DEARBORN, Mich. – More than 200 community members and leaders gathered at the 16th annual Armenian National Committee of America Eastern Region’s (ANCA-ER) gala on Saturday at the historic Dearborn Inn to mark the year’s progress and recognize those whose work significantly impacts the Armenian Cause.
Michigan’s WXYZ News Channel 7 reporter Alex Bozarjian presided over the evening, which began with a cocktail hour and silent auction followed by dinner and an awards ceremony.
The region honored six deserving individuals including award-winning filmmaker Jivan Avetisyan, Michigan Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence (D-MI) and former Michigan Congressman David Trott (R-MI) with the ANCA-ER Freedom Award; longtime ANC of Michigan activist Narses Gedigian with the ANCA-ER Vahan Cardashian Award; Detroit Pistons assistant coach and Armenian National Team coach Rex Kalamian with the first-ever ANCA Eastern Region Pinnacle Award, as well as ANCA Leo Sarkisian Internship fellow Natalia Matossian.
The ANCA-ER Freedom Award is the highest honor the region bestows upon individuals who exhibit extraordinary courage and devotion to freedom and justice. Avetisyan, Congresswoman Lawrence and Congressman Trott join a long list of notable recipients, including US Ambassadors to Armenia John Evans and Samantha Power; Senators Robert Menendez, Ted Kennedy, Bob and Elizabeth Dole, Mark Kirk, Chris Van Hollen and Ed Markey; Congresswoman Niki Tsongas; Baroness Caroline Cox; New York Times best-selling author Chris Bohjalian; Ambassador Robert Morgenthau and the Morgenthau family; Dr. Eric Esrailian and Terry George; author and media personality Sona Movsesyan and international human rights attorney Siranush Sahakyan.
Gedigian was honored with the Vahan Cardashian Award, which is given to an activist who demonstrates long-standing leadership and success on behalf of the Armenian Cause. The award is named in honor of the late Vahan Cardashian, who led the American Committee for the Independence of Armenia (ACIA), the precursor to the ANCA. Other Cardashian Award recipients include Bedros Bandazian, Tatul Sonentz-Papazian, Steve Dulgarian, Ruth Thomasian, Professor Richard Hovanissian, Zohrab Tazian, Alice Movsesian, John Jerikian, Carolann Najarian, Ken Sarajian and Andrew Kzirian, as well as the late Vahe Amirian, Martha Aramian, Melanie Kerneklian, Armen Topouzian, Levon Palian and Weekly columnist Tom Vartabedian.
Other dignitaries in attendance included Der Hrant Kevorkian, Pastor Hagop Haroutunian, Michigan’s Attorney General Dana Nessel, Michigan State Representative Mari Manoogian, ANCA-ER Board chairman Dr. Ara Chalian, ARF Bureau representative Raffi Donabedian, ARF Central Committee chairman George Aghjayan, ARF Central Committee members Ani Tchaghlasian, Steve Mesrobian, Valot Atakhanian, Sebouh Hamakorzian, John Mkrtschjan, Sevag Shirozian and ARF Central Committee executive director Maral Choloyan. Members of the ANCA were also in attendance, including ANCA National chairman Raffi Hamparian, ANCA National Board members Aram Kaloustian, Ani Tchaghlasian, Dzovinar Hamakorzian, as well as ANCA executive director Aram Hamparian, ANCA Communications director Elizabeth Chouldjian, ANCA Government Relations director Tereza Yerimyan, and members of the ANC of Michigan including Georgi-Ann Oshagan and Apraham Keyvanian.
In her opening remarks, Bozarjian discussed growing up as an Armenian American in the Eastern Region. She spoke of the importance of uniting in Hai Tahd and the Armenian Cause, in light of continued acts of aggression on the Armenian people by the Turkish and Azeri governments.
Bozarjian then invited ANCA-ER gala committee member and silent auction chair Araxie Tossounian to lead attendees in both the Armenian and American national anthems. An invocation by Der Kevorkian and Badveli Haroutunian followed.
