Over a thousand Armenian-American’s from across the West Coast gathered at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California’s Simi Valley Sunday evening to attend the 24th annual banquet of the Armenian National Committee-Western Region. It was a night for celebration; for reflection on the past and renewed commitment to a collective cause–the Armenian Cause.
The ANC banquet has become tradition in the Western United States. Every year, members of the community, joined by friends in public office, mark the Armenian-American community’s accomplishments in the United States and honor the dedication and support of those who, year after year, make Hai Tahd possible.
Decades of commitment have led the community to reach a critical threshold in its development, according to ANC-WR Executive Directer Andrew Kzirian, who spoke of the significant relationships the ANC has fostered with leaders in American government that not only appreciate the “important geopolitical role played by Armenia in the Caucasus, but also recognize that justice must be achieved for the Armenian Genocide.”
In keeping with tradition, this year’s banquet honored the tireless activism of one of the community’s most dedicated activists, as well as a group of public officials who have, over the years, fought for issues of concern to the Armenian-American community. Presented with awards during the banquet were Democratic Vice-Presidential Candidate Sen. Joseph Biden, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and former President Ronald Reagan. Honorary chairs of the event included California Assemblymember Paul Krekorian, Representatives Adam Schiff, George Radanovich, Ed Royce, and Jackie Speier. The ANC also honored longtime supporter Ashkhen Pilavjian for her years of dedication to the Armenian Cause.
The recipient of the ANC-WR’s “Man of the Year” Award, Mayor Villaraigosa, addressed the sold out venue and discussed the importance of grassroots activism, reiterating his support for the Armenian American community.
“What happened in 1915 was not simply the unfortunate collateral damage of a civil war, but the systematic and inhuman genocide of a people,” the Mayor said during his speech. “Like so many of you, I have written letter after letter…after a letter urging a vote on HR 106, last year the Turkish Consulate kindly sent me two books to teach me ‘the truth’ about what happened in 1915…I had no problem saying, ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ for those books to nowhere.”
Biden, who was honored with the prestigious “Freedom Award,” has been a steadfast supporter of the Armenian American community dating back to his first days in public office. As Chairman of the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden cosponsored numerous Armenian Genocide resolutions and most recently presided over the confirmation hearing of Ambassador Marie L. Yovanovitch.
Accepting the award on his behalf was Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA) who expressed that the Senator was humbled by the award and would continue to be a advocate for issues relating to Armenian Americans.
Sherman spoke of his fight in congress, alongside Schiff, to secure foreign aid to Armenia against the US administration’s consistent efforts to cut assistance. “Armenia is the innocent victim of the Georgian war and I will be fighting to make sure that armenia should not suffer as a result of this war and the blockade.”
Meanwhile, former President Ronald Reagan, the last sitting president to properly characterize the Armenian Genocide, was posthumously awarded the “Woodrow Wilson Award” in recognition of his principled stance. Reagan’s award was presented to the Library’s Executive Director, Duke Blackwood, by Representative Royce, a Republican congressman from Orange County, California.
“In the very airplane above you, Jimmy carter sat and discussed Armenian issues with ANCA leaders Leo Sarkisian and Harry Derderian,” Royce exclaimed, pointing across the stage to the decommissioned Boeing 737 that served as Air Force One for over three decades. “It is up to us to ensure that the United States takes a principled stance and recognizes the anhialation of the Armenians.”
Talking about his experience working for Armenian issues, Royce described his encounter with a genocide survivor early on in his career in public office. “I made a commitment to him [the survivor] and it was my honor to introduce the first genocide resolution in the [California] State Assembly and we passed it.”
Ronald Reagan recognized the Armenian Genocide, but subsequent presidents have failed to follow suit, Royce noted.
For far too long, the United States Government has been bullied by Turkey into sacrificing fundamental American values, ANCA chairman Kenneth Hachikian said in his speech at the event.
“Washington has fallen so short; failed to meet the high standard of the American ideal,” Hachikian said, referring to the government’s ongoing complicity in Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide. “It is painful to me as an Armenian, as it is shameful to all of us as Americans, that our great nation has, for far too long, caved in to the Turkish government’s threats and blackmail on this core question of human rights.”
“We have let ourselves be bullied and have caved in to foreign pressure. Allowed a gag rule to be imposed on America,” he added.
But there have been may successes in the long struggle to push Washington in the right direction, despite the millions spent by the Turkish government to smother, according to ANC boardmember Zanku Armenian.
“In the last year, after passing House Resolution 106 in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, we have been successful in pushing the Armenian Genocide issue past the tipping point where it is now a widely known issue in the mainstream media worldwide,” he explained.
“This is a critical step as we look beyond recognition issues and begin discussions on reparations for the victims of this crime against humanity. This is not the time to sell ourselves short but rather the time to stand firm and redouble our efforts,” Armenian added.
