"The American people honor all those Armenians who perished in the genocide that began 106 years ago today." President Joe Biden.
WASHINGTON, DC – It won’t bring back the 1.5 million dead, or alleviate the suffering of those who survived death marches and attacks, lucky to escape and be alive then, now dead, but President Joe Biden coming through on the belated American recognition of the Armenian genocide is a monumental action that speaks loudly to the men and women who built silent but poignant monuments around the world honoring the lives and memories of relatives and friends and their cries of 'never again' and 'we will never forget you."
Aram Hamparian, Executive Director of the Armenia National Committee of America, spoke to The National Herald about triumph of justice that marked Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, April 24, 2021.
Hamparian is descended from genocide survivors from Asia Minor: Diyarbakir-Tigranakert on his mother’s side and from near Sivas-Sebasteia on his father’s. His family made their way out through the Syrian dessert around 1920 and came as young people to New York.
“That part of our history was not very well known to us. My father’s father lost his entire family – he was married with children and they were all killed. The men were separated out and they killed the women and children. He came to the U.S. and started a new family,” fittingly, Hampartsoum, which means ‘ascension’.
Hamparian’s maternal grandmother Zevart grew up in an orphanage run by the American Near East Relief Foundation. “Like many people, “they didn’t know their parents or their birth names and birthdays.”
They knew they were Armenians – and raised their family’s to honor their heritage. “My family were in the Church, the Community, youth groups for decades, always active in pro-Armenian advocacy efforts.”
SIMILAR WORLDS – GREEKS AND ARMENIANS IN AMERICA
The whole story is familiar to Greek-Americans. “My dad Ardashes was a U.S. Navy veteran in WWII and Korea, studied at Columbia, and joined the New York Times Books company. He was devoted to education” – along with Hamparian’s mother Mary, a school administrator.
“Every Saturday I would go to Armenian school and to this day I teach Sunday School.”
As a member of the international Armenian Youth Federation, Hamparian attended weekly or monthly meetings and enjoyed educational, athletic, and social events. “You learned to cook and sing and dance the Armenian way. We went to camps and seminars, raised with a rich cultural heritage.”
And part of that was political. “The kids drawn to that got involved with the local ANCA – they are in 70 cities across America. I got involved in the New Jersey Chapter,” he said “and there were older members who I looked up to. One day they told me ‘we’re taking Amtrak to speak to members of Congress, come with us. I was 13. We lobbied legislators, stayed with families – it was great. I loved it and stayed involved.”
In 1990 he applied and was hired for a job at ANCA headquarters in Washington, DC. His family worships at the Holy Cross Armenian Apostolic Church in Bethesda. Asked if his children speak Armenian, he brimmed with pride: “Better than me! They have been to Armenia every single year of their lives.”
Hamparian first went to the homeland around 13. “Even during the Soviet era … we always knew that whatever the politics, we had to stay Armenian.”
A JOURNEY FUELED BY FAITH AND DEVOTION
“It’s been a long struggle,” Hamparian said of the recognition effort, “and in the beginning the Community dealt with the issue internally, through memorial and prayer services. And ‘Armenia as a captive nation’ in the USSR was another focus, in line with U.S. foreign policy … but the genocide became a political issue in the 60s and 70s … Armenians then living in an America that placed less of a premium on just getting along” – with the anti-war and civil rights movements as examples.
Initially there was a natural sympathy in America based on the facts and morality of the issue, but once the Turkish lobby kicked in by the 70s, it became difficult – that only further energized the Community, however, which by then had a powerful base in ANCA.
Founded in 1918 and renamed ANCA in 1941, it is the largest and most influential Armenian American lobbying organization, with a large and effective network of offices, chapters, and supporters in the United States and affiliated organizations around the world.
Among the founders was Vahan Cardashian, a Yale-educated lawyer so devoted to the cause that he died penniless.
