September 01, 2017

Investing in the Future

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    Shant Mardirossian

Shant Mardirossian

I was so impressed by the experience Alexandra had and the opportunities she was afforded, but I know that not everyone has the same chance to take part in NYSIP. I hope that my donation can help students who have the intelligence and ambition, but may not have the financial means to participate in this transformative program.

Shant Mardirossian’s work and philanthropy revolve around the advancement of Armenians—both celebrating the past achievements and fostering future progress.

As the chairman of the Near East Foundation, from 2002 to its centenary in 2015, he was at the helm of the organization that rushed to the aid of the Armenian people in the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide, rescuing more than 132,000 orphaned children and supplying them with food, clothing and shelter. Known then as the Near East Relief, this organization also took on the colossal task of raising these orphans to be self-sufficient adults by teaching them trades and crafts to support themselves once they aged out of the orphanages. Boys were apprenticed to blacksmiths, electricians, mechanics and farmers, among others, while girls were taught carpet-weaving, pottery, embroidery and other crafts that conformed to the gender roles of the time.

Shant—born in Beirut and raised in New York—stands between his work with the Near East Foundation and his giving to AGBU. His grandmother, Mary Libarian, was orphaned as a young girl on a march from her home in Aintab and survived thanks to the efforts of an American Protestant orphanage, like so many others that came under the umbrella of the Near East Relief. The orphanage, supported by millions of Americans who donated to the organization as part of a massive fundraising campaign across the country, nurtured her mind and taught her how to read and write.

This legacy of empowerment continues today through Shant’s daughter, Alexandra. A recent graduate of George Washington University, Alexandra participated in the AGBU New York Summer Internship Program (NYSIP) in 2016, which, since its founding in 1987, has equipped hundreds of college-age Armenians from around the world with the skills they need to succeed in their careers. The program gives students access to a range of workshops, networking events and cultural activities along with competitive internships, exposing them to the rhythms of life after graduations. Alexandra, with her major in international affairs and psychology, interned at a consulting firm, which led to a much-coveted full-time position in her field of management consulting at PricewaterhouseCoopers upon graduation. “I was so impressed by the experience Alexandra had and the opportunities she was afforded, but I know that not everyone has the same chance to take part in NYSIP. I hope that my donation can help students who have the intelligence and ambition, but may not have the financial means to participate in this transformative program,” said Shant.

It was only once Alexandra, 21, and her twin siblings Christopher and Caroline, 15, were born that Shant felt the need to reacquaint himself with the Armenian community. “My mother was a graduate of the AGBU Lazar Najarian-Calouste Gulbenkian School in Aleppo and always spoke fondly of the education she received, but I was not engaged in AGBU or Armenian community life growing up. I came to see its importance in my mid-30s and wanted my kids to learn about their culture and history,” he says.

Shant, who has been involved with the Near East Foundation since 2002, quickly made up for lost time in his work with the foundation’s projects in Armenia. In 2004, it launched a small project focused on workshops and training for community leaders to help street children in Armenia and in 2007 expanded to economic development in rural areas to help villagers start small businesses. “Survivors of domestic violence have been a particular focus of our program since 2013, through a grant from the Open Society Foundation. We partnered with the Women’s Support Center, funded through the Tufenkian Foundation, to provide training for these women to become financially independent, giving them the ability to leave their abusive environments. We’re now looking to expand our work with socially vulnerable groups in Armenia, such as the Syrian Armenian population living in the country.”

In his work, Shant has also strived to highlight the history of the Near East Relief, which, despite having had such a profound impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of Armenians, has been largely forgotten by Armenians and non-Armenians alike. To this end, he served as the executive producer of the 2017 documentary They Shall Not Perish: The Story of Near East Relief, which details an unprecedented act of humanitarianism that resulted in a 15-year campaign to come to the aid of Armenian orphans and refugees: “The film tells the story from an American perspective and shows how the United States reacted and responded to the Armenian Genocide. It was such an overwhelming, powerful illustration of American values and an essential tool to teach audiences young and old about the roots of citizen philanthropy in the United States.”

Shant sees empowerment as the thread that links the objectives of the Near East Relief a century ago with the AGBU New York Summer Internship Program today and has high hopes for the program’s capacity to build a bright future for young Armenians. “AGBU has been at the center of supporting the new generation in the diaspora from an educational and professional standpoint, echoing the work of the Near East Relief just after the genocide. In my mind, NYSIP builds on previous generations and take them to another level, affording young Armenians opportunities to rise even higher.”