For a long time, I felt within and without in my identity as an Armenian.
I grew up in Los Angeles where I never needed to put in effort to feel Armenian. I just was. We have not one, but several Armenian grocery stores in the San Fernando Valley where I grew up: not one, but several Armenian bakeries; not one, but several Armenian churches; not one, but several Armenian schools. Our landlord was Armenian, our mechanic is Armenian, our plumber, our electrician, the talented woman who does my eyebrows – all Armenian.
You get the idea. This is what I mean about no effort. Everywhere I went, I felt, in one capacity or another, tied to my Armenianness, even if it was in an immaterial or superficial way.
Then I went to college in western Massachusetts where, without a car or a network, I was unable to build a connection to the Armenian community in Boston. I quickly learned that the Armenianness that I had felt back home was merely circumstantial. Without LA helping me “feel Armenian,” I longed for a piece of me that until then, just existed. I was a lazy Armenian, taking my culture for granted.
Luckily, I found fellow Armenians on campus; four of us ultimately started an Armenian Students Association. These friends were members of the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF), and though I was interested in joining the organization, I was between two states at the time. But at least I became more actively involved in nurturing the Armenian in me, rather than taking it for granted.
After graduating college, I moved to my current home in Washington, DC through the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) Hovig Apo Saghdejian Capital Gateway Program. Here I found some of the most dedicated, committed and inspiring people, all AYF members or former AYF members, who I am lucky enough to call my friends, mentors and role models. I participated in Camp Javakhk before joining AYF, and after one of the most eye-opening and inspiring summers of my life, I knew I needed to join this organization.
The AYF is truly one of a kind. There is no other organization where a group of less than 500 members between the ages of 17-28 are in charge of organizing and running 15 chapters region-wide, four educational weekends for juniors and seniors, a two-month summer camp in Franklin, Massachusetts, a summer internship program in Armenia, a summer camp in historical Armenia, five athletic tournaments, a burgeoning language initiative and countless chapter specific protests and events, all in one year’s time.
Ung. Kenar Charchaflian said it best at last year’s Convention: “the more you give the AYF, the more it gives back to you.” In the mere two years that I have been part of this organization, I have experienced these words come to life tenfold. I have witnessed how the passion of one can light a fire in hundreds. I have learned how to fight for our Cause. I have learned discipline and commitment. I continue to learn leadership from the most inspiring members in our community. I have learned Ungeroutyoun, and most importantly, I have learned what it means to be an active Armenian.
While my last name may end in “ian,” I’ve learned that being Armenian is a choice. It is a difficult choice and something I need to choose every day: from seemingly inconsequential decisions like choosing gifts from Armenian vendors, to more existential decisions like maintaining my language to prevent assimilation and loss.
My AYF story is a little different than most, but I am all the better for it. I have found a home and harvest in the AYF. It is the reason I now feel with and within my identity as an Armenian.