2013 marks the 80th Anniversary of the Armenian Youth Federation. Since 1933 the AYF has inspired Armenian youth and served as a resource to diasporans who wanted to preserve their culture, while advocating for the cause. This editorial spread was created to familiarize the community with AYF’s programs in the diaspora and the homeland.
The Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) is a grassroots community organization that empowers Diasporan Armenian youth to connect with their culture, think critically about the world, and engage politically and socially with issues facing Armenians on local, state, national and worldwide levels. These issues range from the assimilation of our multi-millennial culture and identity to Diaspora; the continued civic and electoral discrimination of Armenians in highly populated areas (which are only growing with the latest waves of Armenian emigration from Armenia and the Near East); the unresolved and continued denial of the Armenian Genocide; the increasing emigration, poverty and undemocratic rule of the Armenian Homeland; and much more. The AYF fundamentally believes the solutions to these issues, collectively known as the “Armenian Cause,” will and must come from an active, engaged, and critical youth. Through its network of over 14 chapters that span multiple states in the Western United States, connection to AYF regions around the world, and strong ties with Armenian and non-Armenian community organizations with similar goals, the AYF runs purely on people power and dedication to push the Cause of the Armenian people to new heights and triumphs.
On January 14, 1933, the Armenian Youth Federation was born. It was on that day in Boston, MA, that the ARF Central Committee of America decided to unify existing youth groups scattered across the country and build the groundwork for a national Armenian youth organization. The legendary Armenian hero General Karekin Njteh was soon invited to the US to serve as a fieldworker to mobilize the communities around the idea of a consolidated youth movement. He toured the country from city to city, town to town, encouraging the masses to join the ranks of the soon to be established AYF. With his magnetic oratory and inspirational presence, hundreds of youth flocked to hear his appeals and apply to become part of the first generation of the AYF.
March for Humanity
In April 2005, a group of 14 youth and one grandmother marched from Fresno to Sacramento in honor of the 1.5 million Armenians killed in the Armenian Genocide. The group made the 215-mile journey in an effort to raise awareness about the genocide and promote an end to the cycle of genocide. They held a banner that read, “Turkey Tell the Truth, Acknowledge the Armenian Genocide” throughout the trek. Hundreds joined the marchers for segments of the walk.
“I am walking for recognition and for justice,” Zabel Ekmekjian, the 63-year-old marcher, told the Los Angeles Times at the time. “The kids say I motivate them, but it is the other way around. I will go all the way because of them.”
Nineteen days later, the marchers arrived in Sacramento. More than 1,500 people gathered for a “Rally for Humanity” on the steps of the Capitol Building in order to thank California legislators for recognizing the Armenian Genocide. Civic leaders spoke to the crowd, highlighting the importance of U.S. recognition of the Genocide.
“We want to express that repercussions exist when such a criminal action happens and reparations must be made by those who have done wrong,” Vicken Sosikian, director of the march, told the Glendale Newspress. “The fact that the Turkish government does not recognize this is possibly why the world has seen so many genocidal crimes, from Cambodia to Rwanda.”
The “Protocols for the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between Armenia and Turkey” sought to take away from the Armenian nation that which it refused to surrender for so long: justice, restitution, and self-determination. The Protocols stipulated for the creation of a sub-commission that would carry out a scientific examination of historical records to examine the veracity of genocide “claims”. Many were skeptical and believed this sub-commission would be used by Turkey as a plot to question the long-established facts behind the Armenian Genocide. Spurring skepticism was a provision in the Protocols requiring recognition of the existing border between the two countries, a blatant demand for Armenians to forfeit their moral and legal claims to their historic homeland. The Protocols also placed a heavy influence on territorial integrity, the inviolability of frontiers, and non-intervention in internal affairs of other states. This rhetoric was undoubtedly geared toward undermining the security of the Nagorno- Karabakh Republic.
The Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) stood in complete opposition to the Armenia-Turkey protocols and decided to take immediate action. The AYF, along with other Armenian youth groups and organizations across the United States, formed the “Stop the Protocols” Campaign. The AYF played a substantial role in organizing several events, including a protest at the Swiss Consulate; a public rally in Glendale; a protest in front of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where President Serzh Sarkisian met with representatives of Armenian-American organizations; and lastly, a protest at the Montebello Genocide monument. In the aftermath of President Sarkisian’s visit to Los Angeles, 28 Armenian youth from the AYF began a hunger strike in front of the Armenian Consulate of Los Angeles. The “Hunger for Justice” Campaign lasted 96 hours.