In his remarks, Dr. Chalian highlighted the region’s work across 31 states and 34 local ANCs to harness the power of local activists, foster and build relationships with city, state and congressional officials and garner Congressional support for legislation (H.Res.1351, H.Res.1400, H.Res.240, H.R.7555 and S.Res.797) condemning Azerbaijani aggression; calling for an end to US military aid to Azerbaijan; condemning Azerbaijani war crimes during the 2020 attack on Artsakh; demanding Azerbaijan’s immediate and unconditional release of Armenian POWs; and directing the Library of Congress to carry out activities to support Armenian Genocide education programs.
“Today we are here to honor you and your work…but these remain trying times. The threat to our nation, our way of life and values affect Armenia and Artsakh and our Diaspora. Our work is the foundation along with our other community organizations and families to building the future of the Armenian nation. Let tonight’s celebration be a catalyst. Renew your pledge, deepen your resolve… be a multiplier both in action and messaging,” said Dr. Chalian.
Dr. Chalian then introduced ANCA-ER Board member Steve Mesrobian who emphasized the importance of training and empowering the next generation of activists. Ahead of recognizing this year’s intern, Mesrobian highlighted the significance of the ANCA-ER Leo Sarkisian Internship Endowment Fund, which was established in 2019.
“One of the critical measures of a successful organization is developing new leaders to ensure continued viability and long-term success,” he began. “This year, we made up for quantity with quality as we had one intern, who did a wonderful job. Born and raised in California, Natalia came to us from Louisiana after graduating from Tulane University. Not only did she complete the internship, but she is currently serving as one of the ANCA’s Capital Gateway Program fellows while working for Congressman Sanford Bishop on Capitol Hill. Natalia is just one example of what investing in our youth can produce and as such, the ANCA-ER will continue to make that investment a priority,” said Mesrobian.
After dinner, there were performances by the Hamazkayin Arax Dance Ensemble led by instructor Nayiri Karapetian. The first dance was called Im Anoush Davigh. The mellow sounds of the duduk captivated the audience as the female dancers performed in traditional Armenian clothing. The second dance Sheeraki Sharan was an upbeat performance by a group of male dancers. The crowd excitedly clapped in unison to their beat.
Bozarjian then introduced ANCA National and Eastern Region Board member Ani Tchaghlasian, who spoke about the region’s important work with the Armenian Legal Center in its partnership with International Comparative Law Center president Siranush Sahakyan, who is actively filing cases with the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of Armenian POWs.
Tchaghlasian then introduced ANC of Artsakh chairman Georgi Petrosyan, ANC of Artsakh member Gev Iskajyan and Areni Hamparian who all sent in video messages from Artsakh. Petroysyan and Iskajyan offered words of thanks to the ANCA-ER for not only supporting the ANC of Artsakh but empowering the region’s activists to continue to fight for Artsakh. Serving as a link between the homeland and ANCs around the world, the leaders on the ground in Artsakh stressed the importance of continuing to fight for Artsakh whether through the creation of sister cities and state-level recognitions among other strategies.
ANCA National Board member and ANC of Michigan chair Dzovinar Hamakorzian followed with words about the ANC of Michigan’s tireless efforts over the course of the last two years since the Artsakh War. The chapter secured more than 10 proclamations and statements at the city and state level; on the federal level, the ANC of MI worked with the state’s senators and 14 representatives, organizing events and film screenings.
“The road to justice for the Armenian people and our ongoing struggle for decades… can be overwhelming and draining, but seeing everyone here tonight supporting Hai Tahd, supporting our Cause, gives us the necessary fuel to continue what we are doing with renewed energy. Our community and volunteers are a force that no one can reckon with as we work relentlessly day and night for the survival of our nation. As long as we have soldiers like you behind the Hai Tahd army, we will get justice and get closer to having a prosperous free, independent and united Armenia,” said Hamakorzian.
Prior to introducing the ANCA-ER Freedom Award to Congresswoman Lawrence, Hamakorzian read congratulatory letters from Congresswoman Haley Stevens, Senator Gary Peters and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Hamakorzian also presented the governor’s proclamation, which highlights the work of the ANC of Michigan and the state’s resolve in support of not only Armenian Genocide recognition, but also Artsakh.
