Here's How LA's Armenian Community Is Remembering The Genocide During Coronavirus
Friday is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, an annual commemoration usually marked by mass gatherings here in L.A., home to the largest Armenian community in the U.S.
But this year, local Armenians are finding other ways to join as a community and remember the systematic expulsion and mass killing of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turkish Empire more than a century ago.
Turkey refuses to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, instead claiming the deaths were the result of World War I. Last year, both houses of U.S. Congress approved resolutions formally recognizing the Armenian Genocide for the first time.
Tens of thousands typically gather in front of L.A'.s Turkish Consulate every April 24 to honor lives lost in 1915 and call on the government of Turkey and other nations to recognize it as a genocide.
Under normal conditions, there would be another march through Little Armenia in East Hollywood and a prayer service at the Armenian Genocide Martyrs Memorial Monument in Montebello, the first Armenian Genocide memorial built outside of Armenia.
But organizers have canceled those events because of the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, on the 105th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, they're asking local Armenians to do things like donate meals to the hungry, and to tune in to livestreamed commemorations instead.
DONATING MEALS TO MORE THAN 1.5 MILLION HUNGRY AMERICANS
In lieu of public events, the organizers of L.A.'s annual "March For Justice" and other local Armenian community organizations are asking people for donations to provide 1.5 million meals to Americans in need, in honor of the 1.5 million Armenian Genocide victims.
The fundraiser launched March 17 and hit its goal within three days. The Armenian community has already helped provide more than 3 million meals to U.S. families through Feeding America, a hunger relief nonprofit.
Saro Kerkonian with the United Armenian Council of Los Angeles said it's especially difficult as an Armenian American to see his neighbors struggle with food security during the coronavirus crisis.
"It creates all these visions in my mind of my ancestors dealing with the same issues," Kerkorian said. "When my grandfather was on these death marches out of his hometown, he didn't have enough food and he had frostbite on his feet."
The fundraiser is also meant to celebrate a U.S. humanitarian relief operation from the time of the genocide that raised more than $100 million from the American people between 1915 and 1930 to provide assistance to victims.
Near East Relief was the nation's first nonsectarian, international non-governmental organization. It undertook a major international relief effort to help refugees from the Ottoman Empire; the money it raised was equivalent to $1.25 billion in today's dollars. This effort established hundreds of refugee processing centers, hospitals, vocational schools and orphanages, helping rescue more than a million Armenian refugees and tens of thousands of orphans.
"They literally saved 130,000 children from certain annihilation," Kerkorian said. "My cultural identity was able to survive through those children. This is a chance for the Armenian community to give back for that benevolence that we saw from the American people."
Community groups are also inviting people to watch a virtual commemoration broadcast on Facebook as well as on local Armenian TV stations.
The livestream will be running from noon to 7 p.m. on Friday, featuring recorded messages from community leaders and political representatives, as well as music and other cultural performances.
Despite social distancing rules, organizers say it's important that commemorative events foster community solidarity.
"That sense of community is at the heart of who we are as Armenians," said Alex Galitsky, a spokesman for the Armenian National Committee of America -- Western Region. "That sense of pride in our nation, our language, our culture, and everything that defines us. Because those are the things that enabled us to survive these 100 years without a nation, 100 years without recognition, 100 years without justice."
Congressman Adam Schiff, who authored last year's successful House resolution to recognize the Armenian Genocide, is among the elected officials who've sent in recorded messages. The list also includes Congresswoman Judy Chu, Congressman Brad Sherman, L.A Councilmember Paul Koretz, David Ryu and Mitch O'Farrell, L.A. Deputy Mayor Nina Hachigian, and other state and local leaders, organizers said.
Speakers will be celebrating last year's unprecedented Armenian Genocide recognition by Congress, something Armenian American advocates had been working toward for decades.
"The reason that there is an Armenian community in the United States is because of the genocide and forced displacement of our people," said Galitsky. "When we see a refusal to acknowledge and recognize that historic injustice, that's an affront to our community. Moving forward, we need to understand that those resolutions are just the beginning of the struggle for justice."
The virtual event will include a moment of silence for genocide victims. Organizers are also encouraging Armenians around the world to light a candle in their windows as a solemn memory of the lives lost.
DON'T FORGET ABOUT CHURCH
The Armenian Apostolic Church has been at the core of L.A.'s Armenian diaspora community for a century and always plays a key role in Armenian Genocide commemorative events.
This year, the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church will celebrate (and stream) the divine liturgy in commemoration of of the holy martyrs of the Armenian Genocide at 10:30 a.m.
Archbishop Hovnan Derderian will be presiding from St. Leon Armenian Cathedral in Burbank.
Father Vazken Movsesian, who will deliver the homily from St. Leon, says April 24 took on new meaning on the 100th anniversary of the genocide in 2015, when the Armenian Church canonized the 1.5 million victims of the genocide.
"The Church made a very bold statement," said Movsesian. "It said that the martyrs of the genocide are sanctified. They're saints. And that today is not a day of mourning. It's a day of us celebrating that we won, in the sense that we're not only alive but thriving. We have resurrected. We are no longer victims. Today we're going to be celebrating that, not just by words, but by reaching out to others and being a voice against genocide everywhere."
Movsesian says some individual churches are also hosting their own livestreams of the service, as they have been doing for the past month.
St. Mary's Apostolic Church in Glendale will display a beam of light in the sky Friday night after 8pm to commemorate the Armenian Genocide.
RECORDING ORAL HISTORIES
This will be the first time in more than 50 years that local Armenian Americans didn't gather in public to call for recognition of the Armenian Genocide, according to Salpi Ghazarian, director of USC's Institute for Armenian Studies.
"There has been something powerful about knowing that around the world, on the same day, hundreds of thousands of people are doing the same thing -- reaffirming life, even as we remember loss," Ghazarian said.
This year, the institute is asking Armenians to do that by participating in a do-it-yourself oral history project called #MyArmenianStory.
Ghazarian says people constantly ask her for guidelines on conducting interviews with family members. So she decided to use this unusual social situation to promote mass recording and archiving.
The Armenian diaspora is big and spread out. Ghazarian hopes the project can help capture the breadth of stories in her community's history.
"This will include stories of Armenia's independence, Middle East wars and migration, third and fourth generation Los Angeles and Fresno families who are part of the fabric of their cities," Ghazarian said. "This is a long-term project that fits in perfectly with the isolating and sequestering that will be with us for a while to come."