The ARF: Building a Legacy of Service to the Nation

118 years ago, three young Armenians came together to plan a revolution.  This was not merely a revolution of politics, but also of ideas.  Until the late 19th century, the thought that Armenians could take charge of their own national fate seemed as distant as the last Armenian kingdom.  Inspired by their times and the notion that the success of the nation lied not in the hands of one leader, but the voice of the organized masses, they changed the course of Armenian history forever.

Over a 1,500 people gathered at Glendale High School’s auditorium on Sunday, January 11th to recall the founding of that revolution, a political party called the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF).  Over the last century the ARF has grown from its humble roots in both size and geography. Through its efforts it has earned the respect of the people and the right to represent them in the service of the Armenian nation.

Founded in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1890, the ARF was “born from the need of the Armenian people to revolt against centuries of oppression,” exclaimed Aram Kaloustian, a member of the ARF’s Western US Central Committee.   This oppression came from both within and outside of the community.  It was the harsh rule of the Sulanate or the Tsarist regime and the antiquated Armenian societal constructs which discouraged the individual’s ambition to take charge of his or her own civic life.

Its founding ideals of self-determination and social justice reflected the romantic spirit of the European Enlightenment spreading throughout the Armenian world. While its founders, Christapor Mikaelian, Stepan Zorian, and Simon Zavarian were part of a generation of youth educated abroad in a time of national revival, dreaming of a brighter, freer future.

This generation observed a people divided between empires, ravaged by wars and plagued by centuries of paralysis and despair. The bleak reality facing the nation, long ignored by those in the position to affect change had grown intolerable for them.

The ARF Dashnaktsutyun, Kaloustian explained, was this generations attempt “to change that which had seemed unchangeable, to consider something new, something different, something better for the Armenian people.”

These ordinary people, no older than today’s university graduate, were inspired by the literary titans of their day to became revolutionary heroes, fighting for the liberation of a people whose history had been derailed, relegated to the footnotes of dominating powers.

At first the ARF was a confederation of smaller groups and organizations united by common concerns and principles. It soon became the standard bearer of the Armenian Cause, at the forefront of the struggle for civil rights in the Ottoman Empire, organizing self-defense units during the Armenian Genocide, as well as founding an independent democratic republic that would provide a distinct homeland to balance and compliment the Armenian people’s worldwide dispersion.

After the genocide and the collapse of the first Armenian Republic in 1921, The ARF turned its attention to national revival.  It built an international infrastructure to support the development of Armenian communities in exile.  As communities matured and evolved, new generations joined the ARF to serve the Armenian people with a vision to thrive in their adopted countries, not merely survive.

An Armenian Red Cross

The building blocks for this enormous project had been laid by the ARF in the early 1900s, in places like the United States, where Armenians had come at the turn of the century seeking refuge from Turkish massacres and repression.

The Hamidian Massacres of the mid 1890s had left over a hundred thousand dead in the Armenian provinces, triggering a mass exodus of Armenian refugees to America. In 1910, Khachatour Maloumian (Stepan Agnouni), a member of the ARF’s governing Bureau, set out to create a relief society in New York to help the growing refugee population cope with the realities of immigrant life in the United States.

As the ARF’s Red Cross, the Armenian Relief Society provided the nascent community with social support. That most of the newcomers were poor and working as unskilled factory and mill workers made the establishment of a social safety net for the community all the more essential.

In 1915, the ARS opened its second chapter in Fresno, followed by another in Hollywood in 1918. After the Genocide, ARS chapters began to emerge wherever Armenians resettled, establishing orphanages and schools and providing social services to Armenian refugees in the Middle East, Iran, the Americas, and other communities where the ARF had an established presence.

Today, the ARS has 223 chapters throughout the world with over 16,000 members. The Western United States alone has 26 chapters, 16 Saturday schools, 5 social service offices, 2 after school Armenian academies and one Psychological Counseling Center.

After Armenia gained independence in 1991, the ARS set up offices throughout the homeland, running schools and orphanages throughout Armenia and Karabakh. The primary mission of the ARS now, just as it was a century ago, is the “preservation of our communal health and social welfare,” according to Rima Poghosian who serves on the Western ARS’s Central Executive. Through its social services, she explained, the ARS works to “ensure the needs of the community are met in order to provide the foundation for a strong and growing diaspora.”

“Elevate Yourself and Others With You”

A similar vision inspired the creation of the Armenian General Athletic and Scouting Union, better known as Homenetmen in Constantinople. By the turn of the century the capital city of the Ottoman Empire had become a politicized hotbed of Armenian activity focused on national unity.

