As COVID-19 sweeps through the nation and the U.S. elected a new president, the Armenian Students’ Cultural Association at the University of Michigan has been raising funds and awareness for a different cause: the Nagorno-Karabakh war and renewed threats to Armenians.
Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory that is part of Azerbaijan but has a majority Armenian population, is controlled by ethnic Armenians backed by the Armenian government. It has been a consistent source of contention between Azerbaijan and Armenia. In September, tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia ultimately peaked as war broke out over the disputed territory.
While estimates differ on the number of people killed in the September conflict, according to The New York Times, at least 2,317 Armenian soldiers died. The countries reached a ceasefire on Nov. 9 in a deal brokered by Russia in which Azerbaijan won a majority of the concessions it had been asking for.
Public Health junior Gasia Oknayan, ASCA president, said the battle between Azerbaijan and Armenia highlights deep-rooted political tensions that have ultimately culminated into a full-fledged war.
“I feel like Armenia has been left out,” Oknayan said. “Armenia and the people of Artsakh have been left alone in some sort of David and Goliath situation where they are fighting by themselves against Azerbaijan, a country backed by Turkey, Israel and funded with hundreds of millions of dollars by the American government.”
The Trump Administration “substantially ramped up” security assistance to Azerbaijan, totaling more than $100 million in fiscal years 2018-19, according to an analysis of data compiled by a Washington think tank.
Ronald Suny, professor of history and political science at the University, explained the consequences of the lack of overall assistance for Armenia.
“Israel and Turkey supplied some arms, particularly drones or illegal drones to Azerbaijan,” Suny said. “Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey, started this recent war, and basically beat the Armenian army. The Armenians had to surrender basically.”
The conflict in Armenia hits close to home for some students, like LSA sophomore Nayiri Sagherianm, who is a member of ASCA.
“It hurts really really bad,” Sagherian said. “I have friends and family in Armenia and hearing news about people my age going off to war and dying, losing 1,500 young men to a war that should have already been finished and fought in the 90s really hurts.”
LSA sophomore Ariana Nigoghosian, ASCA member, echoed Sagherian’s sentiments and said she feels like there’s nothing she can do to help.
“As an Armenian, it’s so hard,” Nigoghosian said. “There’s something called diasporic guilt, where you have people (in Armenia) who are directly enduring suffering and we’re here kind of standing by the sidelines trying to do everything we can. It’s so hard because essentially I’m fine, but they’re not.”
For some, this conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia reignited memories of the 1915 Armenian genocide, when the Ottoman Empire murdered 1.5 million Armenians through ethnic cleansing.
“These recent events bring back a lot of memories for Armenians because we experienced genocide between 1915 and 1923,” Nigoghosian said. “And the problem is that this gets little recognition throughout the world, and Armenians pretty much have been screaming at the top of our lungs because we didn’t want to see 1915 repeat itself, and yet it did.”
Events in Armenia are rarely given the coverage they deserve, Suny said.
“When I was growing up, no one knew what Armenia was,” Suny said. “It’s a small country, it’s way off the radar for most Americans who are very insular. Their mentality is bordered by the borders of their country. They don’t have a very global vision, they seem more concerned about, you know, what goes on in Hollywood.”
LSA freshman Kristen Bagdasarian, an ASCA member, shared Suny’s frustration.
“Events in Armenia are not going to get a lot of attention because most people can’t even point to Armenia on a map,” Bagdasarian said.
ASCA has been working to not only spark conversation about the conflict, but is making efforts to provide direct, tangible support, Nigoghosian said.
“We’ve been donating so much because our homelands are in ruin,” Nigoghosian said. “We’ve raised well over $11,000. We’ve also been posting educational items, ways to help and share updates, all in an effort to raise awareness. Everybody in Armenian club has been resharing what Armenian club has been posting on social media. We’re just trying to raise awareness throughout Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan community.”
Though the countries reached a deal, Sagherian said several issues must still be resolved.
“A way U.S. citizens can help is by calling their congresspeople,” Sagherian said. “Getting U.S. citizens together and protesting. Non-Armenians and Armenian allies coming together to protest and really get the word out there. Also making sure that the United States is not sending weapons and money to Azerbaijan to support Azerbaijan.”
Suny said he sees potential in University students to raise more awareness and advocate on behalf of Armenia.
“As a teacher, I’m more interested in raising awareness in the rest of the world for good citizenship for young Americans,” Suny said. “And the interesting thing is that in a place like Michigan, there’s real response. I mean, I feel very privileged to teach at this university. There are enough students who are intellectually curious and intelligent enough to appreciate the variety and variation that you find in the world.”
Nigoghosian also shared possible resolutions to the turmoil between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
“As for solutions, a lot of it comes back to recognizing the Armenian genocide because that’s been denied internationally by Turkey,” Nigoghosian said. “That’s given aggressors leeway to continue attacking Armenians. It also comes back to the United States. They can pass legislation that nationally recognizes Artsakh, which would allow the international community to react if attacks were to happen again.”
ASCA plans to continue their efforts and bring others along with them, according to Oknayan.
“The epitome of the Armenian people is that we are small, but we are mighty,” Oknayan said. “We might not have a lot of manpower, but we all have a lot of passion and work hard.”
Daily News Contributor Janice Kang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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