These efforts had a huge impact locally and globally, from the Southern California Armenian community to Armenians in the homeland and around the world. Through the use of technology, the AYF spread news of local actions and coordinated with other Armenian activists living as far away as Canada, Lebanon, Russia, and Yerevan. This motivated other diasporan Armenians to take similar actions to make their voices heard.
With Our Soldiers
Although the Armenian Nation celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Liberation of Shushi in 2012, the AYF saw a grim reality as many Artsakh War veterans (including those who fought for Shushi’s liberation) were still in need of medical care. Thus, the AYF declared 2012 as the “Year of the Armenian Freedom Fighter”.
Members formed a task force to lay the groundwork for the campaign and raise the necessary funds to deliver vital treatments to those in need. In March, organizers from the task force visited the Homeland, where they established ties with the ARF Supreme Body “Azadamardik Committee” in Armenia, and connected with a number of freedom fighters in need of medical care.
Beginning in May and during the summer months, both the ARF Central Executive and a number of chapters, including ones in distant regions such as Phoenix and San Francisco, organized various fundraisers and reached out to their respective communities to solicit donations that would provide the funding necessary for the implementation of the initiative.
To date, the AYF has raised almost $70,000 thanks to sponsors, donors, chapters, and local ARF “Gomideh”s. More than 70% of that amount has gone toward providing medical services to freedom fighters in need. Upon the completion of the main fundraising event of the task force in the month of August, treatments began at the Yerevan Medical Center.
Over the course of the past nine months, more than 50 freedom fighters and members of their families have been helped, with multiple life-saving procedures and surgeries, all funded by the campaign. In the spirit of accountability, the AYF has periodically released videos prepared in partnership with Yerkir Media that feature veterans who have been assisted through the “With Our Soldiers” campaign. The task force will release final information on the expenses and total numbers of individuals who have received medical treatments through the “With Our Soldiers” initiative in the coming months upon the completion of the campaign.
Beginning in the late 1980s, the struggle for the independence of Artsakh became a new challenge for the AYF. The organization began fundraising activities to supply much-needed funds to the Armenians of Artsakh. Following the ceasefire in 1993, the AYF continued to aid Artsakh by establishing the Youth Corps program in 1994. The mission of the program was not only to aid in rebuilding the nation, but more importantly, to create a bond between Armenian youth in the Diaspora and the Homeland.
In its early years, the AYF would send Youth Corps volunteers to Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) to help rebuild many of the newly independent republic’s war-torn villages. In 2008, the AYF opened a summer youth camp in Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city. With the establishment of the camp, the program changed its focus from rebuilding shattered buildings to connecting Armenians in the Diaspora with Armenians in the Homeland.
From its inception, Youth Corps has been empowering young Diasporans to take on a more direct role in the nation-building process in Armenia. The program now runs in various cities and villages throughout Armenia and Artsakh. Each summer, these camps continue the program’s long tradition of giving Diasporan Armenian youth a means of having a direct positive impact and influence on the lives of hundreds of children each summer.
The new Youth Corps model has been adopted by 4 other countries in 6 other regions of Armenia, Artsakh, and Javakhk: Canada, Lebanon, and most recently, France.
In 1976, the AYF Western Region established its official publication, Haytoug, as a medium for Armenian American youth to voice their opinions about a wide variety of issues. What initially began as a newsletter eventually evolved into a quarterly magazine with over 100 issues to its name. Today, with an international following and a distribution network spanning across the United States, the magazine reaches more people than ever before. With its high quality of content and design, it is widely recognized as the leading platform for young Armenians to make their voices heard.
And Community Involvement
The AYF has 14 chapters in the Western Region of the United States. Nine of these 14 are based in Southern California, with the rest in the San Francisco Bay Area, Fresno, Houston, Las Vegas, and Phoenix.
Due to its decentralized structure, local AYF chapters are of utmost importance to the organization. Each chapter carries out the AYF mission in its own community.
Every year the Fresno “Kevork Chavoush” chapter hosts a toy drive whose purpose is to send new, unopened toys to less fortunate children in Armenia. The chapter believes that Christmas is not only a season to get gifts, but to also give them. Since the first initiation, the chapter has sent over 2,000 toys to orphanages in Armenia through the Armenian Relief Society. In 2012, the chapter teamed up with the Pasadena “Nigol Touman” Chapter to expand the annual toy drive in the Greater Los Angeles area.
