On a raw, rainy Monday night in Watertown, Massachusetts, I walked into the Armenian Cultural and Educational Center (ACEC) as your friendly neighborhood reporter. Two hours later, I walked out as an Ungerouhi.
I wasn’t expecting to become a member of the Leola Sassouni Chapter of the Armenian Relief Society (ARS) that night. I was initially intrigued by the recent influx of new recruits and deemed it newsworthy for the Armenian Weekly, the local Diasporan newspaper where I serve as assistant editor. But when Mayda Melkonian recruits you on the spot, it’s hard to say no. I instantly became part of the story I had hoped to write that evening.
Melkonian, the chairlady of the Watertown chapter, sat at the head of the table. A graceful and influential leader, she is highly respected in the local Armenian community. Melkonian has been the principal of St. Stephen’s Armenian Saturday School since 1998. She also used to be the Armenian teacher at Armenian Sisters’ Academy in Lexington for more than two decades until she was named vice principal. Many of the young recruits there that night were once her students. They all say “Deegeen Mayda” was the reason they joined this 108 year-old-organization. “This is a great joy for me…that these young girls can now call me ‘Ungerouhi Mayda,’” said Melkonian in Armenian. “These women have kept our chapter thriving all these years. It is our responsibility to welcome this new generation.”
The Leola Sassoni chapter is part of the ARS Eastern Region, which remarkably boasts 33 chapters, second only to Armenia (56 chapters). The organization was first known as the Armenian Red Cross and part of an Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) initiative. It was founded by Unger E. Agnouni to help Armenians around the world. While its objectives have expanded since its inception, they’re still quite simple. Today, the ARS pledges to aid in the social, educational, health and welfare efforts of the Armenian people and soldiers; to advance the instruction of the Armenian language and culture; and to advocate for human rights and social change.
“these young girls can now call me ‘Ungerouhi Mayda’”
That night, the Watertown Leola Sassouni chapter brought its total membership to 72—among them, Narineh Abrimian, Talin Abrimian, Varteni Aroyan, Elayna Bastajian, Lara Bastajian-Kechichian, Karina Bastajian-Krikorian, Vana Keledjian, Lorig Demirchian, Norma Demirchian, Nairi Gazarian, Lorig Manjikian, Nayiri Manjikian, Mary Demirjian, and Lena Chouljian. This amount, I’m told, is unprecedented.
Melkonian’s greetings to her dedicated members are warm and traditional; the women are referred to as Ungerouhi (“comrade”/“friend”) followed by their first name. Some of the young recruits were even welcomed with the ululation of one exuberant member—a loud sign of a forthcoming happy occasion in Middle Eastern tradition.
The evening was a momentous one for the Abrimians, whose third generation was joining the chapter that night. Nartoohi Abrimian has been a committed member for 26 years now—her mother, Zabel Melkonian, for 40. And now, Nartoohi’s daughters Narineh and Talin have finally joined. “The tradition is continuing,” said the proud mom of two. “I’m very happy.” All the ladies joked that Narineh and Talin have to call their mother, “Ungerouhi Mama” now.
Once all were settled in (well past Armenian timing), Melkonian called the meeting to order and invited everyone to sing the ARS Anthem in Armenian. After a few announcements and introductions, including that of ARS Executive Board Member Ungerouhi Johanna Chilingirian, the new recruits lined up to take their oath, right hands held up. Chilingirian recited the oath in English, and we repeated the following after Melkonian in Armenian. “I swear to be faithful to the Armenian Relief Society, to work toward the fulfillment of its aims and to abide by all the articles of the Bylaws.” Melkonian said a quiet, but proud “abrik” (“well done”), which was followed by a roaring applause.
After a commemorative photo, the meeting resumed with a discussion about a range of topics, including preparations for the upcoming traditional Thanksgiving dinner. As with most Armenian groups, this one is made of opinionated ladies with a lot to say, especially when it comes to food. On Saturday, they will be cooking up more than a dozen turkeys plus several homemade side dishes for about two-hundred guests.
Of course, there was much to be debated. Lara Bastajian-Kechichian inquired if there would be canned cranberry sauce, which was immediately answered with a resounding “No!” Nartoohi Abrimian, an enthusiastic promoter of this and other Armenian events, explained, “We’re not can-can ladies! We make fresh cranberry sauce.”
Lara and her sisters, Karina and Elayna, are the first in the family to join this chapter. “We are the ones who pushed our parents to enroll [us] in AYF and Homenetmen,” said Lara, who believes the ARS is an opportunity for her to continue participating in the Armenian community. “It’s a good dynamic to have a mix with mature women. They’ll say something if they don’t like it.”
After several years of not participating in the community, Elayna says she’s reviving her level of service and looking forward to joining the group with her childhood friends and family. “I want to make a difference in the Armenian community,” she said, as she Snapchatted her membership card. When she realized this new role might require her to be in the kitchen from time-to-time, she confessed, “I don’t know how to make turkey! I can barely make pilaf!”
That’s where another important objective of the ARS comes in: to foster the spirit of fellowship amongst members. In her message to the group, Chilingirian advised current members to teach the younger recruits and not be afraid of considering new ideas. “That’s the only way the organization is going to survive…is if we let the new people come in and teach us as much as we teach them.”
A little known fact about me and this upcoming ARS Thanksgiving dinner: back in 2011, my now-husband of four years and I made our first appearance as a dating couple and walked hand in hand together into the ACEC at this event; that’s a big deal in this Armenian community. While we all know there is much more to the ARS than a turkey dinner, I admit I am looking forward to spending quality time with these passionate and faithful women supporters of the Armenian Cause and helping them propel the longstanding, philanthropic mission of the ARS. And sure, I’ll take as many Armenian cooking tips I can get.