BY ARA KHACHATOURIAN
For generations of current and past Armenian Youth Federation members, January 14 is an important day as it marks the anniversary of the organization’s establishment in 1933 by General Karekin Njdeh, who was dispatched by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation to the United States to organize the scattered Armenian youth in the nascent Diaspora.
For 88 years the AYF has been that singular organization that through its various programs and projects has marshaled the Armenian youth to advance the national aspirations of Armenians in the United States, internationally in countries with significant Armenian population and since the early 1990s in Armenia and Artsakh.
Njdeh believed that through education and understanding of the struggles of the Armenian people the youth can mobilize and become the torchbearers of our national ideals through the unique perspective and lens of a younger generation.
“The strength of the AYF doesn’t come from one person or leader, but rather the efforts of the collective,” said Puzant Berberian a leader of the AYF Western U.S. in an article he penned last year for Asbarez to mark AYF Day.
It is that collective that has taken the broad concepts of persevering our national identity, advancing the recognition of the Armenian Genocide and the need for and strengthening of Armenia’s statehood and has advanced through specific projects and programs shaping community activism for decades.
Take AYF Camp as an example. It was Njdeh’s vision and the efforts of the early generation of AYFers to create a venue where Armenian youth can gather. The grounds of the AYF Camp Haiastan in Franklin Massachusetts were acquired in the 1940s with its summer camp session kicking off in 1951. Here on the West Coast AYF Camp has been part of the Armenian youth narrative since 1977 bringing together hundreds of youth every summer since to promote camaraderie and to instill and preserve their national identity with a focus on strengthening the participants’ commitment to the Armenian Cause.
In 1994, AYF Western U.S. leaders believed that with a newly-independent Armenia and Artsakh there was an imperative for a direct bridge between the Diaspora and Homeland. They conceived the AYF Youth Corps program, which sent its first seven participants to Artsakh in the summer of 1994. Since then hundreds of Armenian youth have participated in the program creating lasting relationships and planting the seeds of activism for decades among the youth of Armenia and Artsakh, with offshoot programs developed by other AYF regions in Javakhk.
In 1991, the leaders of the AYF Eastern U.S. kicked off the AYF Internship Program in Armenia, which allows Diasporan youth to gain first-hand knowledge about the functioning of civil society in Armenia by proving work experience in governmental, non-profit and organizational structures.
The AYF has always been on the forefront of advancing justice for the Armenian Genocide. It was the AYF that launched the campaign to urge University of California to divest from Turkey. The movement, which began on one college campus soon spread to all UC campuses and was later adopted by the State Assembly and Senate with the measure being signed by the governor of California.
Another program that has become a mainstay in our community is the AYF’s With Our Soldiers efforts, which, for years, has been providing for the needs of soldiers and their families in Armenia and Artsakh. The devastating toll last fall’s Karabakh war has taken on our soldiers will certainly become a priority for this program for months and years to come.
AYF members directly felt the impact and repercussions of the Karabakh War since many of their friends and colleagues in Armenia and Artsakh were on the frontlines or, as the war progressed, perished in defense of our homeland and nation. It was heart wrenching to read social media posts of AYF members who were maintaining contact on the ground as the war raged.
This experience did not discourage them but made them more resilient and strengthened their conviction to continue their mission and directly confront the challenges created by the war.
As Njdeh had envisioned, the AYF has and will continue to be on the frontlines of justice for our people and the salvation of our homeland. And, we will, as always, look to the AYF to guide our convictions.
On this 88th anniversary of the AYF we bow our heads to all of their members—past and present—who have sacrificed their lives in pursuit of justice and freedom and in defense of our Nation.