Translator’s Note: The following article was originally published in French by the Lebanese newspaper L’Orient Le Jour and translated by the AGBU Press Office.
Berge Setrakian, President of AGBU Worldwide: Erasing the Damage Caused by the Genocide
Published Wednesday, July 6, 2011
Written by Maria Chakhtoura
“I am Lebanese to the core, attached to the land where I was born, where I grew up and lived, and I have Armenia as my heritage.” These are the words of Berge Setrakian, president of AGBU (Armenian General Benevolent Union), the world’s largest Armenian NGO headquartered in New York.
Our chance meeting, the result of a happy coincidence, took place in a hotel in Yerevan. Berge Setrakian was visiting the Armenian capital to attend two important meetings: the Special Commission of the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, and the annual meeting of the Board of Trustees of the “Hayastan” All-Armenian Fund.
He had left Lebanon in 1976 after completing his law studies at Saint Joseph University and having practiced law for some years. While on a short visit to the United States, he had met a lawyer of Lebanese origin associated with a large New York firm, who proposed that he join their team. No sooner said than done, and here he is now, a senior partner of an international firm with nearly 900 lawyers and offices in 26 cities around the world.
Since leaving Lebanon, Setrakian has kept in touch with his friends and returns regularly to the country where he still has his apartment. In the United States, he remains very active with groups working for the Lebanese cause. After relocating to the United States, Berge Setrakian also joined the Central Board of Directors of AGBU, which was established in 1906 and now has chapters in over 32 countries and 80 cities. After serving as vice president, he assumed the presidency in 2002.
It was in this capacity that Setrakian was in the Armenian capital. The Special Commission of the centenary of the genocide, chaired by Armenia’s head of state, was convened with the participation of highest-ranking government officials, political party representatives, heads of the church, and AGBU, to organize the worldwide centennial commemoration of the Armenian Genocide.
The mission of the “Hayastan” All-Armenian Fund, whose annual Board of Trustees meeting was being held in Yerevan, is to raise funds from the Diaspora to finance large projects in Armenia.
AGBU and the Diaspora
As for AGBU, with which many Lebanese are familiar through its various activities, Mr. Setrakian says, “This organization was established in Cairo in 1906 by Boghos Nubar Pasha, son of the prime minister of Egypt at the time, with the primary mission of preserving the Armenian identity in the Diaspora and the national heritage in Armenia. Its headquarters are in New York and it is managed by a board of 21 members, with an annual budget of almost $40 million. The organization first and foremost addressed the humanitarian and educational needs of the Armenian people following the genocide. Throughout a whole century of its history and activities, AGBU has adapted itself to the needs of the Armenian people and has grown progressively, playing a significant role in the contemporary history of Armenia and Armenians. In the years immediately following the genocide, AGBU financed and organized Armenian refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Greece and elsewhere. In the decades between 1930 and 1950, it created clinics, schools and youth camps. Moving on to the 1960’s, it constructed and organized community and youth centers in principal diasporan communities. With the advent of Armenia’s independence and the reopening of the Eastern European countries following the fall of the Soviet Union, the focus turned to initiatives in the homeland. Today, in the Diaspora, AGBU owns and operates more than 25 day and weekly schools, in addition to youth and cultural centers. For example, in Lebanon, AGBU operates several institutions, its main quarters currently being the Demirdjian Center in Antelias. It sponsors primary and secondary schools, and the Antranik Youth Association with its many sports, cultural, and educational activities. AGBU provides college scholarships for higher education, with special attention to the field of performing arts and to students who exhibit talent in art and music.
Initiatives in Armenia
What action has AGBU initiated in Armenia to help the country survive in face of the political problems stemming from Turkey’s refusal to recognize the Genocide?
“Since its inception, the organization has always followed a policy of supporting Armenia, regardless of existing political regimes. For example, in 1928, AGBU created a medical center in Yerevan. In 1931, with donations from its president at the time, it established the village of Nubarashen, which now has 11,000 residents. In 1946, it funded the repatriation of thousands of Armenians in the Diaspora to Armenia. In 1971, its then president Alex Manoogian donated the museum bearing his name at the Holy See of Etchmiadzin.
Nothing is permanent in politics; regimes change but heritage remains. Since the independence, our activity has become even more diversified, and the organization has invested more than $150 million in various projects in Armenia. After the fall of communism, AGBU funded the creation of the American University of Armenia to enable young people to embrace the educational system of the West. On the other hand, we provide scholarships to the French University in Armenia and subsidies to the State University. AGBU supports the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra and has funded many activities in the field of art and music to save the artistic and cultural heritage of the past regime, as the young state, still in its inception, has not been able to take upon itself the financing of these activities.
Working with the Holy See of Etchmiadzin, AGBU took over what once were youth centers of the Soviet era and transformed them into artistic and cultural centers for young people. Since 1990, these centers have been serving nearly 4,000 youths daily and providing them the means to engage in after-school leisure activities, rather than stay home.
The performance of these young people, in their respective capacities, is breathtaking. The children’s center programs discover and cultivate young talents, sometimes even prodigies. It suffices to watch these very, very young children in their high-quality performances, in order to understand the commitment of supporters, as well as the instructors who are driven by the purpose of this enterprise. AGBU also operates senior dining centers, where more than 1,500 retirees with paltry pensions receive daily meals.
At another level, we have focused on the development efforts of the Armenian Apostolic Church by funding, through donations from our members, the construction of new churches and organizing existing parishes and initiating new ones after 80 years of communism. We supported the construction of a new seminary by Lake Sevan. Thus, we are helping His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, in his mission to reconstruct “the Church” by providing funding to train seminarians and theological education abroad through scholarships. We are convinced that the Church will continue to play an important role in preserving our identity in the diaspora.
AGBU has also established a scout camp in Armenia and excursion trips for youth to the homeland, where more than 500 young diasporan Armenians visit every summer. We have created the Armenian Virtual College to teach language, history and culture through the Internet to diasporan Armenians. Our efforts are increasing in Armenia, on the one hand, because we are convinced that it will be difficult to maintain our identity in a diaspora scattered around the world, without the inspiration of the motherland and the Church. On the other hand, since the fall of communism, we have resumed our activities in Eastern Europe, namely Bulgaria, Romania, and elsewhere, and we are developing programs in Russia, where more than two million Armenians live. Unfortunately, our means are limited in light of the actual needs of the communities.”