March to Protect History

Today, Armenians commemorate those who lost their lives during the Genocide on April 24, the day in 1915 when several hundred Armenian intellectuals and professionals were arrested and executed as the start of the genocide. This was the prelude to the large-scale extermination of the Armenians in which 1.5 million Armenians died.

For Armenians throughout the world, this April 24 especially, will mark not only the continued determination of a people to seek retribution for injustices and atrocities intentionally inflicted by the Turks to eliminate the Armenians, but it will mark the civil awakening of a nation that smoothly, systematically proved yesterday that strength lies in solidarity. Disciplined and resolute, with unwavering determination and persistence, the people asked for change in the Republic of Armenia, and their voices were heard after 11 days of massive protests culminating in the resignation of Serge Sarkisian, Prime Minister. Armenia taught a lesson to many in the world…to democracies, hybrid regimes, and authoritarian states alike…. that a Peaceful Revolution, a Velvet Revolution, is powerful. The presence of tens of thousands of broad based support from different layers of society (truck drivers, shop keepers, farmers, educators, artists, physicians, the middle class, the richer, the poorer, the young, the old, etc.) proved the integrity and passion of the people of the Republic of Armenia and the Diaspora whose unified voices demanded a leadership in government that could be trusted to listen to the people.

With change comes further sacrifice. The road is long. There are many serious challenges– from socio economic to the regional challenges of peace deals with neighbors; from human rights violations that translate politics into policy; from corruption to transparency and trust in communication, to name a few. However, I have full confidence in the Armenian citizens and especially in the youth. They understand their moral obligation to speak out against the hierarchy status of power. They are educated and have the knowledge to methodically, step by step, build the institutions that will better serve the country and the Armenian people.

Yesterday, history was made. Today, we protect history. We march in thousands as one river of humanity, to speak out against the denialist mentality of the Turkish government and all governments who use their status of power to distort the truth of our history.   It is our moral obligation to speak out to honor the martyred ancestors of our history, and to advocate “Genocide, Never Again.” Together, as one, on this National Day of Remembrance of Man’s Inhumanity to Man,  we march for world recognition of  the Armenian Genocide. We march to protect our history.

 

 

 

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Genocide…Never Again Failed

In March 2018, the Center for the Prevention of Genocide published a report that “Every day, Syrian men, women, and children are falling victim to the constant bombardment of their neighborhoods, schools, markets, and hospitals.” We read about it. We hear snippets of it in the news in between reports centered on the increasing abuse of power of our politicians toward the American people. We call these attacks genocide. (March 2016 Secretary of State John Kerry called these attacks genocide against Yazidis, Christians and other minorities in the region.) Syrians are being subjected to starvation, exposure, diseases, and lack of medical care; to enforced disappearances; to chemical weapons attacks—which are banned under international law—and to torture, rape, and killings. Half the country’s pre-war population (11 Million) have been killed or forced to leave their homes. The number of Syrian refugees is rapidly rising at over 5.5 million, and another 6.1 million are internally displaced.

Calling these attacks genocide is meaningless because this great nation, the United States of America, has failed to heed the lessons of the tragic history of the first genocide of the 20th century. I repeat what the Armenians have been saying for over one hundred years when the first genocide of the century occurred at the hands of Ottoman Turkey and which, to this day, has not been recognized as mass murder in genocide but which continues to be ignored and evaded—GENOCIDE AND ETHNIC CLEANSING CONTINUE IF THE RESPONSIBLE PERPETRATOR IS NOT HELD FULLY ACCOUNTABLE FOR THE ATROCITIES OF CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY COMMITTED IN THE FIRST GENOCIDE OF THE 20TH CENTURY—THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE. A century after the Armenian Genocide, 7 decades after the Holocaust, and promises of Never Again, the living hell continues…Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Iraq, Burma, South Sudan and so many more…and Syria, a regime targeting its own people while the international community stands by.

