Leaders of Cpl. Paul Marsoubian AmVets Post No. 41 receive plaque from AGBU in recognition of their 1 million dollar scholarship donation. From left, Ara Balikian, Jack Medzorian, George Haroutunian, Berge Setrakian, Robert Kaprielian, Harold Partamian, Frank Nahigian, and George Elanjian. Present at gala and missing from photo is Leon Simonian. (Photo: Arlan Photography)

AGBU New England District 110th Anniversary Banquet Raises $1.22 Million, Honors Afeyan and Guleserian

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – The Armenian General Benevolent Union New England (AGBU NE) District celebrated its 110th anniversary on Saturday, June 2, with a banquet at the Samberg Conference Center at MIT. The unbelievable view of Boston thanks to the great weather served as the background for a sell-out event with 300 people. It raised $1.22 million, of which $1 million was from the Cpl. Paul Marsoubian Amvets Post 41 for AGBU Scholarships. Dr. Noubar Afeyan and Dr. Kristine J. Guleserian were honored with the AGBU NE District’s Global Excellence Awards for 2018, and an important new Boston AGBU internship program was announced.

The attendance of a large number of students and AGBU Young Professionals (YPs) reflected the commitment of the New England District on innovative programming for both demographic groups, including career advancement through mentoring dinners and acting as an incubator for entrepreneurship. The importance of this event for AGBU was highlighted by the presence not only of AGBU President Berge Setrakian but of almost every member of the Central Board of Directors.

AGBU New England District 110th Anniversary Gala Co-Chairs Houry Youssoufian, at left, and Lindsey Hagopian (Photo: Arlan Photography)

After Boston-area Armenian clergy pronounced their blessing, and a brief video of the history of the AGBU in the Boston area was screened, guests were welcomed by Lindsey Hagopian and Houry Youssofian, the AGBU New England 110 Gala Committee co-chairs. Youssofian exclaimed that the evening was really a reunion of family and friends. She spoke about the intense level of her own family’s commitment to AGBU and its goals when they emigrated to Boston. Hagopian also spoke about her personal connections to AGBU, which became profound when she chaired the YPs in New York. She introduced Lia Oganesyan, who served as the evening’s master of ceremonies.

Lia Oganesyan (Photo: Arlan Photography)

Oganesyan is an entrepreneur-in-residence at TED, where she gave the first TED Talk on virtual reality. A former music industry professional who has toured with Bon Jovi and the Rolling Stones and worked with the Clinton Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies on reducing carbon emissions, Oganesyan is a founding partner of Protocol Investments and has served as chairwoman of the Ewing’s Sarcoma Research Foundation.

Oganesyan spoke about the magic of community. She related that her grandfather used to repeat the Armenian saying, “Rise up, raise up,” but proposed changing it to “Raise up, rise up,” because by raising up others, you are also carving out your own path. Her great-grandfather documented her family’s history, founding orphanages in Greece with the help of the AGBU and the Danish government. His tool to preserve the past was his pen, while Oganesyan’s is virtual reality.

She enjoined the crowd to continue to document and publish Armenian history. AGBU, she said, preserves our traditions, languages and culture, in order to preserve the Armenian nation.

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Another short video about the AGBU was played for the audience and afterwards Ara Balikian, chairman of the AGBU NE District took the podium with his inimitable energy and humor. He pointed out that almost every Armenian organization in the Boston area had its leaders or representatives in the crowd, showing their encouragement of AGBU.

Balikian gave an overview of the history of the AGBU in the district. Vahan Kurkjian, a friend of Nubar Pasha, came to study law at Boston University, and founded the Boston chapter of AGBU in 1908, only two years after the founding of the organization itself. This means the chapter was not only the first in the United States but the third in the world, following Cairo and Manchester, England. Gradually the Boston chapter grew into the New England District, with thirty AGBU chapters.

Balikian said he found much information in the documents preserved at his headquarters. For example, in 1946-47 the New England District raised $280,000 for repatriation to Soviet Armenia. There were scouts, a school, and champion soccer teams. In 1959, the Central Board purchased the present AGBU headquarters on Mt. Auburn Street. Almost fifty percent of the chairs of the New England Chapters were women over the last 110 years. Balikian introduced many of the past leaders of the district who were present in the hall to great applause.

He then spoke of some of the programs currently offered for Armenians of all ages, praising the work of the YPs, and announced the launch of the AGBU Boston Internship Program for college students, joining New York City, Paris, London, Yerevan and Buenos Aires, starting in 2019. He declared that about 150-200 Armenian students from outside of Massachusetts come to study in Boston, and AGBU intends to help these students succeed in various ways.

He ended with a call for the Boston community to continue to help Armenia during the current dramatic period of developments.

