After celebrating the Armenian General Benevolent Union's (AGBU) Centennial in over 34 cities around the world, the organization marked the end of the yearlong festivities with a series of events in Armenia and Karabakh from April 2 to 8, 2007. The 150-member delegation of AGBU Council of Trustees and Central Board members, District and Chapter Chairmen, donors, members and friends, headed by AGBU President Berge Setrakian, converged in Yerevan to participate in the impressive conclusion to a jubilee year.
Representatives and members from 18 countries and nine US cities came together to pay homage to the organization that was founded in 1906 and, one hundred years later, with over 90 Districts, Chapters and Young Professionals groups in 25 countries, has grown to become the world's premier Armenian non-profit organization.
The decision to wrap up the centennial year in Armenia was a symbolic gesture to mark the solidarity between Armenians around the world.
Highlights from the closing weekend included a conference to discuss the organization's educational programs, a meeting of Young Professionals (YP) from around the world, the presentation by Armenian President Robert Kocharian of the Mkhitar Heratsi Award to three AGBU Trustees, Sarkis Demirdjian, Nazar Nazarian and Karnig Yacoubian, and the burial of the first ever time capsule by an Armenian organization.
Karabakh's Stable Path
On April 2, ninety AGBU members embarked on a three-day trip to Karabakh, accompanied by members of the Yerevan media, to see firsthand the remarkable progress the small republic has made over the years. The last time a large-scale AGBU delegation visited Karabakh was in 2004 during AGBU's 83rd General Assembly and, since then, the organization’s programs have continued to grow and expand.
At a meeting with the AGBU delegation, Karabakh Prime Minister Anushavan Danielian recognized the organization's visionary guidance, "From the very beginning of our difficult days, AGBU was with us. We built the independence of Karabakh together. We see Karabakh getting stronger, it encourages us and gives us hope, and it encourages you because you see that your investments were not in vain."
AGBU members witnessed the success of the organization's work during a half-day trip to the Hadrut region, in the southeast of the country. Guests toured the thriving village of Norashen, which began with 10 families in its first year and now numbers 44 families with about 144 individuals. One of the village leaders pointed out that, by the end of the year, the village will number 200. The AGBU delegation also toured the newer AGBU-funded settlements of Pareshen and Nor Jrakn, both of which continue to expand.
During the tour, Central Board Member Levon Kebabdjian spoke about the Karabakh Repopulation Project's original idea that has now blossomed into three villages with the support of AGBU's Chapters, YPs and individual donors from Boston, Buenos Aires, Cairo, Southern California, Sydney, Toronto, and beyond.
In a meeting with Karabakh officials in the capital later that day, AGBU delegates asked questions about the infrastructure projects in the Hadrut region and the government's role in tackling water and transportation problems that remain in the region of the AGBU-funded villages. Prime Minister Danielian assured the visitors that the government was solving the issues one by one and lauded AGBU's continuing cooperation and success.
That evening, guests enjoyed a lively performance by the AGBU-funded Karabakh Chamber Orchestra (KCO), which was established in 2004 and has since flourished to become the Republic's premier musical ensemble.
During their journey back to Yerevan on April 4, the delegation stopped in Shushi to tour the local church and met with Archbishop Barkev Martirosyan of Karabakh.
Planning for the Future
On April 4 and 5, AGBU members from Districts and Chapters around the world participated in a series of presentations and roundtable meetings at the Marriott Armenia Hotel and the American University of Armenia's Business Center, designed to elicit new ideas and formulate a future direction for the organization. Topics of discussion included how to best reach young Armenians, bring youth closer to both their local communities and their heritage, and maintain the Armenian language in the global Armenian community.
Most encouraging during the two-day conference was the enthusiastic participation of YPs, who stood ready to take part in new initiatives. Many of them voiced their critical opinions on the question of identity, and their desire to see AGBU continue to keep young Armenians involved and included in future discussions. It became evident that the YP movement is not only the future of AGBU, but also a crucial part of its present.
During a special session devoted to education, Central Board Member Carol Aslanian and Education Director Artoun Hamalian presented an overview of AGBU's current education programs and plans for new projects. There was a frank discussion about the importance of the Armenian language and the increasing difficulties in developing fluency in communities where immersion is not an option.
Hamalian pointed out that three main elements constitute the basis of the future direction of AGBU's educational programming: maintaining the quality of the existing schools; streamlining curricula for all schools; and developing resources that will reach greater numbers of Armenians. Currently, he pointed out, there are 5,500 students in AGBU schools in 14 countries.
Building on the organization's interest in making its educational resources available to more and more Armenians, Silicon Valley Chapter Chairman Yervant Zorian demonstrated the AGBU-sponsored electronic Armenian-language education resources currently being developed by Yerevan State University's Information Technology (IT) Department and the Silicon Valley-based company, Virage Logic. Zorian guided conference participants through a step-by-step presentation on how distance learning can reach those both inside and outside of large Armenian communities worldwide, and help create a user-friendly experience that will make Armenian-language instruction both easy and fun.
The President of the American University of Armenia (AUA), Haroutune Armenian, spoke about the current activities and future projects of the AUA, the country's premier post-graduate institution. After the presentations, AGBU President, Berge Setrakian, spoke about the organization's commitment to education as a crucial component of the preservation of Armenian identity in the diaspora. He also elaborated on the organization's plans to build a center for diasporan youth in Armenia, which will begin construction within the next few years and be named for two historic AGBU benefactors, Krikor and Garabed Melkonian.
