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Fresno’s Armenians deserve a better, stronger voice than Apkarian

Last night, Armenian Americans in Fresno won a hard-earned victory. A lengthy push to name a public school within California’s third-largest school district after a local Armenian finally hit paydirt.

On a 6-0 vote, Fresno Unified School District trustees approved a move to change the name of J.C. Forkner Elementary School to H. Roger Tatarian Elementary School.

Despite a push from some of Fresno’s former Armenian elected officials and community members, one voice in the community was absent: Armenia’s Honorary Consul Berj Apkarian.

Writing as an Armenian, it’s a crying shame.

Appointed in 2014 as Fresno’s first-ever honorary consul to the Republic of Armenia, Apkarian has managed to launch a formal diplomatic presence out of Downtown Fresno’s Pacific Southwest Building.

Beyond a formal outpost, little can be said for advancing the interests of the region’s vibrant Armenian community or building anything resembling strong ties between Valley stakeholders and the Near East Republic.

This was no more apparent than last year, as Azeri and Turkish-backed forces swept into Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh and drove out the native Armenian government and population, with the confrontation ending in a deeply unpopular ceasefire agreement.

The conflict reignited cultural pride in Armenian Americans not seen in some time, albeit for differing reasons.

While some Armenians saw the conflict as teetering on the verge of another Armenian genocide – with cable news outlets delivering live coverage – others saw an anemic homeland incapable of defending itself badly in need of support from its diaspora.

Beneath it, however, was a rallying cry to unite.

For weeks, hundreds of Fresno Armenians gathered on the streets of California’s fifth-largest city to protest the conflict, hoping to draw attention to the hostile military action and rally support for Armenians in the struggle.

Yet, the Republic’s primary representative in the area – Apkarian – was notably silent.

The City of Fresno is home to roughly 45,000 Armenians, with the first arriving during the Hamidian massacres of the mid-1890s, making it one of the nation’s oldest and larger outposts.

Despite facing discrimination in housing upon mass migration during the 1915 Armenian Genocide, the population has strongly assimilated to California life after four generations.

And amid the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the Armenian community looked for someone to seize the clarion call locally.

They found it in the embrace of an unlikely figure: then-Fresno City President Miguel Arias.

Without prompting, Arias and city officials organized a flag raising ceremony to bolster awareness of the conflict half-way around the world and to convey a message to the sizable Armenian community that Fresno officials wer

In the week running up to the event, it was made clear by City Hall officials: Apkarian and his office were A.W.O.L. on the matter.

That is until the eleventh hour, as representatives of Fresno County’s five Armenian Churches (Holy Trinity, St. Paul, St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic, First Armenian Presbyterian, and Pilgrim Armenian Congregational Church), agreed to join City leaders to call for a peaceful resolution in favor of Armenia amid the flag raising.

Despite failing to serve as the catalyst for the event, Apkarian delivered a speech rife with empty platitudes befitting the Republic’s military performance.

The fundamental job of a diplomat is to leverage relationships with local officials to advance the agenda and interests of the homeland. That requires active engagement, not passive participation.

At a critical hour, Apkarian failed his duty and the local Armenian community.

More than one year later, the same Armenian community rallied to seek recognition for Roger Tatarian, an historic journalistic figure who fostered the development of newsmen nationwide while running UPI and returned home to leave an indelible impact on an entire generation of Fresno State graduates.

Leading the charge here was former Fresno Unified Trustee Michelle Arax Asadoorian and her brother, author and journalist Mark Arax.

Before Fresno Unified trustees unanimously voted to change the name of J.C. Forkner Elementary to honor Tatarian, a heated debate emerged between opponents castigating the name change as the latest specter of cancel culture and Armenians pressing for a school named after a luminary from the sizable local Armenian community.

Apkarian, once again, was M.I.A.

Enough.

Fresno’s Armenian community is not monolithic. It is largely divided among five churches within this county: three Apostolic, two Protestant; it ranges from post-Soviet emigrants to fourth-generation native-born Americans; and – like all Americans – it is a community made up of Republicans and Democrats.

The push to dedicate an Honorary Consul was not to have a ceremonial ribbon cutter. It was meant to serve as a voice of the Republic of Armenia and Armenians devoid of partisanship, in all senses of the word.

Ultimately, that role offers the officeholder the ability to advance the interests of the Republic and the diasporan Armenian community here in Fresno.

Instead, we’ve found ourselves an officeholder who has yet to step up and serve as an advocate for the benefit of the community.

Armenians in the San Joaquin Valley deserve a better voice. Perhaps, one day, that voice will occupy that honorable office.

Photo: Cary Edmondson/Fresno State

Alex Tavlian is the Executive Editor of The San Joaquin Valley Sun and Executive Director of Valley Future Foundation. You can reach Alex at alex.tavlian@sjvsun.com.