The San Francisco “Rosdom” Chapter holds the Walk for Remembrance, where community members walk to Mount Davidson to respect the 1.5 million Armenians and to educate other community members about the first genocide of the 20th century.
San Fernando Valley
Hundreds participate in the San Fernando Valley “Sardarabad” Chapter’s annual Cycle Against Denial, which aims to focus public attention on genocides around the world, specifically the Armenian Genocide. The bikers participate in a 10-mile bikeathon through the busy streets of Encino.
The South Bay “Potorig” Chapter hosts a Genocide Museum and features a genocide-related documentary. The museum features themed rooms in chronological order according to the timeline of the Genocide, modern activism and Armenians in the media, and Armenian Genocide Monuments around the world. As a centerpiece, a scale model of the Armenian Genocide Monument in Armenia, the “Dzidzernagapert”, is featured. The “Potorig” chapter hopes to attract a diverse crowd from the South Bay community and beyond, including students from local high schools and organizations.
The Orange County “Ashod Yergat” chapter hosts Reaching Beyond Ruins, an exhibit of photos and videos from Gyumri, the region in Armenia that was hit by a devastating earthquake in the late 1980’s. The chapter’s event raises awareness and collects donations to continue to revive the second largest city in Armenia.
More than 300 Armenian youth, armed with cleaning supplies, make their way through the streets of Los Angeles’s Little Armenia region every year for Little Armenia’s Beautification Project. With rakes, shovels, brooms, bags, and other utensils in hand, the young volunteers proceed to pick up trash, plant trees, and remove graffiti. Following the official designation of Little Armenia in 2000, the AYF has taken upon itself to consistently show its gratitude and ensure that the area remains clean and presentable.
Hundreds of volunteers come together every year to revitalize the streets of this densely populated district of East Hollywood. In addition to keeping Little Armenia clean and instilling pride in the neighborhood, the project seeks to unify local Armenian residents around the spirit of community and civic responsibility.
Since 2006, the Crescenta Valley “Zartonk” Chapter has hosted an educational Quiz Bowl, where chapters face-off against one another in friendly competition over topics such as history, culture and current events. Participants train for the competition months in advance in what is perhaps the most anticipated educational event on the AYF’s yearly calendar. Past Quiz Bowl themes have included the February Rebellion of 1921, the rebirth of Armenian nationalism during the Soviet Era, the role of women in the Armenian Revolutionary movement, the Armenian Zartonk (political/cultural awakening) of the 18th and 19th centuries, the legacy behind the names of each AYF chapter and the Artsakh War.
In 2012 the Burbank “Varak” Chapter launched their first Community Art show with the ANC Burbank chapter, which they hope will become an annual chapter event.
The Glendale ‘Roupen’ Chapter conducts their Annual Food Drive for the homeless, in conjunction with ANCA-Glendale, which brings substantial assistance to underprivileged members of the local community. They also host One Voice, One Cause, which is a Youth Rally/Concert that brings in talented art
The Montebello ‘Vahan Cardashian’ chapter is heavily involved in the local community, and work with their local sister organizations in cultivating the new generation of Armenians.
The Pasadena ‘Nigol Tuman’ Chapter hosts an annual clothing drive, through which they are able to donate much needed assistance to underprivileged regions of Armenia.
The Phoenix ‘Kedashen’ and Houston ‘Dro’ chapters are heavily involved in their local communities, and serve to bring in the youth and to give them a means through which to recognize their roots and to serve their cause.
Furthermore, AYF’s 14 chapters have contributed to their communities by hosting educational forums, blood drives, food drives, clothing drives, fundraisers and athletic tournaments, allowing youth to make bonds of friendship, raise awareness, promote civic activism, support the homeland, and advance the Armenian Cause. In the process, the youth develop priceless experiences in teamwork, leadership, education, communication, and organizing—skills which will help propel the community forward for years to come.