The organization has six full time employees in Washington, DC, five in Los Angeles, and two on the East coast. “There is no formal body tying all Armenian groups together, but there is the critical mass that 90% of the Community feels represented by ANCA,” he said.
The bodies of deportees from Van who died of typhus and various other diseases, pictured in a forest near the Mother See of Etchmiadzin, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the Armenian capital of Yerevan, in the summer of 1915. (Armenian Genocide Museum/PAN Photo via AP)
“A watershed was the independence of Armenia, becoming a living republic” after the collapse of the USSR in 1991.” Now their agenda includes Nagorno Karabakh – internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but with an Armenian majority that is suppressed by the later – and strengthening and defending Armenia.
Hamparian emphasized that “justice for the genocide is part of the formula for Armenian security. We never looked at it as an issue looking backwards but as a living issue,” adding “the war launched in 2020 by Azerbaijan backed by Turkey “is evidence of that – we need to show the continuity of genocidal intent.”
Among the reasons for recent progress is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s turning against Israel, which until recent years was an ally of Turkey in Washington. Today, Greece and Cyprus – all friends of Armenia – are building a deep and broad relationship with Israel.
Over time, the U.S. Departments of State and Defense also belatedly realized Turkey was not a reliable ally of the United States, perceptions that began with the first and second Gulf wars and were solidified with Turkey’s recent purchase of S-400 missile systems from Russia that are perceived to be a threat to NATO.
RIGHT AND PASSION ARE NOT ENOUGH
The keys, however, were hard work, unity, persistence – and adaptability. “At the level of facts and moral argument, the facts and our heartfelt message – our ‘ethos’, ‘pathos’ and ‘logos’ – were always solid and we managed them well, but we didn’t bring the raw political power” – it was like the early fighting against the tobacco lobby.”
ANCA and the Community kept pressing, however, and adjusting. “We had a ‘benefactor model’ in the past, but these results have been delivered by our grass roots – we are highly networked.”
In comparison, “the Greek Community is larger and has very robust infrastructure, but I would say ‘person for person’ the Armenian Community is more structured around political engagement. We have a whole culture where from around the age of 10 on we learn about these issues, ‘my heritage and what was required of me.’”
There is an effective program to keep people engaged which he notes “maybe is based on the fear that if we don’t do this, we will be wiped out. There is less existential fear among Greeks that Greece could be destroyed.”
AN ACHIEVEMENT THAT WILL ENDURE
It took years of effort, but when the 2019 resolution in the House of Representative passed with 405 instead of the expected 260 or more votes and with Senator Robert Menendez’s efforts on the Senate side they were confident. “And when the Senate made it 100-0, it kind of made the President’s recognition inevitable”
“This is now a bright red line,” Hamparian said of what was accomplished. “If you want to go back, you would have to pass a Congressional resolution renouncing it – and that’s never going to happen.”
The focus now will be “on translating this declaration into policy that supports justice for the Armenian Genocide and challenges Turkey and Azerbaijan’s continuation of the Genocide … for example: the U.S. cutting off military aid to Azerbaijan and publicly challenging Turkey’s Genocide denial – applying pressure, and maybe divestment.” And there are calls for reparations.
At the moment, celebration is merited. “There’s a
Great sense of relief and pride that this was not a gift from anybody, but the result of a century of work and of not giving up, Hamparian said. “There are intelligent people who thought this would never happen – there are a lot of atrocities in this world that have been forgotten, a lot of injustices that have never been fixed” – but recognition finally happened.
To Armenians he says this is “proof of concept: Activism works – proof also that Americans will do the right thing if enough effort is tied to the message … It’s good for America too, to see what a small, motivated constituency can do.”
And pride is accompanied by appreciation, first and foremost for his remarkable team and fellow Armenian activists and supporters, but also for their allies. “Greek-Americans have been by our side – shoulder to shoulder – no community has been closer or a better partner, Hamparian said. “We would not be where we are today without the support of our Hellenic brothers and sisters.”
Everlasting be the memories of our Armenian brothers and sisters.