PHILADELPHIA, Pa.—Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, Congressman Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), Congressional Armenian Caucus Co-Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), and Pennsylvania State Senator Daylin Leach (D-17) joined with Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) supporters from the Eastern seaboard, southern states, and the Midwest for an evening of celebration, recognition, and reflection at the ANCA Eastern Region 7th Annual Banquet on Oct. 12. The evening featured the bestowal of the organization’s highest honors on longtime activist Zohrab Tazian and best-selling author Chris Bohjalian.
Expanding the voice of the community
Elected officials and community leaders alike focused on the growing voice of Armenian Americans in the civic arena, and the key role that the ANCA and its grassroots network plays in representing the views on core community concerns, ranging from justice for the Armenian Genocide to a strong, prosperous, democratic Armenia, an independent Artsakh, and support for Armenians in war-torn Syria.
“The ANCA receives broad based support from Armenians of all types—and this is one of the ANCA’s greatest strengths,” said the evening’s master of ceremonies, Antranig Garibian, a prominent Philadelphia lawyer and member of the Diocesan Council of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church. “Here tonight, we are quite the mix. We are of different ages and hail from different countries. We are of varying political and economic backgrounds and we range from students, to doctors, to lawyers, to clergymen, political leaders, and business professionals. Although we may not always agree with each other, we are unified in our dedication to strengthening the voice of the Armenian people in the United States of America.”
Former Governor Ed Rendell, who has also served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, cited the need for continued vigilance against genocide denial, particularly by communities that have faced this horror. “We, as Jews and as Armenians, have an obligation—when we hear about things like Darfur—to be heard because the slaughter of people because of their ethnicity is wrong wherever it occurs on the globe. The ANCA does a great job—a great job for the cause that you believe in, and a great job for freedom and human rights all over the world. So thanks for what you do, and keep on doing it.”
Referring to his leadership in advancing annual Armenian Genocide legislation in the Pennsylvania state legislature, State Senator Daylin Leach explained, “I am proud of this because while international relationships and strategic interests are fine, to me historical accuracy has to be paramount. That has to trump everything else. As a Jewish American, I would never accept the idea that we should soft-pedal recognition of the Holocaust because we have relationships in Germany, or bases in Germany. And that is a point I try to make in Harrisburg every time I discuss this issue.”
Congressman Meehan expressed his concern about the crisis facing the Armenian community in Aleppo, Syria. “I was meeting with the Catholic archbishop just a few weeks ago and we were talking about Christian communities that have been caught—in Africa, in Syria, in other places in the Middle East—in the middle of civil wars and this these types of activity. And often times, these become excuses for the further destruction of those communities. So [the Armenian Genocide] is not just an issue of the past. It’s an issue of the present and the future, and you are the voices frequently that allow their voices and cries to be heard.”
Congressional Armenian Caucus Co-Chair Frank Pallone summed up the spirit of the evening, noting, “It’s more important than ever for organizations like the ANCA to be out there educating members [of Congress] about Armenia and Armenian issues. And, of course, that’s what our Caucus is all about and that’s why we started the Armenian Issues Caucus. But without the support of the Armenian National Committee of America, we would not be able to do much because you are the grassroots organization that gets members to co-sponsor the Armenian Genocide resolution, to get funding for Armenia and Karabagh, and trying to find a solution so that Karabagh can be recognized as an independent country and to remain Armenian forever. So by being here tonight, supporting the ANCA and doing what you do, nothing could be more important in terms of moving a pro-Armenian agenda in Congress,” concluded Rep. Pallone.
Honoree Zohrab Tazian: ‘Hai Tahd’ pioneer
Dr. Ara Chalian, chair of the ANC of Pennsylvania and an active member of the community in Philadelphia, reminisced about the key role ANCA-ER Vahan Cardashian Award recipient Zohrab Tazian played as “the face of Hai Tahd” in his home state of Indiana, where he grew up. “Tonight we honor Mr. Zohrab Tazian, Unger Zohrab Tazian, my Uncle Zohrab Tazian, a man who has been an activist and a voice for the Armenian Cause locally and in the region,” said Chalian. “Let us each celebrate and feel the power that his voice has had, the commitment that he has shown, and really feel the power that our voices can have locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally.”
