By Hrag Arakelian
CHICAGO, Ill.—Armenian youth from Chicago, Racine, and Detroit gathered on March 17 for the Armenian Relief Society’s (ARS) Youth Connect Program (YCP) at DePaul University in Lincoln Park, where they learned about the Armenian Diaspora and the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem.
The event began at 10 a.m. when ARS Eastern Region Executive Board member Suzanna Azarian welcomed those gathered and introduced the first lecturer. Dr. Asbed Kotchikian, a professor at Bentley University and the director of the Youth Connect Program, discussed the philosophy of a diaspora: Who falls in to the category of diaspora? Who can speak on behalf of the diaspora? Which diaspora is the most important and with what influence?
Armenians have lived outside of Armenia for centuries and the audience came to agree that the diaspora is defined by the Armenians who were forcibly removed from the homeland. Although there are many organizations who claim to represent the diaspora, it is unlikely that a single organization can fully represent the entire Armenian Diaspora due to differing demographics. Since the diaspora is spread out all over the world, some of these communities (American, Russian, Syrian, etc) have influences in different ways.
“We must change even if change means having to rethink the compromises we have made with history by force of events, by force of diasporization,” Kotchikian said. “We must not, we can no longer afford to allow the genocide and diasporization to dictate our thinking and agenda. We must rethink not only for the sake of Armenia but also for a healthy diaspora.”
Dr. Bedross Der Matossian, a professor at the University of Nebraska, then explained why the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem is under threat. Armenians have had a presence there since 400 CE, and although they never exceeded 5,000, Armenians now barely number 500.
Der Matossian talked about the difficulty in finding housing (even though there are many vacancies) and how buildings cannot be easily modified since they are old and interconnected. Space is very limited and there are strict regulations of building vertical. Possessing citizenship is not enough, it seems, as people are imprisoned for being citizens of certain sections of Jerusalem or for not providing proper identification. Armenian businesses used to have a great presence in the city with nearly 70 shops. Over time, they sold their shops, and there are now only a handful left. The education system also lacks accreditation and has little weight in Israel because the standardized tests follow a British system. Moreover, the leadership of the Armenian Quarter, the Patriarchate, lacks vision in to the future.
If issues like these existed in the U.S. there would be activists lining the streets, but there is little activism in the Armenian Quarter. It is just beginning and social networks like Facebook are spreading the word. A Facebook group known as SAVE the ArQ (www.Savethearq.org) is dedicated to saving the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem. Here you can find current news, educational material, and what you can do to help preserve the Quarter.
Following the impressive program organized by the ARS, guests ate at a nearby Iranian restaurant and later joined the ARF Chicago “Kristapor” Gomideh at a reception following an event with ARF Bureau members Hagop Der Khachadourian and Mgrditch Mgrditchian.
The ARS is planning on holding its 4th annual Youth Connect Program in the New York area around the same time next year. It is open for Armenian students aged 18 to 24. See you there!