Souren Maserejian: A Life of Dedication to AGBU

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By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BELMONT, Mass. — Even before Souren Maserejian took on more official responsibilities at the New England District of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), he proved his dedication to the organization at a young age. Newly arrived in the United States from his native Aleppo, Syria, and still in his early 20s, Maserejian was voted the most valuable AGBU volunteer in 1984.

Two years later, he was elected chairman of AGBU’s Greater Boston Chapter and in 1990, he was appointed Central Committee chairman of the New England District. He soon chose his committee, which included Alex Kalayjian, Bedros Dilsizian, Jacko Atamian, Ara Barmakian Sr., Gregory Seymorian, Michael Gulbankian, Ani Kalayjian, Maida Yetimian, Lisa Maserejian, Maro Getzoyan, Vartouhie Cholakian, Garo Yavshaian. William Aznavourian, Linda Abkarian, Albert Abkarian and Tina Maserejian.

Following his retirement as chairman from the New England District Committee in September 2011, Maserejian reflected on his nearly 30 years of service.

“I was in Boston when the earthquake happened in Armenia,” said Maserejian in a recent interview. “This was our first big fundraising effort. The Boston Chapter coordinated with the New England District, then headed by Eva Medzorian, and we managed to raise $700,000 from Armenian and non-Armenian donors to help the victims.”

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Soon after Maserejian became chair of the New England District, AGBU embarked on an effort in the early 1990s to raise $20,000 for children’s centers in Nork Arapkir and Malatya in Armenia.

“We were also able to raise $15,000 for soup kitchens, which were badly needed after the earthquake,” he added.

Back in the United States, there was concern about the condition of the local AGBU headquarters on Mt. Auburn Street in Watertown. Purchased in the early 1900s, it was the first building owned by AGBU in the US and therefore has historic value.

Said Maserejian, “By 2000, the building, an old Victorian, had deteriorated badly. We had problems with lead paint and our primary concern was to raise the money to repair and renovate this important structure. Our committee managed to raise $100,000 locally and with that money, we redid the building, including the porches and the windows. The repairs made it a better place from which to serve the community. It was important to us to keep the facade intact, and eventually the Town of Watertown accepted our plan to preserve its historical value.”

The group honored one of the donors to this project, Michael Gulbankian, who is a member who served also the Armenian Church and donated money and renovated a kindergarten in Armenia named after him and his wife.

Another major effort in 2007 included a benefit dance sponsored by AGBU’s New England District, St. James Armenian Church, Knights of Vartan and several donors from different organizations, raising $15,000 for AGBU’s Karabagh Repopulation Project.

“It was a very successful event,” recalled Maserejian. “We invited Robert Chilingarian, a well-known singer from Los Angeles, to perform and we drew an audience of about 400 people. And later more performers came from LA, including the Ardavazt Drama Group, which put on shows at Watertown High School.”

“With that money, we were able to build apartments in Karabagh,” said  Maserejian. “People had no houses, they were living in terrible conditions. One apartment, specifically funded by Boston Armenians, bears a plaque thanking us and also St. James.”

More recently, the New England District has contributed $6,000 to the construction of the Armenian Heritage Park, now under way in downtown Boston.

“We are proud of our local efforts,” said Maserejian, “but the Central Board of AGBU, especially, since the earthquake, has made every effort to help Armenia in many different  ways, supporting schools, the symphony, the performing arts, hospitals and many other projects.”

In May 2011, the New England District held a dinner to honor Providence Men’s Chapter Chairman William Aznavourian for his more than 45 years of service and dedication to AGBU.

“Members from the New York Central Board attended, and it was an important occasion to recognize someone who had given so much to the organization,” said Maserejian.

In 2009, Maserejian expressed a desire to retire from his post as chair of the New England District.

“It was time for someone new,” he said. “My involvement was taking time away from my family and I truly felt it was time for a change. But it took nearly two years to find someone. It was Anita Anserian from Central office who suggested lawyer Ara Balikian. He is a young man, as I was when I first took over, and also from Belmont. He comes from a family with strong affiliations to AGBU, and it has been a very smooth transition. Now, we must all support him”

In October, shortly after Maserejian’s official retirement, he received a letter of praise and gratitude from Berge Setrakian, president of AGBU’s Central Board. In part, it read, “I would like to thank you sincerely for your many years of commitment and dedication in leading the AGBU New England District Committee as its chairman. I personally have had the pleasure of working with you, and know that you did not spare any effort in promoting and pursuing the best interests of our Union. Your loyalty, generous nature and leadership are all very noteworthy, and on behalf of the Central Board and myself, I extend our deepest appreciation to you.”

Said Maserejian, “Most of the task involves raising money, and it is hard work.  I am a Protestant and a member of the Armenian Memorial Church in Watertown. We believe that people open up their hearts if you reach out to them. In some ways, things have become more difficult since the 1988 earthquake, because the various chapters are on their own now.”

Maserejian, in addition to his efforts for AGBU, also runs his own business, Maserejian Jewelry, located on Washington Street in Boston.

“I was only 22 when I arrived in Boston.  I had studied jewelry making in Aleppo, but I needed help. I knocked on the door of Barmakian Jewelers and Ara Barmakian took me in. He helped me with my papers and I worked for him for three years. He died in 2006 and his son now heads the business. But he was just an out-of-the-world person, a graduate of MIT. He didn’t speak Armenian, but he loved AGBU and contributed a lot. We went to Armenia together in 1998 and we went  to many conventions together. He helped many people come to this country from Beirut and other places in the Middle East. He saved many people from difficult situations.”

After his apprenticeship with Barmakian, Maserejian started his own store.

“It’s a successful business now, and I design and make jewelry, which is what I love to do. And I have a family of which I am very proud, two daughters — one has a degree in marketing from Bentley College and teaches in Watertown. The other is an accountant who works for the Mugar family. My son has just graduated from the Massachusetts College of Art with a degree in industrial design. Both my daughters are married to Armenians and we all speak Armenian.”

Although Meserejian has stepped down from his official post, he said he would continue to work for the Armenian community. “There is no organization that does more than AGBU both for Armenia and for Armenians here, helping to fund schools, universities and colleges. It is exceeding expectations,” he said.

Maserejian is also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Armenian Memorial Church, a member of the Knights of Vartan and a vice chairman of the Armenian Jewelers Association.

“I will continue to do as much as I can to help my Armenian community. My love for Armenia has never stopped and that is why I have been able to give my time and my effort,” he concluded.

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