As night fell over the University chapel last Thursday, about 50 students, faculty, and community members gathered to commemorate the lives lost during the mass exodus of over 100,000 ethnic Armenians from the breakaway state of Nagorno-Karabakh following Azerbaijan’s recent invasion. Until this month, upwards of 120,000 Armenians lived in the contested region and their departure in the face of fears of ethnic cleansing has been referred to as a cultural genocide.
On Sept. 19, Azerbaijan launched a military attack into Nagorno-Karabakh, known by ethnic Armenians as Artsakh, and took control of the region, following three decades of territorial conflict and a months long Azerbaijani blockade. As of late September, over 80 percent of the region's inhabitants had fled their homes, and the government of Nagorno-Karabakh announced that it would dissolve itself by January 2024. While Azerbaijani officials have denied reprisal against Armenians, Armenians have fled in the face of longtime violent anti-Armenian rhetoric and policy from the Azerbaijani government.
The vigil was organized by the Princeton Armenian Society (PAS) “in remembrance of those who sacrificed their lives for the freedom and self-determination of the land’s Armenian population,” according to the flyer for the event. It marked an important moment in the relatively new society's efforts to serve Armenian interests on Princeton's campus.
At the event, PAS Co-President Hayk Yengibaryan ’26, spoke about the cultural importance of Artsakh. Yengibaryan shared that Artsakh was an Armenian cultural and religious hotbed, the site of the first Armenian school in the early 400s, and the birthplace of the Armenian alphabet.
“This vigil was to come and commemorate not only the rich history of this region, but also all the fallen soldiers, the innocent civilians, the women, the children, the fathers, the sons, the daughters, and everyone who passed away due to the attack,” he said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian.
Yengibaryan is an associate Sports editor for the ‘Prince.’
Among the attendees to the event were University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83, representatives who spoke on behalf of Congressman Frank Pallone (D-NJ-06) and Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ-04), and the University’s Orthodox Chaplain Father Daniel Skvir ’66 who led a closing prayer
PAS Co-President Katya Hovnanian ’25 said at the vigil that the seizure of Nagorno-Karabakh marks “the second darkest moment” in Armenian history, following the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Empire following World War I.
“Our diaspora is bonded by this trauma — the Armenian Genocide — that happened over a century ago, and that was recognized just recently by the United States and 33 other countries,” she said. “That trauma brings us together, but it’s also such a tight knit community. It’s like this vast network, and we’re all truly brothers and sisters.”
A growing community
Since 2015, the Princeton Armenian Society has represented the Armenian diaspora community on campus. However, since returning to campus after the COVID-19 pandemic, the club has been revitalized.
“When I was a freshman here in 2019, I thought I was the only Armenian student on campus, which wasn't true,” Lena Hoplamazian ’24 said. “It wasn't until [Hovnanian] came in 2021 and kind of rebooted the Armenian society that there actually was any type of student organizing or community on campus.”
Born in New York City, Hovnanian grew up in Armenia and participated in the protests during the peaceful 2018 Velvet Revolution which displaced a longtime political leader, thus, in Hovnanian's opinion, bringing “democracy to Armenia.” In 2020, during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, a 44 day conflict in which Azerbaijan regained control of most of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven thousand soldiers and civilians were killed, a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) that Hovnanain ran delivered humanitarian aid to displaced Armenians, along with serving other global causes like helping survivors of a port blast in Lebanon.
“Then I come to college, and I’m completely in a frenzy. I just witnessed the most atrocious event in Armenia’s history, and no one on campus seemed to be aware of it,” she said. “Very few [Armenians] were here, and we didn’t feel like our voice was supported just because we were so few.”
Hovnanian said that PAS “tried [their] best to get dinners every week to talk about Armenia, its history, and its culture,” and brought the Ambassador of Armenia to the United States, Lilit Kamo Makunts, to speak on campus. Members attribute PAS’s growth to the leadership of Hovnanian and Yengibaryan in the past year.
Yengibaryan was born in Armenia’s capital city but grew up in Los Angeles, home to the largest Armenian population in the United States.
“When I came in as a first year student, I was wanting to get involved right away because I was coming from a city where there were so many Armenians and there were constantly events and advocacy happening,” he said.