From the beginning, Bashar Al Assad’s regime, like his father Hafez before him, directly targets civilians to punish and seek revenge on real or perceived opponents of the government and to secure military assets and regain territory lost to opposition fighters. Their response is with bloody assault. In 1982, unarmed protesters were mowed down by bullets and tank shells. An entire city was killed with reports of chemical attack putting the number at 20,000 while the Syrian Human Rights Watch put the number at 40,000. Still more were detained and tortured. Reports by Syrian Human Rights Committee claimed “over 25,000” or “between 30,000 and 40,000 people were killed.” This month’s exodus of civilians from Syria is a reminder of how the conflict that sparked today’s worst humanitarian catastrophe continues to hit new lows as it enters its eighth year.

Somewhere we have lost ourselves as humans. We, meaning the western “we,” who assume that we are totally separate from other countries and peoples. Somewhere, we have lost our compassion, choosing politics and material over people. It is definitely not what makes our country– a nation of immigrant mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers—great. At a glance we see hundreds of faces of children, of families. The faces have no names to a nation of materialism, mass conveniences and decisions of exclusion. But look at their faces. Their dark stained cheeks where tears have run, the barren stares, the hollow eyes. All are famished, desperate, displaced, devastated, lonely, and frightened. It is an image we’ve seen thousands of times in our history. Their clothing differentiate the dogma but they don’t separate the grief. The loss is universal. Each a picture of death asking for prayer, kindness and compassion. In the name of humanity.

Whether we want to accept it or not, we are part of this system, each one of us. We are all entitled to human rights by the very consequence of being human. If we shrug our shoulders and usurp our own power to make a change, to create even a tiny revolution of our own doing, we follow suit with the international community that has failed to uphold the commitment of “Never Again” made at the end of World War II. (Had it been made and upheld by recognition of the Armenian Genocide, perhaps the course of history would have been brighter.) Should we not rise against such atrocities? Should we not stand up and fight for ourselves and others? When will humanity become so concerned that we band together to put a stop to such injustice?

On April 24, Armenians across the globe will once again band together to march for justice. They will be taking on their shoulders the responsibility of creating a tiny revolution, with a river of humanity for a better world that professes “Never Again.” For the sake of humanity.  It starts with me. It starts with you. Because we are humanity. If we choose to be.

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Fearless Girl

A statue of a “Fearless Girl” faces the “Charging Bull” of Wall Street in New York. She was installed March 8, 2017 in honor of International Women’s Day with an inscription at the base that reads, “Know the power of women in leadership. She makes a difference.” Needless to say, Fearless Girl became an immediate hit, drawing crowds who snapped selfies or stood alongside the bronze child and mimicked her pose: hands on her hips, slight smile on her face, and her skirt and ponytail seeming to blow in the breeze. She stands a little over 4 feet tall. She’s brave, proud and strong. 

“Fearless Girl” was created by the sculptor Kristen Visbal. While the statue became the topic of discussion and stirred controversy by some who wished to have her removed, the push to make the statue permanent began shortly after her installation. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio called the statue a symbol of “standing up to fear, standing up to power, being able to find in yourself the strength to do what’s right.” He announced the decision to extend her stay until the next International Women’s Day, which is in two days. City officials in New York are still deciding what to do after March 8, 2018 when the fate of Fearless Girl will be decided.

If Charging Bull (male) represents optimism and stubbornness and stands as a symbol of American capitalism creating a better America and a better world, it stands to reason that a confident Fearless Girl should take equal part in creating a better nation and a better world. “Fearless Girl” sends a message to the financial industry about gender equality. This girl facing the bull also says to Wall Street that we need more diversification on the boards of companies because there are serious obstacles that confirm the historical imbalance in discrimination and exploitation in leadership roles. For example, it’s common knowledge that female entrepreneurs receive far less funding for their startups than men. What is surprising is just how far behind women really are. In 2017, according to PitchBook, women-led companies received only two percent of the seed money put into the startup economy. In stark contrast, companies run by men received 79 percent of the $85 billion that seed monies invested last year. The gender gap is wide. Female founders receive funding at lower levels than men. PitchBook reported that while the average deal size for companies led by men was $12 million in 2017, for women-led companies, that average was as low as $5 million. How can we talk about equality when companies are not as committed to leveling the playing field to hire or fund equally the number of women in the corporate industry? The earning gap between genders also remains imbalanced and discriminatory with women earning an average of .80 cents for every dollar earned by men in comparable work. Research also shows that men are promoted to leadership positions based on potential while women are judged on their performance. ‘Thinking’ women who talk in meetings are aggressive while men who do so are bold and smart. Gender biases. They still dominate the corporate industry all around the world. Yet there is no situation I can imagine in which women are less in comparison to men.

