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An Unforgettable Summer

Mireille Samra (center right) with Armenian American interns on Capitol Hill

By Mireille Samra
Special Guest Contributor

After packing my five very heavy suit cases, I felt prepared to enter my direct flight to Washington D.C. Why might a South Florida native fly to Washington D.C. other then touring all the national monuments and museums? The simplest answer is to learn. My name is Mireille Samra and I am currently enrolled in the Armenian Assembly of America’s Terjenian-Thomas Summer Internship Program in Washington, D.C. Through the internship with the Assembly, I was placed on Capitol Hill, in the Office of Congressman Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), Vice Chairman of the Armenian Caucus in Congress.

President of Armenia, Armen Sargsyan with Mireille Samra at the Embassy of Armenia in Washington, D.C.

As an intern with the Armenian Assembly this summer, I have gained several new professional and personal connections. I was able to meet the President of Armenia twice in one day, along with the honorable First Lady of Armenia, on their first official visit to the U.S. So far, the 2018 class of Assembly interns have met with several community, political, and industry leaders. Early on, we met with the Director of the Armenian National Institute (ANI), Dr. Ruben Adalian. ANI provides historical information concerning the Armenian Genocide. In addition, the Assembly program provides us with direct meetings with elected officials, such as Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA), Congressman Bilirakis, and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), to name a few.

Armenian Assembly interns talking with Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) in his Capitol Hill office.

Currently, I have only been in D.C. for about one month. In that short amount of time, I have been learning things I could have never expected to learn, from how the metro (subway) system works, and the fact that finding parking in Washington, D.C. is like winning the lottery! Growing up, I’ve been known for always taking opportunities and not thinking much about them. Truthfully, this internship has taught me a lot. A typical workweek is Monday through Friday, 9:00am to 6:00pm, most days. Working on Capitol Hill, the people you meet are endless. Just last week I was giving a tour of the Capitol when the Queen of Jordan Rania Al-Abdullah walked by a few feet away from me! Something that keeps the internship on the Hill very interesting is that no two days are ever the same. For any Armenian American that is passionate about working hard in a big city and learning, the summer internship with the Armenian Assembly of America is a must before graduating.

Mireille Samra is a resident of Boca Raton, Florida and an active member of the South Florida Armenian American community. She graduated from Spanish River High School and currently studies Criminal Justice at Lynn University in Boca Raton.

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Azerbaijan’s U.S. Lobbying Firm’s List of Impressive Accomplishments

By Harout Sassounian
FLArmenians Commentator

Several weeks ago, I wrote about the four lobbying and PR firms hired by Azerbaijan in the United States. One of these companies is the Tool Shed Group.

This week, I would like to present a sample of the impressive activities organized by the Tool Shed Group on behalf of the Consulate General of Azerbaijan which is getting a great bargain by paying only $9,000 a month for all of these pro-Azeri efforts, almost none of which could have happened without the Tool Shed Group.

Most readers are unaware that American lobbying and PR firms hired by foreign entities are legally required not only to register their clients with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), but also file the detailed list of activities on their behalf.

In order to know what efforts have been made by the Tool Shed Group on behalf of the Consulate of Azerbaijan, I have checked the website of the Justice Department where the Tool Shed Group has listed by date all of their activities for Azerbaijan’s Consulate in Los Angeles.

Tool Shed’s list of activities starts on April 1, 2009, but mysteriously ends on March 31, 2011. This must surely be a violation of the Justice Department’s requirement which has to be brought into the attention of the U.S. government. Nevertheless, the two-year report provides a detailed glimpse which I have summarized below as it is a dozen pages long:

