PARAMUS, N.J.—On Oct. 21, the Avedisian and Bilezikian families will be honored at the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA) banquet in New Jersey, for their generous and far-reaching philanthropy in Armenia, Artsakh, and the United States.
Both families have contributed to dozens of causes, but one of the most important and inspiring projects was the building of a 100,000 square foot school, Armenia’s first green school—Khoren and Shooshanig Avedisian K-12 School and Community Center, located in the Malatia-Sepastia region of Yerevan called Bangladesh, chosen because it is the most impoverished area of Armenia’s capital city.
The Avedisian family story begins during the Armenian Genocide when several dozen immediate and extended family members on both his mother’s and father’s side from Kharpert were killed. His father, Khoren, who had been trained to be a priest, had come to New England in 1905 to work and send money back for the support of his family. As the genocide was soon to begin, they told him not to return, the result of which wiped out most of his family.
His mother who survived the genocide by being in the German Missionary School received wonderful care and an education. She eventually went to Aleppo with her mother. Khoren Avedisian who had heard of her through a friend, had sent her his photo and after an exchange of letters went to Cuba, where he met and married her in 1926, before coming to the U.S. Yes, Shooshanig was a picture bride. Their union produced four children: Paramaz, Zvart, Edward and Paul. Though the family had little money during the Depression era, Khoren brought the three surviving family members to America.
A Valuable Lesson Never to be Forgotten
Avedisian refers to an experience in his childhood when his mother, who had survived the Armenian Genocide, was raising a family of four children together with her husband Khoren. At the end of World War II, when all the textile mills in New England were closing, his mother who had been working in a mill was laid off her job and was collecting unemployment checks while looking for new employment. “She asked me to accompany her on one trip to the unemployment office as I needed new shoes before school started in September and to also buy the necessary groceries for the following week,” he explains.
“We arrived at the office well before the 9 a.m. deadline and were still standing in line when the office manager arrived and ordered everyone to leave and closed the store. We left the building forlorn and heartbroken. I’ll never forget, it was a beautiful sunny summer day and for what seemed like forever when mother suddenly said let’s go. I asked where and she said to the Mayor’s Office, because the Mayor had attended an Armenian function the year before (election time) and had told everybody that if they had any problems they should see him—that his door always open. At nien years old, I already knew that was not to be believed. So, off we went to the Mayor McCoy’s Office. She lodged her complaint to the Mayor who promptly put in a call to the Unemployment Office and instructed the manager to have my mother’s check ready, as she would soon be there again. Sure enough, we went back got the check, bought new shoes for me, purchased food for the following week and went home. It was just another day of challenge in the life of an immigrant but for sure an undocumented Profile in Courage,” he explains.
“How could I let those kids down in Armenia after I had learned a very important lesson from my mother when I was very young,” says Edward Avedisian, in a telephone interview. Edward, a gifted professional musician, successful investor, generous philanthropist, and Ellis Island Award winner added, “Those lessons didn’t come easily… That experience taught me a lot,” he says proudly.
First Green School in Armenia
“If the Germans did so much for children like my mother during the genocide, why can’t Armenians do the same for Armenians,” declares Avedisian, who founded this school and is its main benefactor.
Edward and wife Pamela, who have gone to Armenia 30 times beginning in 1982, say “there is no school like the Avedisian School in Armenia or the entire South Caucuses. This first solar-heated designed school building, spearheaded by Senior Advisor, Architect Ronald Altoon with solar design by Armen Gharibyan was opened in 2014 with great fanfare, with attendees including Armenian President Serge Sarkisian, and wide coverage on Armenian television and radio.
Besides its solar-powered uniqueness, the school has the highest academic standards, is non-sectarian, and is specifically for the children of families who are experiencing socio-economic difficulties in this poorest area of Yerevan. “We want to give these children a chance to excel, and they have been responding by winning country-wide competitions,” Avedisian declares with obvious pride.
The government is now pushing for many government buildings to be solar-powered. It is the best thing for Armenia because the country is so polluted and as a result has a very high cancer rate, explains Avedisian. “By using solar, you get free power, no pollution and a reduction in the cancer rate, just by harnessing the sun.”
