By Arevig Afarian
“I want to become a pharmacist.” I kept repeating that sentence to my friends, family, and acquaintances, hoping that if I said it enough times, I would start believing it myself—that pharmacy was my life’s calling…
Two years later, here I am in Washington, D.C., as a first-year political science student from Canada interning with the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA). Who would have thought?
My parents met while advancing Canadian-Armenian concerns and have been involved within the community ever since. Their passion was transferred to me in my early childhood, and since then, I have tried to find my own path to help the Cause. I am an active member of the AYF “Levon Shant” and “Pegor Ashod” Chapters. I always look for opportunities to “spread the word” about our issues wherever I go. Recently, I teamed up with the some friends to re-activate the Armenian Student Association of the University of Montreal, and became a visiting member of the ARF “Armen Karo” Student Association. Applying to this internship seemed like the best way to pick up some specialized skills to help my community in Montreal, while gaining a better understanding of American politics. I also applied in the hopes that Washington will help me make some tough decisions regarding my future profession.
On June 12, with great apprehension and excitement, I arrived in the capital of our powerful neighbor eager to learn, to work, and to experience. Needless to say, everything was new to me, and my knowledge of American internal politics was poorer than I thought. Thankfully, the individual project assigned to me made me feel competent again and stirred my interest. My project is basically hunting (it feels more like hunting than researching at times) for every Armenian Genocide-related motion, resolution, and bill ever adopted in countries around the world—on the federal and provincial level—and locally when possible. To get a complete and documented account is tougher than you might think.
I have been in the United States for five weeks now. With the briefings of ANCA Executive Director Aram Hamparian and of ANCA Communications Director Elizabeth Chouldjian, our Capitol Hill meetings with Members of Congress, our fascinating talks with high-profiled individuals, and our visit of the Library of Congress, I have enough material to write a 20-page essay. One political figure, in particular, made an impression on me: Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.).
To be honest, I had never heard about this Congresswoman of Armenian descent before actually meeting her. She has been representing the California district she was born and raised since 2008, though her career as a public servant began much earlier. After meeting with her for less than 15 minutes, I was confused by why she had such a strong impact on me. Just like all the other Congressional leaders we met, she took pictures with us, humbly introduced herself, asked each of us to introduce ourselves, and finally, answered our questions. What makes her significantly different from the rest? The fact that she is a woman.
I am not one to get into feminist discussions, but in the U.S. Congress only 19.8 percent of the seats are held by women (104 seats of 535). Of course, Congresswoman Jackie Speier cannot be defined by her gender alone, but being part of a minority group has definitely made her more inclined to defend groups that are often disregarded by politicians, and also more driven to fight for what she believes is right.
As we were about to leave, she told us a terrifying and heart-wrenching story that took place years ago, when she, a legislative staffer at the time, had joined Congressman Leo Ryan and news reporters on a fact-finding mission to Guyana, to investigate human rights abuses by cult leader Jim Jones. The delegation was attacked as they were leaving the country, with Congressman Ryan killed and Speier shot five times, left to bleed to death on the tarmac. It was one of those moments when I wish I had a photographic memory; I would have loved to quote Congresswoman Speier word for word—her description and her advice. She concluded her remarks with a simple yet powerful premise: Nothing should stop politicians from carrying out their political mandate truthfully and doing the right thing.
Congresswoman Speier has spent her career advancing women’s rights, by speaking out for rape and assault victims in the army, to ensuring equal pay for equal work; in one breath taking on sensitive LGBT issues and in the other advocating for family leave laws. And she has not forgotten her Armenian roots. She recently joined fellow Armenian-American Congresswoman Anna Eshoo in urging House consideration of the Armenian Genocide Truth and Justice Resolution (H.Res. 154). She has done it all fearlessly, never scared to take on highly unpopular social problems and bring them to the floor. That is inspiring, and it makes me truly admire her.
Right before I left her office, my eyes caught a small, discreet sign on her door that read, “A Woman’s Place is in the House…of Representatives.” I could not help but smile. I knew before coming to Washington, D.C. that I want to dedicate my life defending minority rights, but I had no idea how to do so. Congresswoman Jackie Speier just might have given me the answer.
Arevig Afarian is in the Class of 2018 at the University of Montreal. She is an ANCA LSI 2015 intern.