About two months ago, I participated in my first online call as a 2020 Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) Leo Sarkisian Intern. I was already having destructive thoughts that I didn’t deserve this opportunity because I wasn’t Armenian enough. I was unknowledgeable about the Armenian Cause, greater Armenian history, Armenian culture, and had essentially distanced myself from most things Armenian. Being repeatedly taught about the Genocide and religion during my childhood never seemed to help me understand what being Armenian truly meant to me—they just seemed like regular school lessons. However, through befriending Armenians throughout the diaspora, fighting for the Armenian Cause alongside them, and learning more about myself, I discovered how to interpret and appreciate the Armenian part of my identity.
Armenians tend to hold a sort of unspoken hierarchy; our use of the Armenian language, our social circles, our church attendance—these have become determining factors as to how “Armenian” we are. This problematic nature has gotten in the way of me fully identifying with my Armenian heritage, as many things about me don’t align with an ideal Armenian in my mind. I’ve never liked Armenian music, nor do I have an affinity for the food. I also identify as Agnostic, while the rest of my family and Armenian community is Christian. With this rejection of the religion that Armenians so proudly boast about being the first to become, I jokingly deemed myself the “Armenian disappointment.” My biggest mistake was amounting my alignment with my heritage and ancestors based on if I believed in God or not, as it made me keep this self-discovery a secret from my family for years.
Why should it matter if you can speak Armenian or not? Or if you go to church and pray like all the other Armenians around you? If you’re an Armenian, you’re an Armenian, and no outside factors can ever change that.
So, this is the conclusion that I had come up with midway through my internship. While it did bring me a solid amount of solace, it still wasn’t enough for me to be happy. Saying I was Armenian accomplished nothing. It was just a word. What happened later was what opened my eyes to a brand new ideology.
In what seemed like an instant, Azerbaijan attacked Armenia, and that turned a seemingly average internship into a fast-paced news cycle where tasks had to be finished quickly to keep up with the endless stream of events and information. For my whole life, I had never learned much about Artsakh past its name and location. With this latest aggression, I had the opportunity to research and learn more Armenian history that strayed away from the Genocide, and I found joy in learning so much about my ancestors.
Days into the attacks by Azerbaijan, some of my fellow interns began saying things like, “I’m so mad I haven’t been able to think about anything else” or “I cried about everything last night.” They all had a unity with all of Armenia that I had to grasp, as I didn’t find myself having any emotional reaction to everything that was happening.
Fortunately, more and more protests started happening around the world, demanding an end to President Aliyev’s attacks and more US aid to Armenia and Artsakh. Seeing clips of fellow Armenians shouting and chanting and dancing all for one cause got me riled up as well, and I began to send barrages of information to my non-Armenian friends in an attempt to educate and spread awareness. For the first time in my life, I actively sought out Armenian news and information for myself and was genuinely angry when I couldn’t attend a DC protest due to coronavirus concerns.
Since I wasn’t able to help the cause in that manner, I suggested to the ANCA intern team that we try to start a movement on social media to educate non-Armenians, similar to the way the Black Lives Matter movement spread. We banded together to create a Carrd website to have all the necessary sources, petition links and donation links to spread awareness and gather support from both Armenians and non-Armenians. This experience of influencing the cause seemed to trigger some sort of change in me that I hadn’t yet recognized.
I was later enthralled when I was sent a livestream of one of the larger protests. I couldn’t take my eyes off all the Armenian people, with all different lifestyles and identities, coming together to fight for our country—and this is when I cried. I realized what being Armenian meant to me—fighting for our cause and having a community without judgment that collaborated to achieve the aid we needed for our home country. None of that had anything to do with music or religion, if I went to bazaars or ate ethnic foods. It was what made me feel Armenian. It was what helped me go from rejecting this part of myself to exploring it and being happy to call myself an Armenian.
This is why I hope all Armenian people who feel similar to the way I felt before this internship are able to find what part of their Armenian heritage makes them comfortable in their own identities. It could come in the form of Armenian song and dance, foods, religion, friends and community, pursuing the Armenian Cause (Hai Tahd), or anything else to be individually discovered. That’s why I want to ask you: what makes you Armenian?