By Aren Torikian On September 8, 2014 | Special for the Armenian Weekly
Few Armenians can claim to have saved as many lives as Raffy Ardahaldjian. Through his charity’s efforts, in conjunction with other organizations, Ardahaldjian has strived to improve the condition of public health in Armenia, particularly in the area of immunization. By working with the GAVI Alliance, funded in part by Bill Gates, and the Armenian Ministry of Health, Ardahaldjian’s charity, the Ani & Narod Memorial Fund (ANMF), has increased the rate of vaccination among Armenian children for diseases such as measles, against which now 97 percent of Armenian children are safe, up from 92 percent in 2004.
Feasibility field work with Dutch social housing experts in Dilijan, Armenia, along with Dziunik Aghajanian, the ambassador of Armenia in the Netherlands
More recently, ANMF through its Millennium Armenian Children’s VaccineFund (MACVF) has introduced the pentavalent vaccine to Armenia, which protects children from diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP), hepatitis B, and Haemophilus influenzae type b. More than 95 percent of Armenian children are now vaccinated against these five diseases, a number that was as low as 87 percent in 2006, according to the World Health Organization.
This September is the 20th anniversary of the fund’s inception, founded after the tragic crash of USAir Flight 427 near Pittsburgh, Pa., which claimed the lives of Ardhadjian’s wife, Ani, and their 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Narod. “The idea of making an impact on our people became an important aspect of my life, especially as the world was changing (i.e., with the formation of the internet) and Armenia was becoming an independent nation… and in the end it was one of the best ways to commemorate my wife Ani and my daughter Narod’s short but special lives,” Ardahaldjian says.
Ardahaldjian’s approach is simple, yet effective. “We usually commission research in a certain area and look for systemic gaps and best practices for intervention. We also study a problem’s network and identify the key stakeholders and their policies in order to try to find a way to form an alliance and make the impact as large as possible.” In his interview, reprinted below, Ardahaldjian stresses the need to be involved in “policy making,” something ANMF has done by working with the Armenian Ministry of Health. Ardahaldjian appreciated the process, which started in the year 2000 and is due to end next year, calling ANMF “the only constant that had a long-term horizon.”
Narod’s angelic aura
Looking beyond vaccinations, Ardahaldjian is concerned by what he sees in Syria, and has already begun to help Armenians involved in the crisis. As always, ANMF started by embarking “on an effort to study the overall problem and come up with actionable methodical interventions.” The fund has worked with refugees to collect facts that will guide relief efforts, in addition to starting a remittance program to help those still in Syria. Ardahaldjian makes it clear that any efforts at humanitarian aid by Armenians must be made collectively, as there do not seem to be any “new Noubar Pashas or Calouste Gulbenkians to…understand the depth of the crisis.” ANMF is striving to be proactive, for “[w]ithout an institutional approach, most relief work will be reactive, and in the long-run inadequate.”
Ardahaldjian helped found the Armenian Redwood Project—inspired by the California redwood tree, with shallow and individually weak roots that intertwine to strengthen the organism—with the goal of “develop[ing] a platform of collaboration and hopefully spin[ning] off a viable institution at the end.” Ardahaldjian’s initial goal is to create affordable housing for Syrian refugees in Armenia, which, he explains, “is meaningful in more than one way: It creates family stability and better childhood outcomes; it’s a way to stabilize population movement; it contributes to neighborhood revitalization; and it creates wealth for refugees and economic development for the country.” By working with private donors and organizations through the Armenian Redwood Project, Ardahaldjian hopes to build 500 apartments, potentially helping thousands of refugees.
Ardahaldjian is continuously looking for ways to strengthen the “emerging global Armenian society.” One outcome was the creation of the ARS Narod Ardahaldjian Children’s Library in Bourj Hammoud, Lebanon. In an underprivileged area of Beirut, concentrated with Armenians, the library is a place where children can come for after-school help.
