Creating Awareness and Keeping the Promise for Armenians

Submitted by Sofia Kahn

Armenian Studies benefitThis spring the Armenian Studies Program at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), held its annual ban­quet in the campus Grand Salon. The event celebrated the contributions of Zaruhy "Sara" Chitjian, an educator for 34 years and a pioneer in establishing Armenian studies programs in Los Angeles public schools. Also in attend­ance was Kevin Matossian, producer of The Promise, a dramatic film that gives voice to the men, women, and children who lost their lives in the Armenian Genocide. 

Ms. Chitjian gave a generous endowment to CSUN's Armenian Studies Program and donated her fami­ly's archives to CSUN to teach and educate future genera­tions about the Armenian Genocide. The Armenian Stud­ies Program, offering both bachelor's degrees and minors, was established in 1983 amid great determination by the Armenian Students Association and professor Hermine Mahseredjian, who initially taught Armenian studies on a volunteer basis. In recalling her own decision to introduce Armenian studies, Chitjian says she had only recently begun to teach at Dixie Canyon Elementary School in Sherman Oaks when she was presented the opportunity to design and teach a six-week mini course on original subject matter for grades 4 through 6. "It wasn't just my first time teaching Armenian culture," Chitjian says. "It was also my first time pioneering a program at school." Chitjian found ways to teach her students in ways that sparked children's natural creativity, allowing them to explore Armenian manuscripts, which are "pictorial and colorful and can contain bird or fish letters," and helping them to create Armenian Easter eggs. Her classes emphasized relevancy and encouraged students to contextual­ize lessons in relation to their own worlds.

Chitjian's work had a profound effect on her father, who began to write his own story as she honed her curriculum. "When I was growing up, I remember that whenever my father tried to talk about his ex­periences, no one wanted to listen-no one wanted to hear his story," Chitjian says. "It surprised him that non-Armenians would be interested in it." The act of giving voice to his life was bittersweet. "When my father started writing, remembering every-thing and reliving it was so painful that he would wake up in the middle of the night covered in sweat, yet he did not stop," Chitjian says. "He made sure to write something every single day." It is important to Chitjian and her father that "disunity" be overcome in both the Armenian and non-Armenian community. "It is troublesome that the youth of today are forgetting this tragedy," Chitjian says. "Creating awareness among the youth is important. The Promise is one step in that direction. It creates awareness among people of all walks of life, not just Armenians."

Armenian Studies BenefitAnother step toward promoting awareness is the dedication of the Chitjian family archives, which date back to the pre-WWI Ottoman period. The archives – including letters, books, art if acts, clothes, jewelry, and even shoes – will be housed in Special Collections in the Oviatt Library. Dr. Vahram Shemmassian, who has directed the Armenian Studies Program for 11 years, says that the endow­ment and archives will help to preserve the Chitjian family name and history, and through their family's story students may learn about the Armenian Genocide and the Armenian Immigrant Experience in Los Angeles. The collection will be available for viewing and studying, and experts will be invited to give talks inspired by the Chitjian collection. The endowment allows for guest lecturers to teach courses at CSUN relating to the Armenian experience. Dr. Shemmassian says that the endowment encourages student engagement with the Chitjian collection through scholarship, adding that while people tend to take their own family artifacts for granted, "each and every house is a museum" that can help determine a family's history. "Go home," he urges. "Look at the voices of [your past] – your grandparents, great grandparents – see what they are telling you through the items." 

Ellen Jarosz, who directs Special Collections & Archives in CSUN's Oviatt Library, says that although this isn't the first collection relating to the Armenian experience, it is among the most comprehensive. "It is the nature of such tragedies that not only are immigrants forced to flee their homes, but they are also forced to leave such items behind as well," Jarosz says, "which makes the Chitjian family collection even more priceless. It is a really great collection of materials that documents what is both a unique and shared experience-the Armenian Experience and the Refugee/Immigrant Experience in Los Angeles."