Global Solidarity with Artsakh

Simple and sustaining, each of us can make a difference

Astrid Mkhitaryan and Stephen Haroian (pictured 3rd and 4th from the right) on a recent day at the U.N. (Photo: Aravot)

A significant number of Armenian Americans care deeply about the plight of Artsakh but are perplexed about what to do. They either think (wrongly) that their efforts won’t make a difference or are paralyzed by perfectionism. As a result, many capable individuals in the diaspora remain on the sidelines with empathy in their hearts. Generally, our public rallies are of the “one and done” nature. We organize an event for a specific date and depend on that rally to attract attention. Regardless of its success, it is a return to business as usual the next day. This mechanism is largely driven by the availability of resources for protests. Quite often these types of activities happen on weekends when protesters are available. There is a significant rally for Artsakh scheduled for Sunday, August 20 at the United Nations in New York City at 1st Ave. and 43rd St. We should all do our utmost to support any effort for Artsakh, including this rally. Yet, and this is not meant as a criticism, we should recognize the limitations of this approach. The rally is scheduled for Sunday afternoon. Employees and diplomats will likely not be in the U.N. tower on a Sunday. Unless there is print and television coverage, we will be speaking to tourists. I am certain that we will feel proud and energized by the event, but it is one and done. What happens on Monday? A variety of options are important to attract a diverse support base. 

I would like to share an experience that should inspire hope and is remarkable in its simplicity. This should not be viewed as a replacement for any effort but an increment to our portfolio of resistance. Some of you may have heard of a small but sustained protest at 43rd St., the same location as Sunday’s rally, that has gathered to advocate for Artsakh every day of the business week from 5-7 p.m. since July 21. I was intrigued by the creative thought and passionate commitment to the humanitarian cause of Artsakh. Through social media (thankfully), I was able to identify the organizers and contact them to learn more about this effort. What I discovered was a remarkable story of patriotism, love, innovation and determination that is most worthy of sharing.

I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Astrid Mkhitaryan and Stephen Haroian last weekend. They took time from their full schedules to discuss the origin, intent and status of their New York-based solidarity with Artsakh. Astrid shared that the idea of their daily advocacy was inspired by the efforts of her former professor at Yerevan State University, who has initiated 

Women for Artsakh, a daily protest at the U.N. office in Yerevan. They have conducted hunger strikes and public rallies to call attention to the criminal blockade of Artsakh. The most important feature of this effort is the sustained daily continuity. Astrid was motivated to mirror a similar effort in New York. Together, she and Stephen decided to begin a simple and impactful daily protest in front of the U.N. It is not sponsored by an organization and is open to all who wish to join them. As Astrid articulated, they are not waiting for perfection or projects that take a long time to initiate, but to deliver something immediate, sustainable and impactful. Individuals can participate after their work hours during a period of high traffic. Hundreds of employees and diplomatic staffers pass by them every day, in addition to the robust weekday traffic of Manhattan. The repetitive nature of their work has captured the attention of many passersby who have spoken with them on multiple encounters.

Stephen and Astrid are a beautiful young Armenian couple who will be married in Armenia next May. Stephen was raised in the St. Louis area by a patriotic family. After spending 12 years as an oil geologist in Wyoming, he moved to New York City in 2018 to continue his career in technology sales. With his ever-present passion for Armenia and Artsakh, Stephen decided to enroll in Armenian language classes at St. Illuminator’s Cathedral on 27th St. Astrid was his instructor. The rest is a loving story of two individuals who have become life partners and share a common commitment to the homeland. Astrid came to the United States in 2014 from Armenia to pursue psychotherapy. I asked them, aside from the bandwidth of youth, how they sustain such a lifestyle, with full-time jobs and a continued connection to the homeland (Stephen was leaving for Armenia the day we spoke, and Astrid a week later). Stephen answered immediately, with a loving glance to Astrid, that it would not be possible without the caring support they have for each other. It reminded me of a romantic drama, as they build a life together and work to make a difference. It is an example when the sum of the parts increases the whole.

Astrid and Stephen are joined every day by two women with direct ties to Artsakh. Anna Mesropyan, a native of Stepanakert, has family members in Artsakh under blockade. She lost a brother, Nareg, in the 2020 war. I was grateful that she shared his name. We should always remember the names of our heroes. Knar Abrahamyan’s father died in the first Artsakh war, and her family is from occupied Hadrut. 

Their focus is elevating awareness of the humanitarian crisis in Artsakh with international human rights bodies…They are organizing for today, because Artsakh’s need is immediate. They support all efforts, but this is their gift.

I asked Astrid and Stephen about the sustainability of the campaign while they are away in Armenia. They have a schedule with daily rotations and always welcome “walk-ons.” Their focus is elevating awareness of the humanitarian crisis in Artsakh with international human rights bodies. There are none of the challenges that sometimes accompany long-term programs. They are organizing for today, because Artsakh’s need is immediate. They support all efforts, but this is their gift.

A comment from Stephen sums up the most compelling message in their unique labor of love. He said, “We’re not special. Anyone can do what we are doing.” Their humility is always visible. My reaction was that they are very special, because they have chosen to do something, not just talk, lament or wish. Yet I agree that, with a will and commitment, nearly all of us can do what they are doing. Instead of just commemorating our negative experiences (108th anniversary of the genocide or eighth month of the blockade), we can mark the number of days of our resistance movements. Imagine if this activity was replicated in several major Armenian communities, in high traffic, meaningful locations. It’s not the numbers that count in this case. It is the continuity of a sustained commitment. I know that there are Astrids and Stephens in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago or Detroit. In addition to attending a single rally (which I encourage all to support), consider committing yourself to the Astrid/Stephen model. Two hours a day during commuting time for five days a week. Build a schedule that ensures daily coverage. Stephen and Astrid informed us that the repetitive nature of the event has increased support and dialogue. In fact, Astrid has been invited into the complex by a U.N. security guard. It was a sign of respect for their sustained commitment.

This is not the only way to show solidarity with Artsakh, but it addresses a few of the shortcomings in our more traditional approaches. Each option contributes something to the greater cause. Isn’t that what a pan-Armenian campaign should be all about? Each of us contributes in some meaningful way, respecting each other and inspiring others. I know Astrid and Stephen have inspired others. The Armenian digital newspaper Aravot reported that a couple drove from Connecticut every day for two hours to join the effort. Count me as inspired and energized by their work. I hope that this motivates you to channel your energy into meaningful work. This patriotic couple had another meeting after our discussion before Stephen headed to the airport. They spend their time on a variety of economic projects in Yerevan and Syunik. Both Stephen and Astrid will continue their professional jobs remotely while fully engaged in making a difference in the homeland. Their work is a clear reminder to us that we are all capable of doing something immediately. We don’t have to wait for the “home run” or for others to provide the path. 

Let’s also consider the impact on the brave people of Artsakh. How do you think our people in Artsakh feel when they read about a sustained effort in front of the U.N.? It probably helps them cope knowing that we have not forgotten them. We must never forget that there is no Artsakh cause without the Armenians in Artsakh. Sometimes powerful ideas grow from simple reflections. Astrid was inspired by her professor’s efforts in Yerevan and adapted them to New York. It has been reported that the U.N. Security Council will convene an emergency session concerning Artsakh on the afternoon of August 16. While the session takes place, our patriots will be outside. Will you be the next to mirror our solidarity with Artsakh?

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.

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