The Immigrant Experience

For Armenians, history and religion

Outside of Armenia and Southern California, more ethnic Armenians live in the Belmont-Watertown area than any other location in the world. This is largely the work of two town elders, both of whom anchor the Armenian people and try to foster a sense of history and purpose.

In an unimposing and inconspicuous cluster of three brown-brick office buildings in Belmont is the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) building.

The NAASR building houses the largest collection of Armenian books in English anywhere in the world, including Harvard. With holdings ranging from the Armenian contribution to the Crusades to ancient Greek and Roman texts, NAASR's library serves countless educational, service, and research needs.

Behind the cozy and well-stocked reading room, there is a long, rectangular conference room with light brown paneling, vintage 1970s-style couches, golden window blinds and a square arrangement of tables. Adorning the walls are paintings and photographs reminding visitors that this organization and this room breathe history.

But no visit to NAASR would be complete without a few moments speaking with its chair.

A visionary, beneficent and scholarly, Manoog S. Young directs the National Board of NAASR, founded in 1955 in Belmont, Massachusetts. As an organization, NAASR is dedicated to the goal of advancing Armenian studies in the United States, and Young is one of its three charter members.

Young emits a serene, reflective demeanor as he recalls his almost four score years in America. Over the years, his knowledge of the history and experiences of many Armenian immigrants has made him the unofficial head of the Armenian American community in the Northeast.

As a physics and mathematics undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts, Young began his career in teaching.

"I liked teaching, but when I went to graduate school, I starting believing that I should pursue my interests in history and international relations instead of math and physics," Young said.

As a result, during his graduate school studies, Young took an extension school class at Harvard with Richard N. Frye, Aga Khan professor of Iranian, emeritus.

"Back then the classes cost $10 each," Young said, "and when I went to see Frye one Saturday for office hours, I overhead him talking about Armenian studies. We discussed things for a while, and eventually I persuaded him to come out to Belmont to give a speech to the entire Armenian community there."

Young said Frye didn't disappoint his listeners.

"After that meeting we got organized and began to investigate how we could further the knowledge of Armenian studies in the U.S. One of our first ideas was to endow a chair at Harvard that would specifically address our needs," Young said.

In 1955, then-President Nathan Marsh Pusey told NAASR that Harvard required $300,000 to endow a chair.

"Although President Pusey was very kind about everything, he and many people at Harvard didn't think we'd ever get the resources together to actually establish a position at the university," Young said.

"By 1959, however, we were celebrating our successful initiative with a banquet in Memorial Hall. A lot of us were very proud to have made it," Young said. Professor James R. Russell currently holds the position endowed by Young and his colleagues, the Mashtots professorship of Armenian studies.

Since 1959, NAASR has banded with Harvard and 19 other universities to further the study of Armenian language and civilization.

"All of us at NAASR thought it was critical to start educational chairs because many Armenian-Americans were craving a knowledge of our civilization that was becoming more difficult to remember," Young said.

Many Armenian-Americans felt that their culture was slipping away because it had been years since they had left their country.

In Young's case, because he had not been born in Armenia, his entire knowledge of his homeland depended on oral histories.

"These folk histories are always a little suspicious. Sometimes people just don't remember things as they really happened," Young said. "That's why we started NAASR."

Religious Life

In addition to NAASR, religion is another base in the community to which many Armenians turn for support and group membership.

Saint James Armenian Apostolic Church in Watertown is one of the three oldest predominantly Armenian parishes in Boston. It is the parish that serves a large portion of the Belmont and Watertown parishioners that also frequent the NAASR reading room.

According to Rev. Dajad Davidian, a pastor at Saint James, churches and schools play an important role in maintain and strengthening Armenian life in the U.S.

Davidian perches on his desk in the austere church office at 465 Mt. Auburn St., alternately fielding phone calls and answering questions.

Davidian is a gregarious man, and the respect accorded to him by the church office personnel and the favorable descriptions of him at NAASR make it clear that Davidian's zeal is reflected in the enormous amount of work he invests in his parishioners.

On one side of the desk sits an organized clutter, and on the other, a leaflet that describes the New Year's Eve Extravaganza 2000 that the church is preparing.

"Armenian culture has always had a strong social component," Davidian says. "As there is a tendency for Armenian-Americans slowly to become assimilated into American culture, churches like Saint James carry a big responsibility for providing ethnic resources and programs."

"It takes 150 to 200 ethnic families in a community to sustain the sense of belonging and ethnic identification," Davidian says.

"While all 150 to 200 people do not need to attend the same church, ethnic groups do need to maintain a certain size to remain a cohesive group," he adds.

"I feel bad, but slowly, the Belmont and Watertown Armenian community is losing some members to other cities in Massachusetts. That makes it harder to maintain personal connections," Davidian says.

One characteristic that Davidian senses will help the Armenian community to maintain its unity, though, is its ability--at least in Boston--to avoid inter-group rivalries.

"We have members of our church who are Armenian-American, Turkish-American, Lebanese, Egyptian, and Iranian American," Davidian says. "It's partly my work, but it's partly the community--our church doesn't have inter-group conflict."

As the sun sets, looking westward from Saint James' front stoop, small bakeries and clothing stores along Mount Auburn Street prepare to close their doors after another day of work.

Young men stroll along Belmont Street, holding open doors for other pedestrians.

Back at Saint James, Davidian takes a seat at his desk. It is past 6 p.m. on a Friday, but he has business to attend to.

Across town, in Belmont, Young prepares to leave, putting on his topcoat, and fedora.

Day is dimming in Belmont and Watertown, but together Young and Davidian are working on a brighter tomorrow for their community.