Although ANMF’s latest focus has been on vaccinations, during the first few years of its existence, the fund promoted up-and-coming artists throughout the Armenian Diaspora. While this project ended almost 10 years ago, the impact continues to this day. ANMF helped distribute recordings of the children’s singer Taline to children in Nagorno-Karabagh for Christmas one year.
Ardahaldjian is proud that ANMF has always been driven by the Armenian community. “Thank God, I’ve always had support. I can honestly tell you that none of our programs would have been possible without the help of countless volunteers and patrons.” Beyond just donors, ANMF relies on project-specific volunteers. For instance, if Ardahaldjian goes forward with building affordable housing in Armenia, he will need help from urban planners, engineers, and architects, among others.
Below is the full text of the interview.
Aren Torikian—You decided to start a memorial foundation to commemorate your wife and daughter. How did you decide to go down this path?
Raffy Ardahaldjian—It’s been almost 20 years since my life was completely changed on Sept. 8, 1994. Different people react differently to trauma inflicted upon them, and, in my case, I tried very hard to search for meaning in this tragedy. The idea of making an impact on our people became an important aspect of my life, especially as the world was changing (i.e., with the formation of the internet) and Armenia was becoming an independent nation. I had many memorable mentors, like Dr. Vartan Gregorian from Carnegie and the late philanthropist Gerry Cafesjian, along with a very long list of supporters who encouraged me. The process was quite therapeutic for me, and in the end it was one of the best ways to commemorate my wife Ani and my daughter Narod’s short but special lives. The pain never left, but my perspective on life changed drastically. My priorities shifted, as pain pushed me to grow by setting meaningful, long-term goals to benefit society.
I believe in social enterprise institutions that have a long-term perspective and can afford to think and plan ahead. Establishing a small, innovative institution that experiments with and incubates innovative ideas and works with people can actually (in a strange way) make you “happier.” A social enterprise like ANMF that has targeted impact areas and a long-term agenda made me connect deeper with people and extract meaning. My life path that was initially set in pain eventually changed to include a new form of happiness.
A.T.—How do you select which projects to work on? For instance, why focus on vaccinations now?
R.A.—I dedicate about 20 percent of my time to manage the foundation, and approach social impact projects from a business perspective. It needs to make sense. I also like projects that can “scale.” At any given time, we’ve “seed funded” many projects but have actually underwritten very few, in a true form of venture philanthropy. For instance, in the foundation’s early days in the 90’s, we invested heavily on the Narod Network Project (as it was known then), which was the first platform that linked various Armenian schools around the world through educational technology. At the time, my sister Marielou Papazian, an energetic mother of three (today five!), worked for the foundation and headed its educational technology platform. While the Narod Network Project was shelved after a few years (I think we were too early), I feel that some of the learning from that effort later somehow influenced the creation of the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies (see www.tumo.org). The combination of genuine and luminary philanthropists like Sam Simonian, coupled with the creative/executive capabilities of my sister (along with ideal timing) sparked one of the landmark institutions affecting thousands of lives in Armenia today.
In another instance, we anonymously contributed to one of the first professional restoration efforts to the Church of the Holy Savior (Surp P’rikitch) in the City of Ani in the pre-Dink era (see www.wmf.org/field/phase-i-work-completed-ani-archaeological-site). I was tired of seeing the half-erect pictures of this church, feeling powerless, and hearing how our cultural heritage had been destroyed. Without getting into the politics, we found ways of achieving certain objectives. Similarly, in the early days of the Republic of Armenia when kindergartens lacked resources, we dubbed Sesame Street into Eastern Armenian and introduced it on Armenian TV. So, I feel that even our early experimental projects potentially had some downstream synergies and impact.
As a strong proponent of public health, we focused on immunization as our key intervention area in the early days of the Republic of Armenia. Vaccines are like software—once they are developed and proven, you can scale them and avoid life-threatening diseases in a cost-effective way. The Millennium Armenian Children’s Fund was our way of indirectly affecting the lives of every child born in Armenia by co-financing vaccine purchases with the government and other agencies. As an institution that continuously worked with the Ministry of Health’s vaccine unit, we also had the opportunity to affect policy over the years. For example, we advocated early on the introduction of certain modern vaccines like MMR. This involved not only financing, but also commissioning studies (via the American University of Armenia’s public health department), convincing international organizations like WHO and UNICEF that Armenia was ready for new vaccine introductions, and much more.
