Looking Into the Armenian Community of San Francisco
BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
Megabus began its route between Burbank and San Francisco about five years ago. Since then, I’ve used their service a few times. I love traveling on that bus, I really do. It definitely beats the old Greyhound. It’s very convenient, clean, fast and cheap—the price scales down to $1 if you buy the ticket early enough.
The double decker gets to its destination in seven hours. For a mere $5 extra, I usually reserve a seat at the first level, where the wi-fi is powerful and I can have a table to write on.
This time I’m on a mission. I’ve purposely chosen to be in San Francisco during the week of the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide to observe and write about commemoration activities there.
I will start by telling readers about my Aunt Elo. She’s one of the main pillars of the Armenian community of San Francisco. She is my dad’s cousin—their mothers were sisters.
When I think of Aunt Elo, my mind drifts to a black and white picture in which I must be 5 or 6 years old. It was taken at the christening of Dena, Aunt Elo’s third daughter. In that picture, my cousins and I are standing in front of a grand piano in their huge living room, filled with the expensive Persian rugs and elegant bulky sofas and chairs that were popular then in Tehran. Aunt Elo’s family belonged to the upper echelon of society. Being invited to their home for any event was a big treat.
Aunt Elo and her family emigrated from Tehran to San Francisco in 1969. Soon, she and her husband, Edward “Edik” Aslanian, became active in the Bay Area Armenian community.
When uncle Edik passed away in 2015, he left a great legacy. He and a few other community members were able to save a San Francisco landmark and turn it into a Genocide memorial monument.
For the past 25 years, Armenians have congregated for the commemoration of the Genocide at the foot of a huge concrete 103 feet cross and have remembered of how the community fought to gain that piece of land and the cross on it. I will tell the story of the cross in my next column.
The women of our family who influenced Aunt Elo were all liberated and fierce fighters. My grandma and her sisters, including Aunt Elo’s mom, all graduated from the American missionary high school in Tehran. They were all progressive women, active in their communities and philanthropies.
Swayed by the infectious humanitarian attitude of all these women, Aunt Elo entered the charity world at the early age of thirteen. She, along with eight older girls, launched an organization called Hye Geen, meaning “Armenian Woman.” The mission of the group, which still exists in Tehran, was to empower women.
In San Francisco, her dynamic personality didn’t allow her to stay idle. She enrolled at San Francisco City College and then San Francisco State University, where she received her bachelor’s and then her masters’ degrees in Humanities and also another masters’ in French Literature. In the mean time, Edik and Elo both were working at a bank.
The day I visited Aunt Elo, I found her at her dining-room table doing paper work—writing checks, answering invitations and updating her calendar. At age 92, her social life is as full as ever and she still teaches piano, which is her passion.
On the table, I saw a flyer for an invitation and when I looked at it closely, I realized that the event would be at their home. Elo and Ed had always opened their beautiful home to the community.
She told me, “This will be the 40th annual High Tea Social for the Armenian American Citizens League (AACL) at our home.” She continued, “The organization was initially founded in 1927 in Fresno to support survivors of the Genocide when they arrived in America.”
Unfortunately, AACL chapters in Fresno and Los Angeles have dissolved. The AACL of San Francisco mainly gives out scholarships to deserving students. This year at the tea, 30 students will receive monetary awards.
NorCal, established in 1982, is another organization Aunt Elo supports, serving on their board of directors. Aunt Elo and uncle Edik host NorCal’s annual picnic at their summer home in Napa Valley.
The initial purpose of NorCal was to build a retirement home for Armenian seniors. It soon became apparent that creating such an establishment was not feasible. So the mission shifted to providing a wide range of services and assistance to Armenian seniors. The annual membership fee is $30, and NorCal has about 300 members.
NorCal organizes many fun activities for seniors. The first Tuesday of every month, they have a coffee social, where they invite speakers to talk about nutrition, senior health, resources, and other topics. In addition to the monthly coffee social, called Hye Days, they have annual picnics, Christmas luncheons, excursions, and other social events.
Forging a partnership with AIWA (Armenian International Women’s Association) has been most meaningful for Elo, because the organization shares the same goals as Iran’s Hye Geen, of which she was a founding member. The main difference is that AIWA empowers Armenian women across the world and provides much needed support in Armenia. AIWA was formed in 1992 in Boston, MA.
Elo proudly told me, “I have attended all the international conferences of AIWA starting in London in 1994, then Paris in 1997, then 1998 in Buenos Aires, 2011 in San Francisco…” She remembered all the dates by heart.
The Ararat Club, or the Iranian/Armenian Society, started even before Elo and Edik immigrated to San Francisco. A small group of dedicated Iranian-Armenians got the idea of starting a cultural organization for the sole purpose of keeping their traditions alive.
The heydays of the club were in the 80s and 90s, when large groups of Armenians arrived after the Islamic Revolution of Iran. Its purpose has always been cultural and fun.
“Both my Mom and Dad were presidents for many turns and help revive the club. My dad single handedly could sell hundreds of tickets to any function and get people involved.” Dena said.
Another function that Elo was very involved was the creation of the Armenian Studies Program at Cal Berkeley. She told me that once a month for four years she attended meetings to establish Armenian studies in Berkeley. “I along with others worked hard to establish an Armenian Chair at UC Berkeley about 20 years ago,” she said.
Another organization she started is Hye Cultural Society. The group has invited famous Armenian writers, poets, singers and musicians to San Francisco.
Aunt Elo was also very involved with BAFA Bay Area Friends of Armenia, organized after the devastating earthquake in Armenia. Its purpose was to start soup kitchens in Armenia and they did some great work. BAFA disbanded just recently because it seemed the work was redundant; other organizations were providing similar services in Armenia.
Back in Tehran, our family belonged to the Armenian Evangelical church on Ghavam-Saltaneh Street. When I remember of that, I hear Aunt Elo’s voice coming from the choir loft at the back of the church. It made me proud that my aunt had such a beautiful voice.
So, being a member of the Calvary Armenian Evangelical Church of San Francisco comes naturally. Today she still participates in their Bible studies, and she is one of the big donors.
There are four other Armenian churches serving the Bay Area. They are: St. Andrew Apostolic church in Cupertino; St. Vartan Apostolic church in Oakland; St. Gregory Apostolic, and St. John Apostolic churches in San Francisco.
This is the prologue to my report on San Francisco area Genocide commemoration events. I will describe the events I attended in my next column.
Link: Looking Into the Armenian Community of San Francisco