Young Armenian Professionals Take Windy City by Storm at Sold-Out AGBU Focus 2009


Focus guests cruise the Chicago River for an architectural tour of the city.

Focus guests cruise the Chicago River for an architectural tour of the city.

CHICAGO — AGBU Focus celebrated its fifth biennial affair with 400 participants from 16 countries and dozens of American cities here July 16-19. The four-day event took place around the Westin Michigan Avenue Hotel, which is situated in the city’s downtown, footsteps away from Oak Street Beach on Lake Michigan.

Networking, cultural and social activities throughout the weekend exposed guests to Chicago’s unique history and present happenings. In addition, through the pre-event efforts of the Focus Organizing Committee, the AGBU program raised over $35,000 for the AGBU Hye Geen Pregnant Women’s Project in Armenia.

First initiated in 2001, Focus was created not only to bring together young Armenian professionals to share their international perspectives on a variety of important issues, but to showcase contributions and achievements made by AGBU’s programs.

“While Focus is a great reunion of friends old and new, packed with both cultural and social activities, it is also a time for our generation to give back,” said Arda Berberian who, along with Aline Markarian, co-chaired the weekend.

Every two years, Focus highlights a specific AGBU program and educates its attendees about the true spirit, generosity and diversity of the organization’s work throughout the world.

“As young professionals, it was quite evident at Focus that we are prepared and eager to continue AGBU’s mission into the next generation,” said Markarian. “This year, we chose to honor the Hye Geen Pregnant Women’s Project in Armenia and are so grateful to all the individuals who supported our efforts and donated over $35,000 for this amazing cause.”

AGBU Hye Geen is a Los Angeles-based volunteer committee that works to honor the achievements of Armenian women and provides a forum for them throughout the world. Their Pregnant Women’s Project looks to help the next generation in Armenia as a response to the country’s high infant mortality rate, lack of nutrition and shortage of resources for potential mothers. The first Pregnant Women’s Center opened its doors in Gumri in 2002, followed by the establishment of a second location in Vanadzor in 2004. This year, through funds raised by Focus, there are plans to reallocate resources from the first center to a new location in Talin, where there are many poor and underserved villages.

The Hye Geen Project helped establish community-based health resource centers that provide critical prenatal care to pregnant women who often suffer from malnutrition, lack the funds for proper medical care and have limited access to accurate health information. To date, over 700 healthy babies have been born to the mothers who have attended centers sponsored by AGBU Hye Geen.

Exchanging Perspectives, Defining AGBU YP Generation

For this year’s festivities, guests flew to Chicago from Argentina, Armenia, Canada, France, Israel, Italy, Lebanon, Mexico, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, Uruguay and over 20 US states. The schedule of events included: Thursday night’s Perspectives, a networking forum featuring a panel discussion; Friday’s Club Night at a private club in the heart of downtown Chicago; Saturday afternoon’s Focus on Art with an architectural boat cruise; a closing Sunday brunch and Saturday evening’s gala at the newly-opened Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Thursday’s Perspectives has become the traditional kick-off event of Focus, bringing guests together to network and discuss a specific current issue facing a generation of young Armenian professionals. This year’s panel took place at the River East Art Center, which houses many of the city’s art galleries. The evening’s discussion centered around the legacy Armenian young professionals want to leave as Armenians to the next generation and how the Armenian community can engage them to take part and make a difference. The dialogue was moderated by ABC News Dubai Correspondent/Digital Reporter Lara Setrakian, who was joined by three guest speakers: Harry Onnig Madanyan from Chicago, Ignacio Balassanian from Buenos Aires and Valentina Poghosyan from London.

“Perspectives 2009 was a timely and important discourse on the community our generation wants to leave behind,” Setrakian reflected. “Valentina emphasized Armenian culture and history in the home, as our community sees more families of mixed cultural backgrounds. Harry encouraged building more ‘touch points’ between members of the diaspora and community structures — opportunities to engage and participate at different stages of life. And Ignacio pointed out the need to leverage both social networking and face time as members of our generation connect in person and online.”

In addition to insight from Setrakian and the panelists, Perspective featured a discussion, which included a great amount of participation from audience members who contributed their ideas on issues like the importance of language on cultural sustainability, the Genocide and its role in our consciousness, and how to live an Armenian life in the 21st century. A speaker from France even described his generation’s legacy as “a new pipeline” and the need to re-engineer the way his peers engage each other and cross traditional community barriers.

The discussion was followed by a reception.

Following Perspectives, Friday’s Club Night at Griffin Lounge gave guests access to a private and exclusive venue to socialize and dance until late in the evening.

Beyond the official Focus activities, the weekend was also the setting for the AGBU Young Professionals (YP) Biennial Assembly. Twenty-five YPs representing the leadership of a dozen YP groups and partner organizations from seven countries (Argentina, Armenia, Canada, France, Russia the United Arab Emirates and the United States) convened Friday morning to engage in cross cooperation and collaboration with the end purpose in mind of strengthening and advancing the worldwide AGBU YP Network.