In the month before Yengibaryan submitted his application to Princeton, the Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia hosted a talk with Khazar Ibrahim, the Ambassador of the Republic of Azerbaijan to the United States.
“I immediately was outraged about this event happening at a campus that I wanted to attend,” Yengibaryan said. “[In my application], I wrote about how if I come to Princeton, I may even challenge the powers at Princeton and [use] my academic freedom of speech to challenge things that I don't necessarily agree with.”
Yengibaryan said that the University admitted six Armenian students into the Class of 2026 which has enabled them to restart PAS.
“We were able to figure out how to get funding, start an Instagram page, start outreaching to students and kind of being present and putting ourselves out on campus,” he said. “We’ve been able to grow tremendously, and an event like this [vigil] is a top reason why. It goes to show how much we’ve grown in the past year and two months.”
This year marks the first year the organization has formed an executive board with a vice-president, treasurer, marketing, social, and outreach positions.
“We want everyone to feel like they have a role in our society, that they're doing something for the good of the Armenian cause, and spreading our culture and our history and our roots to so many other people on such a diverse and beautiful campus,” Yengibaryan said.
With ongoing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, the issue has been key in the organization's events. In September of last year, PAS collaborated with Armenian students from 15 other universities to write an open letter to “denounce Azerbaijan’s invasion of Armenia” in “defense of democracy.” Since then, they’ve brought speakers on Armenian topics to campus, hosted an Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day Lecture in April, and have continued to collaborate with the University of Pennsylvania’s Armenian Students Association.
“We have a lot of plans to continue to build off of this momentum, and one of the issues that we are trying to tackle as a society is actually within our Near Eastern Studies Department,” Yengibaryan said.
Armenian scholarship at Princeton
In their interviews with the ‘Prince,’ PAS members mentioned that Princeton’s Department of Near Eastern Studies has no courses, programs, or professors who specialized in Armenian studies, in contrast to other leading institutions such as Harvard University, Columbia University, and the University of Pennsylvania.
In a guest contribution to the ‘Prince’ last year calling on Princeton to formally recognize the Armenian Genocide, Hovnanian described what she views as anti-Armenia bias in the history of Princeton’s Department of Near Eastern Studies:
“Princeton’s Near Eastern Department is notorious among Armenians,” she wrote. “In 1996, a New York Times article exposed links between large payments of the Turkish Government and the appointment of Professor Emeritus Heath Lowry, a genocide denialist, as the Chair of Princeton’s Near Eastern Department. Professor Emeritus Bernard Lewis, another notable historian of Turkey and Middle Eastern Studies, and a peer of Lowry at Princeton’s Near Eastern Department, refused to call the atrocities a genocide — he said there was a lack of evidence in the Ottoman archives.”
“As a leading institution, we feel that the school needs to address its Armenian presence on campus, and rightfully, hire faculty and teach Armenian courses,” she said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’
PAS member Mikaela Avakian ’24 is pursuing a certificate in Near Eastern Studies.
“It’s important to fill these academic [gaps] in regard to Armenian studies so that people can know what Armenia is beyond the Armenian Genocide, that we are not a country that’s merely gone through trauma, but that we’ve made real-time contributions culturally, politically, literally,” she said.
Avakian added that as “an ancient kingdom, a New Republic, the first Christian Nation, and one of the ex-Soviet Bloc countries, there’s various academic angles from which you can approach Armenian studies.”
In the absence of Armenian studies, Avakian said PAS creates “an environment where talking about Armenian politics, Armenian language, Armenian culture is prioritized.” She inherited most of her knowledge of Armenia through personal research and her family’s stories of Artsakh, which she recounted at Thursday’s vigil:
“I always took pride in the fact that my family, my ancestors, had cultivated a heritage and an identity around their land, a land that existed outside of the political imagination,” she said. “I've never been to Artsakh, but my memory is veneered with… images, tales and stories that keep me oriented to this land, to my ancestors’ land.”
Avakian concluded with her grandmother’s words: “My child, keep your head high, stand strong. Everything will be as it should.”
“I am heartbroken and I know that I'm not alone in this heartbreak as such is the burden that weighs on the hearts of all Armenians, on the hearts of all that are gathered here in solidarity today,” she said. “Even still, even in the most trying of times, we must live with hope and prayer.”
Elisabeth Stewart is a News contributor for the 'Prince.'
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