Glendale Teacher Confronted on Xenophobic Attitude Toward Armenian-American Youth

The front page of the June 7, 1945 issue of the Hairenik Weekly, based out of Watertown MA. The cover art speaks to the patriotism of Armenian-American youth during WWII

The front page of the June 7, 1945 issue of the Hairenik Weekly, based out of Watertown MA. The cover art speaks to the patriotism of Armenian-American youth during WWII

LOS ANGELES–Dan Kimber, a teacher in the Glendale Unified School District, recently authored a commentary piece in the Glendale News Press criticizing the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) for being “un-American,” implying that the organization, with deep roots in the United States, was “out of step with the professed ideals of this country.”

There are several prejudicial, offensive and disturbing points in Dan Kimber’s column, which require clarification,” said AYF Chairman Vache Thomassian, speaking to Asbarez on the matter. “The Armenian Youth Federation, for the past seven-plus decades, has served our local communities and provided a positive outlet for Armenian youth to make a difference in the United States.”

Kimber, however, disagreed in his column. Describing the organization as ethnocentric, Kimber matter-of-factly characterized a good American as one who assimilates into a homogenous citizenry, rather than celebrating cultural diversity and individual identity.

“The whole attitude seems to me to be, in a word, un-American,” Kimber said in his commentary, referring to the AYF’s mission. “I know that there will be many in this community who will disagree with me, but my gut feeling–no, make that an absolute conviction–is that the Armenian Youth Federation, or any organization for that matter that dedicates itself to a “stick to your own kind” philosophy, is out of step with the professed ideals of this country.”

“Rather than advocate for a homogenous and assimilated citizenry, Mr. Kimber should examine American history and understand that a multi-culturalist view which respects the right for all peoples to celebrate and maintain their identities, is the true American way,” added Thomassian.

The Armenian National Committee-Western Region (ANC-WR) challenged the teacher’s April 16 article, “Greet Melting Pot With Open Arms,” which questioned Armenian-American patriotism. On April 22, Vicken Sonentz-Papazian, the Chairman of the ANC-WR and an AYF alumnus, rebuked Kimber’s piece, saying it “completely mischaracterizes the origins and purpose of the organization.”

In his commentary, titled “Teacher Fails to do Homework,” Sonentz-Papazian outlined the long history of the AYF in the United States and the roles that its alumni played at important moments in American history.

“As an alumnus of the Armenian Youth Federation, I read with a sense of great consternation Dan Kimber’s woefully misplaced commentary piece, which completely mischaracterizes the origins and purpose of the organization,” Sonentz-Papazian said.

Kimber described the AYF’s dedication to community service as a type of “ethnocentric behavior” that “encourages the very kind of separateness that many in our community and in our schools are fighting against. Under the guise of cultural integrity, national pride or whatever high-sounding phrases one might summon.”

“Any organization that would write such a sentence displays not only an ignorance of what this country is all about but promotes a thinly veiled prejudice as well,” Kimber said, taking issue with the AYF’s founding mission to nurture Armenian heritage among the children of Genocide survivors living in the United States.

“The same organization that Mr. Kimber insidiously describes as ethnocentric, sent over 1000 servicemen and women to battle during World War II, is the same organization that sets out annual projects to clean and beautify the streets of Los Angeles and is the same organization which has an annual scholarship program for graduating high school students to financial assist their education,” Thomassian noted.

The teacher’s commentary came two weeks after more than 300 volunteers from the Armenian Youth Federation spent an entire day combing the streets of Hollywood, picking up trash, planting new trees, and removing graffiti as part of the organization’s 6th Annual Little Armenia Beautification Project.

Earlier that month the organization teamed with the Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center to mobilize its members throughout Southern California to donate their blood during a Red Cross blood drive, overwhelming the hospital with donors and support.

The AYF was established in 1933 in Boston, on the heels of the Armenian Genocide. In those years, its founder, General Garegin Njdeh “turned his attention from fighting successive campaigns against the Turkish and then communist invaders to saving a desperate and scattered nation, half of which was held captive under Soviet rule, the other half attempting to deal with the trauma of annihilation, the assimilation of Armenian youth truly represented a step closer to extinction,” Sonentz-Papazian explained in his response to Kimber..

Sonentz-Papazian noted that it was Njdeh, who in that same year, “nurtured and advised” one founding member, Col. Harry Sachaklian, who served “with distinction as a military aide to then-Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe.”

“In fact, 40 members of the organization died during World War II, having served our nation with distinction in Okinawa, Normandy and at the Battle of the Bulge,” Sonentz-Papazian said, noting that another alumnus, Sue Sarafian, was assigned to the highly sensitive post of personal secretary to Eisenhower.

Since its inception, Papazian continued, the AYF’s members “have successfully balanced their devotion to the preservation of their heritage with their service and sacrifice to the growth of America. The organization’s membership, he continued, has always been “ready, willing and more than able to both serve America while preserving their proud Armenian heritage.”

“Perhaps if Kimber did his homework he would not have found the simple yet profound words about the federation and assimilation so threatening and ‘un-American,’” Sonentz-Papazian’s commentary concluded. “Kimber owes the Armenian Youth Federation, and specifically his young student who reached out to him, an apology and perhaps he should hit the books before broaching such a sensitive topic next time around.”

“This type of xenophobic attitude should be done away with, especially among those who purport to educate our youth,” Thomassian said, echoing Sonentz-Papazian’s concerns.

On April 23, 2009, Kimber apologized to the AYF for his previous remarks and elaborated on his position after “receiving more than 50 responses” from what he described as the “good people in our community.” His response appeared in a piece titled, “Revising a Couple of Columns.”

“And now about last week’s column. I received more than 50 responses from the good people in our community, more than any column I have written in the past six years. The subject was assimilation, and the object was a sentence that I came across in writing a student recommendation that read like a mission statement from the Armenian Youth Federation. I have since learned, and probably should have researched before I wrote the article, that the federation has done a world of good for more than 70 years and did not deserve this slap for one (however misguided) sentence. My apologies to the Armenian Youth Federation,” he said.

The Armenian National Committee – Western Region is the largest and most influential Armenian American grassroots advocacy organization in the Western United States. Working in coordination with a network of offices, chapters, and supporters throughout the Western United States and affiliated organizations around the country, the ANC-WR promotes awareness of the Armenian American community on a broad range of issues.

The Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) was founded in 1933. Since then, it has grown to become the largest and most influential Armenian American youth organization with chapters throughout the United States and affiliated organizations around the world. The group actively strives to advance the social, political, educational and cultural awareness of all Armenian-American youth. For more information on the AYF, visit www.ayfwest.org

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