By Areni Panosian
On a foggy day in San Francisco sometime between 2015 and 2017, my fellow Armenian school students and I sat in Digin Panossian’s (no relation to author) Armenian class at KZV Armenian school to learn about the richness and resilience found in Armenian history. It was in this very class where Digin Panossian would consistently use the pencil metaphor to emphasize how the Armenian people withstood the bigotry and violence of our past. Grabbing a single pencil, she would explain how easy it is to break one pencil, but then she would reach for handful of pencils to demonstrate how difficult it is to break them when they are all together. The main purpose of this lesson was to teach this classroom full of Armenian middle schoolers that the only way Armenian culture can sustain itself and thrive is through unity – those pencils represented the kinship of the Armenian people. We see this metaphor live in our communities today, namely through the bonds we create at Armenian schools, or summer camps, or the numerous yearly events we hold to demonstrate our unified force as a nation.
After spending the past few months in isolation, it took a blatant act of hatred and xenophobia to reunite the Armenian community of San Francisco. The indignation and sadness caused by the horrendous destruction of KZV Armenian School by Azeri aggressors this week resulted in providing this community a sense of consolation in an otherwise desolate time. Though our regular Armenian summer activities like AYC and the Navasartian Games were cancelled due to COVID-19, the San Francisco Armenian community still managed to gather together (with masks, of course) to embrace our culture despite the hateful defacing of the Bay Area’s main Armenian cultural center.
On Friday, July 24th, 2020, due to the rising tensions at the Armenia-Azerbaijan border and the global anti-Armenian sentiment rising amongst Turks and Azeris, KZV Armenian School was defaced with vulgar, anti-Armenian graffiti, presumably by immature Azerbaijani aggressors. Profane words and images were spray painted over the walls of our beautiful school along with some peculiar statements like “you will pay for LA” and “Kardashian Nation”. Within about six hours of discovering the mess, over $80,000 was raised for the school through a GoFundMe page and a mini rally was held to stand up against this brutal act of hatred, which is quite remarkable to say the least. That evening, current KZV students, parents, teachers, and alumni like myself gathered in the front yard of our loving school to lovingly sing, dance, and laugh to reclaim the school that had been violated just hours prior. Our principal, Mrs. Andonian, led us in songs and it reminded me of the quote we always referred to by Eghishe Charents, “Ով հայ ժողովուրդ, քո միակ փրկութիւնը քո հավաքական ուժի մէջ է:” Rather than thrusting more hostility and bitterness into the situation, we, the San Francisco Armenian community decided to overcome this obstacle through our love for one another and our collective unity, despite the horrific words placed on the building behind us.
This act of consolation amongst the Armenian community is nothing new. The resilient Armenian people have constantly banded together in unity when faced with hatred, injustice, and humiliation throughout history, which is proven true through the existence of vibrant Armenian communities across the diaspora. Actions such as our mini protest on Friday are further proof that the only way to truly console one another after an atrocity occurs is through our collective voices and our ability to grieve together and return stronger than ever. Though the desolation and lack of Armenian events due to quarantine and the added outrage from the temporary destruction of KZV have deflated the spirits of this community, we still managed to transform our struggles into an act of defiance towards racism.
Throughout the Armenian people’s long, complex history, our excellence and resilience has been displayed through our loving and comforting solidarity with one another, as opposed to the bigotry and immaturity displayed on the front walls of KZV. While the conflicts and attacks on the Armenian borders are far from over, the Bay Area Armenian community’s opposition to a sad attempt at belittling and intimidating us only enhanced the Armenian cause and further united our people in these trying times. Furthermore, we have consistently used our collective strength, peace, and togetherness to overcome the most bleak and nightmarish times of our past, illustrating howArmenian resilience and strength stems directly from our unity. While the genocide and the Artsakh wars remain etched in our minds as some of the darkest eras of the past, the Armenian schools’ efforts to cultivate the culture that was once threatened serve as proof of the power we posses when we band together in unity. Unfortunately, suffering is human reality and hatred is inevitable in our highly political and messy world. However, by taking a firm, solid stance against it, as exemplified by the KZV community, we Armenians will rise above the occasion as more forceful and empowered people.
Like the pencils in Digin Panossian’s beloved metaphorical lesson, the Bay Area Armenians overcame a hate crime by claiming our presence both on the KZV grounds and on social media, proving once again how it is impossible to break the bunch of pencils that we are. Alone, we couldn’t have stood against this hateful act, nonetheless our gathering confirmed that we’re the furthest thing from alone, especially in our fight against hatred. Perhaps that foggy day in my middle school Armenian history classroom was the most important lesson that I could have learned in the ojakh, the hearth of my dear Armenian school.
Areni Panosian is a Class of 2017 graduate of KZV Armenian School and current student at Saint Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco.