When It Comes to Visibility, Armenians in America Are Hopeful Change Is on the Horizon

Last year, the war in Artsakh seemed to get buried beneath heaps of pandemic and election news. Now, an American president is poised to acknowledge the 1915 Genocide for the very first time

As we approach April 24, the day each year we memorialize those who died during the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and call for international recognition, I think back to last fall. For six weeks, as a war seethed in the ethnically Armenian enclave of Artsakh (known internationally as Nagorno-Karabakh), Armenians took their activism online.

My timeline reflected the urgency of the situation. It was a conflict that began with a ground offensive launched by Azerbaijan, and was supported by Turkey. It looked very much like an attempt to drive Armenians from what remains our indigenous homeland post-Genocide. What I saw online was a combination of grief, anger, and cultural pride in a collective cry far louder than what I’ve witnessed on any April 24.

“All of my friends stopped posting about anything else for 44 days,” says Vanna Kitsinian, a Los Angeles-based attorney who has long been involved with various Armenian groups. “All we would post about and share and talk about, to anybody that would listen, was about the Artsakh story and about the attack by Azerbaijan.”

The irony, though, is that this massive attempt to bring attention to a dire situation seemed confined to circles of Armenians and their allies. Artsakh wasn’t a major news story in the U.S. It certainly didn’t go viral. That Artsakh was largely buried under the pile bad news 2020 threw at the world was disheartening.

“I had to almost scream on social,” says L.A.-based filmmaker Natalie Shirinian of her own efforts to urge people to pay attention to the situation and reach out to their senators.

It was an incredibly frustrating time, one that could easily make you wonder if anyone was listening. In the midst of that, though, there were signs that some people did care. In mid-October, L.A. City Hall lit up in red, blue, and orange, the colors of the Armenian flag. In early November, Glendale Dia de los Muertos erected an ofrenda for Armenia and Artsakh. Gestures like that didn’t go unnoticed.

Online, I saw some engagement within my mostly non-Armenian social circles, which came overwhelmingly from the friends I’ve made while DJing at L.A. clubs. Taleen Kali and I befriended each other through the music scene a few years ago. She’s an L.A.-based musician of Armenian heritage and, last fall, Kali used her social media platform to both fundraise and help educate people on the situation in Artsakh.

“I started seeing a lot more support come through in the music community,” says Kali, “and, not just in the music community, but people who had been following me in different artistic communities as well, who were shocked to hear this was happening.”

She adds, “And some of them were hearing it for the first time.”

That might seem like inconsequential information—at first I thought that it might be too— but, in early April, something unexpected happen. The U.K. record label formerly known as Young Turks, home to The xx, FKA twigs, and Kamasi Washington, changed its name to Young. The reason: the name is associated with the early 20th century political group responsible for the Genocide (although the label was named after the Rod Stewart rather than the political movement). “Through ongoing conversations and messages that have developed our own knowledge around the subject, it’s become apparent that the name is a source of hurt and confusion for people,” label founder Caius Pawson said in a statement posted to Instagram. The label also made a donation the Armenian Institute in London.

“That was a huge admission,” Kali says of Pawson’s comments on the name change. “I thought it was really cool that they not only made the change, but they also used their platform to explain why and, therefore, they educated everybody on their platform. And then, on top of that, they sent donations.”

There are still plenty of people who don’t want to hear what Armenians have been saying for years.

For Armenians, the simple name change was a big deal. Keep in mind that there’s still a news program that purports to be progressive, yet continues to use the name Young Turks after years of outcry about it. There are still plenty of people who don’t want to hear what Armenians have been saying for years.

Yet, at the risk of sounding overly optimistic, it’s starting to look like there’s a sea change coming, especially because a lot of the activism that rose from social media during the war hasn’t stopped.

“I feel the need more now to put out stories that have to do with our culture,” says Shirinian, who previously incorporated Armenian culture into her short film Parev, Mama. “I think the more and more we communicate with people that really don’t know what Armenian is and we start telling our story—there’s a lot to tell, but you can kind of make it compact enough that people can understand—it helps to a degree.”

I keep thinking back to last fall for a few reasons. One is that the response from the United States, which is part of the OSCE Minsk Group that exists to negotiate peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan and dates back to the 1990s, was too little, too late. Another is that there is currently a widespread call for President Biden to refer to the Armenian Genocide as a genocide, something that U.S. presidents have not historically done for political reasons. Citing an unnamed official, The New York Times reported that Biden is intending to make this statement on April 24.

If Biden uses the word “genocide” in his statement on Saturday, it will be a massive moment for Armenian Americans, who have been asking for this recognition. It’s crucial not just for historical accuracy, but for recognizing the threat that Armenia and Artsakh continue to face.

In October I wrote that some Armenians in L.A. feared that the attack on Artsakh could turn into a continuation of the Genocide. It’s hard to say that those fears have subsided. There may have been a ceasefire in November, but there isn’t truly peace. Armenia still awaits the return of POWs. Meanwhile, as Al-Jazeera reported, Azerbaijan’s president was recently photographed at the “park of trophies,” a display of helmets seized from Armenian troops during the war.

Shirinian suspects that this April 24, Armenians will be mourning more than the Genocide of 1915. “The marches will be different. The social posts will be different,” she says. “The community will be different.”

RELATED: Why L.A.’s Armenian Community Wants You to Pay Attention to the Situation in Nagorno-Karabakh

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