NEW YORK — The stage was set for a grand celebration, as the Armenia Fund USA 20th Anniversary Gala commenced on Saturday, September 29 at Manhattan’s Gotham Hall. Located at the intersection of old world substance and digital-age functionality, the space proved worthy of the A-list participants.
On a clear night illuminated by a Harvest Moon, the seeds of celebration, planted over one year ago, came to fruition.
By 7:30 p.m., the cocktails were flowing freely in the Oak Room, a mezzanine encased in rich wood paneling and overlooking the Grand Ballroom. Once the festivities moved downstairs, the official program began in earnest with mezzo-soprano Solange Merdinian singing the American and Armenian national anthems.
As gala host, attorney Mark Geragos offered warm words of welcome. True to form, his breezy charm did not disappoint. Keynote Speaker Eduard Nalbandian, Armenia’s foreign minister, brought an appropriate level of gravi- tas to the tribute, while French-Armenian entertainer Patrick Fiori, in his US premiere, electrified the room.
A recurring theme throughout the evening was how the nation-building mission of Armenia Fund USA transcended divisions and cut across generations. The 300 guests in attendance attested to this fact, as they came from all community and institutional affiliations.
As Geragos observed in his opening remarks, “It doesn’t matter if you are from the Prelacy or Diocese, the AGBU or Assembly, or any other organization. You can check all that at the door,” he proclaimed.
In a letter of congratulations from New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Armenia Fund USA was again cited as a unifying force on the community level. “The Fund’s efforts have also benefited Armenian Americans, especially those across the five boroughs, and have united these individuals in a common purpose,” the letter stated.
A congratulatory statement from Serge Sargisian, the president of Armenia and the chairman of the Board of Trustees of the All- Armenian Fund, took the unity theme to the Hirair Hovnanian at the event next order of magnitude — the relationship between diaspora and homeland, and “the common dream of living in a prosperous and powerful motherland.” In turn, the message from President of the Republic of Karabagh Bako Sahakyan characterized it as the “trinity of Armenia-Artsakh-Diaspora.”
Frank Lautenberg, US Senator of New Jersey, sent a statement attesting to the unity that Armenia Fund USA is now enjoying with the international development community at large. He properly commended the Fund for its “focus on rural communities” which “further strengthens Armenia’s population.”
Armenia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Garen Nazarian also noted the fund’s growing relationship with the global community by announcing that, “as part of its broader efforts to engage international agencies in eradicating global poverty, Armenia Fund has entered into a partnership with UN entities, including United Nations Development Program and United Nations Children’s Fund, which is beginning a promising cooperation in effectively targeting rural development.”
Unity also extended to the religious realm, with the presence of Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Armenian Diocese (Eastern), performing the invocation, and Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan, Prelate of the Armenian Apostolic Church of North America, delivering the benediction.
The event was largely underwritten by The Hirair and Anna Hovnanian Foundation, in addition to co-sponsors from the local business community, including: Acopian Power Supplies; Brach Eichler, LLC; Cullari, Carrico, Soojian, Bruke, LLC; Estreich & Company, Inc.; Harvest Song; Michael Aram; The Tiger Buying Group; Toufayan Bakeries, Worldwide Express and anonymous.
As honorary chairs of the gala steering committee, Ambassador Tatoul and Anna Markarian and Ambassador Garen and Nana Nazarian did their part to widen the circle of distinguished guests, while Gala Committee Chairperson Vesna Markarian and committee members Kristine Toufayan Casali, Alex Karapetian, Aline Markarian and Lorig Setrakian mobilized the large presence of young professionals.
Speaking of funding, Mark Geragos, who is a member of the All- Armenian Fund board of trustees, assured donors that their contributions are appropriately distributed. “To those who ask, ‘well is the money going to get there?’ I can tell you that I have been there repeatedly and I’ve looked at the projects. I can tell you that we’ve got an outside accounting firm that goes and actually does the construction quality. And I can tell you that the money is used and benefits the Armenians who are there,” he declared, adding that, unlike most organizations, only eight per- cent of the funds raised go to administrative costs.
When Armenia Fund USA Chairman Khoren Bandazian stepped up to the podium, he took a few moments to describe the original vision behind the founding of the Hayastan All Armenian Fund. It was “a global effort to channel diasporan resources into Armenia in a strate- gic manner. And given the strength of the Armenian community in the United States, the leaders in Armenia looked to us.”
Then Bandazian pointed out how all the activities of Armenia Fund over the last 20 years mirrored that of Armenia. “When it became apparent that Armenia needed a lifeline to connect to its brothers and sisters in Karabagh, they called Armenia Fund; and we built the Goris- Stepanakert Highway. When Karabagh needed an artery to traverse its mountainous landscape, they called Armenia Fund; and we built the North-South Highway, the ‘backbone of Artsakh.’ When new healthcare facilities were required in Karabagh, they called Armenia Fund. When Agriculture development became paramount, they called Armenia Fund. They tell us what they need and we respond in kind,” he concluded.