In 1911, Shavarsh Krissian, a prominent coach and member of the ARF in Constantinople, wrote of the need to promote community unity through the cooperation of its athletics organizations. Though the Genocide cut Krissian’s life short and halted his plans for unifying Armenian athletics, his dream lived on. At the end of World War I, a new group of Armenians set out to continue Krissian’s work, establishing Homenetmen in 1918.

With “strong mind, strong body” as its creed, Homenetmen set out to inspire the national spirit of a new generation of Armenian youth, scattered and scarred by the genocide. Since its establishment, it has played an essential role in shaping the discipline and leadership capabilities of generations of Armenian youth. Through its scouting, athletics and principles of sportsmanship, Homenetmen sought to instill in youth an awareness of national duty, fraternity, and patriotism.

Today, Homenetmen has over 25,000 members internationally, with approximately 8,000 members in the Western U.S. alone. The organization “serves our community, serves everybody at every age level, whether you’re seven years old or 90 years old, there’s something for you in Homenetmen,” stressed its Western US Chairman Steve Artinian. “And everything that we do, all promotes one thing, becoming a better Armenian.”

Preserving the Soul of a Nation

The essence of a people can be seen in its culture–such as its literature, art, and music. The Genocide put an abrupt and brutal end to an era of cultural revival for the Armenian people, while the collapse of the first Armenian Republic made refugees out of the Armenian people.

In 1928 the ARF in Cairo set out to establish an organization that would work to undo the damage of the genocide and preserve the cultural existence of the Armenian people as they sought to reconstitute their world.

The Hamazkayin Armenian Educational and Cultural Society was established on May 28 that year to “to preserve and grow the cultural wealth of the Armenian people in the Diaspora,” according to Anita Hawatian, a member of the Hamazkayin Regional Executive in the Western US.

In the years that followed, Hamazkayin chapters began to form throughout the Middle East, Europe, the United States, Canada, South America, Australia, and after 1991, the Republic of Armenia.

For more than 80 years now the organization has given generations of Armenians in the Diaspora an opportunity to experience the rich heritage of Armenian culture. Its schools preserved and developed the Armenian literary tradition, while local dance groups refined and modernized the traditional dances of the Armenian villages.

“Today, Hamazkayin has chapters worldwide in Canada, USA, Buenos Aires, England, France, Greece, Lebanon, Syria, Australia and Armenia,” said Hawatian. This organization, founded by a generation of refugees, has over the decades “established schools (Jemarans) in Aleppo, Beirut, Marseilles, and Australia. It also has a college for Armenian studies still functioning in Aleppo. The graduates of which are writing our Armenian books and newspapers and teaching in Armenian schools throughout the Diaspora.”

In its formative years, Hamazkayin established the Kaspar Ipekian Theatrical group to perform Armenian theatrical pieces. Thirty years later it began publishing what is even today an internationally renowned monthly cultural magazine, called Pakin.

“A generation saw the importance of reorganization and unity in order to survive in foreign lands with language and culture intact,” she added.

Fighting in the Halls of Congress

While the ARF were rallying volunteers to hold off the advancing Turkish armies intent on completing the genocide of the Armenian people at Sardarabad, an Armenian lawyer was recruiting American public support for the Armenian cause, fighting for congressional support for the independence of Armenia. Working alongside Armenia’s ambassador, Armen Garo, Vahan Cardashian rallied countless prominent American officials and public figures in support of the American Committee for the Independence of Armenia. The ACIA’s efforts led to an official recognition of the Armenian Republic by the United States in 1919 and secured President Woodrow Wilson’s support for a viable Armenian state as outlined in the Treaty of Sevres.

Cardashian dedicated his life to the Armenian Cause. Although he was ultimately unable to prevent US collaboration with Kemalist Turkey, his sacrifices paved the way for the future efforts of Armenian advocacy in the United States.

In the late 1960s, the ARF set out to build on Cardashian’s legacy, establishing the Armenian National Committee of America to harness the budding influence of the maturing Armenian-American community. As a vital component of the ARF family, the ANCA relies on grassroots empowerment “to represent, defend and promote the interests of the Armenian American community in the United States,” explained Antranig Kzirian, the Executive Director of the ANCA Western Region.

Relying on the strength of local chapters, he added, the ANCA works today to “secure justice for the Armenian Genocide, insure the survival of the Republic of Armenia, protect the right to self-determination for Artsakh, and ensure that our Diaspora institutions–our schools, our community centers, our churches–all improve and grow as vital components of the Armenian nation.”