On April 6, 2007, Armenian President Robert Kocharian received members of AGBU's Council of Trustees and Central Board of Directors to review and address issues of common interest, including the challenges of the new century, and Armenia's leadership role in the future of the international Armenian community. During the meeting, President Kocharian congratulated AGBU's leadership and members on the occasion of AGBU's 100th anniversary and noted that the organization continues to play an invaluable role in the preservation of the Armenian identity around the world.
President Kocharian awarded three AGBU Trustees, Sarkis Demirdjian, Nazar Nazarian, and Karnig Yacoubian, with the Mkhitar Heratsi medal for their decades of service and generosity to the Armenian nation.
Established in 1993, the Mkhitar Heratsi Medal is awarded by the Armenian President for services to the development of health care, high professionalism, practical work, as well as for significant philanthropic activities in the Republic of Armenia.
Young Professionals Looking Ahead
A remarkable achievement of the Armenia Centennial Conference was the powerful presence, the largest ever at an AGBU conference, of the organization's YPs. Close to 25 leaders from AGBU's international network of YP Groups and partners from four continents set short-term and mid-term goals for their future during a plenary meeting, emphasizing new YP initiatives, such as a pan-YP fundraising effort, leadership training seminars, and outreach to Armenian university students.
In addition, YPs had the unique opportunity to meet with AGBU President Berge Setrakian, Central Board Members Carol Aslanian, Aris Atamian, Ruben Kechichian, Sam Simonian and Vasken Yacoubian, and AGBU Trustee Karnig Yacoubian, to discuss the evolving role of YPs within AGBU.
For many YPs present, it was the first occasion for them to meet face to face. To break the ice, the delegation of YPs spent Saturday afternoon at the AUA Business Center with Dr. Tom Samuelian, Dean of American University of Armenia Law Department, who facilitated a 90-minute workshop on networking. Providing an explanation of the difference between bonding and bridging models of networking, he emphasized the need to move towards a bridging model to increase social connectedness among Armenians from various parts of the world.
As part of the celebration dinner at Nor Dzoraberd restaurant on Saturday, April 7, six AGBU members were recognized for their devotion and dedication to the organization's mission. The honored recipients were Vahe Artinian of Sydney, Australia; Vahram Hairabedian of Buenos Aires, Argentina; Vahe Imasdounian, Chairman of the Southern California District Committee, USA; Sossi Kelegian of Yerevan, Armenia; Haig Messerlian of the Southern California District Committee, USA; and Juan Nourikhan of Cordoba, Argentina.
A Cultural Showcase
Believing in the significant role that culture plays in the perpetuation of the Armenian nation, AGBU sponsored a grand artistic celebration at the Yerevan Opera House on April 8. Serving as the official closing ceremony of AGBU's Centennial, the program began with remarks from Armenian political, spiritual and community leaders, including His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, Foreign Minister of the Republic of Armenia Vartan Oskanian, Republic of Karabakh President Arkady Ghoukassian, and AGBU President Berge Setrakian.
Reading an official statement from President Kocharian, Minister Oskanian added that he was not only reading the President’s message as Armenia's Foreign Minister but also as a proud alumnus of the AGBU Lazar Najarian-Calouste Gulbenkian School in Aleppo, Syria. The event then continued with performances by AGBU's Nork Children's Center's Circus Group, Haykazounk Folk Ensemble and Shoghakat Choir, in addition to the Gevorgian and Vaskenian Seminarians and the Barekamutyun Dance Ensemble of Armenia. Also on stage was the AGBU-sponsored Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Edouard Topchjan, which performed selections by Aram Khachaturian, Johann Strauss, Alexander Harutyunian and Giuseppe Verdi. The evening's finale included an ensemble performance of Robert Amirkhanian's specially commissioned work "Ode to AGBU Centennial."
One day earlier, participants of the event visited AGBU's Yerevan projects, such as the American University of Armenia, Ultrasound Center, and Soup Kitchens. Their afternoon ended with a special program presented to a full house by the talented youth from the AGBU Nork Children's Center. The performance was comprised of song, traditional and modern dance, circus acts, and an exhibition of art. Also participating was the AGBU AYA Antranik Dance Group from Aleppo, Syria.
Taking Pride in History
To pay homage to AGBU's far-reaching achievements over the past century, the Academy of Sciences in Armenia organized a conference about AGBU on April 7 in Yerevan, which included paper presentations by notable historians and academics in Armenia. Also on hand to speak about AGBU's accomplishments were Raymond Kevorkian, Head Librarian of the AGBU Nubarian Library in Paris, and Ashot Ghazarian, Director of AGBU's Armenia Representation.
Kevorkian spoke in detail about the organization's relief efforts during the post-Genocide years in the Middle East, touching particularly upon the refugee communities, orphanages and women's shelters in Lebanon and Syria starting in 1923. In addition, Ghazarian gave an overview of the projects AGBU initiated in Soviet Armenia some decades ago, and how the 1988 earthquake in northern Armenia brought AGBU back to the homeland for good. He specifically mentioned the projects that the organization currently sponsors in both Armenia and Karabakh and how it cooperates closely with the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin.
As a final tribute to AGBU's Centennial, AGBU President Berge Setrakian, His Holiness Karekin II, Central Board Members, District and Chapter Chairmen and members gathered on the grounds of Holy Etchmiadzin after Easter Sunday services to bury a time capsule, which will remain sealed until the organization's bicentennial in 2106. Items stored in the capsule include photos, biennial reports, booklets, yearbooks, media publications, and other unique items that will help the future generation gain knowledge about what AGBU had achieved in its first one hundred years and how much the organization will continue to have progressed until its two-hundredth birthday.
Photos and videos from the Armenia & Karabakh Conference and Closing Event are available at: www.agbu.org/armenia100.