This year, it is even more imperative that Fearless Girl stand up to the Bull. Her fate comes in the wake of unprecedented global movement for women’s rights, equality and justice. Sexual harassment, violence and discrimination against women has captured headlines and public discourse, impelled by a rising determination for change. This year, the theme for International Women’s Day, “Time is Now: Rural and Urban Activists Transforming Women’s Lives,” is apropos. We need to help forge a better working world; a more inclusive, gender equal world.  We need role models to inspire the next generation of girls – to lead by example, to show them that no career, no future path, is out of their reach. Empowering girls is the only way to protect their rights. And for those women who have made their mark as equals in their field, we need our young people to view them as the norm, not the exception.

The greatest human rights challenge in our world is achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls from every angle. It remains the unfinished business of our time. Fearless Girl is a powerful symbol to women young and old to take on this challenge. Time is now. Empowering women shouldn’t be temporary; “Fearless Girl” must be a permanent sculpture in our minds and in our world.

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Red

Red. It is the color of Love. It is hot, vibrant, and intense. It is exciting and even aggressive. Red is passion, bold, provocative, seductive, sexy. It is also the color of extremes; the core symbol of power and spirituality, of protection and commitment. Our ancestors saw red as the color of fire and blood – energy and primal life forces – and most of red’s symbolism today arises from its powerful associations in the past. In Asia, red is the color of good luck. It is used to denote a rise in stock prices as opposed to Western stock markets where red is used to denote a negative drop in price. Red is also a magical and religious color. It symbolized super-human heroism to the Greeks and is the color of the Christian Pentecost. It symbolizes joy and the fire of the Holy Spirit. In Catholicism, Cardinals wear red symbolizing their willingness to die for their faith, while in Hindu communities, brides wear ceremonious red, and seal their married status with the pinch of red powder sindoor on their forehead. Red. It warns of danger and signals attention, with high visibility reflected in fire trucks and the logos of the Red Cross and Crescent. Red. It is powerful. It is the color of beating hearts that Love. And what can be more powerful than Love? It is the one universal language that speaks across cultural divides.

From our early school days we learned that there are 12 colors on the color wheel. There is a color theory which demonstrates all the different ways these colors (all 12) achieve harmony with one another. They balance each other with their differences in nuances, shades, hues, intensity or pallor. It doesn’t matter whether the colors are side by side or on opposite ends of the color wheel. They are different yet they “marry” each other well. As far as colors are concerned, opposites refine each other, balance each other, soothe each other and play off each other’s intensities. Because maximum contrasts create maximum stability. Why then can we not apply the same theory to our dealings with human relationships? Why don’t we consciously seek people who are different from us, who are opposite us to create that balance and harmony? Instead, we confine ourselves to familiar neighborhoods where people are similar to us, where we shop at the same grocery stores and send our kids to the same schools, attend the same church, listen to the same music, and remain in our comfort zones. We are not interested to be around people who are different from us much less people who are opposite from us. Yet we are taught to Love all humanity.

With all the lessons of love and tolerance and forgiveness we are taught, we must go below the topsoil of loving only those who are like us. The red color of love is a symbol of profound emotion signifying true love which can overcome all obstacles and challenges. What if we make a 100 or 1000 or tens of thousands part identity wheel which shows any and all possible ways in which we can identify ourselves through race, ethnicity, gender, profession, hobbies, religion, interests, political inclination, ideologies, sexuality, and so on? What if we put them all on a human identity wheel (like a color wheel) and then find our opposite…the ones who we don’t understand, the people with whom we have nothing in common, the ones who will be on the other side of the human wheel? What if we spend time with them, be with them, understand them, love them? Because there is truth in the theory that opposites attract and complement each other, therefore they can bring balance into our lives. As different as they are from you or me, they actually refine and stabilize the persons we are. Whether we seek one person in our lives or whether we seek a culture or a people or a nation on the opposite spectrum of the human wheel, it is in how we handle our differences that create the harmonious power of relationships. Just as colors reflect and bounce and harmonize intensities with their reflective light, so too must we reflect our light of love. We must go beneath the topsoil, go so deep that we discover, at last, that self-love and love for one another are one and the same.
Red. It is the color of love. Use it. Abundantly.

