By Diane C. Lade
Four striking billboards, crowded in among beer and cosmetic surgery ads along two South Florida highways, contain one sentence starkly lettered in white on a black background: “Thank you for officially recognizing the Armenian Genocide — April 24, 1915.”
It’s a bold move to bring public attention to an almost century-old tragedy that Armenian Americans say takes a back seat to other large-scale human rights violations: the killing of 1.5 million of their ancestors during World War I in what is now Turkey.
But until now, the identity of those behind the signs was a mystery. Small wording at the bottom of the 672-square-foot billboards states only that they were “paid for by individuals concerned about the plight of Armenians.” They list no names.
That’s because it’s not about publicity, it’s about bringing larger awareness to the issue, said George Pagoumian, 70, a Fort Lauderdale businessman and philanthropist who came forward only after the Sun Sentinel began researching the signs.
The four billboards are located at Florida’s Turnpike-Interstate 595 interchange; and on Interstate 95 at Southern Boulevard in West Palm Beach, at Atlantic Boulevard in Pompano Beach and at Northwest 79th Avenue in Miami. And the campaign was organized and financed through Armenian community members, said Pagoumian, declining to list the other contributors or how much was donated.
“We don’t want money to dictate this,” said Pagoumian, whose parents were Armenian and who lost his grandmother and other relatives to the killings. “Our grandmothers, our family who died are paying. They are sending checks from heaven.”
Twenty countries have officially recognized the killings as genocide, and those nations’ flags are on the South Florida billboard, under the words “thank you.” The United States is not among them — something Armenian Americans have fought passionately to change for years. They are pressuring President Obama to make an executive declaration.
But calling what happened in Armenia almost 100 years ago a “genocide” is a very touchy subject — especially in South Florida. About 4,000 people of Armenian descent live in Broward and Palm Beach counties, according to the Census, alongside about 5,000 of Turkish descent. Turkey denies that Armenians were targeted because of race or ethnicity.
Fuat Ornarli, past president of the Florida Turkish American Association, has not seen the billboards but dislikes what he considers a politicization of the issue.
“I would like to express my deep sorrow to see such billboards around us, since this subject is so politicized, and so biased,” said Ornarli, of Miami.
Genocide declarations should be made by scholars, not politicians, Ornarli said, adding that not all historians agree the Armenian deaths should be labeled genocide. Like the leaders of his native country, he said the deaths were casualties of war, exacerbated when the Armenians aligned themselves with Russia, Turkey’s enemy.
Rosanna Gatens, director for the Center for Holocaust and Human Rights Education at Florida Atlantic University, said the removal and killing of Armenians by the Turks is taught along with the Holocaust and other modern genocides in the state-mandated human rights education program. Each year, a few teachers get complaints from upset Turkish parents “who think their children are being taught that Turkey is a terrible place,” she said.
“It’s really important for people in our area to understand what happened in Armenia. All scholarly definitions say it was a genocide and we need to quit playing politics,” she said.
Marta Batmasian, a Boca Raton real estate investor and Armenian community leader, agreed.
“This is a human rights issue, not an Armenian issue. We are not going to let history be buried,” said Batmasian, a former educator who sits on the state task force for Holocaust and human rights education.
The South Florida signs are very similar to an effort run by Peace of Art Inc., a nonprofit founded by Armenian American artist Daniel Varoujan Hejinian. Since 1996, Hejinian has created and installed dramatic billboards each April in suburban Boston, his hometown, calling on the United States to recognize the killings as genocide.
Rosario Teixeira, Peace of Art’s executive director, said the organization was not involved in South Florida’s efforts. “I am sure their efforts are well intended and we wish them good luck,” she said.
Armenian churches and peace activists in South Florida every year host prayer or commemoration services on April 24, the day when the Ottoman government arrested 250 Armenian intellectuals and leaders, and began deporting them.
St. Mary Armenian Apostolic Church in Hollywood will have a public service and commemoration Wednesday; St. Mary and St. David Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church in Boca Raton trade off hosting the event annually.
This year, the billboards created a buzz when the signs appeared but no one claimed the credit. Speculation ran wild among South Florida’s Armenians for weeks. “The emails I’m getting! They are saying something like this has never happened,” Batmasian said.
The Rev. Vartan Joulfayan said his St. Mary’s parishioners last week were peppering him with questions about who the anonymous billboard contributors might be. The pastor told them it didn’t matter — that he assumed the donors wanted to stay out of the spotlight.
“So their message can come through,” he said. “A message that is strong and true.”
This story originally appeared in the Sun Sentinel on April 21 and is reprinted with the permission of the author.
By Gillian Stoney
Alligator Contributing Writer
The opening ceremony of the “From One Witness to Another: Genocide Awareness Series” began Sunday on Bo Diddley Community Plaza at the University of Florida (UF).
The series will continue through Wednesday as UF Hillel recognizes Genocide Awareness Month.
Genocide is traditionally defined as the deliberate killing of a large group of people, particularly those of a particular ethnic group or nation.
During the opening ceremony, UF students Sarah Pila, a 22-year-old psychology senior; Kimmie Klaiman, a 20-year-old economics and family, youth and community sciences senior; and Stefani Pila, a 22-year-old history major; read testimonies of survivors from the Armenian genocide, the Rwandan genocide and the Cambodian genocide. UF Hillel Rabbi Daniel Wolnerman spoke about being the grandson of Holocaust survivors.
