January 01, 2024

AGBU President Berge Setrakian Reflects on 2023

“Yes, we can be global citizens and benefit from our relationships with well-meaning foreign friends and allies, but ultimately we must take the wheel as the drivers of our national destiny.”

This year has been a watershed moment in modern Armenian history. Many lessons have been learned about our impressive capacity as an organization to act on behalf of Armenians in times of crisis and the failure of the international community to do the same. 

Over the first ten months of 2023, there was a persistent drumbeat, heard around the Armenian world, that a human catastrophe in Artsakh was imminent. Sadly, despite our repeated efforts to sound the alarm that there was a clear and present danger to the Armenians of Artsakh, the global response was rhetorical at best, cynical at worst, and typically, too little too late. This again reminds us that Armenians must be there for Armenians. Yes, we can be global citizens and benefit from our relationships with well-meaning foreign friends and allies, but ultimately we must take the wheel as the drivers of our national destiny. 

Within a week of the Azeri attack on Artsakh, over 100,000 indigenous Armenians were left with no choice but to flee to Armenia earlier this year. This began a humanitarian disaster of unprecedented scope. And, as the crisis intensified, so did AGBU’s capacity to intervene with equal momentum, initially with a focus on food security. 

Within days, the AGBU partnership with the World Central Kitchen (WCK) was up and running nationwide. For six weeks straight, AGBU volunteers and staff worked with WCK to prepare and distribute over 400,000 warm meals and set up food hubs and delivery routes across seven regions of Armenia. To date, we have also distributed as many as 31,000 food boxes for at-home meal preparation. As winter sets in, we will have distributed 10,000 space heaters to those living in temporary shelters or dwellings with inadequate heating. 

Last fall, we hired and trained a select group of Artsakh evacuees to serve their community members in roles critical to the warm meal distribution. It was the first step in AGBU’s broader action plan to provide Artsakh Armenians with training for job placements. It is also fortuitous that our existing programs such as AGBU Learn to Earn Artsakh Program (LEAP), AGBU Women’s Empowerment, and AGBU Scholarships can and will be tailored to the needs of this unique community. 

Since health and well-being come first, every member of an Artsakh Armenian family can receive a free annual well visit at our polyclinic in Yerevan where we have hired additional medical staff from Artsakh to help establish trust among these physically and psychologically fragile families. Along with a pediatrician and ENT specialist, a professional in trauma counseling has also joined the team. We now have the capacity to handle 8,000 health visits in the coming year. Moreover, AGBU Camp Nairi is now open during the off-season months to welcome as many as 3,000 parents and kids to take part in therapeutic retreat. 

We were deeply gratified by the continued surge of AGBU volunteers from across the Diaspora and locally. They are engaged as never before--delivering relief packages, helping expand spaces, distributing holiday gifts to Artsakh children, and more.  Any opportunity to remind these families that there is still good in this world is an essential step in their recovery. 

We truly appreciate these everyday heroes for going the distance—from the local AGBU Scouts, Young Professionals (YPs) in Armenia to the international AGBU Armenians Come Together (ACT) participants and chapter committees organizing local fundraisers and charity drives. Moreover, our “YP Cares” campaign is generating more funding to sustain the multi-faceted relief and assistance work ahead. 

Another critical impact project was the growth of APRI (Applied Policy Research Institute of Armenia). Now in its second year, APRI has established itself as a reliable source for rigorous research, analysis and insightful content on issues related to Armenia and its place in the world. The quality of the research papers and forums by an international team of fellows has reinforced opportunities to engage with foreign countries, policymakers, and industry leaders, all to the benefit of the Armenian state. 

While this year was seemingly overshadowed by heartbreaking circumstances, we can also reflect on our activities which are the clearest indicator of the continued pride and connectivity of our community. Whether honoring our alumnus and Nobel Laureate, sharing the diverse stories of modern Armenians throughout the world in our publications, bringing smiles to thousands of children each year through our schools and programs or hosting important forums and events, we seek one another out and yearn for this special connection.

Take our biennial AGBU FOCUS weekend, which returned after a pandemic pause. Close to 450 attendees hailing from 25 countries converged on Madrid for a truly remarkable global bonding that unleashed critical and creative thinking to be tapped across our global network.  Or consider that over 10,000 new learners of all ages sought out Armenian content and online communities through our educational resources including the Armenian Virtual College (AVC), AGBU Armat (meet-ups for kids) and AGBU WebTalks. And, of course, we look to our signature programs around the world – they continue to grow and thrive proving Armenians are here to stay and no one can succeed in breaking our spirit.  

As we start this new year, I pause to look back at the progress our great organization has made throughout the last two and a half decades. It has been a privilege for me to serve as President of AGBU and I am grateful for the support of our generous benefactors and dedicated volunteers and staff. Together we are making a profound and positive difference in the world. We should each be proud of what we have achieved. 

With best wishes for a new year of healing and hope, 

Berge Setrakian

President

Armenian General Benevolent Union