Annie Simonian Totah

Annie Totah: Woman, Armenian, Warrior

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WASHINGTON — When Annie Simonian Totah fights for Armenian Genocide recognition on Capitol Hill, the dispiriting thought of her parents in an orphanage takes centerstage.

The daughter of Genocide survivors, Totah has made it one of her life’s missions to obtain worldwide recognition for the first human rights exodus of the 20th century, which claimed the lives of close to 1.5 million Armenians during the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire in 1915.

It is with that determination and passion in mind that she has dedicated 40 years of her life for advocacy work and philanthropic missions. In recognition of this milestone, Totah will be honored by the Armenian Assembly of America on Tuesday, September 25, at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Washington, DC.

Among a wall of family portraits in Totah’s sprawling home in Potomac, Md., are photos of familiar faces, from a succession of royalty to presidents to world leaders. Her house has served as more than a residence for her four children and now her grandchildren — it has also been the site of countless fundraisers for political, humanitarian, medical, cultural and social causes, where many esteemed figures are invited, from Empress Farah Pahlavi of Iran to Hillary Clinton, on whose campaign for President Totah served, along with Congressional leaders and heads of major non-profit organizations.

From left, Vice President Joseph Biden, Annie Simonian Totah and Dr. Jill Biden

While she has become well-known over four decades of service to Washington, D.C., her heart remains with Armenians and bolstering the homeland. When Armenia emerged as an independent nation, Totah took spirited action and organized groups of Diasporans to set sail with them toward the homeland under the banner of the Armenian Assembly of America;  for many it was the first time they would step foot on Armenia’s soil. While she had supported her homeland from afar, since her days as a tenacious youngster in Beirut, Lebanon, to her relentless advocacy work in Washington, she sought to connect Diasporans with a free and independent Armenia, recognizing the importance of building that integral relationship early on.

“My goal on these missions was to connect Armenian-Americans with their homeland and to help them see first-hand what is happening in the country and give them the chance to do their share to help,” she said.

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It is a commitment that continues to the present day, as Armenia evolves and focuses on arming the next generation with astute knowledge. Recently, Totah became a Pillar of the American University of Armenia, a leading Western-style academic institution in Armenia, through the Sami and Annie Simonian Totah Foundation.

“I am impressed with what AUA is doing in Armenia by preparing and educating future leaders and giving them quality academic opportunities with excellent first-class professors,” said Totah. “Upon graduation, these young individuals will excel on their own turf by becoming well-informed, well-educated Armenians so they can help the country advance and grow.”

Her first foray into politics was through the Armenian Rights Council of America (ARCA), where she informed, educated and organized political fundraisers for members of Congress. Witnessing her activism, the Armenian Assembly of America, the largest Washington-based non-partisan organization that promotes awareness and understanding of Armenian issues, invited her to serve as a Board Member and later as chair of its Board of Directors — the first and only woman to have that honor.

With Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY)

She is well-versed in the geopolitics of the Caucasus, stating in her signature candor that Turkey “needs the US more than the other way around.” Case in point, Totah recounts when French President Jacques Chirac formally acknowledged the Armenian Genocide in 1998 and in retaliation Turkey recalled its ambassador and threatened to cut off diplomatic relations.

“After three months, Turkey’s ambassador was back in France and trade between the two countries not only resumed but increased by 130 percent,” said Totah.

While she acknowledges Armenia’s limitations, she always stresses the positive side, particularly during meetings with government officials and sees Armenia becoming a great friend to the US in the Caucuses, similar to how Israel is in the Middle East.

“Armenia is not part of the problem,” said Totah. “On the contrary, it is part of the solution.” While it has shortcomings being landlocked with a lack of natural resources, Totah highlights the country’s brainpower and its status as a Christian nation in that region that can become a “guiding light in the South Caucasus.” She hopes that with the post-Velvet Revolution, under the leadership of the new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, corruption will be curtailed, the economy will improve and new jobs will be created for its citizens, particularly for the young and educated Armenians to stay in the country.

