PORTLAND, Maine — It’s not a great pun, but you could call Gerard Kaladjian the Armenian community’s “Maine Man.” Now a resident of Portland, Kaladjian, who was born in Damascus, moved here from the Boston area eight years ago with his wife and children to start a hotel, and now works as the general manager of the Portland Harbor Hotel, an upscale establishment that is privately owned and located in the Old Port area of the city. Kaladjian also serves as the state chair of the Armenian Assembly of America and as the president of the Armenian Cultural Association of Maine. According to him, the Armenian community got its start here in the early 1900s, shortly after the first massacres in Turkey carried out by Sultan Abdul Hamid.
Said Kaladjian, “I understand there was a small group of Armenian women here who had an organization that funded Armenians who wanted to come to Maine. Most Armenian families have been here since the turn of the century, so they came before the Genocide in 1915.”
One such person is Gus Barber, who came in the early 1900s and founded Barber Foods, a successful processed food business. Another was Al Gardener (Bardezbanian), a musician well known for his oud playing. When Gardener died in 2006, the Armenian Cultural Association paid tribute to him, inviting several well-known musicians from the Boston area such as Mel Barsamian and John Baboian to come to Portland to play at a ceremony honoring Gardener. The event drew an audience of 200 people.
Another active community member is Jackie Abramian, owner of the Haley Art Gallery in Kittery.
Starting in the early part of the century, there was an Armenian Club of Portland, which disbanded in about 2000. Members had already started a movement to erect an Armenian Genocide Memorial in Portland. As their effort faltered, due to declining membership, Kaladjian founded the Armenian Cultural Association of Maine in 2001 with John Melconian, a longtime resident who took the lead in raising funds for the monument. It was erected in 2003 at the intersection of Cumberland and Franklin Arterial Streets, on the edge of a neighborhood known as Bayside, which was the original site of the Armenian community’s settlement.
“We had a commemoration ceremony in the summer of 2003,” recalled Kaladjian.
In spite of the presence of a significant Armenian community in Portland, there has been no strong effort to establish an Armenian church here.
“I don’t think there has ever been a church,” said Kaladjian. “One of the reasons is that so many people came a long time ago, and they are basically assimilated into the local community here. We actually avoid religion and politics. We don’t think about East and West. We don’t get involved in the split in the church or with the different political parties. We just feel we are all Armenian.”
The Armenian Cultural Association focuses, instead, on holding events that highlight the Armenian culture and heritage.
Said Kaladjian, “We do a big picnic every year. At Christmas time, we invite priests from Boston to come and celebrate the holiday with us. Fr. Vartan Kassabian has come from North Andover and Father Krikor Sabounjian from the Metro-West Church in Framingham.”
The cultural association also holds a Genocide commemoration each year in April, when they collaborate with the Jewish community and other immigrant groups. It also participates in sponsoring the Douglas M. Schair Memorial Lecture, held each year at the University of Southern Maine, which is devoted to the subjects of the Holocaust, genocide and human rights.
“We have had very good guest speakers,” said Kaladjian, “for example Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager who saved many people in Rwanda and who was the main character in the film, ‘Hotel Rwanda.’ We also had Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former UN Commissioner of Human Rights. These lectures draw as many as 500 people.”
Other speakers at this series have included novelist and writer, Peter Balakian; Judea Pearl, the father of journalist, Daniel Pearl, who was murdered in Pakistan and Akbar Ahmed, a Muslim scholar from Pakistan, considered one of the leading authorities on Islam.
“Pearl and Ahmed travel all over the country together lecturing on Jewish-Muslim relations,” said Kaladjian.
While Kaladjian lived in the Boston area, he was an enthusiastic member of the Sayat Nova Dance Troupe and he is excited that they will be coming to Portland, on September 14, to perform at Portland High School, at 5 p.m.
“This is what we concentrate on, the cultural events, and we are happy to have Sayat Nova here, not only to introduce them to the Armenian community here, but also we want to introduce Armenian dance to the rest of the community. We expect a lot of people to come up from Boston, and we can arrange accommodations for them, in the hotel and elsewhere,” he said.
Kaladjian says that there are other small groups of Armenians living in Maine, a few in Augusta and some other cities.
“But the majority live here in Portland, and this is where we want to keep the Armenian culture and heritage alive,” he said.
For more information, visit www.armeniansofmaine.co