BY DICKRAN KHODANIAN AND VERGINIE TOULOUMIAN
PICTURE THIS: Armenian youth across the U.S. have gathered at the Hairenik Hall in Boston on a Friday night in June of 1934. Legendary statesman and military strategist Karekin Njdeh and former Justice Minister of the First Republic of Armenia and, at the time, the editor of the Hairenik Daily Newspaper Rupen Tarpinian deliver remarks after the singing of “Harach Nahadag” concludes. In the midst of the gathering, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Central Committee of America gifts the youth in attendance a tricolor flag in a time where no independent republic existed.
This is the first Convention of the Armenian Youth Federation (formerly known as Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s Tzeghagrons until 1941). This gathering democratically set the foundation of the organization by adopting an initial name, anthem, programs, aims of the organization and also elected the first AYF Central Executive body (Hamparsoum Gelanian, John Der Hovanessian, Hagop Hagopian, Arthur Giragosian and K. Merton Bozoian).
As the AYF enters its 85th year, it is important to take a step back in order to genuinely understand the climate during its foundation. In the 1930s, young Armenians were galvanizing under the leadership of Njdeh to address the challenges of their communities as well as their homeland abroad. The Armenian community in the United States was a few decades old yet cultural assimilation was a central topic of discussion. The First Republic of Armenia had succumbed to the Soviet Union and was nowhere near its independence and Kemalist Turkey was in full force, yet the treatment of Armenians in the empire remained the same.
When the concept of the AYF came into being, the memories of the Armenian Genocide were still haunting its survivors who had witnessed the horrific events. As a people, we were traumatized, disheartened, and discouraged, given the fact that we had survived a genocide and declared an independent republic only to later have it become part of the Soviet Union while Ataturk’s Turkey played no mercy on the remaining Armenians left in Turkey.
Then, with the Immigration Act of 1924 placing strict limits on the number of immigrants, including Armenians, that could arrive to America, followed by the Great Depression of 1929 that affected the world, Armenians were in no easy position to rise up and unite to fight for the Armenian Cause. Many were struggling to adjust to their new life on foreign soil. Therefore, it was an absolute necessity for the diaspora in America to cultivate an identity and mobilize. It was also imperative that the youth came together to garner the support and strength that was needed to pursue the path of justice for the Armenian Cause. Hence, that mission was given to one noble man, who was a proven leader in Armenia and abroad. It was General Njdeh who was assigned this responsibility and it was Njdeh who defied all odds and became the central architect.
Now flackback, April, 1933, just three months after the decision of the ARF Central Committee of America to create a national youth organization, Njdeh arrives in Boston as a fieldworker as announced in the Hairenik Daily.
His arrival is followed by a cross country tour to preach to the masses and encourage the youth to mobilize. He was tasked to revive spirits of those who were trying to preserve Armenian traditions and were trying to strengthen their loyalties to the free world. Shortly thereafter, we see headlines in the Hairenik Daily of new chapters of Tzeghagrons being created in their respective cities. Simultaneously, Njdeh’s writings, published in a series from 1933-1934, were aimed at addressing the upcoming generation of Armenian youth in America.
In the year and a half he was in America, close to 40 chapters had already been formed from coast to coast (see table for chapters and membership numbers). Njdeh’s charisma and bold demeanor inspired throngs of youth to take action and set a legacy for generations to follow.
The first Convention essentially set the foundation of the AYF that generations of youth would follow and still continue to follow today. The article of Convention describes the hall decorated with Armenian colors and the photographs of Kristapor Mikaelian, Simon Zavarian, and Stepan “Rosdom” Zorian. In addition to Njdeh and Tarpinian, representatives of the Armenian Relief Society and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation were present to deliver their remarks. Songs were sung, poetry was recited, and live Armenian music was played.
Njdeh began his remarks by defining Tzeghagronutyun, which he explained was putting Armenianness above all since he believed that it was the unifying factor for Armenians everywhere. “In America, the Tzeghagron movement has officially found its path,” he concluded. In his turn, Tarpinian announced that the work of this new generation revolves around three factors; keeping the future generations Armenian, fighting for our nationalistic goals and values, and developing the Tzeghagron movement.
What started with couple of chapters in the United States, the Armenian Youth Federation in no time became a prominent international youth organization functioning in all countries that have a diasporan community. The ranks of the Armenian Youth Federation are living examples of devotion and commitment to our national goals. And although each region has its own set of programs and actions, the love for the homeland, the unique camaraderie, and the AYF mission unites these youth groups under one noble mission. In a June 7th, 1934 article M. Vrouyr ends by stating how a 12-year old Anahid Chaderdjian said how she wishes that future conventions are held in the homeland. Unfortunately, many AYF ungers did not see the revival of the Armenian statehood, like they had worked for during their lifetime. However, their successors, have been able to live in an era where aside from making Armenia a location for Youth Organizational meetings, programs are carried out to give an opportunity for diasporan Armenians to interact with local youth, a place where several members and alumni have repatriated to, and a homeland where the Youth can make a direct impact to. To the AYF member, the homeland is not just an unrealistic dream or the “land of our forefathers,” instead today they too consider themselves strong pillars in the agenda of Armenia’s nation-building process.
There is no better way to sum up the founding years of the organization than how it was coined in a Hairenik Weekly article on June 7th, “History Making Youth Movement.” Today, the youth movement has achieved 85 years of record breaking accomplishments and continues with the same vigor and renewed energy to continue its community involvement and grassroots activism. And with every challenge that it tackles, every idea that it develops, every project that it strategizes, or vision it works toward, the Armenian Youth Federation continues to serve its community and homeland and remains steadfast towards the ideals of a free, independent, and a united Armenia.
According to the first Convention records, 24 chapters of Tzeghagrons, 4 Chapters of Hiortiks and 1 Chapter of Aprilian Sanner participated in the Convention directly, while 14 other Chapters of the Middlewest and California were presented by their proxies.
Detroit District (Del Rey, Melvindale, and Highland Park, Michigan) – 300 Members
New York and New Jersey – 120 Members
Providence – 100 Members
Philadelphia – 76 members
Worcester – 75 members
New Britain (Connecticut) – 29 Members
Lowell (Mass) – 15 Members
Waukegen (Illinois) – 34 Members
Hartford (Connecticut) – 13 members
Chicago – 40 Members
Whitinsville (Mass) – 30 Members
Cleveland (Ohio) – 13 Members
Troy (Watervliet) – 30 Members
Pawtucket (Rhode Island) – 22 members
Lynn (Mass) – 14 Members
Haverhill (Mass) – 26 Members
Watertown (Mass) – 42 Members
E. St. Louis – 20 members
Granite City – 14 Members
The chapters that were present by proxies were Pontiac, Dearborn (Mich.), Milwaukee, So. Milwaukee, Kenosha, Racine (Wis.), Indiana Harbor, West Pullman (Ill.) Masina (N.Y.), Springfield (Mass.), Fresno, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Fowler (Calif.) The total membership of the ARF Tzeghagrons was over 1,500.