khatch” meeting. Many of our parents and grandparents gave us an AP course on what it meant to be dedicated, committed, selfless and service-focused. This is the fuel that makes our community engine roar.
For generations, the Armenian community has relied on this lesson to be taught to the emerging generation—to establish and build the value of giving of your time, talent and treasure. For most of us it was not a distinct discussion, but rather the joy of watching them as role models. My father was a deacon of the church. He was a kind and talented man, but he had a simple rule for me and my sisters: whatever you do Saturday night, be in the car at 9:30 am for church. Simple and to the point. Years later, I love him more for giving us this gift. He taught us by example. For years, I watched my parents come home late from a dance or a night out, and yet they took their respective places on the altar and inside Sunday School classrooms the following morning.
Everyone has their own stories. Each one is very important because it had an impact on you. It’s a very simple recipe. Teach your children. When you choose not to, the impact on the sustainable community can be substantial. I compare it to the environment. If we do something that could negatively impact the environment, it may not be visible for decades, but it will affect the future. Missing opportunities to inspire our children relative to their faith and heritage will limit our success. When we stay away from church or don’t get our kids involved in ACYOA or AYF, the connection becomes more remote. There simply is no substitute for participation.
Indeed, the US diaspora has built an impressive infrastructure, and in the last 30 years has multiplexed with its commitment to Armenia and Artsakh. But what about the human fuel required to make this engine function? The vast majority of this identity-preserving machine relies on volunteers for its success. Yes, that would be you. Granted, the community has priests, executive directors, administrative functions and other “paid” positions, but these individuals frequently are so off the charts with their dedication that they operate like volunteers. We are now experiencing the fourth adult generation in the post-genocide diaspora in the United States. The community appears strong and vibrant, but a closer look reveals some areas that require serious attention.
Most research shows that the diluting impact of ethnic assimilation in the western diaspora is visible during second adult generation born in the diaspora. This is consistent with our experience if you consider the drop off in active commitment participation (an earlier column “Calling all Baby Boomers” was devoted to this reality). From a chronological standpoint, that decline should have been publicly evident in the late 70s or early 80s when this generation began its adult tenure. So what happened to avoid this dilemma? Simply stated, it is called IMMIGRATION. Just as immigration has refreshed and added needed value to America for generations, it has replenished the need for resources and vibrancy of the Armenian communities we cherish.
In the 50s and early 60s, a significant influx of our brethren came here from Egypt and other Middle Eastern nations experiencing nationalistic turmoil. In the late 60s and 70s into the early 80s, there was a large migration of Armenians from pre and post war Lebanon and Syria. The late 70s began with Iranian Armenians leaving a changing environment. And finally the 90s and 2000s have brought us our compatriots from Azerbaijan and Armenia. These people have added incredible value to our communities, religious, educationally and culturally. Although their personal stories are challenging at best and horrific at worst, one has to wonder where we would be without this unpredictable phenomenon?
If this trend in the second adult generation continues, then where would the next replenishment come from? The Middle East? Unlikely given the depletion of many communities. Armenia? Let’s hope not, given our vision of the future. Western Europe? Probably not. The quick answer is that we have probably already experienced the majority of immigration in the last 60 years. It seems likely that this is an indigenous ballgame here on out.
According to the recently published Armenian Diaspora Survey pilot program, only 46 percent of the respondents in the Boston area (there were four pilot locations surveyed: Marseilles, Cairo and Pasadena in addition to Boston) volunteered “often” in the community. Another 27 percent responded “sometimes,” while over 25 percent said “rarely” or “never.” This is very telling and generally consistent with our personal, experiential data. I would encourage everyone to read the detailed report to understand the methodology and rich information from this unprecedented review of our community life. The results in this single section (there are others on religion, politics, culture, etc.) give us a glimpse at the problem, or I prefer to say the opportunity. My guess is that if this survey was taken 50 to 60 years ago, the active participation index would have been over 75 percent.
The point is that our communities need the human element to function. That recipe has not changed. Is this overstating the intuitively obvious? Perhaps, but consider this a personal appeal. At the end of the day, participation is an individual decision. We can’t hide behind distractions or our interpersonal relationships with other community members. Many traditional organizations are experiencing some difficulties in making the “generational transition.” The church is one institution that stands out, but there are many others.
Some groups are very active in recruitment to increase participation and make the generational bridge. The Armenian Relief Society (ARS) comes to mind as one example. This is a 109 year old group that continues to evolve in service to our people. The AGBU is another example especially with its Young Professional group. Newer options (relatively) such as Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA) and Armenian Business Network have emerged to serve the changing needs of our communities. Cultural groups such as Hamazkayin and Tekeyan anchor an important function. NAASR is experiencing a major resurgence in its impact on Armenian studies and the Armenian Museum of America has expanded its work in the community. For those in the northeast, just look at community calendars such as “Menk”—very impressive activity level.
All of this serves two mutually beneficial functions. It gives their Armenian mission life, and it offers YOU a vehicle to manifest your identity. We all need to take a moment to ask ourselves: how do we express our Armenian identity? Is it simply a personal matter that we share at random moments? Or is it a higher calling to contribute to the sustainability of what we have inherited? Some may call it a responsibility. I call it a mutual arrangement. If you give, you will receive much more. The need is there waiting for us.
Stepan PiligianColumnist


Armenian Weekly

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