During the 1960s, due to the growing population of Armenians in California, the Armenian Youth Federation felt the need to establish an Armenian youth camp in the region. In 1969 the first AYF Summer Camp session was held for one week with 35 campers. Over the following ten years, the AYF rented different locations to host its summer camp program, eventually purchasing the current campsite in 1978. With a permanent home for the program, AYF began refining the purpose of the camp, which was, and continues to be, promoting Armenian culture and heritage to the youth while also creating a place for Armenians from all over to exchange ideas and develop new relationships. Throughout the years, the campground has renovated and updated its facilities, and the camp program has been revamped to better serve the needs of the Diasporan Armenian youth. AYF Camp is now fortunate enough to have over 700 campers and 150 counselors experience the program annually. AYF Camp hosts a Summer Camp with seven one-week sessions; Winter Camp; and Day Camp, with four one-week sessions in Los Angeles. Furthermore, the success of camp influenced the AYF to revamp the Youth Corps program and allowed the opportunity for youth in Armenia to share the same purpose and similar experiences.
Tri Regional Cooperation
The Armenian Youth Federation is an international organization with chapters worldwide that continues to inspire Armenian youth to be active and become leaders in their communities and beyond. The AYF in North America had its beginnings in the communities of the Eastern United States. General Karekin Njdeh took on the task of traveling from town to town, gathering and organizing Armenian youth with his charismatic personality. They organized to keep their rich ethnic culture alive and to work towards the ideal of a free, independent, and united Armenia. It was in the old Hairenik building in Boston, Massachusetts that the first generation of Armenian Youth formed their Federation in 1933. By the 1970s, the AYF was well established in the West Coast and Canada, and increased its advocacy of issues of justice and human rights, especially the issue of justice for the Armenian Genocide. In 1973, the decision was made for the AYF to form three separately governed regions working for a common cause.
Today, the AYF has multiple summer camp programs, publications, and summer volunteer programs in Armenia. The regions share ideas and challenge one another to excel in their commitment to the Armenian nation. One example is with the Youth Corps program, which began in 1994 through the work of Western Region AYF members. This volunteer program gave Armenian youth the opportunity to spend their summer working with kids in Gyumri, the second largest city in Armenia, teaching songs, playing games and building friendships. It has expanded since, and other AYF regions, such as the Eastern Region and Canada, organize similar summer programs to reach Armenian youth in the cities and villages of Dilijan, Javakhk, Stepanakert, Broshian, Gyumri, and Vanadzor.
The AYF also maintains its ties between the North American regions thanks to the AYF Olympics organized by AYF and AYF Alumni members in the Eastern Region annually. Particularly in recent years, AYF members from Western Region and Canada attend the annual AYF Olympics in increasing numbers. It provides the opportunity for members to travel to the East Coast and Midwest cities, celebrate with their ungers, and compete with them in athletic competitions. Thanks to social media, Armenian youth can easily maintain friendships all year long, and many wait impatiently every year to see each other again either in Armenia, at AYF Olympics, or both.
Among its many activities, the AYF also hosts a tri-regional seminar every few years. Members from all three regions spend a weekend together, seeking to extend their network of comrades. They participate in educational workshops, discussions, and team-building activities; discuss issues concerning Hai Tahd, homeland, and Diaspora; and search for new ways to work towards their common cause. This year, from June 6 – 9, AYF members from all over North America gathered for this seminar, themed “The AYF’s role in the Development of Armenia.” On the first night, the seminar kicked off at the Pasadena Armenian Center. Unger Stepan Keshishian, the Executive Director of AYF Western Region, opened with inspiring but sober remarks on the work of “Tebi Yergir” (Toward the Homeland). Next, representatives from all three regions presented their summer programs in Armenia, including the Western Region’s and Canada’s Youth Corps programs and the Eastern Region’s “Tebi Javakhk” (Toward Javakhk, an underprivileged and predominantly Armenian region in southern Georgia) program and AYF internship in Armenia. The participants also had the fortune to invite a host of new members into their ranks with the oath ceremony for the new members being conducted by Unger Siamanto Maronian. Maronian’s message to the new members and the tri-regional participants centered on the AYF as a family, emphasizing that we should all “have each others’ backs.” The participants then spent the evening socializing, eventually breaking into song and dance with one of the participants playing “zurna” and “shvi”, other participants drumming, and others performing lively traditional Armenian dances late into the night. After spending the night at the Armenian Center, the participants awoke the next morning to a breakfast of pastries bought from a nearby Armenian bakery. The seminar continued with a respectful and somber visit to the Armenian Genocide Monument in Montebello, where each participant placed flowers and had a moment of silence, providing further reflection to the common cause that they had gathered to advance. Next, they paid a visit to the AYF’s Sardarabad Bookstore, where everyone had an opportunity to purchase books, DVDs and other souvenirs, and learned that the bookstore was established by a group of AYF members from the San Fernando Valley Chapter in 1984. From there, everyone went to the Western Region Central office building, where they took a tour of the offices; had a kabob lunch; and watched presentations and Q&As with representatives from the ANCA, AYF Camp, and the ARF Western Region Central Committee. Afterwards, the participants made their way to AYF Camp, where the remainder of the weekend was spent discussing issues pertaining to Hai Tahd, issues in Armenia, the AYF’s role in Armenia’s development, and ARF policy in Armenia and worldwide. The participants had the fortune of having former international Hai Tahd director Unger Mourad Topalian as their director. They also had several educational presentations and discussions with ARF Bureau Central Hai Tahd Office Director Giro Manoyan. In addition, the participants had a discussion on the topic of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide with Unger Vicken Sosikian. On Saturday night, after a long day of lectures and discussions, the participants enjoyed a “khrakhjank” (party), including an hour of Armenian patriotic music with Unger Krisdapor Arabian from Washington D.C.