(Red is one of three primary colors. Blue and yellow are its primary companions. Blue is the color of sky and seas signifying depth and stability, confidence and balance. Yellow is the color of the sun. The sun shines on everyone. It does not discriminate.)

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Your Roots, Your Backbone

Last week I had the honor of addressing the 2018 Winter Graduates of University of La Verne College of Arts and Sciences. Here is the speech.

Traditionally commencement speeches contain life advice, words of wisdom, ideas on how to be successful, to be happy, to be true, to be good, to be kind, to dream, to follow your passion, to work hard. That should be easy for me to say, because I’m a parent. It’s what we parents do, dispense advise and at no cost. But my daughter, who is a graduate of UCI and my son who is a graduate of ULV and who are both here among you today, immediately stopped me. “Don’t dish out advice Mom. No one wants to hear a commencement speaker telling us what we’ve already heard from our parents for the past 20 some years of our lives. We want out.”
You know what? They’re right. Because 40 years ago, I stood behind a podium and gave the valedictorian address at this same La Verne College and I don’t recall who the commencement speaker was or what was said. I too, wanted out.

So what can I tell you, brilliant beacons of tomorrow? Four words. Yours roots, your backbone. All life lessons that nurture you into recognizing who You are, and what you stand for are a result of the values instilled in you by your roots…your families, families you are born into, families you create and the families you make through your own choosing.

We each come from different backgrounds. I am an Armenian immigrant from Lebanon. But you and I are not very different. Whether your roots are from the Far East, Near East or Middle East, Asia, Europe, Africa, South America, across oceans or the border, or whether you’re born and bred in the US, you are not very different, because you, like me, made a choice to be part of this liberal arts community, to receive an education that prepares you to exercise your true freedom, a freedom that allows you to think and live unchained from dogma. And for some of you and your parents making that choice to live free came with a sacrificial price.

Mine did.

It was 1976 and Civil war was raging in Lebanon. Young men were being forced to join one side or another while others were being kidnapped and brutally murdered. My parents, seeing no end in sight, made the difficult decision to send my younger brother and me out of the country to find our way abroad, to receive a college education…to be free to practice our rights, our human rights, our values. The only exit out of the country was by car. We hired a driver who was to take us to the North and across the border into Syria at the first opportunity of a cease fire. It was dawn, dark and cold when the opportunity arose. There were no long goodbyes, there was no time. We kissed, we hugged and my father whispered “Look forward, Go forward. Don’t look back. Mom and I are looking forward in your direction.” We didn’t look back. We looked forward knowing our parents would be standing in the middle of the street looking in our direction until they couldn’t see us any more, until we turned a corner or became an indiscernible speck in the horizon. Because that’s what parents do. They fixate their eyes on you and follow the horizon of your visions.

Parents. They sacrifice. They build character, they define you and shape you with unspoken universal values which become your roots, your backbone. Hold on to those values, because they will sustain you when this world feels like it’s shifting under your feet. Even with people who you think are not like you, your values will matter, because somewhere, somehow, someone will have been touched by your humanity. We are made up of a kaleidoscope of racial groups with over 155 ethnicities and it doesn’t matter whether you practice Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism or are Agnostic, we all share a common humanity. And In our shared humanity we can touch lives, and strangers can touch ours in return and give us a sense of hope.

