BY SONA ZEITLIAN
At a time of speedy social change when Armenian youth confront multiple challenges in Armenia and the diaspora, AGBU Hye Geen and the Young Circle launched a public discussion about empowering, informing and engaging the youth, the ultimate owners of our national heritage. The theme of the 12th International Conference was also most relevant in view of the proclamation of 2018 as Year of the Youth by his Holiness Karekine II, Catholicos of All Armenians.
This most timely conference took place on Saturday April 7, 2018 at AGBU Vatche and Tamar Manoukian Center, located at 2495 Mountain Street, Pasadena. Distinguished speakers and youthful panelists focused on the priorities of the new generation, highlighting experiences central to identity formation, strengthening civil institutions and developing national consciousness through knowledge of our nation’s history and culture.
AGBU Hye Geen has implemented these priorities throughout its 25 years of service to the community and by founding five Pregnant Women’s Centers in Armenia. In her opening remarks, the Conference Chair Elizabeth Kabayan also made reference to a successful pilot program at the Armenia Centers carried out in collaboration with Yerevan State University’s Sociology Department headed by Prof. Lyudmila Harutunyan, to prepare girls between the ages of 16 to 23 for marriage and motherhood.
The first speaker, Daniel Fittante was introduced by Lilian Simonian from the Mechanical Engineering Department of Glendale Community College.
A doctoral candidate in the Department of Near Eastern languages and Cultures at UCLA, Daniel Fittante has specialized in contemporary Armenian migration. He has written about the Armenian settlements of Fresno, Hollywood, Glendale and the greater Los Angeles. He has also done extensive fieldwork about demography, policy preferences, political orientations and transnational linkages among newcomers and pre-existing co-ethnic community members. He plans to further his studies about the contemporary global Armenian diaspora. His Conference topic was “The Concise Historical Background of the California Armenian Community.”
After explaining the causes of the late 19th and early 20th century waves of Armenian emigration, the speaker dwelt on the important aspect of institution building such as the founding of churches, schools, newspapers as well as political, cultural and sports organizations, business enterprises and food chains. In time ethnic enclaves were formed as Lebanese, Iranian, Iraki immigrants put their own imprint on the process of “ethnicization.” As the Armenian community increased in size and diversity, the ethnic identity was strengthened with the aim of preserving the national heritage.
The second speaker, Gegham Mughnetsyan was introduced by Emilia Der Sarkissian, Civil/Environmental Engineer Chair of ATF Internship in Artsakh and member of All-Armenian Student Association at Cal Poly Pomona.
Originally from Gyumri, the second speaker’s family emigrated from Armenia when he was fourteen. He majored in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of California, Berkeley and is at present Research Associate at USC Institute of Armenian Studies, doing research on Armenia and the diaspora. His Conference topic was “The Concept of Race, Country and Citizenship.”
Whereas his identity was never questioned in his native Armenia, the speaker faced “multiple layers of transition.” With U.S. citizenship, he has become a hyphenated Armenian. He defined “America as a melting pot of people and ideas,” where maternal languages and dialects are all doomed and where “identity is liable to phase out slowly,” unless it is anchored on Armenian values. These values resist social change, shield us from assimilation and continue to shape our identity. Such values are also the common bonds between the Homeland and the diaspora.
The third speaker, Gregory S. Krikorian was introduced by Abraham Chorbajian, a psychology major and social Chair of UCLA’s All-Armenian Student Association.
Grandchild of genocide survivors, the speaker has been involved in school district and community organizations and acknowledges that the Armenian community has achieved “a culture of understanding” with regional schools on the personal level, he is co-founder of Cal-Com Enterprises, a multi-service marketing firm specializing in strategic marketing, government relations, crisis management and community relations for various organizations and ethnically diverse communities. He was also president and CEO of Business Life Magazine. His topic for the Conference was “The Role of Family, Community and the call of the Motherland.”
The speaker first dwelt on our obligation to recognize ancestral roots from all parts of historic Armenia and the Republic of Armenia. Citing examples from his own family, he highlighted the critical role of Armenian women in the survival and regeneration of the nation to the “gradual attainment of an Armenian world of global character.” As a priority of the new generation, he warned against the loss of the maternal language and stressed the importance of social cohesion for the preservation of our culture and heritage. He also alerted about the dangers of continuous emigration from Armenia.