Bandazian recognized the invaluable contributions of his predecessors, former chairmen Berj Setrakian, Hagop Kouyoumdjian, Kevork Toroyan and Raffi Festekjian and acknowledged Hirair Hovnanian, Louise Simone Manoogian, George Pagoumian, Sarkis Acopian and “countless others” who had gone above and beyond the call.
It was Irina Lazarian, the affiliate’s executive director, who emerged as hero for her management of the many moving parts an extravaganza celebration like this one entails. Bandazian thanked her “both personally and on behalf of the board of directors” for her “tireless commitment, hard work and dedication over the many years.”
Reducing two decades of achievement down to its simplest terms is no easy feat. Yet the anniversary organizers managed to effectively define the core mission in the simple but powerful slogan, “Building A Homeland Built to Last.” These words really hit home, however, in the short film presented midway in the program.
In a refreshing departure from commemorative videos of the past, this high-quality production featured an ensemble of professional actors and an inventive, fast-paced interplay of imagery and space.
Alex Kalognomos, Anne Bedian, Armen Armirkhanian, Inga Stamboltyan, Marty Papazian and Silvy Kas, all up and coming American-Armenians working in the film industry, had volunteered their time and talent to explain why and how the affiliate was established and expound on its four key initiatives vital to national rebirth, namely infrastructure, education, community life and healthcare delivery. Directed by Roger Kupelian, written by Kathryn Manuelian, produced by Sona Stamboltsyan, with cinematography and editing by Garen Mirzoian plus original music by Greg Hosharian, the film was well received. It can now be viewed online via the Armenia Fund USA website.
Markarian reminded the audience how, during its first campaign for winter relief back in 1992, Armenia Fund USA managed to raise $21 million in just one week. He quoted from an article published in the well-respected British magazine The Economist, which said that, “The international community needs not to object strongly but rather help to safely reopen the nuclear power station in Armenia, because Armenians, if able to collect 21 million in one week, will do it on their own.”
Nalbandian centered his keynote speech on the true meaning of homeland, both internally and externally. He explained that the word Armenia itself literally means “Home of the Armenians” and “That Home has passed through the tests of centuries. Sometimes it was taken away from us. But today we are the owners of that Home.”
He developed the metaphor further, positing that, “I often say that, founding their own homes in different parts of the world, Armenians established thousands of little Armenias…. But today, the common home of the Armenian people is called Armenia. Many peoples and nations have…failed to keep their house, so that they do not have such home today. But we have.”
Nalbandian also addressed some sensitive issues, commenting that “regardless of how the Armenians live in different parts of the world,” he said, “in a modest hut or luxurious mansion, foreigners judge us by the resistance, beauty and safety of the house called Armenia. Today foreigners follow how Armenians have built their home. Most of them are friends, but there are also those who want harm. They are not many. I do not think they are more than two,” he said, clearly referring to Azerbaijan and Turkey.
A European Super Star
No sooner did Fiori take the stage, than the audience members realized they were in the presence of pop royalty. He opened with an unexpected detour to another time and place with a mesmerizing rendition of Les Montagnes D’Armenia. He then followed with a series of poignant love ballads like Si Tu Revenais and Je Ne Serai Jamais. When it came to Belle, the signature song from his days in the French musical “Notre Dame de Paris,” Fiori stepped down into the audience and serenaded a glowing Lucie Bandazian seated next to her husband Khoren — the mastermind behind Fiori’s benefit perfor- mance that night.
The enchantment continued punctuated with a prelude performed on the duduk by Fiori, followed by Dele Yaman”as an introduction to C’est un pays que je ne connais pas (“It’s a country that I do not know”).
By pouring his heart and soul into each and every number, Fiori made a visceral, palpable connection with the audience.
Fiori explained why he felt compelled to come. “I had performed in Armenia several times and, each time I returned, I would notice how much progress had been made because of organizations like Armenia Fund.”
At various pauses in the program, Geragos, who will be hosting the Armenia Fund Thanksgiving Day Telethon for the 10th year and personally sponsored a table at the event, encouraged the guests to “put their own imprint on the future of the homeland” by sponsoring an Armenia Fund project.
He turned their attention to the commemorative booklet, which included a catalog of naming opportunity projects in both Karabagh and Armenia. Giving levels start as low as $1,000 to fund pre-hospital equipment for one ambulance and go up to $350,000 for a complete water delivery system for one village in Karabagh.
By evening’s close, Geragos happily reported that several pledges had already been made, with more on the way. Levon S. and Laura Ariyan pledged $2,500 to fund an art classroom at the Abovian School in Shushi, while Victor Zarougian and his wife, Judith Saryan, decided to fund a new computer center at Mardakert’s Vaghuhas School at the $10,000 level.
To learn more about the 20th Anniversary Gala and view the gallery of photos and video clips, go to www.armeniafundusa.org.