Congresswoman Lawrence shared stories of her work with the community from the time she was mayor of Southfield to her tenure in Congress. “Some of you know that I was given the opportunity to travel to Azerbaijan and to really be taken to task if I would stand up for the people I know and love… and face the fate of the state department of Azerbaijan. When I was questioned about whether I represented Armenians and answered yes… they said I’m sure you’ve heard some stories. I said, I know some facts… history reflects it was a genocide,” recalled Congresswoman Lawrence.
Raffi Ourlian, the Armenian Community Center of Greater Detroit’s chairman and ANC of Michigan member, introduced the second recipient of the ANCA-ER Freedom Award, Congressman Trott.
“When you’re first elected to Congress, one of the initial struggles is trying to figure out how you’re going to make a difference… I appreciate this award, but frankly what I’m more thankful for is how warm and welcoming the Armenian community was when I first got elected… I was honored to be co-chair of the Armenian Caucus, honored to be invited to attend the premiere of The Promise, working toward Armenian Genocide recognition and part of President Obama’s delegation to visit Yerevan. Gatherings like this, your work, your voice, your mantra never forget, the fact that you have a Freedom Award all threaten the tyrants and strengthen the calls for peace and equality,” said Trott.
The final recipient of the ANCA-ER Freedom Award was presented by ACAA Artsakh Fund chairperson Sebouh Hamakorzian to award-winning film director Jivan Avetisyan.
Avetisyan spoke about his most recent work and film Gate to Heaven and said, “Thank you for motivating me to continue having the highest level of dedication to the world of cinema. I am a film director who believes that art can generate great power. I believe that my work and that of my team can strengthen and mutually complement the work of Hai Tahd, paving the way to greater impact. Just as the activity of Hai Tahd is aimed at the unification of Armenians, so is art. Art unifies communities.”
Following Avetisyan’s moving speech, ANC of Michigan member Georgi-Ann Oshagan introduced lifelong ANC of Michigan activist Narses Gedigian, who was presented with the ANCA-ER’s Vahan Cardashian Award. Gedigian outlined the goals and steps taken to raise awareness of the Armenian Cause and empowered his fellow community members. “There are going to be dark days ahead; it’s the way it’s been for a while. But do not despair. Despair is defeatism. Stand tall with your comrades, shoulder to shoulder, and let’s continue our struggle and we will overcome,” said Gedigian.
The final awardee of the night was introduced by Michigan State Representative Mari Manoogian, who serves the 40th district in Michigan’s House of Representatives. Manoogian introduced the Armenian National Basketball team’s coach and Detroit Pistons’ assistant coach Rex Kalamian, and presented Kalamian with the region’s first-ever Pinnacle Award. As a grandchild of an Armenian Genocide survivor Kalamian did not forget about his roots. He shared fond memories of his career but also of his time in the homeland, concluding his remarks by saying, “I’ve been in the NBA for 29 years, but honestly the thing that kept sticking with me as my proudest moment was coaching the Armenian National Team,” concluded Kalamian.
ANCA National chairman Raffi Hamparian offered inspiring closing remarks. “First, let us keep the faith in our Cause. Our faith is being sorely tested today – as it was in 1918 on the fields of Bashabaran, Karakelise and Sardarabdad. By keeping the faith, we both honor those who sacrificed for Armenia years ago, but we also remain true to the thousands of men and women who gave their last measure of devotion for Artsakh in 2020. From this faith, we cannot waiver. Second, let us remind ourselves of the importance of organization and the power of collective action. In the coming days, dark clouds will continue to menace the Armenian nation and in this time, let it be clear to our friends and foes alike that during these trying times, the ANCA will continue to advance the cause of freedom and liberty for the Armenian people,” said Hamparian.
The evening also featured music by Shant Massoyan.
“I want to extend my heartfelt appreciation to all for attending the gala and/or supporting the region with their contributions. Over the last 16 years, we have gathered to honor those who have worked tirelessly for the region. But it’s not just the gathering itself that is important. It’s the camaraderie and the inspiration we’re able to draw from our honorees – from committed activists like Narses Gedigian to our youth who we will one day pass the torch onto to be the next generation of Hai Tahd leaders,” said Tchaghlasian.