From left, Knights of Vartan Grand Commander Hunan Arshakian, Yn. Arpineh Baljian, Fr. Antranig Baljian, Fr. Stephan Baljian, Knights of Vartan New England Grand District Representative Bob Avakian (photo Aram Arkun)

Knights of Vartan Leaders Present Economic Sustainability Program in Boston

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WATERTOWN — The Grand Commander of the Knights of Vartan Hunan Arshakian, together with Lt. Commander Levon Thorose and Grand Treasurer Ron Nazeley, visited Boston as part of a tour of the East Coast. Arshakian and Thorose spoke about the Economic Sustainability Program at a dinner meeting hosted by the local Knights of Vartan Ararat Lodge No. 1 and the Daughters of Vartan’s Arpie Otyag No. 9 on April 18 at a hall of St. James Armenian Church in Watertown. Current Knights of Vartan New England Grand District Representative and former Commander Bob Avakian served as the master of ceremonies.

The meeting also honored former Commander of Ararat Lodge Fr. Antranig Baljian, a native of Worcester, Mass. His son, Fr. Stephan Baljian, Commander of the Arakadz Lodge of the Knights of Vartan and pastor of St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church of Merrimack Valley in North Andover, Mass., spoke about the career of his father, who spent decades serving the Armenian Church and the Armenian community.

Knights of Vartan New England Grand District Representative Bob Avakian (photo Aram Arkun)

Avakian presented Fr. Antranig with a plaque recognizing his 30 years as pastor of St. Stephen’s Armenian Apostolic Church of Watertown and his services as Ararat Lodge commander to the Knights of Vartan. Fr. Antranig will be retiring this June.

Knights of Vartan Grand Commander Hunan Arshakian (photo Aram Arkun)

At the meeting, Grand Commander Arshakian declared, “It is vital, it is critical, and it is everyone’s duty to support our people in Armenia and the Artsakh refugees.” When he came to office, he and his executive had goals of increasing membership and rejuvenating the organization, he said, but then they were blindsided by the blockade and further developments in Artsakh. Nevertheless, they tried to deal with both types of issues.

They created a brand-new website for communication and increased the use of social media. They modernized the ritual of the Knights, revitalized a number of lodges which brought in new younger members, started a number of new projects in Armenia, including scholarship programs and science and technology startups, and helped Armenian churches, summer camps and other projects in the US. Knights of Vartan, Inc., has been established in Armenia as a registered charitable organization for the first time, with its own bank account. This will allow transferring funds directly from the Knights’ US accounts to this account.

They also founded ESP at the end of 2023. Arshakian stressed its importance. He said that it is necessary to reassure the Artsakh refugees that they are not alone and help so that they can remain in Armenia and support themselves. This model, used in Israel, is a long-term project. He urged everyone to participate in rebuilding the Armenian nation.

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Arshakian exclaimed: “Imagine losing everything you have. Imagine having three days to leave. You have to leave your home, your business and your place of birth, where your grandparents are buried. You have to leave, and there is no hope of going back. All you have is a suitcase and your children, and no money, because for nine months you were under a blockade. Now you end up in the Republic of Armenia, with no place to go and no place to work.”

ESP gives these refugees an opportunity to support themselves and their families, and to develop Armenia economically. Arshakian said it was the duty of the Knights and Armenian Americans to step up during these hard times.

Knights of Vartan Lt. Commander Levon Thorose (photo Aram Arkun)

Thorose then took the microphone to make a presentation about the four unprecedented crises faced by the Knights and Daughters in the last 20 months and future challenges, which he accompanied with a slideshow. The first recent crisis was the Artsakh blockade starting in December 2022. The Knights and Daughters raised $200,000 in funds for 740 tons of food and medicine to prevent illness and deaths from starvation.

The second crisis was how to transport food from Armenia to Artsakh and then distribute the aid to reach all regions of Artsakh during the blockade. The Knights and Daughters of Vartan Action Committee facilitated the sending of 71 trucks through the Azerbaijani blockade, distributing 20 kg. packages to children, kindergartens, orphanages and poor families of martyrs of the 2020 war. This was in a period where Armenian government humanitarian containers of aid were not allowed to enter Artsakh.

The third crisis was how to help the influx into Armenia of over 120,000 Artsakh refugees, most of whom arrived in a period of three days last September. Since October of 2023, the Knights and Daughters of Vartan have subsidized 242 Artsakh families (1,262 people) with over $108,978 disbursed to address their pressing needs, ranging from rent to appliances and household essentials.

The fourth crisis is how to keep those families living in Armenia. The Economic Sustainability Program (ESP) was established for this purpose, and it has so far assisted 12 families in the first quarter of 2024. The goal of this program is to provide the means for Artsakh refugees and other permanent residents in the Republic of Armenia to be able to maintain a sustainable life by creating jobs and developing and supporting trade skills. It provides tools and equipment for small family businesses, and thus creates jobs, which is important particularly in rural areas. There is a limit of $3,000 assistance per family.

There are two teams working on the ESP. The first is in Armenia with Gohar Palyan, who is the Knights of Vartan representative stationed in Yerevan, and 2 volunteers, which meets and vets the applicants as to their capabilities and what kinds of businesses they can operate. Another team or committee is in the US, with members both in the East and West Coast. It meets once or twice a week to approve the applicants. The chairman of this ESP committee is Jake Bournazian.

Thorose related that the first family approved made jingyalov hats, a bread with herbs traditionally made in Artsakh. Vladimir Grigoryan, a 56-year-old father of three from Stepanakert, used to help the Knights in Artsakh, and as a refugee, he recalled that his mother could make this bread. I have been tracking this family every month since January. They made 300,000 drams profit in January, and in February, 450,000 drams. With the extra money, they will buy a dough rotating machine. Prior to the Boston meeting, he spoke again with them and he said we already hired one person, and added to the menu pizza and other things. In March they made 500,000 dram and plan to hire one more local person. So this family not only sustains itself but provides jobs for two more individuals.

Thorose gave several other examples of individuals aided through the ESP.

Ararat Province was chosen for testing out the process of the ESP. A town hall meeting was organized by Gohar Palyan on February 6, 2024. There were 50 applications vetted, from which 22 refugee families were approved by the Avak Tivan (Grand Executive) of the Knights. The grants were for fields such as seamstress/tailor, construction, car/machinery repair, greenhouse, beekeeping, pig farming, beauty salon/barber, bakery, cultivating land, and towing services, for a total of $61,610 in grants. Of the 22 grants, the field with the largest amount was bakery with $5,000.

The grants for the first 7 families of the aforementioned 22 families will require $20,250. Thorose said that it is possible to adopt individual families, whether by individuals, Knights or Daughters of Vartan lodges, or aid from outside organizations. Ideally not just Armenians but non-Armenians could contribute.

Donations can be made through https://www.paypal.com/donate/?hosted_button_id=AYXJ4WKJ6FGDA or through checks sent to the Knights of Vartan. Future projects will be in the five provinces that border Yerevan.

After Thorose’s presentation, Arshakian noted that the following stage of the ESP would be non-interest loans, not grants, which will allow more people to be helped with the same amount of money. Once the loan is paid back, a new family would be helped. In response to an audience question, Arshakian said that sometimes the ESP money sent to Armenia is used directly to buy equipment for the family being helped instead of being given to the family itself.

Before the end of the meeting, Dirouhie Lucy Delefevre of Daughters of Vartan Arpie Otyag spoke in praise of Fr. Antranig Baljian and encouraged the perpetuation of the good Armenian spirit of prior generations.

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