Preserving Identity Despite Genocide

By Sarhad Melkonian, New Jersey “Arsen” chapter

The Armenian Youth Federation Eastern Region is pleased to present the winners of the 2024 AYF Camp Haiastan Campership Essay Contest. The first and second place winners in each age category were announced at AYF Junior Seminar over Memorial Day weekend. Melkonian’s essay, which won first place in the older group (ages 15-16), answered the following prompt: After the Armenian Genocide in 1915, our ancestors established the Armenian communities across the world that we have all grown up in today. Following the Artsakh genocide in 2023, what can we do to ensure that the sense of community and identity of Artsakh is preserved?

Central Junior Council with Sarhad Melkonian, New Jersey “Arsen” chapter, and Karine Najarian, Washington D.C. “Sevan” chapter, older group winners

For as long as I can remember, every April 24 I would be at a protest chanting “1915 never again.” Since 2020, it became obvious that 1915 was happening again and again to our people, this time to Armenians living in Artsakh. As a result of the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923, the culture, dialects, traditions and even foods of Western Armenia were annihilated along with the population. Very little of what we had as a nation survived after the Genocide. We are rebuilding some of those lost traditions even to this day.

The genocide of the Armenians of Artsakh and the loss of Artsakh as a whole is a repeat of what happened during the Armenian Genocide. Over 150,000 Armenians were forcefully pushed out of Artsakh starting with the 2020 war and continued with forced starvation and more war. Artsakh villages, just like our villages and towns in Western Armenia, all have their own distinct dialects and traditions. Foods vary as well depending on what the population received from the land. Artsakh also has very different climates within its small borders, and therefore the people living in these climates have different personalities and traditions.

Throughout Artsakh there are many different dialects of Armenian spoken. In Hadrut, Marduni, Mardakerd, Askeran and all the cities and villages in Artsakh each have their own unique, special dialect of Armenian. Now all the refugees who were forcefully displaced from their homes in Artsakh are scattered across Armenia. Artsakhtsi children are now attending schools in Armenia where none of the teachers are Artsakhtsi. They are no longer exposed to the Artsakh dialect outside of their homes. In fact, many people in Armenia discriminate against Artsakhtsis when they speak their dialect in public, and as a result, children from Artsakh are embarrassed and don’t speak their dialects in public. Within one generation, the Artsakh dialect could be lost. We must not let that happen. 

Now over 150,000 displaced Artsakhtsis are living in Armenia with no sense of community or connection to one another. They are spread out across Armenia and likely living in places that do not resemble their home villages. The climate is different, the soil is different, the plants are different. The foods they eat are different. For example, one of the most prominent dishes from Artsakh is jingyalov hats which includes a variety of different herbs and greens containing over 21 native greens that they used to make the dish. The main green, jingyal, only grows in Artsakh. Even though we see Artsakhtsis making jingyalov hats in Armenia to earn a living, they are making it without their native herbs. 

What can we do? We, Armenians from Western Armenia, know and understand the loss Armenians from Artsakh are facing today. We must do all we can to help them. The ideal solution would be if the government of Armenia recreates regions of Artsakh in Armenia. For example, have all the Armenians from Hadrut live in one region of Armenia that resembles the topography of Hadrut and the same for all the different regions. This way, they can recreate their communities, preserve their dialects, traditions, customs and food. However, we know THIS government in Armenia is not going to do anything to help Artsakhtsis in any way. 

Therefore, once again, it’s up to us to help. We have to do what we can to create programs for Artsakhtsis through the AYF, Homenetmen and Hamazkayin. For example, the AYF should create chapters in Armenia just for Artsakhtsis. If possible, have these chapters follow regions of Artsakh. We should do the same for Homenetmen scouts. Hamazkayin can create after school language programs for Artsakh children to continue to practice and learn their specific dialects. They can hire teachers from each region of Artsakh to run these classes, just like we have Saturday schools here in the U.S. They can have cooking classes, art classes, dance classes and chorus all geared towards Artsakhtsi kids and run by Artsakhtsis. If  possible, these programs should always be organized based on regions in Artsakh. We should help AYF, Homenetmen and Hamazkayin of Armenia to create these programs by fundraising to make these programs possible. Whenever we can, we should also participate and help run some of these programs for the kids of Artsakh.

Founded in 1933, The Armenian Youth Federation is an international, non-profit, youth organization of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF). The AYF-YOARF Eastern United States stands on five pillars that guide its central activities and initiatives: Educational, Hai Tahd, Social, Athletic and Cultural. The AYF also promotes a fraternal attitude of respect for ideas and individuals amongst its membership. Unity and cooperation are essential traits that allow members of the organization to work together to realize the AYF’s objectives.

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