BY STELLA S. RUSTIGIAN
If I am an Armenian today, it is thanks to the Armenian Relief Society (ARS). If at least one of my children is also dedicated to the Armenian way of life here in the United States, it is again thanks to the ARS.
Our beginning was set by my mother, a founding member of the Hartford, CT chapter in 1913, and also a founder of the Syracuse, N.Y. chapter in 1921. It was in the ARS that my mother, Eliza Sachaklian, learned the mechanics of organizational life. From the glamorous positions in the executive to the nitty-gritty of selling tickets and raising the where-with-all to finance the many overseas charities, she has given outstandingly seventy-three years of her active life. Now in her nineties, she is still supporting its many projects.
I was born into the organization. Back in those days, the institution of the baby-sitter was as yet unknown, and I would be parked in my carriage backstage while my mother trod the boards in “Rouzon, Hyrenaser Oryortuh” and other dramatic productions.
The Tzeghagrons, later called the Armenian Youth Federation, prepared me in the intricacies of parliamentary procedure and Robert’s Rules. Surprisingly, this stood me in good stead throughout my school years, and I can thank my Armenian organizations for giving me the stage presence I was able to exhibit in non-Armenian public appearances, too.
Joining the Armenian Relief Society as a new bride in a new community, this magnificent organization gave me the opportunity to try my wings at public service and civic duties. Knowing that I was part of a worldwide network of others like myself and like my mother, gave me the stability to surmount the ethnic biases which prevailed in my youth.
More, the A.R.S. provided a forum for the use and practice of the Armenian which we of my generation had to learn piecemeal. Three hours a week on Saturday mornings we struggled with “aib, ben, gim” and “ov gerav vorsortin abouruh?” Armenian History ended each term with the story of Ara Keghetsig and Shamiram. Each new term, history began back again with Hayg and Bel, and proceeded up to Ara and Shamiram — and the end of that term, too. It was years before I learned the continuation of Armenian history.
But, armed with my rudimentary knowledge of Armenian language and a smattering of history, life in a small community like Syracuse, N.Y. does not afford much opportunity for the use and practice of the Armenian we had learned. It was only in organizational life, in the Armenian Relief Society in my case, that I was able to develop what Armenian I had learned in Saturday School. Conducting a meeting in the Armenian language; keeping minutes in Armenian; trying out and testing new Armenian words that I had heard from the lips of field-workers who visited our community periodically; asking questions of them; listening to their lectures. This was a true education in Armenian. We learned about the tribulations of our fellow Armenians overseas, and conducted fund drives and clothing drives. World War II was brought home to us as we took displaced Armenians into our homes, found them employment and permanent housing.
My joy was complete when one of my children decided to go to Beirut to study at the A.R.S.-supported Jemaran. Though her studies were interrupted by the Arab-Jewish war of 1967, in seven short months she learned enough Armenian to be thoroughly conversant and knowledgeable in Armenian. Arsine has devoted herself to teaching Armenian youngsters, and today she is the principal of one our Armenian Day Schools in the United States supported in part by the ARS.
Yes, the Armenian Relief Society is a world in which the Armenian American can give free rein to the Armenian being within each one of us, and acquire a sense of our place in the global network Armenian Diaspora.