A humble and deeply moved Tazian began his remarks, noting, “A simple thank you, even when it comes from the deepest part of my heart, would not adequately express my gratitude. … I cannot accept this award just for Zohrab Tazian. He is not the one who earned it alone. I accept this award tonight for the whole family of Tazian name, starting with my grandfather, my father, my mother, my wife of 54 years, and my four children—Tina, Sona, Ara, Hera—and our grandson Nick.”
Tazian is a pioneer of Armenian activism in the United States, having worked with elected officials for more than 40 years to advance Armenian community concerns. He served on Vice President Dan Quayle’s finance committee during his first run for Congress in 1976. In 1984, Tazian was an Indiana delegate to the Republican National Convention in Dallas, where he introduced his friend Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian to politics by offering him his seat at the convention for a session.
Honoree Chris Bohjalian: Voice of a generation seeking justice
Dr. Levon Avdoyan, the Armenian and Georgian specialist at the Library of Congress, offered a moving introduction of ANCA Eastern Region Freedom Award recipient Chris Bohjalian and the unprecedented impact of his book The Sandcastle Girls in raising awareness of the Armenian Genocide in U.S. popular culture.
Citing his own family’s trauma in the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide, Avdoyan noted the relative absence of the genocide as a topic in American popular literature, “until the publication in 2013 of the great, and I do mean great, American novelist Chris Bohjalian of his ‘Sandcastle Girls.’ Until it finally, horrifically, and elegantly told the story through…Laura Petrossian, Armen, and Elizabeth, with rich prose, intriguing plot, without pandering, without preaching. Armen and Elizabeth, and the genocide-induced immigration of Armenians to America, are now part of the American literary canon,” said Avdoyan, “accessible to the American public at large while honoring the ancestors of all American Armenians.”
Bohjalian came to the podium to a standing ovation, like Tazian, and warmly greeted those in attendance. His speech was marked by enthusiasm and eloquence, emphasizing key Armenian role models in his life as well as his journey as an author. “I am grateful beyond words to the Armenian National Committee of America and to this region in particular for embracing ‘The Sandcastle Girls’ so passionately and so powerfully from day one,” began Bohjalian. “And while I accept this award with all of my heart, I can tell you something I know from all of my soul. There are thousands of Armenian Americans who are far more worthy than I. That is not false humility. That is simple reality.”
Bohjalian went on to state, “In the last year, I’ve had the indescribable privilege of visiting Armenia twice, as well as meeting the Armenian communities in Beirut, again twice, Istanbul, and Diyarbekir. I’ve been with three generations of Syrian refugees in Antelias, where I was particularly moved by the resiliency of refugee teenagers. They gave me hope. And I met with legislators on Capitol Hill, some who will support us and our just and reasonable goals with passion. … But I also met with representatives who would sacrifice us with nary a second thought over the pyres of real politik. But somehow, day after day, despite the odds, ANCA warriors across this country are championing House Resolution 227, giving voice to all of our outrage over the threats and rhetoric that seem to spew daily from the thugs that pose as legislators in Baku, reminding the world of the Armenian community in Syria, combating anti-Armenian propaganda, securing foreign aid to Armenia, and ensuring the independence of Nagorno-Karabagh.”
Bohjalian is the critically acclaimed author of 16 books, including 9 New York Times best-sellers. His work has been translated into more than 25 languages and 3 times were made into movies. His epic novel of the Armenian Genocide, The Sandcastle Girls, was published in paperback in April. His books have been chosen as Best Books of the Year by the Washington Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Hartford Courant, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Bookpage, and Salon.
