Dr. Vartan Gregorian (Alin K. Gregorian photo)

A Life Well Spent in Pursuit of Education, Hope and Paying It Forward

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BELMONT, Mass. — When Dr. Vartan Gregorian was here for the official grand opening of the new headquarters of the National Association for Armenians Studies and Research (NAASR) on November 1, which is named for him, he agreed to sit down for an interview.

During a wide-ranging discussion, he looked back on his achievements while discussing the new challenges he is relishing.

Gregorian, currently the president of the Carnegie Corporation in New York, has headed, taught at or sat on the boards of a dizzying array of top-tier institutions: University of California at Los Angles (professor) and University of Pennsylvania (provost); Brown University (president) and the New York Public Library (president). With the latter, he took on an immense challenge, bringing back the huge system from the depths of financial disarray and chaos and made it a glittering part of the city’s fabric.

He serves on the boards of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, and the American Academy in Berlin and served on the boards of the J. Paul Getty Trust, the Aga Khan University, the Qatar Foundation, Brandeis University, Human Rights Watch, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And the list goes on and on.

And now, he is the co-founder with Dr. Noubar Afeyan and Dr. Ruben Vardanyan, of the Aurora Prize for Humanity, an Armenia-based foundation which aims to pay forward the kind deeds of non-Armenians who reached out to help during the Armenian Genocide.

NAASR Calling

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For this Iran-born, Stanford-educated historian, at 85, life still offers thrills and challenges.

The new NAASR building is named for Gregorian, but the bulk of the funds were donated by Ed and Pam Avedisian of Lexington. They declined NAASR’s offer to put their names on the building, instead asking for Gregorian’s name. It was an offer that Gregorian himself declined repeatedly.

“I was contacted by David Ignatius. I know him very well. For the past four or five years, he has been the master of ceremonies for the Aurora Prize in Armenia. He is a very good man and a friend,” Gregorian said.

As he recalled, Ignatius said he had “an unusual request. ‘Would you meet a delegation from NAASR with a donor whose condition for helping us finish our building is naming it after you.’” The three-member team included David Ignatius’ sister, Sarah Ignatius, the executive director of NAASR, Ed Avedisian and NAASR Board Chair Yervant Chekijian.

“I said I don’t want it. There are many other worthy Armenians,” he recalled, noting that he suggested Charles Aznavour, among others. “They said no, that’s the condition.”

He mulled the issue while the visitors stayed at the Yale Club, waiting for his answer. “My staff said you’re very selfish if you turn it down. I reluctantly agreed with the condition that Ed’s name be on it too.”

Gregorian had met Avedisian before in Armenia, where the latter was there, at the Khoren and Shooshanig Avedisian School (https://mirrorspectator.com/2012/03/21/edward-avedisian-offers-hope-to-poorest-children-of-armenia/).

The school provides tuition-free learning as well as a state-of-the-art building in one of the poorest areas of Yerevan.

“I came to know him and respect him,” Gregorian said of Avedisian.

Armenians are lucky, he said, to have “people like Carolyn Mugar who has planted 6 million trees, Ed and Pam Avedisian, Ruben Vardanyan for the UWC Dilijan College whose students are all admitted to Ivy League schools.”

Gregorian said he has had longstanding ties to NAASR. He said he was a friend of founder Manoong Young and an early supporter of his efforts to establish endowed chairs of Armenian Studies. NAASR established the first chair of Armenian Studies at Harvard University in 1959.

“I thought it was impossible to accomplish what he (Young) was trying to do,” to get universities across the US to have Armenian Studies chairs. “I thought there was not enough of a demand for Armenian Studies. I thought it was considered esoteric. But Manoog Young tried coordinating the universities,” he said.

Gregorian added that he intends to donate his Armenian collection to NAASR, which is rich with a lot of publications and periodicals from the Soviet era.

In addition, he said, now major universities around the world, including Oxford, have Armenian studies programs. “It is remarkable that non-Armenians are teaching our culture,” he said, noting that many chairs are occupied by non-Armenians.

In the wake of the founding of the chairs, “a whole new generation” of scholars emerged, from Richard Hovannisian to Ina Baghdiantz McCabe.

US Diaspora

Gregorian, as he also said at his speech during the opening ceremony of the NAASR building, said that the Armenian community in the US is now at the best place it has ever been.

