Armenian festival honors refugees, survivors
As the parish council treasurer of the St. Kevork Armenian Church, Ani Frankian serves as an informal ambassador for both her church and homeland at events like Saturday’s 2018 Houston Armenian Festival.
She explains how her church send funds to the Armenian-Syrians, and to their sister church located on the border of Armenia and Azerbaijan.
“To continue doing the festival is important because we want people to know who Armenians are and what the Armenian community does, and we also want to give back to Houston as well,” said Frankian, who estimated that there are about 300 Armenian families in Houston.
The festival, a regular feature at the church decades ago, resumed in 2016, Frankian said. Harvey forced it to be canceled in 2017 and the church was excited to have it return in Saturday.
The festival incorporated tastes from many of the surrounding countries that survivors fled to after 1.5 million were killed in the Armenian Genocide in 1915. Those countries included Lebanon Iran, Syria and Iraq. A century later, when Syria became a war zone, Armenians needed help returning to their homeland.
Vreij Kolandjian, the delegate for the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church in New York City, worked with the Aleppo Compatriotic Charitable Organization in 2015 to help secure plane tickets for hundreds of Armenian-Syrians.
“They didn’t know what do because a lot of people were escaping, and a lot of Syrians were escaping all over the place,” Kolandjian said. “The Christian Armenians preferred to go back to their original homeland in Armenia which is not far from Syria. But they were stuck, and those people didn’t have any money, they didn’t know what to do.”
Kolandjian said he and the Aleppo CCO help move 500 people from Syria to Armenia.
“After 100 years they went back to where their grandparents came from,” Kolandjian said.
Once the Armenian-Syrians moved back, the organization helped find them places to live, but they needed jobs, Kolandjian said. They decided to build a kitchen — which opened in February 2018 — where they cook various Armenian meals to sell to places such as hotels and events.
“If this thing works then we will open another one,” he said. “There are thousands of refugees who are starting a new life, and instead of just giving them money we are also giving them jobs.”
Ara Karamanian, another festival organizer, said faith is also important. After the genocide and 70 years of Communism, Frankian and Karamanian said they believe some Armenians lost touch with their religion, which is why they strive to conserve it by teaching traditional Armenian-Orthodox practices, such as having church services in Armenian and having programs for the children to learn the language and the prayers.
“Under Communism they certainly lost touch with religion, because you weren’t allowed to talk about it, you weren’t allowed to show crosses or get baptized,” Frankian said. “If you did and they found out then you were punished. So that, of course, distanced them a little bit from their religion.”
Karamanian said it is also important to teach and preserve their faith because Armenia has a strong Christian history.
“Armenia was the first Christian nation that was accepted as a nation and we have some unique contributions to Christianity at an international level,” Karamanian said.
Festival-goers could buy jewelry, hand bags and handmade letters from an orphanage in Armenia. Karamanian said the proceeds support the children in the orphanage. Visitors could also see displays of traditional Armenian clothing, food and music, including dance ensembles from the St. Sarkis Armenian Church in Dallas.
While some of the dances were celebratory, one was dedicated to the those who died in the Armenian Genocide.
Kolandjian said he hopes the festival helps connect with more churches in Houston to help support Christian communities that are suffering in other countries. The church invited as many churches and people from the community as we could.
“We are not like the big churches in Houston,” he said. “We don’t have the money to advertise on TV, so we do it with our own means. Step by step hopefully next year it will be bigger and the year after.”