All in all, the participants left feeling inspired and mindful of the work that they need to carry out. They gained a new sense of themselves as members of an international organization and built the bonds to take the organization to the next level, with greater connectivity and coordination between the three regions. The seminar provided the opportunity for AYF members to meet face to face, comrades with whom they will work for years to come. Some likely made friends who will last a lifetime.
AYF’s Role in Education
The AYF was founded on the long-standing commitment to education on both the local and central levels. AYF chapters host multiple educational opportunities for their local communities, through town hall meetings, educational forums, discussions and panels. On the central level, the AYF hosts its annual educational seminar, where members gather at AYF camp to hear lectures about contemporary Armenian issues from professionals and activists around the world.
In the local community, the AYF has had a representative role in the All-Armenian Student Association and has utilized this opportunity to co-organize educational panels and discussions for local Armenian college students. These efforts to engage Armenian students were expanded in 2003 with the establishment of the Armenian Youth Federation’s Nanor Krikorian scholarship in memory of AYF member Nanor Krikorian, whose life was tragically cut short due to cancer. The scholarship awards graduating high school seniors and college students of Armenian descent with a strong commitment to public service and community involvement with grants for furthering their education.
In 2011, in an effort to further prepare and support Armenian students, the AYF launched the Karekin Njteh Future Leaders internship program that prepares students in the fields of public administration, public relations, and strategic planning. During the 8-week internship, participants are given an inside look at the AYF, participate in lecture series, and gain experience in working for a non-profit organization, leading projects, and compiling research. In 2013, the AYF’s role in preparing members for the future expanded with the launch of the AYF Mentorship program, which pairs students and college graduates with professionals in their respective fields.
AYF Annual Protest
In the 1960’s and 70’s, following the example of activism born in the U.S. with protests against the Vietnam War and support for civil rights, the AYF also took to the streets to speak out for justice for the Armenian Genocide. For over two decades, the AYF has organized an annual protest in front of the Turkish Consulate in Los Angeles on April 24th, the international day of commemoration for the 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide.
With thousands of participants, the majority of whom are youth, the protest is the largest and longest-running Armenian Genocide recognition assembly comprised of young Armenians in the United States. It also attracts large-scale media coverage from major television and print news outlets throughout the country.
The AYF prepared young Armenians to be leaders within their community and active citizens fighting for the just cause of their people. The AYF is at the forefront of the international campaign demanding recognition and justice for the Armenian Genocide.
The demonstration is a symbolic focal point for the community and represents the AYF’s year-long struggle to gain proper recognition and restitution for the crime of genocide perpetrated by the Turkish government.
The AYF Juniors (formerly known as “Badanegan”) is a grassroots community organization for Armenian-American youth specifically from the ages of 9 to 17 years old. As an extension of the AYF and its core values, the AYF Juniors connect youth with their Armenian heritage, and politically and socially engages them with critical issues facing Armenians. With the close guidance of veteran ARF and AYF members, AYF Juniors creates a transformative space for young Armenians in their most critical years of development, instilling in them a passion for service and dedication to their community and roots. With chapters just about anywhere an AYF chapter exists, AYF Juniors is a place where the youth build lifelong friendships with their peers and begin to cultivate their knowledge and passion for Armenian history, culture and politics. Most importantly, AYF Juniors empowers the youth with the discipline, confidence and organizational tools to turn their ideas into a reality — skills that will help them excel in any of life’s endeavors. Here, young Armenian-Americans begin their development into thefuture thinkers and leaders of the Armenian community.