The series is an effort to inform the community of the acts of hatred that have occurred in 43 countries, Sarah Pila said.
“I think it’s very special that here at the University of Florida, we’re able to not only acknowledge the Holocaust, which affected predominantly the Jewish population, but also able to incorporate that into the larger scheme of genocide awareness,” Wolnerman said.
Five candles were lit to commemorate the billions of deaths. White ribbons were handed out to represent people lost to genocide.
“It’s important because we always say, ‘Never again,’ and it’s still happening,” said Katie Gillen, a 21-year-old UF telecommunication senior.
This story originally appeared in the Alligator and is reprinted with the permission of the author.
By Wayne Fish, Columnist
New York Hockey Journal
To be the best, you might as well learn from the best.
Winnipeg Jets defenseman Zach Bogosian subscribes to that theory, because one of his first coaches was one of the best to ever play the back line.
That would be Ray Bourque, the two-decade Hall of Famer who’s usually mentioned in the same sentence with the legendary Bobby Orr at Boston’s hockey watering holes.
Bogosian, a native of Massena, N.Y., hard by the St. Lawrence River, attended Cushing Academy in Massachusetts starting at the age of 14. Bourque’s sons, Chris and Ryan, also attended Cushing, so Ray came on board as an assistant coach.
He knew early on he had stumbled on to something really good.
“Any time you’re around a Hall of Famer like that, he’s a real special person, on and off the ice,’’ Bogosian said after a Jets-Flyers game last month. He’d net his first goal of the season the next day in New Jersey. “He brought joy to the practices, always smiling — he would give us little tips, like coming into the zone late, getting point shots through. … He didn’t try to put too much on 10th-graders, but just his presence was the biggest thing.’’
Aside from his notoriety as one of Winnipeg’s prized home-grown products (drafted third in 2008 behind only Steven Stamkos and Drew Doughty), the 22-year-old Bogosian is perhaps best known for being the first player of Armenian heritage to play in the National Hockey League.
Although Armenia is a mountainous country (a former republic in the defunct Soviet Union) and endures long, cold winters, the sport of hockey has been slow to develop there. It took an American-born player like Bogosian to break the barrier, so to speak.
Zach’s great-grandfather, Stephen, escaped Armenia in the early 1920s to get away from the genocide perpetrated on his countrymen. Some 1 million Armenians reportedly lost their lives during this holocaust.
The Bogosian family wound up in upstate New York, and Zach, a natural athlete at a young age, had a decision to make early on. He could follow his dad into American football (Ike was co-captain of the 1980-81 Syracuse University teams that featured future New York Giants running back and Super Bowl champ Joe Morris) or pursue a career in hockey.
Hockey won and Zach never looked back. And he’s proud of the fact that he’s a bit of a pioneer.
“Yeah, growing up with an Armenian heritage … you know, my grandparents are still pretty hardcore about it,’’ he said. “My great-grandfather came across when the genocide started.
“It’s just a hard-working family from a small town. I mean, if I can do it, anyone can do it. As far as being the first Armenian, obviously I’m very proud of it. But it’s not just on me; it’s on my parents and everyone who helped me throughout my whole career.
“It’s kind of fun to have that (first Armenian) next to your name.’’
As for not following his dad and older brother (Aaron, now playing for the Florida Everblades of the ECHL) into American collegiate sports, the Bogosians have cable TV to thank for that.
Zach grew up watching the Ottawa 67s junior team and that convinced him to eventually play youth hockey north of the border, joining the Peterborough Petes after graduating from Cushing Academy.
Massena is a town of about 12,000 in St. Lawrence County, which also includes former NHLer Mike Hurlbut (N.Y. Rangers, Quebec Nordiques, Buffalo Sabres) among its native sons.
“I played a few tournaments with Nick Palmieri (Utica, N.Y.) for the Syracuse Stars, but Massena is pretty secluded,’’ said Bogosian. “I was never really around anyone (of high hockey caliber) growing up. When I go home, it’s just me and my brother skating together.
“It’s a unique little town; I enjoy going back there in the summertime. I’m just proud to be from there.’’
Like a number of players in the organization, there were some mixed feelings about leaving Atlanta for Winnipeg a couple years ago. On one hand, the Thrashers were moving to a more hockey-crazed environment. On the other, a lot of local ties to Atlanta — from friends to schools to favorite restaurants — had to be broken.
“I’m from upstate New York, so the climate is not too much different,’’ said Bogosian. “(Winnipeg) is a great hockey town and we have great support. Obviously, it’s never easy moving from city to city. But the city welcomed us with open arms. It’s been a great experience so far.’’
The Jets believe they’re on the right track toward contention, with young stars like Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler, Evander Kane and, of course, Bogosian, forming a strong nucleus. The team stood 8-9-1 in late February.
“We’ve been together for a few years,’’ he said. “We’ve been through the Atlanta phase and now we’re going through the Winnipeg phase.
“Our core group might seem young, but we have a good mix of veteran guys, too. Any time you’re one of the young guys on a young team, it’s always fun, bringing that energy to the room and learning from the older guys.’’
This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of New York Hockey Journal and is reprinted with the permission of the author.