Today, the ANCA oversees a network of more than 50 chapters throughout the United States all working, individually and in coordination, to promote Armenian issues in local, state, and federal government. The ARF has also fostered the growth of an international network of ANC’s throughout South America, Europe, and the Middle East. Each ANC works to consolidate the political capital of the diaspora in support of the small and currently landlocked Republic of Armenia.

Meanwhile, the ARF works on the same goals inside Armenia. Participating in politics as an active political party to “strengthen Armenian statehood and establish a socially just and democratic system of government in the country,” said Avedik Izmirlian, the chairman of the Western US Central Committee, commenting on the importance of being able to help Armenia from both within and without the country.

A Youth Movement to Drive the Cause

The ARF and the subsequent community organizations it established would not have come into being if it were not for the dedication of countless young Armenians determined to serve and work for the community’s wellbeing. The significance of this fact was not lost on the ARF as it grappled with the looming threat of assimilation in the United States.

Joining the collection of Armenian youth groups that had emerged in America by the early 1930s, the ARF sought to create a sustainable movement that could inspire, earn the respect, and recruit the next generation of its leaders.  What was needed was an entity that could consistently organize young Armenians and educate them regarding the merits of the ARF ideology.

It was from of this need that the ARF commissioned General Garegin Njdeh to tour the Armenian communities of the United States and create a national youth organization, the Armenian Youth Federation. By consolidating smaller groups and setting up new AYF chapters where none existed, Garegin Njdeh, ensured that Armenian-American youth would be able to learn tenants and apply the policies of the ARF throughout the community “at its forefront, leading it on many levels,” said Vache Thomassian, the chairman of the Armenian Youth Federation’s Western Region.

Established in 1933, the AYF today boasts 31 chapters throughout the United States and dozens more spread throughout the world. “It organizes young people to develop and promote ARF policies through political activism, working for genocide recognition and restitution, and working within the channels of our federal, local and state government,” Thomassian explained.

“There are also many community building activities and programs run annually by the AYF,” Thomassian said, noting, among others, a beautification campaign to clean up the streets of Little Armenia, and a summer camp where over 600 Armenian youth spend the week making life long friendships.

As an educational organization, it organizes community lectures and discussions on a wide range of topics aimed at raising the awareness of not only the ARF and its approach to addressing the Armenian Cause, but also the greater human cause. It also publishes a quarterly magazine produced entirely by young Armenians.

The AYF has also been active in Armenia.  In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as Armenia fought for independence, the AYF raised money in the United States to supply much-needed funds to the people in Armenia and Karabakh. Many of its members even traveled to Karabakh to fight alongside the heroes of the liberation movement. In 1994, the AYF’s Western Region set out to create a program that would build bridges between Armenians in the Diaspora and the homeland, sending youth to Armenia and Karabakh in the summers to help rebuild schools, camps, and churches, devastated by the war and difficult years after independence.

“Youth Corps provides a way for Diasporan Armenians to connect with our homeland, to work and see our country and live as actual residents,” Thomassian said. In 2008, the Youth Corps established a summer camp in the Gyumri earthquake recovery zone, where program participants served as counselors for underprivileged children.

The AYF also works with the ARF Student Associations to promote the ARF and provide Armenian student groups wherever they exist, with support through “a continuity of work through its experience, resources and leadership,” he added.

As the numbers of Armenians in the halls of higher education swelled with the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and their descendents, Armenian student groups began organizing throughout the United States. AYF members helped establish many of the nation’s Armenian Student Associations (ASA). Today, the ARF Shant Student Association works in close collaboration with the ASAs to advance Armenian issues through America’s university system, where the Turkish government has been waging a fierce battle to erase the history of the Armenian Genocide and win over a new generation of American leadership.

“The young men and women, who once held guns to defend their land and people, are now a generation of educated students whose weapon of choice is knowledge. That generation is the ARF Shant Student Association (SSA),” exclaimed Caspar Jivalagian, one of its members. “ The SSA works in close collaboration with the ASA’s to address Armenian issues.“

Organizing leadership seminars, youth rallies, and forums on various topics, the SSA plays an integral role in equipping new young and educated generations of Armenians with the ARF perspective and the tools necessary to become activists for a better future within their campus communities, local communities, and Armenia.

“23, 24, and 31. Those were the ages of the founders of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation,” Thomassian aptly noted.


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