Advocating for Artsakh: Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte’s Mission

Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte planting fruit trees with Armenia Tree Project at a school in Khndzoresk

“Where are your refugees, who are they, what did they lose?” questioned Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte who announced the launch of her eponymous Foundation last week. “All of them lost something,” she explained in an interview with the Weekly, whether homes, employment or access to education. Astvatsaturian Turcotte told the Weekly the story of the foundation’s inception, as well as the reasons for its first project, staying true to its stated mission “to advance humanitarian, development, cultural, environmental and educational initiatives in Armenia, Artsakh Republic and the Armenian Diaspora and partnering with trusted organizations to achieve the Foundation’s objectives.”

Astvatsaturian Turcotte is well known as a human rights advocate and for her humanitarian work, particularly on behalf of refugees, with whom she shares an affinity as a survivor of the 1989 Baku pogroms. In fact, over the course of the last year, she raised more than 150 thousand dollars for various programs to benefit Artsakh and Armenia. Based on these figures and with a desire to perpetuate and document her work properly, Astvatsaturian Turcotte was advised in April 2020 to start a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. “I truly wanted to be transparent in my humanitarian work through this charity,” she told the Weekly.

Just as she was beginning to put the wheels in motion for the Foundation in July, the attacks on the Armenian border region of Tavush happened. As is her modus operandi, Astvatsaturian Turcotte sprang into action to help with her fundraising initiative aptly called “Hands Off Tavush,” which raised 95-thousand dollars, of which 65-thousand dollars has been used to build bomb shelters for the people of Tavush, as well as for economic programs in the province. The rest went toward efforts for the Artsakh War. Through it all, Astvatsaturian Turcotte persevered with plans for the Foundation, finally getting her federal tax identification in November 2020.

Bomb shelter in an undisclosed village in Tavush province built with funds from the “Hands Off Tavush” drive

She waited to announce the establishment of the Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte Foundation until now so she could lay the groundwork for its first project throughout the month of December 2020. Prior to the Artsakh War, she met with the Minister of Culture and planned to have an art competition for the children of Artsakh in her father’s name: Norik Astvatsaturov, renowned repoussé metal artist. The event was to have been hosted in Shushi with the intent “to encourage art in Artsakh,” she said. With the onset of war, that project has been put on hold for another, very important one.

Starting later this month in cooperation with the Association of Armenian Social Workers, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs of the Republic of Armenia, the Ministry of Housing and Social Affairs of the Republic of Artsakh and the Offices of Armenia’s and Artsakh’s Human Rights Ombudsmen, the foundation will be working to collect empirical data about all those impacted by the Artsakh War. A verified and comprehensive survey has been prepared and vetted so that the key stakeholders will be able to use the information gathered “from a humanitarian perspective or a needs assessment of how to help from a human rights perspective or from a legal aspect,” explained Astvatsaturian Turcotte.

She feels it is imperative to start this project now and complete it quickly because of the ever-present risk that borders will open, and the people will leave and end up around the world, resulting in yet another lost opportunity to have available data to help our people. As Astvatsaturian Turcotte explains, this is what happened with the Baku refugees, as the government was not proactive to gather the information back in the 1990s and beyond. Her goal is for the same surveying to happen simultaneously in Armenia with the people displaced from their homes in Artsakh.

“I never dreamed the first project would be to document loss and understand the humanitarian need in Artsakh,” said Astvatsaturian Turcotte sadly. It is her hope that the data gathered will be useful now and in the future, helping our people to be prepared relative to response time and level of response to the needs of the citizens of Artsakh and Armenia. Having this kind of information will also provide the republics with a critical list of peoples’ expertise and skills, opening the door to opportunities following tragedy.

Astvatsaturian Turcotte is one-third of the way to her funding needs for this project and hopes to achieve her goal by the end of February. Those wishing to support the project may visit astvatsaturian.org. As she sees it, “Azerbaijan is already preparing a legal case and we don’t even know how many refugees are left from Artsakh and where they are living,” referring to Azerbaijan’s charges against Armenia of billions of dollars of damages. “This project is important because it’s an assessment to understand the needs of the people of Artsakh,” she continued. Not only will it help the people now, but it will also provide historical data.