But Armenian-Americans have an even greater responsibility and must recognize the “mission that fate has assigned us,” said ANC-WR Chairman Vicken Sonentz-Papazian. “It is not just to be remembered as the first victims of genocide in the modern era, but to also serve as guardians against genocidal campaigns, whether currently being perpetrated, as in Darfur, Sudan, or covered up, as the case in Turkey.”
To do that, Armenian-American’s must be educated, highly motivated, and deeply involved in the American political process, according to Kzirian, who believes that the advancement of Hai Tahd in the United States is vital, not only to the survival of Armenia and the Diaspora, but also to the broader fight against injustice and genocide.
“We must continue to prepare our communities for involvement in government and public affairs through strengthening outreach and expanding our operations,” Kzirian said.
One of the greatest achievements of the ANC over the past years has been the education and training of new generations of activists, motivated and anxious to take the Armenian Cause to new and unprecedented levels.
“There is no question that one of our greatest achievements over the past year has been the continued growth of our internship program,” Kzirian said. “With over 30 graduates over the past 2 years, we are confident that our program is preparing tomorrow’s leaders with hands-on grassroots and public affairs experience that is second-to-none.”
The ANC is the grassroots portal for activism, preparing the future generation and plugging them into the community and the political process, according to Pilavjian, who was honored with the ANC’s Legacy Award for a life of dedication to the well being of several Armenian community organizations, including the Western Prelacy, the Armenian Cultural Foundation, the ANC, Homenetmen, the Armenian Relief Society, and many Armenian Schools.
“There is plenty of hands on work to be done for the Armenian community. The future generation has a megaphone in hand–ready to be heard from local government all the way to the State Department and the Oval Office,” she said. “Each and every one of us has to do our share in preserving the Armenian community in the United States and all around the world. If every individual contributes some time and energy we can go very far and I believe that everybody should lend a hand in public service.”
Pilavjian’s words rang true even at the event itself where almost thirty young Armenian Americans, nearly all of them former and current ANC interns and externs, did their part to help make the evening a success. Arriving early in the morning to help the banquet committee with final preparations and staying to assist with the event’s program throughout the evening, these individuals have remained committed in the past several years to working with the ANC locally, regionally, and nationally.
Heeding Pilavjian’s call to service, they continue to provide an example of selfless grassroots volunteerism and earn the opportunity to serve the community as the next generation of ANC leaders.
“This evening sums up a year of activism and accomplishment by the community for the Armenain Cause and I was happy to do my part and volunteer at this evening’s event,” said Nareg Bostanian,a former ANC-WR intern who joined ANC-WR board and banquet committee members in presenting the Legacy Award to Pilavjian. “The ANC continues to provide a means though which my peers and I help advance Hai Tahd. Coming together tonight to celebrate that with them is a great feeling and inspires us to redouble our efforts in the year to come.”
Sentiments like these are inspiring and uplifting for activists of all ages, remarked Avedik Izmirlian, the chairman of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Western US. “I truly commend the ANC for its achievement in activating and motivating so many young Armenians to become involved in the Armenian Cause.”
For Vache Thomassian, a former ANCA Leo Sarkisian intern, the reasons for being involved are simple. “Our struggle is not a struggle of 90 years ago, rather it is a struggle of today, tomorrow and the future; for a just resolution to the Armenian Genocide and for a secure and prosporous future for the entire Armenian nation.”
Thomassian, who now serves as the Chairpman of the Armenian Youth Federation, explained that the strength of the ANC “stems from individuals, activists, and youth,who understand that we cannot afford to passively observe public affairs and need to be civically engaged for the greater good of the communities in which we live and the issues of concern to us.”
Networking these individuals into stronger grassroots chapters throughout the western United States has been key to the community’s success in the past and remains the case today, according to ANC-WR Community Relations Director Haig Hovsepian, who has been leading the western region’s chapter development and community outreach effort these past two years.
“Through a concerted regional program to organize our communities, our voice strengthened in the halls of Congress and we become more organizationally responsive to our community’s needs as well as accountable for our efforts on their behalf,” Hovsepian added.
Looking beyond the evening’s event and to the future, Hachikian noted that the United States of America has given Armenian’s a truly unique landscape to organize collectively for the realization of the Armenian nation’s historic aspirations.
“We are blessed to live in a great nation, a country in which our voice truly counts. A republic rich in democratic traditions that provides each and every one of us the opportunity–in the words of our enduring Constitution–to petition government for redress of our grievances,” he said.
“Now is the time to show our collective commitment, our rock-solid devotion to not only the cause of truth, but the sacred cause of justice for our ancient and proud nation. Let us build a brighter future for ourselves and generations to come,” Hachikian added.