Jeanmarie Papelian, a former AMAA Board of Directors member, also on the Avedisian School Building Committee and a good friend of both the Avedisian and Bilezikian families, related that this new school replaced the former decrepit building. She revealed that when Edward Avedisian’s mother Shooshanig turned 90 in 1994 her birthday present was to replicate, in Armenia, the Orphanage she attended operated by German Missionaries in Kharpert. This 90th Birthday Celebration was in fact the birth of the Khoren and Shooshanig Avedisian K-12 School and Community Center that was to be operated by the AMAA. Papelian revealed that Edward and Pamela Avedisian are also principal benefactors for the Paramaz Avedisian Building at the American University of Armenia (AUA), in memory of brother Paramaz, where students who cannot afford the tuition, can attend without charge.
In June, the Khoren and Shooshanig Avedisian K-12 School will celebrate its first 12th grade graduation since its inception 18 years ago in 1999. The school is especially pleased that the Commencement Speaker will be from the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) in New York.
For his many contributions to Armenia, which have included philanthropy to the AUA and the Tsitsernakaberd Genocide Memorial as well as the complete renovation of a school in the Haghtanag Village and the Nork Children’s Cardiac Hospital, Edward Avedisian was twice awarded the Movses Khorenatsi Medal by President Sarkisian.
This medal, which is among Armenia’s highest honors, is for contributions to education, culture, literature, and the arts. Avedisian’s professional history includes being a world-class clarinetist for three decades with the Boston Pops, four decades with the Boston Ballet Orchestra, soloist with Armenia Philharmonic, Adjunct Professor of Music at Boston University, and Artistic Administrator of the Harvard Chamber Orchestra, among many others.
The Charles and Doreen Bilezikian family has contributed greatly to the Avedisian School by building its elementary wing in memory of his parents Krikor and Beatrice Bilezikian, as well as the Bilezikian Family Library. They have also funded a kindergarten in Shushi, Artsakh, which is operated by the AMAA.
Doreen (nee Portnoy) who was married to Charles Bilezikian for 52 years, and who is of Jewish background, speaks enthusiastically of the closeness of the two ethnic groups, and their history of genocide. “Armenians and Jews believe in a close family, education, and share cultural values,” she says.
“We have always believed that through education a child can become a better citizen and can give to society more than it receives,” she related in a telephone conversation.
“My husband’s father hailed from Marash, and mother from Harpoot. Marash was protected by the French who then pulled out for political reasons. The French escaped silently by covering the hooves of their horses. My father-in-law Krikor Bilezikian knew that if he stayed in Marash, he would be killed by the Turks, so he followed the French out, and walked all the way to Aleppo on foot,” she says.
The AMAA, she says in tribute, has always looked out for emigres. “They found my husband’s two uncles and the rest of the surviving Kasparians, and reunited them with the rest of the family in Boston.”
In America, the Bilezikians are a rags to riches saga, starting one Christmas Tree Shop, which mushroomed into a very successful chain of stores throughout several states.
Doreen and her late husband, who have two sons, Gregory and Jeffrey, and six grandchildren, have visited Armenia four times, donating to various causes. Before his passing last year, the two sons went to Armenia with Charles’ express desire that they continue his contributions in Armenia.
“The country has changed dramatically in 20 years. It is trying very hard to develop a stable economy,” she observes.
Doreen who is having a difficult time getting over the loss of her husband, calls the Bilezikians “part of my family. They are warm, loving, and I am very blessed and fortunate to have them.”
She reminisces emotionally that every year for 80 years, the Bilezikian and Kasparian families have gotten together at the Armenian Memorial Church hall in Watertown, Mass. to celebrate Thanksgiving together, thus “uniting four generations.”
In tribute to the two honorees, AMAA Executive Director/CEO Zaven Khanjian stated that the association, which funds and operates the tuition-free Avedisian School in Yerevan and the Bilezikian Kindergarten in Shushi, “salutes the grace and humanity of the generous benefactors, and is looking forward to honoring them at the East Coast Centennial Banquet on Oct. 21. We call on the community to save the date and join the AMAA in honoring the Avedisian and Bilezikian families.”