1. Outreach to Universities:

Arranged meetings for Consul General Elman Abdullayev with the following University officials: Jolene Kester, California State University, Northridge, CA; the University of New Mexico; Geoff Cowan and Adam Clayton, USC; Chapman University, Orange, CA; Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA; Larry Greenfield, Vice President of the Claremont Institute, Los Angeles, CA; Jack Lewis, Associate Dean, USC Marshall School of Business, Los Angeles, CA; Gail Lapidus, Stanford University, Stanford, CA; David Lundberg, UCLA NanoSystems Institute; University of California, Irvine; and University of Las Vegas, Nevada; Lectures by the Consul General at UCLA; San Francisco State University; San Jose State University, San Jose, CA; USC; Scripps College, Claremont, CA; University of California, Santa Barbara, CA; California State University, Fullerton, CA; Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ; University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ; and Stanford University, Stanford, CA; spoke at a conference on religious pluralism at USC; and conference call with USC Center for Public Diplomacy to discuss a lecture by the Consul General.

2. U.S. Politicians:

Consul General met with Darrell Steinberg, President Pro Tem, California State Senate, Sacramento, CA; Karen Bass, Speaker, California State Assembly, Sacramento, CA; Annette Porini, Chief of Staff, State Senator Joe Simitian, Sacramento, CA; Felipe Fuentes, Assemblyman, California State Assembly, Sacramento, CA; Councilor Chris Calvert, City of Santa Fe, New Mexico; Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Santa Fe, New Mexico; Speaker Ben Lujan, New Mexico State Legislature, Santa Fe, New Mexico; Mayor Bob Foster, Long Beach, CA; Cong. Adam Schiff, Glendale, CA; Congresswoman Diane Watson; Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchins, Santa Ana, CA; Orange County Board of Supervisors; Mike Schneider, President Pro Tem, Nevada State Senate, Las Vegas, Nevada; Mayor Oscar Goodman, City of Las Vegas, Nevada; Asked Cong. Michael McMahon (NY) to join the Azerbaijani Caucus, Los Angeles, CA; Mayor Chuck Reed, City of San Jose, CA; Meeting with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to present a gift from Azerbaijan to the Governor, Los Angeles, CA; Mayor Coss, City of Santa Fe, New Mexico; Cong. Dana Rohrabacher, Huntington Beach, CA; and City Council Member Jan Perry, Los Angeles, CA.

3. Jewish and Israeli Representatives:

Consul General of Azerbaijan met with Consul General Jacob Dayan of Israel, Los Angeles, CA; John Fishel, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Museum of Tolerance, Los Angeles, CA; Lecture at Temple Judea, Tarzana, CA; American Jewish Committee, San Francisco, CA; and met with Rabbi Leider and Prof. Reuven Firestone regarding a lecture by the Consul General at Temple Beth Am, Los Angeles, CA.

There are dozens of other meetings that Jason Katz, the owner of Tool Shed Group, had arranged for the Consul General of Azerbaijan. I must admit that for a paltry $9,000 a month Mr. Katz is underpaid for arranging such a wide array of access for Azerbaijan in several US States, something the Consul General of Azerbaijan could have never accomplished on his own.

The Armenian-American community makes up for its lack of lobbying and PR firms by the activism of its organizations and their members. However, a professional lobbying and PR firm can add a lot to the existing successes. Unfortunately, most Armenians do not have a proper appreciation for the work of lobbying and PR firms and therefore do not believe in funding such a valuable and much-needed effort!

House Committee Approves Assistance for Nations Hosting Syrian Refugees

House Approps Cmte banner

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Last week, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee approved the Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs (SFOPS) Appropriations Bill, the Armenian Assembly of America (Assembly) reported. In total, the bill provides $47.4 billion in funding for SFOPS, which is $10 billion less than FY17. The bill maintains Section 907 of the FREEDOM Support Act and includes language for aid to nations hosting Syrian refugees.

The SFOPS Report highlighted the need for additional assistance to “vulnerable populations in Syria and in neighboring countries,” comprised of Syrian refugees, Christians, and other minorities affected by the Syrian civil war and persecuted by the Islamic State (ISIS). The Committee raised concerns regarding “the lengthy displacement of Syrians and the ongoing burden they face, as well as the continued strain Syrian refugees are placing on host communities.”

