BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
Armenians first settled in Fresno in the mid-1880s. Today, it remains one of the few cities around the world solidly associated with its Armenian community.
With this in mind, I made plans to be there during the week of April 24 to observe the events related to the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, and to visit sites that Armenians are historically connected to.
On April 24, my day began at 10 a.m. by attending a tribute to the Armenian Genocide in front of the Fresno City Hall, which has a Post-Modern stylized, elongated, all-glass construction with a futuristic feel.
It was a sunny day, with a deep blue sky and no traces of clouds. There was somewhere between 200 – 300 people gathered outside of the City Hall to commemorate the 104th anniversary of the Genocide. In attendance were not only Armenians, but representatives of the Assyrian-American community from Turlock/Modesto, California.
Following the invocation by the clergy and the introduction of dignitaries, there was a raising of flags ceremony—first the American flag, then the Armenian. During the hoisting of each flag, the corresponding anthems were sung.
The raising of the U.S. and Armenian flags in front of Fresno’s City Hall is a symbolic gesture of unity. The event, held annually since 2004, is organized by the Armenian National Committee of America-Central California chapter.
After the raising of flags ceremony, Mayor Lee Brand, followed by Congressman Jim Costa, gave their remarks concerning the Genocide. They each commented on their personal ties to the Armenian community while growing up in the San Joaquin Valley. Both Brand and Costa also mentioned the resilience of the Armenian community and how they are part of the tapestry and history of Fresno.
After some musical selections performed by students of Charlie Keyan—the only Armenian school in Fresno—the keynote speaker, Alice Petrossian, was invited to the podium. Alice is the current chairperson of the Education Committee of the ANCA-Western Region.
Alice and I first became friends when our kids were young and attended the Armenian Chamlian school in Glendale. At that time she was the Assistant Superintendent at Glendale Unified School District and in later years, became the Chief Academic Officer at Pasadena Unified School District. For over 40 years, she has tirelessly worked to improve the quality of education in public schools.
She has always been a proponent of the Armenian cause and has helped tailor the curriculum of the public schools to fit the needs of immigrant children, especially Armenian children. Alice spoke on the latest standards and resources that are available in California for cross-cultural understanding.
Alice is one of the most effective public speakers I’ve ever known. Though her speech was related to a somber topic, like always, Alice found a way to uplift the crowd.
She took us to Western Turkey, where her grandparents were originally from. Alice explained that, because of the Genocide, her grandparents had been forced to move to Iran. She spoke of how her own family moved from Iran to California when she was only 6 years old. Her stories were sprinkled by little anecdotes, which kept the crowd engaged.
The event came to a close by 11:30 a.m. Then, our group went to have lunch at George’s—an Armenian eatery that has been around for over 45 years.
The outside wall of the restaurant was covered with thick green ivy, which I interpreted as the markings of a formal French type restaurant. However as we stepped inside, the atmosphere was casual, more like a fast food restaurant. The reasonably priced menu was mostly kebabs in pita-pocket sandwiches, with side salads and humus. We enjoyed the good food and the ambiance. It felt like a cozy hangout spot where customers knew each other.
After lunch our next stop was at William Saroyan Theatre at the Convention Center in Downtown Fresno, where Fresno’s most prominent native son’s bust was placed in front of the theatre. After fully embracing Downtown Fresno, we proceeded to visit the Armenian cemetery.
The cemetery consists of new and old parts. In the new part, a Memorial monument is set over the grave of our national hero, Soghomon Tehlirian—a 22-foot-high obelisk with an eagle on top and a pair of cypress trees on the sides. The cemetery land was purchased by the Armenian community of Fresno in 1885 for the sum of one dollar in gold coins. It’s the only Armenian cemetery in the whole United States.
Before returning home, we stopped to see the statue of David of Sassoon located in front of Fresno County’s Hall of Records. David of Sassoon is the legendary folk hero of the Armenians which depicts man’s Love of freedom and justice. The stylized warrior-like figure of David of Sassoon riding his Dzhalali horse is full of movement and strength. The bronze statue was created by Fresno sculptor Varaz Samuelian in 1971.
We returned home around 2 p.m. to get some rest, and in the evening we returned to Fresno State University, where there was going to be another commemoration of the Genocide. The event at the University started at 6 p.m., and was initiated by participants laying out flowers around the center of the Genocide monument.
Afterward it was the Presentation of the Flags followed by a religious service conducted by clergy from different Armenian churches in Fresno. In attendance were around 500 people. The event had two master of ceremonies—Alexan Balekian and Stephanie Booroojian, two Armenian anchors at ABC TV
The President of Fresno State, Joseph Castro, thanked the Genocide planning committee for arranging the event. He mentioned that the Genocide monument is the only memorial in any university in the United States. The memorial monument was dedicated four years ago, at the University grounds, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
It was designed by Fresno architect, Paul Halajian, and constructed with private donations. The monument embodies symbols, meaningful to the Armenian people. The nine pillars represent the six provinces of historic Armenia plus Cilicia, the Diaspora and the Republic of Armenia. An incomplete halo above the pillars symbolizes the unity of the people and the fracture left by the killing of as many as 1.5 million from 1915 – 1923.
Again, Congressman Jim Costa made another heartfelt remark: “Today we are not “Odars” but we are all Armenians.”
Later, we heard the winners of the Armenian Genocide Essay Competition of high school and university students read their essays.
A reading that stood out to me was that of Sarah Berberian, who had tears streaming down her cheeks as she read: “Today I can walk because my great grandmother kept walking—it is our duty not to let the memories go unnoticed,” she read.
The event at the university wrapped up the April 24th remembrance day. In the next two days, I heard a lecture about the families that fled the city of Van and settled in Fresno, I had the privilege of enjoying a concert by the Cadence Ensemble from Armenia, and I visited the William Saroyan House Museum, as well as the Armenian Heritage Museum.