GLENDALE—The Armenian Relief Society (ARS) of Western USA celebrated the 30th Anniversary of its establishment as a separate entity with weekend-long events. The Empowering Generations Seminar was the second of those events, which was held on May 3, 2014, at the Glendale Hilton Hotel, with 125 participants.
Speakers talked about how they personally engaged in order to gain empowerment, how they facilitated empowerment of their peers or shared examples of exceptional people who influenced their lives, who felt empowered to do the kinds of things that changed not just perceptions, but lives.
Emcee of the dynamic seminar, Aleen Postoyan of the Regional Public Relations Committee, made opening remarks and set the tone of the event, encouraging all to “motivate us to empower not only ourselves, but each other.” The ARS-WUSA Regional Executive’s chairperson Lena Bozoyan made welcoming remarks, acknowledged the presence of the ARS Central Executive Board chairperson Vicky Marashlian and the liaison to the region, Annie Kechichian, asked that each of the participants become catalysts in their respective spheres, and thanked Haigoush Keghinian Kohler for sponsoring the seminar and for “empowering all of us, all these years.”
The morning session was moderated by Ara Khachatourian, Asbarez English Editor. He started out by pointing out a “basic and fundamental reality that none of us would be here today if it weren’t for the women bringing us into this world. Our identities and our personalities have been formed because of the immense influence the women in our lives have had.” Khachatourian noted that the ARS has become a critical aspect of our Armenian reality and it must persevere by the inclusion of young women from all walks of life. Hence, the session started on “Armenianism in a Changing World: Cultural Burden or National Identity.”
Alice Petrossian, a retired educational administrator from the Pasadena Unified School District, who is now an activist, spoke about “Empowering Women Through Service”. She remarked that growing up the only organization with women leaders was the ARS, but today organizations have realized that women can be leaders. She emphasized the shift to being role models to engaging the youth in civic duty as a way of ensuring their success. Petrossian said that she has not met an Armenian woman who was not talented; and implied that everyone has a talent to serve; everyone can find the time and means to serve; no one is invited to serve; and no one is going to stop someone from serving. Providing examples of service in Armenian organizations by Armenians-by-Choice (ABC), she challenged the audience to look for possible ways to serve and become empowered server. Her parting message was, “I’m not afraid to serve and I will make a difference for myself, for my organization and my nation.”
Roxanne Makasdjian manages Broadcast Communications at University of California, Berkeley who has been very involved in community organizations, including being a co-founder and a current board member of The Genocide Education Project, which brings Armenian Genocide instruction into American high schools. Makasdjian gave credit to her own upbringing to her mother and grandmother, who were ARS members and activists. She described why the project was needed after a whole decade had passed by the California legislature mandating the instruction of the Armenian Genocide curriculum in high schools, noting lack of funding and resources. So, they developed lesson plans, published posters, conducted workshops during conferences and utilized technology to allow students and teachers to do their research on-line. Makasdjian emphasized how parents and students can demand the subject to be taught at their public schools, how they find ways to relate Armenian history to the youth growing up in the United States, why it is important for them to take action.
Vache Thomassian, an attorney who got his Juris Doctorate from Loyola Law School and studied economic and political development at Columbia University, and is the brother of Sosé Thomassian-Yekikian, who died with her husband Allen during an auto accident after repatriating in Armenia. He delved into his subject, “Repatriation and the Generation of ‘Fools’”, by describing the various waves of Armenians who repatriated from the Diaspora to Armenian following the Artsakh liberation struggle, Armenia’s independence, as refugees from wars in Iraq and Syria, and as a place to live. He explained how his sister, Sosse, redesigned the AYF Youth Corps program from reconstruction to day camp for children, and the program was replicated by other AYF regions. Thomassian explained that there is an intersection between passion and action, and that “fools” jump into the river with both feet and figure out the way, and it is up to each person to make choices on how to cross the river.
Following the lunch break, Varoujan Vosganian, an Armenian-Romanian senator, economist, essayist and poet, who was a guest, spoke about the Armenian community in Romania and the importance of connecting the youth to our ideologies and aspirations, utilizing technology.
The first keynote speaker, Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte, was introduced by Elen Asatryan, ANCA Western Region Executive Director. Turcotte is an attorney who escaped Baku, Azerbaijan as a child, lived in Armenia as a refugee for 3 years, and moved to the United States, receiving her Juris Doctorate from the University of Maine, School of Law. She described their arrival in Fargo, North Dakota in her father’s words: “American Siberia”, and her journey of being a victim of ethnic cleansing, violence, terror and fear to coming out of her sheltered life and seeing the light for the first time since her childhood.
Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte said that her book, “Nowhere, a Story of Exile” is based on her childhood diary. For her first 20 years in the States, she had tried to forget about her past, but after her two daughters were born, she worried that she herself would not remember Baku, her children would not understand what happened to the Armenian community and would never know the sacrifices, which were made for their sake. Tatul Sonentz-Papazian of the ARS, Inc. in Boston, had helped to edit her book, so it could be published. Her heart-wrenching account of her flashback of her emotional journey — near rape by the Azeri neighbor, and eventual escape — after hearing Azeri lies and realizing that children in Nagorno Karabagh were still being targeted by Azeris, she had become an activist for their sake, and her journey would take her back to Armenia and Artsakh in September, this time, not as a refugee, but an empowered family of Baku Armenians, who made a difference for the Armenian communities and Nagorno Karabagh. During the break, Turcotte, autographed copies of her book.
The second keynote speaker, Dr. Chris Sassouni, was introduced by his uncle, Papken Sassouni. Papken explained that when his family moved to the United States from France, he stayed at his brother Viken’s home, where the spoken language was French. Decades later, he received calls with incessant questions about Chris’ grandparents, Garo and Leola Sassouni, and had to reread their memoires and checked historical books, in order to answer them.
Dr. Sassouni’s presentation was about his personal journey that transformed him from the inside, in a large part because he grew up in a family, away from Armenian communities, and he ended up not knowing his Armenian roots at all. He pointed out that his journey for the past seven years took a village to help him figure out his identity. Starting with his earliest memories of his famous grandparents during their visits, did not know that Sassoun was a place, he told his life story in a lighthearted way. He met filmmaker Bared Maronian who was working on a documentary, who told him that there was an ARS chapter named after her grandmother (in Watertown, Mass.). Over the next few years, he researched all about the travels of his grandparents, mapped them out, found out photographs and documents with family members, Genocide orphans, on horseback, rescue squad to free Leola (and 500 others) from prison, ARS conventions, medals, home-office, etc. Dr. Sassouni thanked his uncle and the others, who helped him during his long quest.
The last panel, about personal journeys of survival, was moderated by Nora Chitilian-Kelechian, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, who started her career at the ARS Youth, Child & Family Guidance Center in Glendale, Calif.
Cynthia Keyllian talked about how she had to confront her cancer at age 20, going through treatments, learning about her disease, using her support system, and how starting “Beads for Battle” helped her feel empowered to help others inflicted with disease, and their families. She told of different stories of how the beads helped patients all over the world to have hope and get through the day, because they knew that someone cared. Keyllian is in remission and is continuing her education at Loyola Marymount University. Her aim was to raise awareness about cancer and to show that her life completely changed, she became stronger and a much more educated person, who wants to help others.
Sona Donayan-Arabian is a registered dietitian and teaches nutrition at Glendale Community College. She was in the best shape of her life, when cancer hit her. A trusted colleague suggested to use the talk as a turning point in her life, as a fresh start. Arabian used the opportunity to give tribute to all those who stood behind her in her journey from early childhood to motivate; restore and recognize. Her interest in nutrition became her new passion after her first son was born and she tried to lose weight. She also picked up running, and she started participating in marathons. After a trip to Peru, she received the diagnosis and her doctor advised that all her training was to prepare her for her fight with cancer. She agreed to an aggressive schedule, which required week-long hospital stays, and jumped right back into running. During the past two years, she also participated in the LA Marathon on the ARS team. She shared the lessons that she learnt during the last four years, including the lesson that helping others has a healing effect.
Dr. Haygoush Kalinian is a Forensic Neuropsychologist, who has her own practice to evaluate patients with neurological, medical and psychiatric disorders. The ARS provided her with scholarships during the first and last time that she attended a university. Her challenge was diabetes and how it made her legally blind, in addition to a traffic accident, which caused neurological damage due to head trauma. Her doctor at the time advised that she could not learn any new information and should go home and watch TV; she proved him wrong by vowing that she would never take away hope from a patient no matter how serious or challenging their condition entails, and traveled to New York to become a neuropsychologist herself. Since nothing is simple in any Armenian’s life… she experienced further complications from diabetes. She lost more of her sight and could not see normal print, street signs, people’s faces, etc. She persevered. After ten years of working in her practice, she has expanded her services by hiring a child neuropsychologist. She said that she has never said “Why me?” advised to keep a positive outlook and to remember her when they experience difficulties.
Speakers and moderators received plaques. Regional Executive Chairperson Lena Bozoyan spoke highly of ARS Javakhk Fund Committee and ARS Zovinar chairperson Haigoush Keghinian Kohler, who received a bouquet of flowers from her for being the seminar sponsor.
ARS members who were the mothers of several of the speakers were among the audience. They cheered their daughters, as they have done so many times before, passing on the torch to the next generation.