That day when we left our home, a few hours into our journey, we were caught in the midst of a barrage of gunfire that erupted between two sects. A frenzied gunman with an AK-47, an automatic rifle, appeared and motioned for us to move to the side of a building. It was do or die. We did. Huddled in the car until what seemed like an eternity for the gunfire to cease, we waited until that same gunman ordered us out of the car to question us. We were at his mercy. He pointed his AK-47 at us, asked for our name. We gave it. Now if any of you know anything about Armenian names, you’ll know that they are immediately recognizable because of the IAN at the end. Katchiguian, Keshishian, Kardashian, all Armenian. He waved the gun at us, “Are you Armenian?” he asked. “Yes,” we nodded. “You know Dr. Minassian?” he asked. As though all Armenians were expected to know one another. Was this one of those trick questions? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t? Do we say yes or do we say no, because Dr. Minassian was our uncle, a pediatrician. We told him. He immediately lowered the rifle and said, “Your uncle, he’s a good Dr. He saved my boy’s life. But he’s a better man. He took no pay. So now, my turn to repay him. I save you. Go.”
We went. And we didn’t look back.

War is unimaginably horrific. Yet, for a few short moments, in a world of conflict, among strangers our shared humanity valued goodness and showed reciprocity across cultural divides. Human values, they matter.

Six months later from that date, I found my niche in the safety of a liberal arts college called La Verne while my brother made it to Canada. It would be quite a few years before I saw my parents again. But we communicated in what is now called snail mail. We wrote letters. Among the letters I kept is one from my mother. She wrote, remember who you are and what you stand for. You are rooted in faith, You are rooted in values. Stay connected. Listen to the voice of your heart’s knowledge; always speak the truth. (Tell me the truth, Are you smoking? Don’t) Always remember your roots, They are your backbone.

With a backbone built on the values of my roots, the first thing I did was, to fall in love. (I don’t think that’s what my mother had in mind when she said follow the voice of your heart’s knowledge.) Listen. If you haven’t yet fallen head over heels in love, at least once, do so. And when you find that someone you can commit to love with a passion, you’re set. Because once you get a taste of that passion, you’ll know how to apply it to everything else in your life. Your work, your vocation, your family, your children, your parents, friends, ideologies. And if it does happen that you get your heart broken, that too, is.ok. That’s the risk you take, in love and in life, and you come right back, well, maybe not right back, but you do come back. Stronger, wiser, more passionate to moving forward.

There will always be a new lesson life has to teach you, if you’re willing to listen. Be conscious. Be aware. Somehow, today in America, we are being led falsely to assume that those who differ from our norms are wrong. That those who come from countries less fortunate are not welcome. Yet it is people from diverse roots who have come here as dreamers who mirror the spirit of tolerance, kinship, and nationalism. People like you and me who celebrate the values, traditions and history of our ancestry while embodying the values of the American way of life. As diverse as we are in race, ethnicity, culture, gender and sexual orientation, we must trust that our differences will not alienate us.

And when all else is pulling you under, remember who you are and what you stand for. Do not lose sight of your heart’s knowledge, because in a world that seems to reward dishonesty, cutting corners, lying, cheating, stealing, bullying, harassing, and all manner of nasty tactics, Graduates of this fine institution that gave you the understanding of how to think, use the values of your roots. Challenge this mindset, question the status quo, demand good answers, be true citizens of humanity. Because Citizenship is not found in a piece of paper. It is found in the integrity of character.

Think about who you are becoming at every corner or road you take. Some of you will choose to seek further studies while others of you may have already mapped your careers. However you choose and whatever professions you choose to invest in, stay connected to the essence of humanity, it will be the source of your personal worth. Your human connections, parents, families, spouses, children, educators, heroes of your lives, friends, are the most important investments you will make. 20, 30, 40 years from now when you beam with pride as you watch your sons and daughters, or grandchildren graduate, you will remember this day and the people who were here for you, the people who you love and the human connections on whose shoulders you were raised. And when all is said and done, you will find that the true measure of your award was not in the trophies you earned or the merits on paper you collected, but in the legacy of your roots you integrated into the American national identity.

Graduates of 2018 with your roots as your backbone, believe in the power of your humanity. Look forward, go forward. Don’t look back.

Congratulations, graduates.

