BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
My most recent report in regard to Armenian communities was about the enclaves of the greater Boston area. On the way to Boston, I had a five-hour layover in Chicago. I took advantage of the stop by arranging to meet with Honorary Consul General of the Republic of Armenia, Oscar Tatօsian.
I arrived at O’Hare airport at around noon. I had already researched the easiest way to get to the Consulate, which was to take the subway.
The terminal of Chicago’s O’Hare airport offers direct access to the subway. In no time, I found my way to a station where I asked an attendant to help me purchase a ticket. After a 45-minute drive, I arrived at a station near Downtown Chicago—a two-block walk from the Consulate. However, since it was starting to drizzle, the Consul General sent his driver to pick me up.
The Consul General of the Republic of Armenia office in Chicago is the third Honorary Consulate in the United States, following the offices in Fresno (2014) and Las Vegas (2015). Although the Honorary Consul doesn’t have a diplomatic rank, the title is given to an active supporter of the country. The main tasks of an Honorary Consul include the enhancement of bilateral relations in trade, economy, culture, and science.
The Honorary Consulate of the Republic of Armenia in Downtown Chicago, one of the 80 Consulates in the city, is located in the same building as “Oscar Isberian Rugs.” The consular district covers five states: Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Consul General Oscar Tatosian was appointed to his post on March 22, 2018. Tatosian comes from a business background and brings his numerous talents and layers of experience, as well as years of community service, to the job.
The Chicago native has been a noted leader in the Armenian-American community for decades. He is a longtime member of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church and has served as a past Diocesan Council chair. Tatosian is also on the Board of the Fund for Armenian Relief and the Board of Directors of the Armenian Assembly, which is the oldest Armenian advocacy group in United States
Tatosian’s story exemplifies the historic immigration of Armenians to Chicago. Even before the great exodus of 1915, when Armenians were driven out of their homes by the Ottoman government, a small number of “single” Armenian men found their way to Chicago, as well as to the city of Racine in Wisconsin, about 70 miles away, north, from Chicago. Both cities are on the coast of Lake Michigan.
In those days, Armenians were attracted to the area by the growth of urban, industrial, and manufacturing jobs which did not require specific skills or command of the English language. These Armenians were hard-working men who dreamed of saving their money to either return to their homeland or bring their wives and children to America.
Today, the states of Wisconsin and Illinois combined are home to some 10,000 Armenians, with 5,000 in the Greater Chicago area of Northern Illinois. Most Armenians reside in a 100-mile strip along Lake Michigan, spanning Northwest Indiana to the south side suburbs of Chicago.
Oscar Tatosian’s story began when his maternal grandfather arrived in Chicago around 1912 to join an uncle who was already living in the city. He soon entered the trade of selling oriental rugs. Eventually, three of his four brothers would follow and partner with him to grow a business that still exists, called “Oscar Isberian Rugs.”
It is customary that immigrants, upon arriving in America, often found that their names were difficult for others to pronounce. In order to better fit in, many chose to simplify or alter their names in order to relate more easily with others. Oscar’s grandfather’s name was Voskee—meaning gold in Armenian. When he moved to America, he decided to change it to Oscar.
I arrived at the consul general’s office at around 1:30 p.m., where Tatosian welcomed me and offered tea and refreshments. He explained some activities that the consulate is involved in, and mentioned that one of the most important contributions of the office has been the creation of a little park in the heart of Chicago, named after Armenia’s capital, “Yerevan.”
The park, with the support of the Armenian community and the local municipality, was officially opened., with a new name, on September 9, 2018 as a way to strengthen cultural ties between Chicago and Yerevan. “Currently we are working on starting cooperation in the spheres of tourism and high-tech,” Tatosian said. He also indicated that, “in addition to enriching the cultural developments, another goal of the Consulate is to deepen the economic ties.”
Since the time was short, he suggested we continue our talk in the car, while he drove us to visit the park, which was about 15 minutes away, and from there to the airport. It was a well thought out plan.
On the way, Tatosian recounted the opening ceremony of the park, which was well-attended by Armenian community and several dignitaries, as well as the mayor of Chicago. At the ceremony there were many speeches, followed by Armenian group dances.
Tatosian also mentioned that Paruir Sarkisian, was a former high-ranking civil servant in Armenia, advises and supports the activities of the Honorary Consulate. It was he who had made all the arrangements for the opening ceremonies at the park. “The main point of creating Yerevan Park is to initiate tourism and promote Armenia,” he said.
At the edge of the park there was a sign erected indicating directions and distances to cities such as London, Paris, Rome, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Yerevan, which, according to the sign, is 6060 miles away. Tatosian also pointed to the six park benches that were inscribed with the names “Chicago-Yerevan.” “The benches are made and imported from Armenia,” he said. “They look similar to the ones that have been placed in Yerevan as well as in other cities and towns of Armenia and Artsakh.”
The park used to be a home to Argo-Tea, which is a popular tea-shop opened in 2003 in Chicago. The rapidly developing chain was founded by two Armenian-American businessmen. Argo is known as the “Starbucks of Teas.”
After we took some pictures, we got back in the car and headed to the airport. On the way Tatosian offered some more information about the Armenian community of Chicago. Aside from his activities as an Honorary Consul, he imports wine and other products from Armenia as a hobby.
Today, you can find Armenian goods, such as canned food, jams and dried fruit on the shelves of “Fresh Farms International Market,” which is Chicago’s most popular International grocery market.
Below are significant notes regarding Chicago’s Armenian community:
- There are seven Armenian churches and two Saturday Armenian schools;
- There is an Armenian Boy Scout chapter as well as Armenian sports groups;
- There is a choir and an Armenian dance group;
- Chicago’s Armenian Revolutionary Federation “Christapor” Chapter, in Glenview Illinois, has a Community Center, called “Armenian All Saints”;
- Recently, longtime community supporters Jirair and Shari Kazarian generously donated over $100,000 to a newly-created fund dedicated solely to the renovation and expansion of the center;
- The Armenian Relief Society, founded in 1910, is an independent, nonsectarian, philanthropic society like the Red Cross, which is serving the Armenian communities. The Chicago’s Zabelle Chapter of Armenian Relief Society, was founded in 1913.
Tatosian also indicated that Chicago is popular with Armenian students. Each year, a number of Armenian students from Armenia arrive in Chicago to continue their higher education in different Universities.
To finish my Chicago report, I called my friend Mary Najarian who, In 1956, was interning as a nurse at a hospital in Chicago. Mary asked that I mention Dr. Hampar Kelikian in my report about Chicago. Dr. Kelikian was an orthopedic surgeon who helped Senator Bob Dole, who was a Presidential candidate, recover from very serious injuries he endured during World War II. In return, Dole became a staunch advocate for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide.
Mary, as a young nurse was an assistant to Dr. Kelikian. She worked closely with him. She said that Dr. Kelikian helped many young Armenians become orthopedic surgeons, and that he never charged the Armenian patients. Mary remembers the words of Dr. Kelikian, who told her: “Chelah Vor Hayerin Bill Uness.” Translation: “Don’t you dare charge our Armenian patients.”
When Dr. Kelikian first arrived to the U.S. from Armenia, he only had $2 and a rug to his name. He was known to perform surgeries well into old age, specifically until he was 80-years-old. He was the author of 33 articles and was featured in “People” magazine in the late 1970’s. Dr. Kelikian worked with Senator Dole in the 1970’s and 1980’s toward Armenian Genocide recognition.
I thoroughly enjoyed my three hours in Chicago and learned more about the Armenian community than I was expecting to.