The Armenian Relief Society Eastern Region (ARS-ER) welcomed dozens of chapter members this past weekend for its regional seminar, inviting them to rediscover their commitment to the storied organization and to re-establish a personal level of accountability.
“This is a moment of opportunity, not discouragement,” said Georgi-Ann Oshagan, a proud 25-year member of the Detroit “Maro” chapter during her presentation in Watertown on Saturday morning. “This is ARS on our watch.”
Founded in 1910, the ARS is a Diasporan organization made up of 220 chapters (ARS-ER is home to 32 chapters) backed by volunteers tasked with the overwhelming and important responsibility to serve the humanitarian needs of Armenia, Artsakh and the Armenian Diaspora.
To the 75 guests at St. Stephen’s Church Hall, Oshagan posed an introspective question: “Who is an ARS member?” Since burnout and dejection are common shortcomings for non-profit organizations, she explained to members the importance of looking inward and restoring a sense of meaning to the values and objectives that compelled them to join the ARS in the first place. She continued to describe the symbols behind its iconic emblem, explain the meaning of the oath that everyone in that room uttered during their initiation and then delivered an emotional recitation of the English translation of the ARS anthem.
Oshagan, a fifth generation ARS member, says she experienced a wake-up call several years ago during a visit to an Arab American national museum in Dearborn, Michigan. She described a glass case of community artifacts that contained a constitution and a book of bylaws for a local Syrian women’s society. “May I never see,” she stressed, “May I never see… may my children not see when one of our constitutions and bylaw books is in some case in one of our Armenian community museums with some end date on it. That’s what’s at stake here. We can do more, and frankly we must do more.”
The survival of the ARS not only depends on the strength of its members, but also on the stories they preserve over the years. During her presentation, author and professor of history and women and gender studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Dr. Lerna Ekmekçioğlu said that the ARS needs a dedicated historian. Ekmekçioğlu, who is from Turkey, remembered seeing a lot of Armenian women combating assimilation and organizing philanthropic and charitable activities in the country, where organizations like the ARS are illegal.
Ekmekçioğlu is currently working on a Western Armenian feminism project, researching the published and little-known literary contributions of a dozen Armenian women from the 1860s to the 1960s, and their ideas about gender equality and Armenian nationalism. “We are sort of creating a past. We are not lying about it,” explained Ekmekçioğlu about the project. “But we are highlighting some parts of our common Armenian past to make a statement about the present and ideally to inspire the future by creating role models, which we dearly lack in general, especially as Armenian women.”
“It was because of my mom I found an ARS chapter,” said Zabel Mooradian Fay, whose mother, Pailoon, was one of the founding members of the Cambridge “Shushi” chapter. Fay said she is now looking for a new chapter to call home and appreciated the day’s opportunity to reconnect with women leaders in the community. “One of the reasons for our seminars is to establish friendships among our ungerouhis as well as continue educating ourselves,” said Ani Attar, chair of the ARS-ER Board of Directors.
“Take this positive energy back to your chapters,” said ARS-ER board member and Cambridge “Shushi” chapter member, Heather Krafian. “One little change is probably the best homework assignment for all of us.”