Leaders spotlight power of grassroots advocacy
A consistent theme in remarks offered throughout the evening was an expansion of the ANCA’s dedicated network of grassroots supporters throughout the Eastern United States. ANCA National Board member Richard Sarajian explained that during the Armenian Republic of 1918-20, Vahan Cardashian was the lone voice of freedom in the United States, fighting for the rights of the Armenian nation. “Many years later, a new independent republic was formed,” said Sarajian. “That independent republic doesn’t have to rely upon one man. It has hundreds of thousands of people to follow in Vahan Cardashian’s footsteps. And that is what we are trying to do here at the ANCA.”
Sarajian continued, paraphrasing a quote attributed to President Abraham Lincoln: “There is an expression which basically says, ‘If you want to get something done, you will get it done. If you don’t want to get something done, you will find an excuse.’ We can’t find excuses, we have to be doers. We have to make the phone calls. We have to make the contacts. We have to be the grassroots. Ten million, twenty million dollars spent by our opponents. We don’t have that money. But we have heart. We have our story. We have our dedication to our ancestors and to our Homeland and to our current people in Armenia and the current people in Syria. We can’t find excuses.”
ANCA Eastern Region Chairwoman Nora Kzirian, in her remarks, stressed, “As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, I have a simple message. To be more vocal, to be more demanding. As constituents in this great American democracy, because we really do have the power to make the change, and through our activism, there is greater likelihood to keep our Causes moving forward and getting the recognition and justice we and our ancestors so deserve. And so today, as we fight for justice, we seek nothing more than what is ours, what has been taken, and what we are owed.”
Master of ceremonies Antranig Garibian navigated the evening with skill and eloquence. Ayla Brown, a national recording artist and the daughter of former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, kicked off the evening with the American national anthem, followed by Karinne Andonian, who sang the Armenian national anthem. Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan, Prelate of the Eastern Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America, followed suit by providing a moving invocation. Rev. Fr. Hakob Gevorgyan, the pastor of Holy Trinity Armenian Church of Philadelphia, later offered the evening’s benediction.
Attendees were given a break in the formal program with a moving recitation of “I Shall Endure,” a poem by Avik Derentz Deirmenjian, a well-respected author and poet in both the United States and Armenia.
Among the dignitaries in attendance were V. Rev. Fr. Sahag Yemishian, pastor of Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church of Worcester, Mass.; Archpriest Fr. Nerses Manoogian, pastor of St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church of Philadelphia; Sister Emma Moussayan and Sister Nelly Isin of the Armenian Sisters Academy of Radnor, Pa.; ANCA Chairman Ken Hachikian; ARF Eastern USA Central Committee members Aram Hovagimian, Dr. Antranig Kasbarian, Ari Killian, and Angele Manoogian; Prelacy Executive Council Vice Chair Noubar Megerian; AYF Eastern Region Central Executive member Yervant Kachichian; Hairenik Weekly Editor Zaven Torigian; and Armenian Weekly Editor Khatchig Mouradian.
Attendees were also treated to a 10-minute photo slideshow of ANCA Eastern Region highlights from the past year, which was played during the evening’s intermission. The night began with an elegant cocktail reception and silent auction at 6:30 p.m. With more than 40 auction items, attendees were able to bid on a variety of gifts, from cruise tickets to autographed sports gear to Armenian paintings.
The ANCA-ER Banquet was organized by Lorig Baronian, James Kzirian, Aram Hovagimian, Nora Kzirian, Anny Deirmenjian Deese, Tamar Chalian, Raffi Hovagimian, Sosi Hovagimian, Dori Keshgegian, Susan Pogharian, Stephanie Sudjian, Stephanie Tashjian, Linda Vosbikian, Erika Torosian, Nanor Arabatlian, Angela Deese, and Tania Dakko.
Many banquet guests and ANCA activists enjoyed a casual evening of celebration on Oct. 11 at “Hip Philly” in Philadelphia.
Pictures from the ANCA Eastern Region Banquet, taken by Diran Jebejian of Jebejian Images, are available on the ANCA Facebook page. Video from the ANCA-ER Banquet, taken by Justin Kaladjian, will be posted to the ANCA YouTube page at youtube.com/ancagrassroots.