He noted that in addition to the new NAASR building, the new Armenian American Museum in Los Angeles is going to open. There is a sense of changing of the guard in the Armenian diaspora, he added. For much of the previous century, the Armenian communities in the Middle East had been considered the most stable and strongest. Now, he suggested, the baton has been passed to the US.

The Armenian nation, he said, has two lungs — the Armenian diaspora and Armenia. “When one lung collapses, the other has to function until the other recuperates,” Gregorian said.

And now, he said, he wants to make sure that Armenia is strengthened. “We have built all over the world but we have never invested in Armenia. Now we are in a position to help. Look at Singapore, Calcutta, Madras,” he said. “We have lost all of those.”

“There is too much talent and ambition in Armenia. If they are not satisfied, they will leave. They need the opportunity to shine,” he added.

His ambition for the small republic, he said, is to make education from kindergarten through college first-rate, through heavy investments, thus making Armenia the center of technology, banking and medical fields in the region. He also advocated the opening of small enterprises.

In addition, he said in much of the diaspora, the divisions have disappeared. “The diaspora is forming for the first time a sense of unity,” he said. “Whether it is the AGBU or Homenetmen,  all over the world, there are various communities,” he said.

“We all function united as a big river, like the Amazon,” he said. “We are not in America temporarily. We need to strengthen for the sake of Armenia.”

He praised that new vitality in the community for doing its part toward the adoption of the Armenian Genocide resolution in the House of Representatives earlier this month. “That’s what happened with the recognition of the Armenian Genocide. It all came together. It is a very promising time. We speak with one purpose, one language when it comes to national interest.”

He added, “A good Armenian and good American are not mutually exclusive. We came here for the Constitution, where all men are created equal. We don’t have to give up our culture or religion.”

Aurora Future

One of the projects near and dear to Gregorian now is the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative.

“Aurora was established as an act of tribute to those who helped Armenians during the Armenian Genocide,” he said.

From US Ambassador Henry Morgenthau on down, alarm bells were raised regarding the fate of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, slaughtered en masse. Aid rushed to the survivors through the Near East Relief and others.

“The descendants of those saved by Arabs, German soldiers, conscientious Turks, we are all in a position now to return the favor to those who are in the same situation,” Gregorian said.

That is why, he said, Aurora is focusing on people like Dr. Tom Catena, who works in South Sudan, or Marguerite Barankitse in Burundi. Both have been winners of the Aurora Prize for their efforts in saving lives.

“Catena declined the first time he was nominated because he said he couldn’t leave his patients,” Gregorian recalled. The US-born Catena is the only doctor in the Nuba Mountain in Sudan, where he has lived for more than a decade. He finally agreed to come to Yerevan and pick up his prize when several doctors from Armenia volunteered to take his place at his clinic.

“We had to get him a suit,” Gregorian recalled, as the doctor did not have one.

He also paid tribute to other previous winners Kyaw Hla Aung, the Rohingya lawyer helping his people who have been forced out of Myanmar, enduring horrors in the process, as well as this year’s laureate, Yazidi activist Mirza Dinnayi, who has been a vital support to the survivors of brutal attacks by IS on Yazidis in Iraq. (See related story on Page 1.)

“No Muslim nation stood for him [Kyaw Hla Aung], but little Armenia did. All of them [the Aurora winners] are doing the right thing,” Gregorian said.

With the millions of dollars disbursed through the laureates, Gregorian said, Aurora has helped 850,000 around the world. “Each candidate gets to pick who gets the money. That is where Aurora comes in,” he said.

In addition, now Aurora has launched the Ararat Challenge, a crowdfunding campaign to support those in urgent need for basic humanitarian aid around the world.

“God gave us a second chance. We are trying to see how we can give back,” Gregorian said.

He added he is proud that Armenia is now home to the largest Yazidi temple in the world, and that the government of Artsakh has renovated the mosque in Shushi.

“Our conflict is not religious, but historic and ethnic,” he added.

Gregorian said that he was incredibly touched by one honor in the past, that of an elementary school in Providence, the home of Brown University, which he led for years. “It was the best recognition for me. It reminded me what my values are,” he said.

He recalled his love of books which got their start at the Diocesan library in Tabriz, Iran.

When asked to look back on his many achievements and explain how he has crammed in so much, he thought for a few second before answering with a shrug, “It had to be done. You do things because they are right.”

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