By Hagop Vartivarian
Without a doubt, the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) has been a gift of providence for Armenians throughout the past 110 years. It has achieved preeminence over the course of time as a philanthropic organization, and it impartially served the myriad of needs of our people, humanitarian, educational, cultural and youth-oriented.
The AGBU kept pace with the daily life of our people and its homeland over time. Though born simply as a philanthropic organization in the diaspora, it quickly expanded the scope of its mission, especially after the Armenian Genocide, in order to meet the limitless needs of Armenians in exile by opening orphanages, maternity hospitals, schools, poorhouses and dispensaries in nearly all our newly established communities.
Its chief concern remained providing an Armenian upbringing to the new generation. It opened the Melkonian Educational Institute, where our public figures who would lead Armenian life were formed. On this model, the Union opened in nearly every community its schools, which not only became the furnaces of formation of Armenian culture, but also brought good things to the Armenian nation in general. The educational and Armenian patriotic level of these schools turned into synonyms of success and accomplishment.
Simultaneously, it opened gathering places, clubs, for these youth who graduated these schools or were in various fields of work. There in an Armenian environment our healthy and idealist youth matured.
Moreover, with the Sovietization of Armenia, the AGBU for 70 years kept alive that spirit of wholesome patriotism in the new generation, and in the masses, so that they would love the homeland and be proud of its scientific, cultural, educational, and, during the days of World War II, military exploits. It encouraged the repatriation of Armenians to Soviet Armenia. It provided its financial support in the initial stage to construction efforts, and later, to repatriation. It informed the Armenians of the diaspora of the cultural ascendance of our homeland, now already at peace and with secure borders.
It always remained a believer in the unshakeable and universal supremacy of the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin. It believed in the noble principle of the unity of the Church of Armenia. It exhorted the diasporan Armenian during all the years of the Cold War to be closer to his homeland and Holy Echmiadzin. These would remain constant beacons of hope, insuring that Armenians would remain connected to their people and heritage.
Stepping toward the 21st Century
At the end of the last century, the AGBU was confronted with new challenges. First, the great earthquake…and the Union reached out to our suffering people in the disaster zone with all possible financial and human resources, including through foreign humanitarian organizations with which it was in contact. It became the advocate of that noble task, and served as an example to other organizations sharing the same ideology. They collaborated in sending large scale aid.
The AGBU welcomed the birth of the third Republic of Armenia, and rallied all its resources to help assure the prosperity of the homeland and the restoration of Armenian statehood, just as it had assisted Soviet Armenia in the past. It opened new possibilities for the new generations in Armenia in economic, educational, social and cultural spheres on the global level. It was important that the youth of Armenia understand the accomplishments of other great states besides Russia, including their political and financial situations, relations, cultures and languages. The AGBU opened the American university and assisted the French university in Armenia. Our new generation began to achieve in a different manner with different standards. The use of computers and the internet dictated by the modern world quickly also became a part of the daily life of Armenian youth.
The Union continued to show its unreserved love for the Mother See, securing it new benefactors and friends, and turning Echmiadzin into the Armenian Vatican. It fostered a high level of education so that henceforth worthy clerics would enter service and lead our diasporan and homeland dioceses. New publications, museums, and libraries turned the cathedral into a font of light.
Together with all this, the Union continued its initial mission in the Armenian diaspora. It encouraged our professional youth to join the AGBU and Armenian community life. Unfortunately, our traditional communities, having lost the attractiveness and capacity which they enjoyed in the past, became fragmented and their residents scattered to new shores. Meanwhile new communities were created in various parts of the former Soviet republics. Unfortunately, numerous Armenians also left Armenia to seek their fate in various countries, forming new communities, especially in Europe. These were the new challenges the AGBU faced.
After the Genocide Centennial, the AGBU Prepares New Programs
In February of this year, the AGBU Central Board presented to Armenians a bold reformulation of its national mission under the name “Advancement and Prosperity.” Of course it will take time to be completely developed, but it is clear that new programs will be added to its traditional ones, especially in Armenia.
The participation of the well-known Russian-Armenian philanthropist Ruben Vardanyan will play a distinctive role in this. For the first time in the history of the AGBU, an Armenian living in the homeland will be a part of this supremely Western Armenian organization.
As a member of the Supreme Spiritual Council, Vartanian has already made the Mother See a subject of his great esteem and support. By joining the AGBU, he will bring his participation now to the work of our great Union. His benevolence already reaches Armenian schools and education.
The present leadership of the AGBU plans to revitalize the traditional structures of the Armenian diaspora, to expanding its mission among professional circles, and to secure new sources of funding in order to be able to confront new challenges.
There are, in addition to the president, Berge Setrakian, important idealist forces in the AGBU Central Board, including Sam Simonian, Vasken Yacoubian, Sarkis Jebejian, Nazareth Festekjian, Dr. Levon Nazarian, Ani Manoukian and Noubar Afeyan, who while preserving the glorious traditions of the Union will try through new programs to reach our new generations. We are confident that our over 1,600-year-old Armenian alphabet and our even older language will again enjoy a place of primacy in these programs. After all, other ancient peoples who have traversed history with us concluded after a 2,000-year experience of diaspora that the uniqueness of a people is preserved through the use of a language which becomes the chief guarantee of the preservation of that people.
We are happy to see the presence of a successful new generation in the supreme body of the AGBU, which is a guarantee of the success of the new mission of the Union.
(Translated from the Armenian)