AGBU Community Worldwide Comes Together for Syrian Relief
$3.2 Million Raised in Support of the AGBU Humanitarian Emergency Relief Fund for Syrian Armenians
The past six months have brought an unprecedented wave of support for Syrian Armenians on the part of the global Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) community. Since 2012, AGBU has raised $3.2 million in support of the AGBU Humanitarian Emergency Relief Fund for Syrian Armenians living both in Syria and restarting their lives abroad.
Donations have helped distribute food and aid; provide medical services and equipment; offer educational and children’s programs; and deliver displacement support. Thanks to the generosity of AGBU members and friends, emergency aid has been provided to more than 3,000 families in Syria, including food packages of cereal, cooking oil, dry meat, eggs, milk, and baby formula; close to 400 patients have been treated and more than 50 major medical procedures performed for wounded Armenians; tuition reimbursement scholarships have been given to close to 400 Syrian-Armenian students studying in Armenia; and full scholarships have been offered to Syrian-Armenian students studying at AGBU schools in Lebanon and Montreal.
At the heart of the AGBU relief efforts is the #ICareICan campaign, which has encouraged the idea that even the smallest initiative can make a big difference. “These types of grassroots campaigns are not only essential to raising funds, but also to helping raise awareness of AGBU’s relief efforts in support of the tens of thousands of Armenians impacted by the devastation in Syria. We’re so grateful to see that the #ICareICan campaign has galvanized people of all ages and sparked countless acts of kindness and generosity,” said Karen Papazian, the director of development and outreach at the AGBU Central Office.
The #ICareICan campaign, begun on AGBU’s social media platforms, has galvanized AGBU members and chapters worldwide to do their part in contributing to the fund in their own ways. All participants in the campaign are asked to take a picture holding a sign that reads “#ICareICan” and post it on their personal Facebook, Twitter, and/or Instagram pages with a message explaining what they have done for the cause. Pledges have ranged from donating money normally spent on coffee to organizing a community fundraising event.
The spirit of giving embodied in the #ICareICan campaign led AGBU chapters to hold fundraising events that bring the community together in support of the cause. One example is AGBU Sofia’s Nov. 28 charity ball at the Sheraton Sofia Balkan Hotel in Bulgaria. The event, the proceeds of which went to the AGBU Humanitarian Emergency Relief Fund for Syrian Armenians, was attended by many notable guests, including Vice Foreign Minister of Bulgaria Hristo Angelichin; Ambassador of the Republic of Armenia to Bulgaria Arsen Shoyan; Ambassador of Syria to Bulgaria Nadra Sayaf; and many AGBU Sofia supporters. The evening raised money by auctioning the paintings of Bulgarian-Armenian artists (including those of the late Edmond Demirdjian, Onnik Karanfilian, Luisa Medzikian, and Arshak Nersisyan) and selling the jewelry of Jacklin Hugasyan.
AGBU schools have also taken the #ICareICan message to heart. In fall 2015, the AGBU Alex Manoogian School’s program to welcome Syrian-Armenian refugees received unprecedented coverage in the Canadian and international media. The school is one of the few in Quebec to have a hands-on program to integrate Syrian-Armenian refugee children and devise an educational model to help them succeed academically through training in French and English alongside their native Armenian.
The media attention from France24, Radio-Canada, Journal de Montréal, Radio de Québec, Journal de Québec, Huffington Post, and Journal Métro led many non-Armenians to donate their time and money to help the program’s mission, which was lauded, mostly notably, by Quebec’s minister of education in the provincial National Assembly. “Our classes are filled with Syrian children who are suffering from post-traumatic stress. But that hasn’t prevented many among them from later becoming the first in their class. The best remedy for their pain is education,” said principal Sébastien Stasse.
The AGBU community has also shown its creativity in organizing events for Syrian relief. On Nov. 21, the AGBU Central Office in New York held a spinathon. Thirty-three spinners joined the event and appealed to their friends and family to sponsor them to participate in a spin class at a downtown gym. Together they raised more than $75,000. The New York spinners were joined by counterparts in Los Angeles and Montreal. The New York spinathon inspired Young Professionals (YP) London to organize two events in February, donating all the proceeds to Syrian relief.
New York spinner Maral Jebejian, who individually raised $15,550, knows firsthand the desperate need for support to the Armenians of Syria: “When the opportunity presented itself to help Syrian Armenians, my reaction was immediate and visceral. I already knew the seriousness of the situation in Syria, not only through reading the news, but through a personal connection to the country. My uncle lost his home, was wounded by shrapnel fire, and only escaped death by chance. My cousin was faced with the impossible decision to leave her family and her dying mother behind in an attempt to save herself and her future. My husband’s cousin, whose son is in the army, also faces the uncertainty of what will become of his son. And these are just the tragic stories I know about personally. I’m certain that there are thousands more. It is absolutely necessary for those of us who are more fortunate to reach out and help. I had the support of my friends and my family who cheered me on, and it felt great to be able to help and give back in some way.” Since November, similar events have been planned by AGBU members around the world.
Many AGBU members have used their expertise to raise money for relief efforts. Nancy Nalbandian, a jewelry designer who donated the money she earned selling her jewelry at a Christmas bazaar, drew on her own past as motivation: “My father, Leon Garabed Nalbandian, was a refugee orphan and a Syrian-Muslim family took him in at a point in his long and difficult journey. I felt finally able to do something for others through my jewelry business,” said Nalbandian.
Luba Libarikian of the handmade baby accessories company Born on Bowery, the Homeland Development Initiative of Berd Bears, Aghasi Aghabalyan of the design boutique Gugoco, and Joseph Basralian, author of Mr. Baboomian’s Van, also generously donated their proceeds to the AGBU Emergency Humanitarian Relief Fund for Syrian Armenians through the AGBU Bookstore.
Other members have held luncheons or celebrations and encouraged guests to donate to the cause. In December, Nora Janoyan Balikian in San Diego held a holiday brunch with #ICareICan as its theme. In lieu of gifts, Balikian asked her friends to donate to the fund and collected $11,000. “Considering how blessed we all are, and thinking about making a difference in the lives of Syrian children, I decided to join the #ICareICan campaign and ask my friends to help me raise funds for this worthy and important cause,” said Balikian.
On Feb. 10, artist and hair stylist Vartan Geudelekian held a fundraising event, “Art at Vartali,” at his salon in New York. The cocktail reception, attended by members of the Armenian community as well as many members the wider New York community, served as the site for the opening night of Vartali’s abstract art exhibit. The sale of his paintings, of which all the proceeds were donated, raised $20,000 for the AGBU Humanitarian Emergency Relief Fund for Syrian Armenians.
The relief efforts have also helped Syrian Armenians restart their lives abroad. On Jan. 27, the AGBU Young Professionals of Toronto organized a job fair for more than 200 Syrian-Armenian refugees at the AGBU Centre in Toronto. Canada has been in the spotlight with the resettlement of more than 20,000 refugees from Syria, among them many Armenians. The Armenian community in Canada, most in Toronto and Montreal, has quickly mobilized resources to sponsor hundreds of Armenian families. Sponsorship of refugees entails commitments from temporary housing to providing basic assistance with paperwork, a job search, and a range of settlement issues.
YP Toronto was quick in identifying the resources it could make available to Syrian Armenians already in Canada. Utilizing its professional networks and in cooperation with a number of Toronto-based organizations, YP Toronto helped organize the first in a series of job fairs, which attracted a number of potential agencies and employers. These initiatives were designed not only to connect prospective jobseekers with employers but also to create an intimate, informal space where refugees, through small onsite workshops, can receive practical advice on resumes, cover letters, and the effective use of professional networking sites. Ancillary services, such as banking advice and opening new accounts, are also provided.
Many other worthy fundraisers have been and continue to be organized around the world, and every amount collected has a direct and positive impact. $100 pays for a family’s electricity bill for 4 months; $350 buys winter coats for 10 children; $900 feeds 15 families of 4 for 2 weeks; $2,700 supplies clean drinking water to 10 families for 6 months; $6,000 provides milk to 20 children for a year; $8,000 covers tuition costs for 1 student at the AGBU school in Montreal; and $12,000 funds scholarships for 10 students continuing their university education in Armenia. “The single most important way people can help out,” said Nerses Nersoyan, chairman of the AGBU Syria District, “is by making a financial donation, as it is difficult to bring any other items or resources into Aleppo or any other city because of the ongoing war. All of the donations will be used in the best way possible to help those most in need.”
AGBU encourages all members and friends to do their part to ease the suffering of Syrian Armenians by organizing fundraising events, such as brunches, walk-a-thons, online campaigns, or spinathons. For help with logistics, e-mail email@example.com.
For more information about the AGBU Emergency Humanitarian Relief Fund for Syrian Armenians and to donate, visit www.agbu.org/syriarelief/.
Established in 1906, AGBU is the world’s largest non-profit Armenian organization. Headquartered in New York City, it preserves and promotes the Armenian identity and heritage through educational, cultural, and humanitarian programs, annually touching the lives of some 500,000 Armenians around the world. For more information about AGBU and its worldwide programs, visit www.agbu.org.
Source: Armenian Weekly Mid-Atlantic