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I Want to Write

Here it comes again — a new year, a clean slate, a fresh start with new opportunities. No matter how we celebrate the coming of the New Year, with a boom and a bang or a whisper and a shout, with gunshots or fireworks bursting in air, with church bells pealing or drums beating, with sirens or party horns, we do so with the anticipation of a New Year bringing closure to the past and fresh new opportunities to look forward to. The blank pages of the 2018 calendar are waiting to be filled with goals, aspirations and why not, even some dreams.

As a teenager, I recall stepping out onto the balcony of our 6th floor home around 5 minutes before the actual New Year so that I could soak in the last few minutes of the year all to myself and by myself. It was probably my way of self-examining or reviewing the past, or perhaps looking for a miraculous prediction of what the future holds. As though the crisp cold air, the night sky, the drizzle or rain, the ring around the moon, or the clarity of it was going to be any indication of the future outcome of the year ahead. I was young and a dreamer. I dreamed. I wanted to write like the great authors of the past. The romantic writers like Thomas Hardy and the Bronte sisters enticed me beyond my intuitive senses; oh, to write about social and philosophical themes like Charles Dickens; to be more daring like D.H. Lawrence; to write poetry like Robert Frost and Sylva Gaboudigian (in whose honor I was named). The written word had such power over me. Words born of moments. Moments born of solitude, of cherishing love, of adventure and risk, of heroism. I thought I could write intricate novels and I dreamed of publishing books, signing copies, changing the world through my words. At best, I kept a diary. But it was not for all the world to admire and to analyze my words. My diary was my own. Writing became the art of my mind, my breath, my heartbeat. I was a teenager in love with love, and with life. And every year, between dusting off the old year and polishing the new, amid the dreams of putting pen to paper, I’d send out my wishes, hopes, and prayers into the universe asking for whatever it is that a teenager could ask for while growing up in a family that blanketed me with tough love. Then, at the stroke of midnight the sound of the ships horns in the harbor would signal the start of the New Year, and I would rush back indoors to be present in the here and now to embrace family and friends celebrating newness.

The years have rolled by. We’re nearing the end of the second decade of the 21st century. Some of us thought we would never make it this far. Many of us have experienced major changes in our current life situations. We have emigrated and immigrated; we have lost members of our families while welcoming others in the same embrace. We have formed new social circles and perhaps adapted our customs to changing circumstances, yet one thing remains constant in my ritual. I still step outside or find a window to view the night sky, but it is no longer to dream of imagining like Beatrix Potter or the wizardry of J.K. Rowling. I look to the sky to count my blessings. The years have been good to me. People have been good to me. I have been surrounded by family and human connections who remind me that my thoughts in writing bear weight and have merit. I have been given the profound honor to be the 2018 winter commencement speaker for the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of La Verne. I am also humbled yet proud to present the first edition of my book “Moments in Thought,” a personal journey published by the ULV Press 2017. The presentation will be held Thursday, February 1, 2018 at 7pm at the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America. It is open to all, and I would be honored to personally greet my readers.

The beginning of the year….and I love to put pen to paper about living every new moment. This year, the blank pages of my 2018 calendar are filling up fast.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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Toward Tomorrow

I prepare to leave yesterday behind
And look toward tomorrow;
I know that it may be a repeat of today and the yesterdays,
But I insist
On seeing the value even in the humble, unremarkable repeat of situations.
Because, if I can celebrate yesterday as a victory,
Then I know I have gained more strength today for the triumph of tomorrow.

I believe Life is a mirror that gives back to us the reflection of our own grace.
If I can value the small miracles of my daily life
Without bitterness, with a heart that trusts, with a heart that hopes,
With a heart that loves, then,
May my reflection be the equanimity
That allows me to receive life however it unfolds….
With a heart that is tender with the young, compassionate with the old,
Sympathetic to those struggling, tolerant of the strong and weak,
And empathetic for the joy of others…

That is my goal, my beacon through the fog of life,
For tomorrow…tomorrow I may be all of these things.
Tomorrow will be the reflection of my own heart’s grace.

Continue reading

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