“We commend the House Appropriations Committee for emphasizing the importance of humanitarian aid for both refugees and the nations hosting them,” Assembly Executive Director Bryan Ardouny said. “To date, Armenia has welcomed over 22,000 refugees from Syria who have escaped with their families. As conditions worsen in Syria, Armenia continues to serve as a sanctuary for persecuted Christians and other at-risk groups escaping genocide and violence in the Middle East. As the humanitarian crisis in Syria continues, we must ensure that relief aid reaches those in need, which includes Armenia as a host nation for refugee resettlement,” he added.

Referencing the designation of genocide committed against religious minorities in Syria and Iraq by Islamist extremists made by Secretary of State John Kerry on March 18, 2016, the bill allocates funds to “be made available for programs to protect vulnerable and persecuted religious minorities.” This includes programs authorized by H.R. 390, the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act of 2017, which the Armenian Assembly strongly supported, and was unanimously adopted by the House of Representatives on June 6, 2017. The Committee recommends not less than $10 million to be made available for programs to protect vulnerable and persecuted religious minorities. In addition, the bill states that $10 million should also be made available for international religious freedom programs.

The House Report also incorporated a section on Genocide Victim Memorial Sites and Tribunals, where funds are appropriated “to establish and maintain memorial sites of genocide” in Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia.

“The Armenian Assembly will continue to push for additional assistance. Despite reductions across the board, it is imperative that Armenia and Artsakh have the resources necessary to address the compelling humanitarian needs as a result of the current refugee crisis as well as Azerbaijan’s ongoing and deadly ceasefire violations,” Ardouny stated.

Although the President’s budget cut aid to Azerbaijan, it also sharply reduced proposed aid to Armenia. The President’s budget request for Armenia included $4 million in Economic Support and Development Fund, $1.5 million for International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement, and $700,000 for Nonproliferation, Antiterrorism, Demining, and Related Programs. The House Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats will hold a hearing tomorrow entitled “Examining the President’s FY 2018 Budget Proposal for Europe and Eurasia” for further discussion.

With action in the House Appropriations Committee completed, attention turns to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where a mark-up of its version of the bill is pending.

The Assembly submitted testimony earlier this year to the House Appropriations State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Subcommittee highlighting key areas of concern, including the ongoing Turkish and Azerbaijani blockades, the need for continued and robust funding as well as safeguarding of Christian minorities at risk in the Middle East, and support for a second U.S.-Armenia Millennium Challenge compact.

On March 17, Armenian Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) and House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member and Armenian Caucus Vice Chair Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) provided testimony in support of aid to Armenia and Artsakh as the Administration first released the budget blueprint for FY18. They also signed a bipartisan letter, initiated by Rep. Pallone, on March 30 advocating “to advance U.S. interests by strengthening Armenia’s independence, promoting peace in Nagorno-Karabagh, and supporting Armenia as a regional safe haven for at-risk Middle East refugees” with Armenian Caucus Co-Chair Jackie Speier (D-CA) and 22 other Representatives.

Spearheaded by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), 27 Members of Congress sent a letter last month to House Appropriations SFOPS Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) and Ranking Member Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) expressing concern about the 67 percent reduction in foreign aid to Armenia.

“At a time of tremendous global uncertainty, the U.S. should continue to foster the progress of its allies, not retreat from its responsibilities as the world’s leading democracy. As the U.S. and Armenia commemorate the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations, we urge the committee to reject the harmful cuts to U.S. aid to Armenia proposed by the President’s FY18 budget,” the Representatives stated in the letter.

The FY 2018 State and Foreign Operations Bill – Full Committee Draft is available here.

The FY 2018 State and Foreign Operations Bill – Full Committee Report is available here.

The Armenian Assembly of America’s FY 2017 Testimony is available here.