We also played an early role in catalyzing the introduction of other global initiatives with Armenia. I remember flying to Seattle around the Millennium to convince officials at GAVI (funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) to adopt Armenia as one of its target countries. GAVI’s assistance to Armenia has been huge in terms of impact over the last decade. Today, Armenia’s national immunization program is one of the pillars of its public health program. It’s relatively well-run and effective. It took over 15 years of working with a handful of ministers, UNICEF country directors, and WHO staff who kept changing hands, as well as Ministry of Health staff that kept rotating. We were the only constant that had a long-term horizon. In retrospect, I believe this is exactly what it takes to build a nation. I find this all to be fulfilling—it gives my life meaning.
A.T.—How are you working with existing organizations, Armenian or otherwise?
R.A.—I’d like to quote my dear friend Jacqueline Karaaslanian from the Luys Foundation who always said, “Everyone knows something, no one knows everything.” It’s very true. Unfortunately, the way I see it, the trend in the last few years has been more fragmentation amongst organizations. Our work always involves collaboration and alliance building. We usually commission research in a certain area and look for systemic gaps and best practices for intervention. We also study a problem’s network and identify the key stakeholders and their policies in order to try to find a way to form an alliance and make the impact as large as possible. For instance, in the area of vaccination, we became involved with the measles eradication campaign in Armenia by partnering with many other organizations. In the 21st century, no single entity has all the answers and all the capability. We act as activators and innovators by focusing on important causes.
I’ve often reflected on the way Armenian NGOs have operated in Armenia in the last 15 years. Unfortunately in many cases, we did not see enough sustainable impact, or enough inter-agency cooperation, or deep involvement in real “policy setting” for civic or public life. That said, there were big inspirational moments for me. For instance, the Armenia 2020 effort (launched by visionary friends Ruben Vardanian, Noubar Afeyan, and Raffi Festekhjian), which later evolved into the National Competitiveness Foundation of Armenia, was responsible for a series of policy changes and flagship initiatives like the Tatev Ropeway. Another great example of collaboration that I witnessed was the impact of the Armenian High Tech Council launched around 2001. Some of the founding members left a deep impact both in terms of policy and in terms of bringing technology companies into Armenia, which changed the landscape of Armenia forever. Pioneers such as Tony Moroyan, Al Eisaian, Adam Kablanian, Aram Salatian, Berge Ayvazian, and numerous others left a lasting impact on Armenia. Their approach was inclusive and involved collaboration within a specific environment. That’s how we ideally like to work.
In contrast, many policies that shaped Armenia in the last 15 years were a product of consultants and international agencies that transferred knowledge from other emerging economies without properly adapting to context. It would have been nice to see Armenian organizations place more importance on affecting public policy to shape the future of the country as they engaged in projects in Armenia. This is why we try hard to research a lot, pilot our projects before we ask others for money, and act selectively as we get the model right. Always in partnership with others, regardless of politics.
A.T.—What does your charity intend to do in the Syrian humanitarian crisis?
R.A.—I have been deeply saddened by the war in Syria and the suffering it inflicted on its population. Specifically I have deep compassion for our Syrian-Armenian brothers and sisters. That said, I’m not a hashtag only #SaveKessab type of a person (with my due respects to all my activist friends). Kessab was occupied and since has been “liberated,” but we as a nation have lacked the resources and institutional capacity to tackle one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of our generation. The difficult problem of addressing the thousands of Syrian-Armenian refugees in Syria cannot just be left to the Ministry of the Diaspora (which, as I understand it, has a limited budget and capabilities).