He noted that as Turkish students were organizing and sharing available resources, we should beware of being complacent, but make a realistic appraisal of the situation and motivate the young to participate in community projects.
The three lectures were followed by a panel discussion about “Hot Topics Regarding the Youth Today,” moderated by Victoria Amran and with the participation of Armand Nareg Yerjanian, Arvin Demerjian, Lori Pogarian, Marina Serobyan and Vahe Yacoubian.
To the question of preserving national identity at a time of globalization and the dominance of mass media, most of the panelists stressed the role of the family in transmitting Armenian values and contributing to a sense of connectedness which assures the stability of the community. However, it was pointed out that there was a marked difference between the “idealistic older generation” and the new one in tune with American culture, seeking to become part of the mainstream.
The second question was about life in a diversified world affecting choices, including the crucial choice of a life partner. The panelists were in agreement about the values of activism and volunteerism in social, cultural, athletic and charitable organizations as means of maintaining community cohesion, which in turn would create an atmosphere where friendships could be forged, and life partners chosen.
As for the role of the church, there was unanimity that the oldest national institution could mobilize the community with its Sunday schools and outreach programs, reinforcing the values of our collective identity. Yet a suggestion was made “to give space to youth” or create a framework to engage the young to further strengthen church-community relations.
Preserving the Armenian language was of concern to all the panelists in view of the dominance of English as the medium of the internet and social media. They acknowledged that in many households only the elderly still spoke Armenian. They all considered that parents should teach the language. In the absence of ethnic schools, English tended to become the spoken language. Even those with some familiarity with the language, spoke English among friends and reverted to Armenian only in a group setting to set themselves apart.
All panelists considered the connection with the Motherland to be vital and described organized visits as “rewarding experiences.” They all felt that volunteerism in Armenia empowered or enriched them. Whether in Armenia or the diaspora, the panelists agreed that there should be opportunities for the involvement of youth in the progress of the country and community organizations to have an impact on societal attitudes and the advocacy of national causes.
Before the luncheon break, Nellie Yacoubian addressed the audience calling for donations in support of AGBU Hye Geen’s initiatives to nurture, educate and empower women and for the benefit of the pregnant Women’s Centers in Armenia.
The afternoon session began with the fourth speaker, Richard Chambers being introduced by Victoria Amran, who works at USC in Clinical Research and is active in church and community projects.
Having pursued his education in multimedia production, the speaker currently teaches at California State University, Northridge. His topic for the Conference was “Finding and Adjusting to the Reality of One’s Identity.”
While mentoring and leading a team of student videographers in creating short-format videos for the University, the speaker became convinced that the young could “find their voice and be of service” to their community. This made him reflect on cultural tourism as a means for diasporan youth to reconnect with their Armenia counterparts, to learn first hand about their living conditions as well as about their culture and heritage. In partial fulfillment of his own thesis, he created a 23-minute documentary following the enriching journey of eight Armenian-Americans volunteering for the 2015 Land and Culture organization’s campaign.
Then the lights of the hall dimmed, and the Chambers video was presented. The audience was impressed by the three-week reconstruction work of the volunteers of a historic 17th century church in Armenia. The impact of their encounter with the villagers leading to the establishment of a “solid connection” was well recorded. By all accounts, the involvement of the young in the Land and Culture project was most successful in crafting a sense of connectedness between the Homeland and the diaspora.
A final question and answer session with the speakers reaffirmed the value of education in framing the national identity, and the need for mentorship and outreach programs based on the inclusion of youth to combat factionalism and advance new ways of thinking.
The closing remarks were made by Talin Yacoubian, the first woman to hold the AGBU Western District Chair. She commended the speakers for stressing the role of institutions in maintaining cohesiveness in widespread communities. She was optimistic that the new generation would both celebrate diversity and preserve national identity. She hoped that our ethnic leadership would make use of its resources to mobilize the young, to allow their voices to be heard, and inspire them with confidence that their thoughts can turn into actions.
The audience was appreciative of the diligence of AGBU Hye Geen and Young Circle members in organizing another successful conference. It was also felt that given the chance, the young needed to respond readily to have the desired impact on framing and acting upon a national action plan.