Co-facilitated by YP Liaison Kim Yacoubian and YP Northern California Member Alison Ekizian, YP representatives, several meeting for the first time, participated in an open exchange on partnership opportunities and best practices, with a special presentation made by AGBU YP Yerevan Chairman Harutyun Poghosyan on available projects in Armenia. “Representing the largest and most diverse attendance for an AGBU YP meeting ever with a clear focus on international cooperation,” said Yacoubian, “this year’s assembly is testament to the accelerated growth and popularity of the YP Network, and the dedication of the young
Armenians belonging to it who are committed to working together as a cohesive whole to give back to the community at large to preserve our time-honored identity and heritage.”

Cruising for Art and Celebrating an Achievement

After a successful debut during Focus Montreal in 2003, the fourth Focus on Art event took place on Saturday afternoon with an architectural boat cruise on the Chicago River. Guests marveled at Chicago’s soaring towers during a tour guide-led discovery of the city and its architectural treasures.

“As a lifelong Chicagoan, I was happy to hear the participants’ reaction to the cruise event and the weekend overall. They saw our architecture, our treasures, enjoyed the food and culture and made new friends at the same time,” said Houri Gueyikian, the local member of the Focus 2009
committee.

The highlight of the weekend was the gala, held at the newly-opened Modern Wing of Chicago’s Art Institute. Beginning with cocktails in the Museum’s Grand Staircase, guests walked through the Alsdorf gallery of South East Asian Art before being welcomed into the soaring modern wing for a multimedia presentation on the Hye Geen Pregnant Women’s Centers and an evening with the Kevork Artinian Melody Band, which played a selection of Armenian and international music.

The evening’s master of ceremonies was Steve Odabashian from Philadelphia, who introduced Berberian and Markarian.

“This year we invaded the Windy City and have had the pleasure of taking in so many of its cultural attributes,” said Berberian. “Tonight, we sit amongst the artwork of one of the most well-known art institutions in the world, while supporting an AGBU program. I hope you will take a moment to take it all in.”
The co-chairs’ enthusiasm for Hye Geen was also amplified by a video presentation illustrating the stories and faces behind the centers.

“The efforts by the Los Angeles-based AGBU Hye Geen Committee are exemplary and we stand here today to applaud their achievements,” said Markarian. “They saw a desperate situation and sought action. I am proud to announce that the opening of a new Pregnant Women’s Center in Talin, Armenia has been made possible by our generous donors of this year’s Focus campaign.”

Dr. Lucy Tovmasian from New Jersey was then invited to the podium to speak about the importance of the Hye Geen program from her professional understanding of its objectives and success.

“As a doctor, sometimes progress is best evaluated in numbers,” Tovmasian said. “In 2001, Armenia’s infant mortality rate was an unfortunate 41 out of 1,000 births. In 2008, this rate greatly improved and, according to the CIA World Factbook, the infant mortality was stated to be less than 21 out of 1000 births.”
Tovmasian also quoted Hye Geen Chair Sona Yacoubian, who said: “What we do through this project is keep two people healthy: the mother and her newborn child. This way, mothers will be far less likely to abandon their children and both will remain healthy. Just consider how strong this will make the future generations of our nation.”

Bonds of Friendship

On the final morning of a great weekend, guests came together for the last time for a Sunday brunch on the 16th floor of the Westin Hotel. The camaraderie of Focus certainly echoed throughout the room amidst the continual goodbyes with excitement and eagerness to reunite again soon and stay active in AGBU.

“The weekend was nothing short of fantastic,” said first-time guest Alex Grigorians from Los Angeles. “This was my first AGBU Focus and my only regret is that I missed out on New York, Montreal and Miami. It provides a great setting to connect and reconnect with young Armenian professionals.”

“All I can say is that Focus exceeded all my expectations,” said Ohanes Sangochian from Mexico. “I am eager to keep in touch with great Armenians from so many places worldwide. It would be amazing to do events like this more often to reinforce our Armenian heritage and friendships.”

Like previous Focus events, Chicago 2009 helped unite Armenian young professionals from around the world to nurture friendships and strengthen their connection to AGBU, leaving a lasting impression on their lives. Participants gain a better understanding of the world’s largest Armenian nonprofit organization’s mission to preserve and promote the Armenian identity and heritage.

“Focus 2009 used the same ingredients of success of the past four events uniting and providing a sense of pride to all young Armenian professionals around the world who participated,” said Arnaud Attamian from London, who has attended every Focus event since the first one was organized in New York in 2001. “Focus is now a pillar of AGBU’s youth programs by not only cementing friendship for longtime supporters, but also adding new people with refreshing ideas to this powerful network.”

To date, pre-event fundraising efforts for all five Focus events have raised close to $200,000 for AGBU programs, including the three AGBU-funded Children’s Centers in Armenia, the American University of Armenia’s Digital Library, the New York Summer Intern Program, the Generation Next Mentorship Program of Southern California, Camp Nubar in upstate New York, the organization’s Scholarship Program and now the Hye Geen Pregnant Women’s Centers.

The group of tireless Focus committee volunteers who worked diligently behind the scenes for months leading up to a flawless weekend included: Co-Chairpersons Arda Berberian and Aline Markarian and committee members Natalie Gabrelian, Houri Gueyikian, Jenna Ishkanian, Talia Jebejian, Vadim Krisyan, Ani Manoukian, Salpi Mekhjian, Sevana Melikian and Monique Svazlian.