From left, Tigran Sahakyan, Hirant Gulian, Elie Berberian, Arman Izmirlian at the annual Times Square Genocide Commemoration 2018

Knights of Vartan Mamigonian Lodge Soldiers on amid COVID-19

254
0

By Christopher Atamian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

NEW YORK — How did Armenians survive as a culture over the centuries despite almost constant warfare and persecution? One answer lies in being able to organize and show solidarity through various charities and organizations created to help further Armenian culture and raise funds for everything from Armenian schools, to building religious structures and helping Armenia financially in times of urgent need. One of the oldest such organizations still in existence, the Knights of Vartan was founded in 1916 after the Armenian Genocide in order to help revive and further Armenian culture in the diaspora. The organization and its various lodges around the country have been instrumental in countless educational, civic and religious projects in the past, including the construction of St. Vartan’s Cathedral in New York City, the home of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

To some, the concept of lodges and all-male organizations may perhaps seem old-fashioned but the organization is in fact thriving with more than a thousand members across the United States. In conjunction with its sister organization, the Daughters of Vartan, the Knights of Vartan are as active as ever. The New York Mamigonian chapter, led by Commander Tigran Sahakyan, currently has over 50 members and is a vibrant example of how Armenian institutions can thrive when run honestly and with passion. Among other projects, he has most notably co-chairs the Times Square Armenian Genocide Commemoration Committee which has become an important annual tradition in the Armenian community. Outside of the organization’s purview, he has also established the Brooklyn Armenian Sunday School, the St. Gregory Parish Mission of Brooklyn and its Sunday School, as well as the Armenians basketball team and the Aronian Chess Team. I spoke to Tigran recently in order to learn more about his background and the activities of his Knights of Vartan chapter.

Members of the Knights of Vartan in Armenia

Sahakyan arrived in New York from Armenia in 2000 and demonstrating the work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit that Armenians are known for, quickly established himself as an expert in the title insurance and closing business. He most recently founded Big Apple Title (real estate) Agency, which thanks to his expertise has quickly established itself as a leader in the field in the tri-State area. Sahakyan joined the Knights of Vartan in 2008 after helping out for a few years at the annual Times Square Genocide Commemoration: “I realized then there are many Armenians that do good for the Armenian Cause specifically and Armenian causes in general without necessarily asking for any special recognition. This appealed to me greatly.” Under his leadership, the Knights of Vartan has been able to appeal to a new, younger generation of Armenians by emphasizing the organization’s uniqueness: “It’s all about service to the community and the Church. As a member you learn real leadership skills. You develop a strong sense of belonging and integrity.”

Sahakyan encourages all young Armenians to join the Knights. “This is a difficult period now with COVID-19 and self-isolation, but all young Armenians should consider participating when things return to normal,” says Sahakyan: To join prospective members need to be nominated by two sponsors: “If someone participates in one of our projects , they will make those contacts.” Sahakyan adds “so it may seem secretive from the outside but it ‘s really open to anyone who is interested and wants to make the effort to become a member.”

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

Sahakyan points out that high educational and professional level of the current membership. For example, the new crop of members includes a judge, three lawyers, and two dentists. Members come from all over the world: while most are American–born, some now hail from the Middle East, with an increasing number of Armenians from the Republic of Armenia and Istanbul also joining. Everyone has unfortunately been forced to deal recently with the limitations and constraints imposed on society by COVID-19, so the organization has switched to holding Zoom meetings, and some projects have been put on hold out of practical necessity. Others continue as always, including scholarships established for students at the American University in Armenia, Bryusov University, the National Polytechnic and Yerevan State University, for example, as well as aid to Tavush and Artsakh. Monthly meetings are held and once a year a grand convention with all lodges in order to discuss old and new projects: “We discuss what we feel needs to get done to help move Armenians forward in the diaspora and Armenia.”

Sahakyan’s passion is evident: “We are already preparing already for another April 24th commemoration in Times Square in 2021. The Knights of Vartan began these annual gatherings that have become a tradition and are important in reminding the public and politicians—and Turkey—of what happened in 1915, and that we will not forget about the Genocide and the importance of its recognition by all. Other projects, including the Fuller Housing project, where we help to build homes for those in need in Armenia, are geared towards helping the new generations and their families.” The Knights of Vartan seems to be a dynamic organization indeed, and one that every interested and woke Armenian should consider joining, as the COVID-19 crisis hopefully winds down and life returns to an albeit new normal.

While other Armenian organizations have perennially struggled to attract young members, or have been divided along party and tribal lines, the Knights of Vartan has a truly mixed membership. This is partly attributable to the belief that Armenians must stick together and help each other out. Sahakyan declared: “None of these divisions mean anything anymore. An Armenian is an Armenian. When you meet one, extend a hand and try to help them any way you can.”

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: