BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
Instead of flocking to the shopping malls on Thanksgiving weekend to grab the best bargains, around 500 people, concerned with Armenian issues, headed to the Universal City Sheraton to hear and learn about the latest developments in Armenian culture, the Hai-Tahd (the Armenian cause) and the challenges facing our homeland. Organized by the Armenian National Committee-Western Region (ANC-WR), the three-day ANC Grassroots conference was a huge success.
My nationalistic impulses had already been fired up the day before, as I spent Thanksgiving Day cooking and at the same time watching the Armenia Fund Telethon that raised $12.3 million.
To acclimate myself, I arrived at the Sheraton hotel, well before the conference kicked off and shortly after the doors opened at noon. I was pleasantly surprised at the registration desk to receive a hefty and useful black canvas briefcase with deep pockets. This was included in the $49 heavily subsidized conference fee, along with two lunches, two breakfasts, and an evening cocktail reception!
The conference session began on Friday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. with a capacity audience. The first panel discussion, “Lights, Camera, Activate,” was about ways in which film, music, and art can promote activism. Brilliant panelists included: Serj Tankian, lead singer/songwriter of the band System of a Down; director/producer Carla Garapedian of award winning documentaries “Screamers” and “Lifting the Veil”; film director/screenwriter Erik Nazarian, whose latest short film “Bolis” has made headways; music composer Eric Hachikian, who has many accolades under his belt and whose latest film “Voyage to Amasia” will premiere at the Pomegranate Film Festival in Toronto December 4; and last but not least was Suzanne Khardalian, director/producer who lives in Stockholm, Sweden. Khardalian stirred our emotions by discussing her newest documentary, “Grandma’s Tattoos.” A fact not known to me was the bitter story of women abducted during the Armenian Genocide and forced into prostitution. They were forcibly tattooed as a sign that they belonged to their abductors. In 1988, Khardalian won the award of the Best Swedish Film, for her documentary “Back to Ararat.”
The first panel discussion was followed by a cocktail reception on the top floor of the hotel, the majestic Starview Room, where participants could rub elbows with panelists and become acquainted with the activities and the upcoming programs of the next two days.
On Saturday morning, we were jolted, not by an earthquake, but by the facts and statistics we heard at the panel discussion of the “Homeland and the Diaspora.” The panelist Alex Sardar, Chief of Party at Counterpart International Armenia, discussed the challenges that we are facing and the ongoing exodus from Armenia. He hammered this abstract thought into our heads: “the year 2058 – one person,” meaning: if we take into consideration the low birth rate and the existing high rate of emigration from Armenia, by the year 2058 the country will be left with one person!
The highlight of the event, for me, came when Ayse Gunaysu, the Turkish human rights advocate, captivated the audience with her soft-spoken words. She explained a pivotal shift happening among the Turkish people in recognizing the Armenian Genocide. She stressed that our adversaries are not the Turkish masses but the government. I had to fight back tears when she said, “I’ve brought with me a message from my people – my people are sending their apologies…” She finished her talk with two words, “irreparable and incurable.”
The conference culminated with an exquisite luncheon in the hotel’s main banquet hall. We had the pleasure of hearing Mark Arax, one of the finest journalists of our time, as our keynote speaker. He shared personal stories of how his grandfather was transplanted to Fresno after being hidden a full year in an attic in Turkey.
He also told us about interviewing an old Armenian woman and hearing her memories of how the Turks treated young women, including having them dance and firing bullets into their feet. The woman told Arax that she had still a bullet left in one of her hips from that incident.
After hearing all the speakers and the panelists, we felt that we were richer in our views and understanding the challenges that our homeland is facing. The conference opened countless hearts; it certainly did open mine. It gave me a new perspective into the work ANC is leading for the Hai-Tahd. It was a good reason to skip the malls this past weekend and instead take part in an enriching and educational three-day conference
Catherine Yesayan is a contributor to Asbarez. You may reach her at [email protected] or read her stories on her blog.