Tsoleen Sarian Eager to Spread the Gospel of Project SAVE

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WATERTOWN — Tsoleen Sarian is ready for her new role as executive director of Project SAVE, one which dovetails many of her diverse interests as well as professional experience.

Sarian studied history at Merrimack College and is a keen photographer, as well as someone who always wants to “contribute to Armenian causes and issues.”

Project SAVE for Sarian, she said, “is a convergence of all those interests.”

Sarian started working at Project SAVE in 2015 and took over as executive director in May 2017 from founding executive director Ruth Thomasian.

She said, “I want to do a strategic plan with our sup- porters, those that have an interest in us, and build on 40 years’ work. I understand what people value in this organization — the fact that we preserve photos and Armenian life.”

Sarian said that the Project SAVE archives serve as a primary source for recognition of the Armenian Genocide. “It gives a voice to people lost in Genocide. [It shows] that they are not lost and forgotten,” she added.
Project SAVE, she said, “tells the story of the Armenian diaspora. We celebrate life in the Armenian diaspora and not just in the homeland.”

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Every year, the organization has sold a one-of-a-kind calendar based on a theme.
The themes have included Armenian dance, life before the Genocide and even hats. The theme for this year is “Our Journey,” celebrating the refugees and migrants who make up so much of the current Armenian Diaspora. Among the photos will be ones from an orphanage in Aleppo in 1915, a march by Armenians in Egypt thanking the country for rescuing Genocide survivors and a family in front of the Statue of Liberty.

She added, “I want it to be hopeful. People go through hell but just like you or me, they want to educate their children and they want to do it safely. It’s about family and having a safe place.”

“We all have a journey. What is happening today is too familiar for us,” she noted.

Sarian recently visited Lebanon, where she met with United Nations workers. She said when she asked them about the state of the Syrian refugees, she was assured that they would eventually be fine. The situation of the Palestinians, however, is hopeless. They have been in refugee camps for generations and for them getting out is that much harder.

Sarian has long been active in the community. She was a basketball and volleyball player in the Homenetmen and the Armenian Youth Federation. She has been a longtime member of the Armenian Memorial Church, as well as the Armenian General Benevolent Union Young Professionals’ group as well as the Friends of the Armenian Heritage park. She was an intern with the Armenian Assembly of America and currently serves on the board of the Armenian National Committee Eastern Region.

She is also a longtime supporter of and volunteer for Peter Koutoujian, current sheriff of Middlesex County and former state representative. She joined his campaign staff in 2002 and has continued her work until now. From 2002 to 2013 she was on the Massachusetts State House Armenian Genocide Commemoration Steering Committee, serving as its chair during her last three years. Previously she worked at the Armenia Tree Project and the Global Partnership for Afghanistan, as well as a period with the Conflict Management Group.

She was just accepted into Northeastern University master’s degree in nonprofit management.

Modern History

History, a subject she majored in at Merrimack College, is getting a boost from modern technology. For people like her and her family, descendants of survivors of the Armenian Genocide, online forums can present an opportunity to recognize and connect.

“My mother’s family (from Aintab) was into the genealogy stuff,” she said. “My grandmother had a binder of people from Aintab.” She added, jokingly, “She would harass people and we would say ‘please don’t be so nosy!’”

Now, with the organization launched by George Aghjayan, Armenians who may have lost many of the family tree branches can throw down roots.

“It is where people can help each other. This is the story about the orphanage or school,” she said.

Representatives from Project SAVE were on hand at the most recent Armenian Genealogy Conference, “letting people know that our archives exist so they can research with our photographs.”

Sarian urged everyone to be mindful that they would be happy to receive old photographs that “they don’t know what they can do with.”

Donating photographs to Project SAVE is more than simply dropping off a box; it is safeguarding the story.

“We sit down with you. We want you to tell us the stories of the photograph, names, locations, dates. That goes into our database.”

Project SAVE is also in the process of digitizing all of its photos.

She noted that the organization’s archive has 45,000 photos, of which 7,000 have been digitized.

“We are getting there. There is more digitization to be done,” Sarian said.

Fortunately for the group, this effort is not going to cost them much as the scanning is done in-house by volunteers.

Thomasian, who had started the organization, will continue to help the organization by doing fundraising.

Sarian said that the organization is working toward making its work and direction more familiar in the community and to make the photos more accessible.

“We prefer that they come in but our archivist can work with them,” she said.

She is extending the group’s reach in social media, on Facebook and Instagram, and watches who follows it.

“Our photos are watermarked,” she said. “It is really exciting to see how far they are reaching.”

One task going forward, Sarian said, is reaching out to even more people.

“How do I reach out to more communities so that they know we exist and so that we can preserve and document their photographs,” she noted.

The easiest way is through its website. A new revamped website is in the works, being completed by a firm in Armenia.

“It’s a win for everyone to hire a design firm in Armenia,” she said. “I am thrilled about that.”

She said she would want to host forums where people can talk about photographs and discuss “the richness of our culture and history.”

“We have our finger on the pulse. We are making it more accessible and letting people know what we have.”

But the Genocide is not the only Armenian story. “We want the story beyond the Genocide. Who are we? I want to be able to celebrate that and all the wealth that we have as a nation,” she noted.

Sarian added that she plans to increase the number of collaborative projects and programs. One recent such program was a lecture and symposium by Prof. Armen Marsoobian, titled “Reimagining a Lost Homeland,” co-sponsored by the Armenian Museum of America.

In addition, she said she was excited to announce a collaboration with Houshamadyan, a digital project that is reconstructing Ottoman Armenian town and village life. “Through this partnership, Project SAVE’s photos will be featured on their site, and allow us to share the cultural history of Armenians through the images and stories with greater and more diverse audiences,” she said.

As for her vision for the future of Project SAVE, Sarian said, “All I know is that I want to do it right and build a governing board. A few people have done a lot of good work [for the group]. I want to take it beyond that.”

“We are building on what Ruth did. It is a legacy of 42 years that she leaves. There is so much value in it,” she said.

On November 19, Project SAVE will celebrate with a Thanksgiving brunch event to honor Thomasian’s vision and 42 years of service and to acknowledge the many volunteers, photo donors and supporters who have contributed to Project SAVE. An event for the community to come together and celebrate as we look ahead to the future. The program will take place at the Westin Waltham Boston Hotel.

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