BELMONT, Mass. (A.W.)—As chapters across the country gear up to celebrate the Armenian Relief Society’s (ARS) 100th year and raise awareness of its newest initiative—the ARS Centennial Fund Drive—more than 120 women came together for an Afternoon Tea Party organized jointly by the Watertown “Leola Sassouni” and Cambridge “Shushi” Chapters on Jan. 25 at the Holy Cross Armenian Church in Belmont.
Comprised of Ungerouhis Nevart Kouyoumjian (president), Houri Haroutunian (secretary), Yeran Manjikian (treasurer), Armine Barsomian, Vartouhi Chiloyan, Zovig Kojanian, Shakkay Minassian, and Vany Tashjian, the Centennial Celebration Committee that planned the Tea Party was so-named in October 2008 when they met with Ungerouhi Angele Manoogian, the chair of the ARS Eastern Region Fund Drive, and Ungerouhi Mimi Parseghian, a member of the Central Executive Board, at the agoump in Watertown to discuss the ARS’s plans for the future.
Three months later, ARS members and their invited guests, long-time supporters and friends, were treated to an elegant spread of tea sandwiches and pastries, cheese and crackers, all with an endless supply of tea, as first Armene Karapetian, a Yerevan-born pianist, and later Martin Haroutunian and Artur Yeghiazaryan on dhol and duduk, regaled them with Armenian music. The festive atmosphere that afternoon soon gave way to slightly more somber speeches by Ungerouhis Manoogian and Parseghian—a call of action, directed not only to the chapters’ current members, but to its newer generations, which will see the organization through another 100 years.
In 1910, the ARS was formed in New York, and with the beginning of the genocide and the immense humanitarian crisis that ensued, it quickly established chapters in Europe and the Middle East, “extending its roots and its hands to the orphans, the ill, and the dying,” said Ungerouhi Manoogian. In this way, the ARS came to play a profound role in the formation of the diaspora, not only by supporting Armenians in need with food, clothing, and medication, but by continuing the culture and heritage that had been so threatened by forming and supporting Armenian schools throughout the world. The ARS, Ungerouhi Manoogian explained, has always adapted to the needs of the Armenian nation; after World War II, for example, the ARS Eastern Region helped bring thousands of Armenian refugees to the United States, and after the 1988 earthquake, it sent millions of dollars through its 24 chapters to Gyumri, Armenia. Currently, of course, the ARS continues to support schools and medical centers in both the diaspora and Armenia, as well as in Karabagh and Javakhk. It has, she noted, fulfilled some of the highest aspirations of the Armenian nation.
And so, “Why the Endowment Fund? Why now?” asked Ungerouhi Parseghian. Over the past 20 years, the ARS has been taxed heavily, she explained, with new challenges—including a new state, Armenia; a new (yet precariously independent) republic, Karabagh; an entire region in Georgia that remains fairly oppressed, Javakhk; and an ever-growing and changing diaspora. “There are so many things our people need now more than ever,” she explained. “And my concern over the next 100 years is: What is going to happen to the Armenian community?” Therefore, in preparation and in tribute of the 100th year anniversary of the ARS, the idea of an endowment fund—of raising $5 million for the needs of the future—was proposed, and embraced. For 100 years, ARS members—men and women—have volunteered, with no other satisfaction than seeing their communities flourish and prosper. “And that satisfaction cannot be matched,” she said.
Sitting there that day, I couldn’t help but wonder why I hadn’t yet joined the ARS, like so many of my peers from the AYF, a sister organization. It’s not that I haven’t been aware of their projects—in fact, I’ve admired them, and the women that have spear-headed them, for years. As Ungerouhi Parseghian said, the ARS is a feminist organization because it promotes women, and has done so for nearly a century. As an Armenian woman, I’m immensely proud of that fact. But the ARS cannot continue to meet the challenges of the day without both an influx of donations and support from the wider community, and a new generation of members.
In her welcoming remarks, Ungerouhi Haroutunian had reminded us of Nelson Mandela’s recent words—”It is time for new hands to lift the burdens”—and when Ungerouhi Kouyoumjian invited us to join the ARS and be part of a second century of service, I realized, somewhat belatedly, that it’s our time.
To learn more about the ARS and its programs, or to find a chapter near you, visit www.arseastusa.org.
— Michael Mensoian and Vany Tashjian contributed to this article.