Devoted to ALMA

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WATERTOWN, Mass. — If you’re searching for a formula to create the consummate volunteer, try this.

Take a man well into his 70s, happily retired, still energetic, looking to give something back to the Armenian community. So he hooks up with the Armenian Library and Museum of America (ALMA), spends 22 years there, and now — at the ripe age of 77 — takes to the road with a traveling exhibit on the Armenian Legion.

Such an individual is Arakel Almasian who still spends up to 30 hours a week at that facility, doingwhatever he can to help it. And that’s not counting what he does at home.

There by his side is Lillian, his wife of 56 years, who also joins the tour and pitches in wherever she can. Together, they are full of life and challenge people decades younger than them.

Included in their itinerary was a visit to St. Gregory Church in North Andoverwhere they addressed an AVAK luncheon crowd. Like the subject of his mission, Arakel Almasian remains a modern-day Legionnaire or Gamavor, as the term suggests.

“It makes me want to cry when I think of the hundreds who left this country and other places around the world to go fight for Armenia,” he says. “Many of them made the ultimate sacrifice when they could have enjoyed a life of freedom and security. They have earned their place among the other brave souls who fought against tyranny and injustice. This exhibit is dedicated to their memory — a testament of their love for their native land.”

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If Arakel Almasian shows a deep-rooted sense of emotion, it’s warranted. He’s worked six years on the Gamavor project after retiring from Polaroid. Being interested in antiques, he went to an auction and stumbled upon a charger that was excavated in the Middle East.

He took the relic to ALMA for an appraisal and wound up donating it. The rest is academic as they say. He was so impressed with the facility that he decided to stay — a passion that’s extended over two decades which remains just as strong today as the day he first set foot in 65 Main St. The Gamavors represents his first project and was made possible through a grant from K. George and Carolann S. Najarian, MD Foundation, with additional support from the Armenian-American Veterans of Milford. Others who were instrumental in seeing it through were Haig Der Manuelian and Elizabeth Kenoian but it was Arakel Almasian who did the lion’s share of the work.

“He’s so dedicated that if I call ALMA, I know where he is,” said Lillian Almasian. “In that regard, we share a similar passion with the work that goes on there. It’s really indispensable.”

Collecting 400 images from throughout the country, mounting them on boards, then researching and documenting the history are certainly not easy. Lillian Almasian handles the typing chores and other incidentals that go into completing the exhibit.

The end result of the couple’s work was 25 panels that have made the rounds from Fresno to Whitinsville, where Arakel was raised. Racine and Ann Arbor were other destination points. You’ve got to commend ALMA for taking a mission that had literally faded into oblivion and revived it through such a traveling show.

“Through word of mouth and networking, we came up with a thousand names of Gamavors,” he pointed out. “Those are what we know about. There could easily be another thousand out there we don’t know about. We broke them up by community and it’s amazing to see the impact that’s being made from this. People are giving us photographs. Even the non-Armenians are engrossed by it.”

It all started one day when a woman walked into ALMA with a small collection of prints. She set them up in a tiny room downstairs. Before long, it took up the first floor.

Merrimack Valley and Southern New Hampshire were represented by 112 Gamavors as the stories continue to manifest themselves.

Dikranouhi Krikorian was one of 40 Armenian women who served as soldiers along with the volunteers who were said to “meet hardship as well as the men.”

At the age of 11, she saw her entire family killed by the Ottoman Turks. She was spared to be sold at auction but managed to escape and, dressed as a boy, enlisted and reportedly killed 75 Turks.

“When our grandparents and parents came to America, they had very little they could salvage in tangible goods,” said Arakel Almasian. “What they did salvage was their dignity, their heritage. These Gamavors were modest to a fault and never talked about it. They are the unsung heroes in our midst.”

In his research, Arakel Almasian was surprised to find out that his cousin Harout Almasian from Troy, NY, and Michigan, originally from Sevas, was a Gamavor.

While Arakel Almasian is an ALMA trustee, his wife also involves herself with the Armenian Nursing Home in Jamaica Plain, as a board member and also the Armenian Women’s Welfare Association.

Together, they have three children and five grandchildren, including a 17 year old who also volunteers her time and energy at ALMA and brings along her friends.

Their efforts have not been in vain.

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