“Our homeland cannot afford anymore brain drain because it is one of the most precious resources Armenia has,” said Totah. “We are on the right track and I am hopeful once we have democracy instilled in the country, along with transparency, justice, rule of law and employment opportunities, the citizens of Armenia will thrive.”

Roots in Beirut

As the saying goes in Armenian, the first teacher is the home, and it was through her family unit that Totah’s character was shaped early on while growing up in Beirut, Lebanon.

The youngest of four siblings, who are all immensely active in the Armenian community and supportive of charitable causes, Totah attended AGBU’s Tarouhy Hagopian Secondary School, where she was the top student in the academic institution for six years while being involved in a myriad of activities from Girl Scouts to dancing to serving as editor of the school newspaper. As a principal ballerina with the Beirut Ballet Ensemble, she had the chance to perform on stage with Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, dancing with the Royal Ballet of England at the Baalbeck Festival. She also danced as a soloist with the AGBU Antranig Dance Ensemble in Lebanon. Education remained a priority in her life and she received her master’s degree from the American University of Beirut, where she met her husband, Sami.

With President Bill Clinton

The guiding influence in her life have been her strong-willed parents, particularly her mother, whose compassionate work had a deep impact on Totah. She aspired to live up to the principles and values her mother instilled in her.

“My mother was a dynamic lady,” said Totah. “Even though she was an orphan, she was ambitious, hard-working and received her education in a British orphanage.” She became a registered nurse at the American University Hospital (AUH) in Beirut and expressed compassion for her patients, traveling with families to Europe so they could get proper treatment that was not available at AUH.

“We were taught to always do our best in everything we undertake and to leave this world in a better place than we found it,” said Totah. This was a mantra that guided Totah and her siblings, Cecil, Rita and Simon, who give of their time, energy and resources not only to the Armenian community, but internationally on a global level.

Through her generosity, the Executive Wing of the Johns Hopkins Sibley Hospital in Maryland is named in honor of the Sami and Annie Totah Family Foundation and thanks to her wide-ranging network, she has raised millions of dollars for significant organizations, such as the Susan G. Komen Foundation, Best Buddies with Anthony Kennedy Shriver, Washington Performing Arts Society, The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington Ballet, among many others.

Her contributions to the Diaspora, too, have been multi-pronged, led by efforts for worldwide recognition of the Armenian Genocide.

“One of my strongest dreams was to have the Armenian Genocide acknowledged by the United States during the lifetime of my parents,” said Totah. “Unfortunately I failed because the State Department vehemently opposes to acknowledge that reality, instead always succumbing to pressure from Turkey.”

With Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.)

Passing on the Torch

Her efforts and her legacy passes onto her children, who have always seen their mother in action, bringing good to this world through her resolute determination, smarts and charm. They too carry out a similar passion for the Armenian culture, especially in terms of the Armenian Genocide. Each of her children attended the University of Pennsylvania and made sure memorial commemorations took place on campus and news articles were printed in the student newspaper. Her four children speak Armenian and insist that their children speak Armenian with their “Medz Mama Annie.”

The same lessons and life principles Totah learned from her parents, she now teaches to her children and grandchildren, including the importance of loving and respecting oneself, family and community, to the notion of quality over quantity, to feeling responsibility for one’s family, country and the world.

One recurring question Totah has fielded throughout her tenure in Washington is why she herself doesn’t run for politics. As host of copious political fundraisers while possessing a strong network, she says she prefers to work behind the scenes.

“I have more power working behind the scenes,” said Totah, a force in Armenian politics. “I feel more fulfilled in terms of bringing my share to help through fundraising, education, awareness and advocacy while helping the homeland.”

From the very beginning of Armenia’s independence, Totah was adamant about initiating funding for the Republic as well as for Artsakh, following its war with Azerbaijan in the early 1990s.