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To understand the importance of the Foundation to Asvatsaturian Turcotte, one need look no further than her background as a Baku refugee, fleeing the pogroms and ethnic cleansing with her family in 1989. The story of those dark days is eloquently told in her 2012 book “Nowhere, a Story of Exile,” based on her childhood diaries. “The book opened up a lot of doors for me to do the work that I do now,” she reflected. “I didn’t realize that I needed to do this work.” The journey to the book took the unlikely route from Baku to Yerevan to North Dakota to Maine and, finally, Watertown, Mass. and the Hairenik building where she met Tatul Sonentz-Papazian, who encouraged her writing and ultimately served as editor of the book.

After graduating from the University of Maine School of Law and suffering a traumatic back injury on graduation day that led to paralysis for weeks, Astvatsaturian Turcotte determinedly travelled to the Hague to serve as a law clerk for the International Criminal Court (ICC), just the third American to do so. “It was a dream come true for me as a refugee and a survivor, and my grandfather had survived the Armenian Genocide,” she recalled. “Even though it could never be a tool to prosecute or get justice for the Armenian Genocide, it was a tool for future genocides or prevention measures for genocides.” The physical demands of the clerkship after the back injury led to her unending energy and desire to keep moving and doing all she can for her people, grateful for the ability to walk. “I’m afraid to miss out on an opportunity to make an impact,” Astvatsaturian Turcotte explained, “because I fought so hard to get people to understand how important it is to defend Artsakh and how important the International Criminal Court is.”

Astvatsaturian Turcotte’s advocacy work has led to many well-documented awards and recognition for the humanitarian. Most recently, the vice president senior risk manager at Androscoggin Bank and Westbrook, Maine City Council vice president was elected to the Maine Justice Foundations Board of Directors, a “Hallowell-based organization that specializes in pro-bono civil legal aid to those in need.”

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Through her Foundation and the unconditional support of her husband, Astvatsaturian Turcotte wants to leave a legacy for their two children to continue her work. Her final individual project of 2020 was to provide Christmas gifts for the children of the refugees. For that alone, she raised 25-thousand dollars for 1,000 children, something that meant a lot to her as she remembered her days as a child refugee in Armenia. Astvatsaturian Turcotte expressed sincere gratitude to her worldwide supporters who always so readily join in her efforts, saying that she will do everything she can to show that her work and their support mean something.

“Meaning is important to me,” said Astvatsaturian Turcotte. “The meaning of the Foundation is to continue to support Artsakh and the Armenian Diaspora and the Armenian people. Now the focus is more somber and a little darker, but hopefully we can get back to those dreams and projects about art and events for children,” she concluded.

Astvatsaturian Turcotte plans to travel to Armenia, and hopefully Artsakh, in the spring to check on the progress of the Foundation’s data collection project.

Astvatsaturian Turcotte opening a 3D printing computer lab in Stepanakert school #8

The Anna Astvatsaturian Foundation is organized as a public benefit corporation under the Maine Nonprofit Corporation Act, Title 13-B M.R.S., as amended, and will carry on business and operate anywhere within the State of Maine or in any state where it has a legal authority to carry on business and operate. The Foundation is intended exclusively for charitable purposes within the meaning of Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. The Anna Astvatsaturian Foundation is based in Westbrook, Maine, United States of America.

Pauline Getzoyan

Pauline Getzoyan

Editor
Pauline Getzoyan is editor of the Armenian Weekly and an active member of the Rhode Island Armenian community. A longtime member of the Providence ARF and ARS, she also is a former member of the ARS Central Executive Board. A longtime advocate for genocide education through her work with the ANC of RI, Pauline is co-chair of the RI branch of The Genocide Education Project. In addition, she has been an adjunct instructor of developmental reading and writing in the English department at the Community College of Rhode Island since 2005.

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