Yesterday, April 26, 2015, I had the privilege of speaking in Times Square for the 100th Armenian Genocide Commemoration – a call to remember the 1.5 million Armenians massacred by Ottoman Turkey seeking to ethnically cleanse its country (a good portion of which used to be ancient Armenia).
Among writers and scholars far more qualified than I to speak on the subject, I was honored to be there because of service, because I currently chair a national Armenian women’s organization dedicated to serving our people around the world.
Sometimes when we serve, we go on unexpected journeys, learning unexpected lessons and benefiting from unexpected opportunities. Yesterday’s was the largest crowd I had ever given a speech to, and perhaps ignorance is bliss: I later learned that there were 15,000 people in the crowd, which might have been a knee-freezer had I known earlier!
Below are excerpts of two speeches I gave over the weekend to commemorate this special part of my cultural history and identity- the first text and video section are from Times Square; the second section is from a commemoration in New Jersey on April 24, the actual day of remembrance observed each year.
In both cases, I felt my family’s presence – both my living relatives and my long-gone ancestors – closer to me than ever. I felt they were carrying me, with God’s strength, giving me the words to say. And I’d like to think that perhaps they heard me.
Speech at Times Square, NYC
(video of speech here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2WzCpJ5_5rs&spfreload=10)
Today, all of our voices here join with the voices of our beloved ancestors in the heavens.
Today, we sing a new song.
Today, our voice is being heard around the world.
Today, we speak with one voice — the voice of victory.
Our 1.5 million martyrs are now saints
Our unknown country is now known
Our forgotten history is now remembered
Our anonymity is gone
People are finally listening to the truth instead of Turkish lies.
And we have a powerful identity and mission that no one can take away.
Remember Three things today:
ONE. Be the Voice of Truth in your community– take every opportunity to tell your story, your ancestors’ story, and listen to the stories of others.
TWO. Be the Voice of Faith in your daily life – like our ancestors, remember our God and our heritage set us apart with a courage and strength the world can never give,
THREE. Be the Voice of Victory – in this monumental year show that Turkey & the genocide failed: start something new for our Armenian people around the world – thrive in all your spheres of life – even start a new dialogue with a Turkish person who has an open mind and heart – mentor an Armenian student – do all you possibly can.
In this unforgettable moment and beyond, live right as the voice of truth, carry on as the voice of faith, and keep speaking and singing with one voice — the Voice of Victory.
We are that voice of victory today. Thank you.
Speech at Hackensack Courthouse, New Jersey
Thank you for the opportunity to speak and to celebrate among you our shared victory.
After the Armenian Genocide scattered our people all over the world in 1915, only a miracle could bring them back together here and now 100 years later, among their descendants. And we still do come together, always, to rebuild and renew.
Even today – for me to stand here before you is a joyous miracle. My father’s family came to New Jersey 100 years ago. His grandparents lived in Union City on Central Avenue and ran a restaurant across from a silk factory in Paterson. His parents raised him on 87th street in North Bergen. My mother and uncle came in the 1950s, settling on 27th Street near Holy Cross Church and their siblings and mother years later on Monitor Place in West New York. Our roots run deep here. Members of both sides of my family have lived here for generations, and many are here today – my aunts and uncles and cousins from Paramus, Wall, Oradell and even more are watching us from above.
My great grandparents who lived in this great state 100 years ago, singing Anoush Karoun in their living room on Sundays, probably never would have guessed that decades later their great great granddaughters would be sitting in the audience today and that their great granddaughter would be standing on the steps of the county courthouse, speaking about our people, celebrating our heritage and embracing the journey forward into our next 100 years.
In the presence of all of you kindred spirits, Armenians and honorary Armenians of all backgrounds, I see more than ever how the generations are forever intertwined, influencing each other, and how our shared stories, and the truth of our history, binds us together.
As I look upon you, I see a glorious journey in process, where we each have a stretch of road we call our own, carrying the baton from those before us and one day passing it on. As I look upon you, I see all the generations that came before you and those that will come after. All the shoulders we have stood on, and those that the youth will stand on in years to come. As I look upon you, I see a supremely grand staircase, the early and widest steps being those of our ancestors, laying the wide and gracious foundation for us with their sacrifice. As the steps get higher and slightly narrower, I see our stretch of staircase, yours and mine, the steps we are to take to make things just a bit easier and truer for those who follow us. And as I look ahead and higher up the staircase, I see the smaller but higher steps that I will never take, that our children and grandchildren and great grandchildren will take for us and will do us proud as they get ever closer to the goals of our people’s redemption and renewal and eternal destiny.
In this milestone year, and this beautiful moment today, our shared history, our shared journey,make our purpose clearer than ever.
We must Build. Our people’s next 100 years.
Build What? And How?
- Build character. By remembering where we came from and helping our children do the same. Embracing our heritage and faith. Understanding our past. Build character.
- Build relationships. By speaking the truth with love. By not letting factions destroy us. By embracing our families and churches. Build relationships.
- Build leaders. By putting our values to action in service. In all sectors. Working for our people’s future. Being an example. Build leaders.
The great architect Frank Lloyd Wright said, The space within becomes the reality of the building.
So when we build character, build relationships and build leaders, what will we yield?
- Deeper, stronger spirits and hearts to handle anything
- Closer families and communities
- More effective and influential organizations to accomplish what our people need here and worldwide.
How did our ancestors show these traits?
-They upheld character by embracing their faith and heritage
-They upheld relationships by devoting themselves to their families
-They showed leadership by sacrificing themselves for their principles and for their people; something we are still honoring 100 years later.
They are the perfect example of what it means to build. They didn’t establish scholarships – they gave their blood and souls to their children. They didn’t chair committees perhaps, but they served and served and served. They didn’t win awards or give speeches, but they loved their families with all they had and prayed to God with all they had.
Not that those things are bad. But our ancestors focused most on what mattered most.
They built on the foundation of our forefathers, of St. Gregory the Illuminator, whose foundational belief helped establish Armenia as the first Christian nation on this earth. They built on the foundation of those who came before them. They built the foundation on which we now stand. We would not be here without their devotion.
We Armenians are builders! We build churches around the world, we build homes here and in Armenia, we build farms and we build schools, we build businesses, we build nations, we build lives – we build minds and hearts with passion — to build is a sign of life!
And in fact the old English root of the world build is similar to the word dwell. We live in what we build – it becomes part of us.
And the word build also implies in its roots that the process is gradual, we are always working on it, always building and rebuilding, doing and re-doing.
The opposite of building is tearing down, which is exactly what our detractors have been trying to do for 100 years. But they failed. The house built on sand and lies cannot stand forever. They are incapable of creating anything of lasting value, only try to destroy the great work and spirit of others.
But no matter what the naysayers try, we Armenians will keep building the spiritual, cultural, educational and social dwelling places for our people to exist, expand and thrive in, in the decades to come. The quality of our lives personally and our work collectively as a people, will be the greatest sign that Turkey failed, that the genocide did not destroy us.
And we don’t need to wait for barbarians to legitimize our history, our truth. We already know the truth and it has already set us free. It has already made our martyrs saints as of a few hours ago. They have already been enjoying a crown of glory for 100 years but now the church has made it official. They have the ultimate victory, now and forever. What better reality for us to build on. To build character, build relationships and build leaders for our people’s next 100 years
As the verse says: ‘THE STONE WHICH THE BUILDERS REJECTED, BECAME THE CHIEF CORNERSTONE; THIS CAME ABOUT FROM THE LORD, AND IT IS MARVELOUS IN OUR EYES.’