With then-First Lady Hillary Clinton

“I saw the sadness and devastation in Shushi throughout Artsakh,” said Totah during a mission trip in 1998. “Upon my return, I contacted my Senator and urged the Senate to initiate humanitarian aid so the citizens can have basic necessities.” Within a short time and for the first time, she successfully secured funding from the U.S. government in the amount of $12 million – support that has continued to this date, resulting in $38 million earmarked for Artsakh from the U.S. government.

In addition to appropriating funds, Annie has assisted Armenia on a political level — so much so that then-president Robert Kocharyan appointed her to serve as Ambassador of Armenia to Israel. While the role didn’t come to fruition due to diplomatic conflicts, Totah has become known as the “unofficial” Ambassador to Armenia on Capitol Hill. She is also credited with arranging former President Robert Kocharyan’s first official visit to the U.S. and the first State Dinner at the Ballroom of the State Department with then-Vice President Al Gore.

Throughout it all, she has championed the influence of advocacy awareness and for volunteers to become part of the process.

Work with Armenian Assembly

“I give to candidates and support them without asking for anything in return, except their help to Armenia and Armenian causes,” said Totah, who has been an important player with the Armenian Assembly of America in helping raise more than $2 billion in foreign aid to Armenia since its independence.

She speaks about the behind the scenes work that the Armenian Assembly of America conducts on a daily basis, despite many challenges from foreign governments who try to prevent them from reaching their goals. She is armed with knowledge she is always ready to share with the next generation of constituents, encouraging them to meet with their members of Congress on a regular basis and informing them of Armenia’s needs while also participating in their election campaigns.

With that in mind, she has organized, along with the Armenian Assembly of America, the annual National Advocacy Conference that is held in Washington, DC, in order for “everyone to learn more about advocacy and the right techniques and methods.” This year, on September 25, Totah will be honored by the Armenian Assembly of America for her 40 years of advocacy work.

Students and young professionals particularly are encouraged to attend the Advocacy Conference, where they will have the opportunity to role play individually and in groups to feel comfortable about meeting with their Congressmen during pre-scheduled appointments. The Armenian Assembly of America provides informative packets for participants on how to schedule appointments with Congressmen, ways to broach important topics as well as talking points.

“We organize these Advocacy Conferences to be on the radars of the Congressional Leaders,” said Totah, who emphasizes the importance of a strong showing. “It is a shame that we Armenians are only able to attract 200-300 Armenians to attend these conferences, as opposed to Jewish organizations who attract more than 16,000 people from all over the country when they advocate annually. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we Armenians attended Advocacy Conferences in the thousands and imitated the Jewish lobby?”

In addition to her political prowess, Totah is also active in the DC social scene and has a strong presence with dozens of non-profit organizations that she supports. She also makes it a point to empower and honor women, including Empress Farah Pahlavi, whom she honored at her home with 300 guests at a formal tribute gala. It was the first time in Her Majesty’s 38 years of exile that anyone had organized a tribute for her.

“Her Imperial Majesty was a powerhouse during her reign in terms of what she did as a woman in Iran through her philanthropic, educational, arts and women’s programming,” said Totah.

The many awards she has received throughout her life, from the Artsakh Medal of Gratitude to The Ellis Island Medal of Honor to the Shining Star Award by the Sibley Memorial Hospital, to the Encyclical of Gratitude and Appreciation by Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, to the American Woman of Valor Award by Save a Child’s Heart Foundation, pale in comparison to her positive life-changing contributions, ultimately fulfilling the valuable lessons of her parents.

“My number-one goal is to continue my efforts for Armenia and Armenian issues while sharing my rich Armenian heritage with other American organizations I work for,” said Totah. “My hope and prayers are that soon we will have a more democratic Armenia with a brighter future.”

(The Armenian Assembly of America’s National Advocacy Conference will take place in Washington, DC September 23-25. The conference and welcome reception will take place on Monday, September 24 and on Tuesday, September 25 for the advocacy day on Capitol Hill, cocktail reception, and gala honoring Annie Simonian Totah. Visit www.aimhye.com for tickets and more information.)

 

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