From left, Dr. Noubar Afeyan, Dr. Kristine Guleserian and Ara Balikian (Photo: Arlan Photography)

Oganesyan then introduced Afeyan, founder and CEO of Flagship Pioneering. Afeyan provided an expansive overview of his upbringing, career and views on Armenian affairs. As a child growing up in Beirut, Lebanon, demonstrating annually about the Armenian Genocide, he related that he was actively involved in the Armenian community. When he was 13 years old, he and his family had to flee the Lebanese Civil War in 1975 to Montreal. He viewed society from the perspective of an immigrant, which he felt was an advantage.

He came to Boston to pursue a PhD from 1983-87 in MIT and joined the Daron Dance Ensemble in Watertown his second year, which allowed him to rediscover being Armenian. He also joined a basketball team. Both the dance ensemble and the team were part of the AGBU, beginning his close relationship with the organization.

He became involved in the Armenia Fund, and then in 2001, after meeting fellow entrepreneur Ruben Vardanyan of Russia, created Armenia 2020 to help Armenia grow. This in turn led to several other projects and foundations.

By the time the Armenian Genocide centennial approached, he said he realized that simply asking for justice weighed Armenians down because it limited the number of ways in which they interact with the world. He and Vardanyan created the 100 Lives Initiative, which worked for remembrance, and in 2016 the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, which honors people completely unrelated to Armenians who are taking risks and doing the same things today as the saviors of the Armenians did a century ago. Afeyan noted that this put Armenia on the map of international humanitarianism for the first time.

Several years ago, Afeyan was asked to join the AGBU Central Board, intensifying his relationship with the AGBU. Afeyan said that the AGBU realizes that the old Armenian diaspora is going to dissolve and a new diaspora centrally focused on having a country will take over.

Afeyan urged Armenians to be more original than others, keep their roots firmly planted in the future, not the past, and not drop their standards when it comes to the Republic of Armenia. He called for all Armenians to be born-again Armenians who choose their identity, with the degree of Armenian blood or biological inheritance not relevant to this identity.

Finally, he called the attention of the audience to the new book by Dr. Hayk Demoyan, visiting head of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute of Yerevan, on the Armenian legacy in America, which shows, Afeyan said, how good we really are in this country. Demoyan came to the podium to say a few words about his work.

After Afeyan, Oganesyan introduced Guleserian, the pediatric heart surgeon known as “Dr. G.” to her patients. Guleserian is one of only 11 specialists in her field, who has carried out the world’s youngest combined heart-liver transplant, the world’s smallest and youngest heart transplant in a one-week-old, the worlds’ smallest and youngest pacemaker placement and the world’s smallest and youngest total artificial implant. She is a superstar, giving back to the Armenian community with her initiative to help pediatric patients in Armenia.

Guleserian gave a detailed talk about her work, peppered with humor and Red Sox and Armenian references. The name of her great-great-uncle, Catholicos Papken Guleserian, for example, came in handy in an unusual situation. She first learned about AGBU as a child through her family.

Guleserian gave examples of some of her famous cases, illustrated by slides, and took advantage of the opportunity to educate her audience. She pointed out that congenital heart disease is one of the leading causes of death worldwide in infants, with some operations needing to be conducted within hours of delivery.

Guleserian is director of Heart Failure and Transplantation at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, Florida, and served previously for over a decade as the Surgical Director of Pediatric Cardiac Transplantation at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas.

Ara Balikian took the podium to speak about the Amvets and their close connection to the AGBU NE District. He called up their members who were in the audience, as well as AGBU President Setrakian, in order to recognize their generous donation and service over the years. A video about their work was played, and a plaque was presented  to them.

AGBU President Berge Setrakian addresses the audience

Closing remarks at the banquet were given by Setrakian, who congratulated the awardees and exclaimed, “It has been a very emotional 24 hours in Boston.” He stated that he grapples with the question of how to attract the new generation to become Armenians by their own choice. He said that the nostalgia for the past or the old country would not work. Instead, Setrakian said, “We need heroes. Kristine and Noubar tonight are symbols of the new generation. The new generation will come and see how successful Armenians can be, yet they are Armenians by choice.”

Setrakian said, “That is where our mission has to be focused. That is why AGBU is committed to excellence.” He added, “I am elitist, but I am not talking about social elitism, but about successful professional elitism.”

Historically, Setrakian said, AGBU always believed that unless we take care of Armenia, there is no future in the diaspora. He concluded, “We are not abandoning our programs in the diaspora, because the diaspora is very important, but one way to reinforce Armenian power in the diaspora is to make sure that we have a prosperous, independent, democratic, and free Armenia.” He issued a call to the other organizations represented in the hall to work together, exclaiming “there is nothing that separates us,” while the needs are so great.

The banquet was the highlight of a weekend devoted to AGBU activities, including a town hall meeting Friday night at District Hall in the Seaport area of Boston. Setrakian and members of the Central Board responded to questions from over 50 students and AGBU Young Professionals (YPs). Afterwards, over 120 YPs went to a nightclub called The Grand for relaxation.

During the banquet, a silent auction with Armenian art, exotic getaways and other prizes helped raise money for AGBU. After the banquet, there was a reception at the gastropub Meadhall nearby in Cambridge.

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