By Dickran Khodanian and Verginie Touloumian
Picture this: Armenian youth across the U.S. have gathered at the Hairenik Hall in Boston on a Friday night in June of 1934. Legendary statesman and military strategist Karekin (Garegin) Nejdeh and Justice Minister of the First Republic of Armenia turned Editor of the Hairenik Daily newspaper Reuben Darbinian deliver remarks after the singing of “Harach Nahadag.” In the midst of the gathering, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) Central Committee of America gifts the youth in attendance a tricolor flag in a time when no independent Armenian Republic exists.
This was the first convention of the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF, known as the ARF Tzeghagrons until 1941). This gathering democratically set the foundation of the organization by adopting an organizational name, an anthem, and programs The founding convention also set forth the aims of the organization and elected the first AYF Central Executive body (Hamparsoum Gelanian, John Der Hovanessian, Hagop Hagopian, Arthur Giragosian, and K. Merton Bozoian).
As the AYF enters its 85th year, it is important to take a step back to understand the climate during the time of its foundation. In the 1930s, young Armenians were galvanizing under the leadership of Nejdeh to address the challenges of their communities as well as their homeland abroad. The Armenian community in the United States was a few decades old, yet cultural assimilation was a central topic of discussion. The First Republic of Armenia had succumbed to the Soviets and was nowhere near independence, and though Turkey had become Kemalist, the treatment of Armenians there remained unchanged.
When the concept of the AYF came into being, the memories of the Armenian Genocide were still haunting its survivors who had witnessed the horrific events. As a people, we were traumatized, disheartened, and discouraged. With the adoption of the Immigration Act of 1924 placing strict limits on the number of immigrants—including Armenians—who could arrive in America, followed by the Great Depression of 1929, Armenians were in no easy position to rise up and unite to fight for the Armenian Cause.
Many were struggling to adjust to their new life on foreign soil. Therefore, it was an absolute necessity for the diaspora in America to cultivate an identity and mobilize. It was also imperative that the youth come together to garner the support and strength needed to pursue the path of justice for the Armenian Cause.
That mission was given to one noble man who was a proven leader in Armenia and abroad. General Nejdeh was assigned this responsibility, and it was he who defied all odds to become the central architect of a youth movement that to this day remains on solid footings.
In April 1933, just three months after the decision of the ARF Central Committee of America to create a national youth organization, Nejdeh arrived in Boston as a fieldworker, as announced in the Hairenik Daily.
His arrival was followed by a cross-country tour to preach to the masses and encourage the youth to mobilize. He was tasked with reviving the spirits of those who were trying to preserve Armenian traditions and were trying to strengthen their loyalties to the free world. The headlines of the Hairenik Daily tell of new chapters of Tzeghagrons being created in their respective cities shortly thereafter. Simultaneously, Nejdeh’s writings, published in a series from 1933-1934, were aimed at addressing the upcoming generation of Armenian youth in America.
In the year and a half he spent in North America, close to 40 chapters were formed from coast to coast (see table for chapters and number of members). Nejdeh’s charisma and bold demeanor inspired throngs of youth to take action and set a legacy for generations to follow.
The first convention essentially set the foundation of the AYF that generations of youth would follow and continue to follow today. The Hairenik article about the convention describes the hall as decorated with the Armenian colors and photographs of Kristapor Mikaelian, Simon Zavarian, and Stepan (Rostom) Zorian. In addition to Nejdeh and Darbinian, representatives of the Armenian Relief Society (ARS) and the ARF were present to deliver their remarks. Songs were sung, poetry was recited, and live Armenian music was played.
Nejdeh began his remarks by defining Tzeghagronutyun, which he explained was the putting of Armenianness above all. He believed that this was the unifying factor for Armenians everywhere. “In America, the Tzeghagron movement has officially found its path,” he concluded. In turn, Darbinian announced that the work of this new generation revolves around three factors: keeping future generations Armenian, fighting for our nationalistic goals and values, and developing the Tzeghagron movement.
What started with chapters in the U.S. in subsequent years became a prominent international youth organization functioning in most countries that boast a diasporan community. The ranks of the AYF are living examples of devotion and commitment to our national goals. And although each region has its own set of programs and actions, the love for homeland, the unique camaraderie, and the AYF mission unite the youth groups under one noble mission.
In a June 7, 1934 article in the Hairenik, M. Vrouyr describes how 12-year-old Anahid Chaderdjian said she wishes future conventions to be held in the homeland. Unfortunately, many AYF ungers (comrades) did not see the revival of an Armenian statehood they had tirelessly worked for during their lifetime. Their successors, however, have been able to live at a time when not only are AYF meetings held in a free Armenia, but numerous programs are carried out to give an opportunity for Diasporan Armenian youth to interact with local youth; when members and alumni have repatriated to Armenia; when Armenia has become a place where Diasporan youth can make a direct impact.
To the AYF member, the homeland is not just an impractical dream or a “land of our forefathers”—it is a place where they consider themselves to be participants in the nation-building process.
There is no better way to sum up the founding years of the organization than to use a term coined by the Hairenik Weekly (English, now The Armenian Weekly) on June 7, 1934: a “History Making Youth Movement.”
Today, the youth movement has achieved 85 years of accomplishments and continues with the same vigor and renewed energy to continue its community involvement and grassroots activism. And with every challenge that it tackles, every idea that it develops, every project that it strategizes, or vision it works toward, the AYF continues to serve its communities and homeland and remains steadfast toward the ideals of a free, independent, and united Armenia.
According to the first convention records, 24 chapters of Tzeghagrons, 4 chapters of Hyortiks, and 1 chapter of Aprilian Sanner participated in the convention directly, while 14 other chapters from the Middle West and California were represented through proxies.
|Detroit District: Del Rey, Melvindale, and Highland Park, Mich.||300 members|
|New York and New Jersey||120 members|
|Providence, R.I.||100 members|
|Philadelphia, Pa.||76 members|
|Worcester, Mass.||75 members|
|New Britain, Conn.||29 members|
|Lowell, Mass.||15 members|
|Waukegan, Ill.||34 members|
|Hartford, Conn.||13 members|
|Chicago, Ill.||40 members|
|Whitinsville, Mass.||30 members|
|Cleveland, Ohio||13 members|
|Watervliet, Troy, N.Y.||30 members|
|Pawtucket, R.I.||22 members|
|Lynn, Mass.||14 members|
|Haverhill, Mass.||26 members|
|Watertown, Mass.||42 members|
|E. St. Louis, Ill.||20 members|
|Granite City, Ill.||14 members|
The chapters that were present by proxies were Pontiac and Dearborn (Mich.); Milwaukee, So. Milwaukee, Kenosha, and Racine (Wis.); Indiana Harbor and West Pullman (Ill.); Massena (N.Y.); Springfield (Mass.); and Fresno, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Fowler (Calif.)
The total membership of the ARF Tzeghagrons was over 1,500.
Dickran Khodanian is the communications coordinator of the Armenian National Committee of America—Western Region (ANCA-WR). He is the former assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly and Asbarez (English) newspapers.
Verginie Touloumian is the executive director of the Armenian Relief Society International Inc.
A version of this article first appeared in our sister publication Asbarez newspaper on Jan. 19 (online) under the title “AYF at 85: From History Making Youth Movement to Groundbreaking Accomplishments.”