In 2014, a nation that survived genocide nearly 100 years ago, and one that has expanded to become a global trans-nation, needs to have institutions that can be proactive and effective in the face of such tragedies. There is no NearEast Relief Fund for Syrian Armenian Refugees, nor does there seem to be new Noubar Pashas or Calouste Gulbenkians to rise up to the challenge and understand the depth of the crisis. Without an institutional approach, most relief work will be reactive, and, in the long-run, inadequate. We’ve interviewed almost everyone involved in addressing this crisis. The problem is not a lack of funds (as many have simplistically put it); money usually follows to well-defined projects. It’s the lack of national policies on this complex issue and a failure to address deep issues. How do you properly assist urban refugees in Yerevan when the country has many challenges? What type of institution do you need to deliver effective interventions? The “business as usual” approach of channeling donations to the church or sending immediate humanitarian assistance is part of the answer, but much more is needed. We have a refugee problem. So, in this context we have embarked on an effort to study the overall problem and come up with actionable methodical interventions. We have invested in collecting data through social surveys with refugees to collect facts, and piloting small remittance projects to vulnerable individuals; have interviewed all the institutions that are somewhat active in this area (however work independently); invested in transporting vulnerable families from the war zone in Aleppo to Yerevan; collected the names of dozens of families that are homeless after the bombings in Nor Kiugh, etc. I just could not believe how much capacity our nation lacked collectively until we really looked into it.
It’s an overwhelming situation, and it would be very easy to dismiss it and just make a $100 donation to an aid organization. But that’s a short-term and superficial solution. What is required is a more comprehensive approach. I’m not sure where we will end up, but we are doing our work and framing possible scenarios and interventions. The work that is required here is like a forest of majestic California redwoods. Redwood trees have shallow roots, but collectively they are strong because their roots are intertwined. We need an alliance of organizations to address this challenge. You can look at our project website, which is still under construction, at www.armenianredwoodproject.org. My intention is to develop a platform of collaboration, and hopefully spin off a viable institution in the end.
The key intervention area that has emerged so far is delivering a supply of social housing to Syrian-Armenian refugees. Providing affordable homes to folks who have lost their homes is meaningful in more than one way: It creates family stability and better childhood outcomes; it’s a way to stabilize population movement; it contributes to neighborhood revitalization; and it creates wealth for refugees and economic development for the country.
Our goal is to collaborate with key stakeholders and potentially build a private, transparent, and effective institution that will provide hundreds of affordable apartments for Syrian-Armenian refugees in Armenia. We are studying various approaches ranging from short-term rent subsidies, all the way to novel affordable financing to help refugees purchase new homes. In the last nine months, I have had the privilege to work with many people around the world and thus gain momentum on this front. I hope we’ll be able to execute soon, as the situation is only worsening. Otherwise, it could accumulate knowledge that adds value in another area. So far I’m optimistic that we’ll collectively emerge with something good.
A.T.—Talk about the global nature of ANMF and your efforts in Armenian communities around the world.
R.A.—Armenians around the world are like a tribe that have been forced into some form of nationhood in the last century. As an ethnic group originally confined to a challenging geopolitical area, we never had the opportunity to properly develop into a nation state. Within the last 100 years or so, Armenians have become both urban (from mostly rural backgrounds) and transnational as a result of migration. An emerging transnational society needs modern ways to adapt to modern life, while having key network nodes like Armenia, Nagorno-Karabagh, and key communities like LA, Beirut, Constantinople, and Moscow. In this broader context, we try to find unifying narratives that add value and contribute to the strengthening of what I call the “emerging global Armenian society.” This could range from an “intervention platform” for Syrian Armenians where many can get involved, all the way to a very focused effort like the diaspora’s only Armenian Children’s Library—the ARS Narod Ardahaldjian in the Armenian ghetto of Bourdj Hamoud, Lebanon, where underprivileged inner city kids get after-school help.
I also like supporting other projects that I view as strategic and globally impactful. For instance, I’m a huge fan of what Veronica Zonabend and Ruben Vardanyan are doing in Dilijan, with their flagship Dilijan International School that just opened. I was there last month, and was deeply impressed. They are basically exporting education from Armenia, and putting Dilijan on the global map by bringing students from dozens of countries into Armenia. I’m humbled by their vision and see the potential and synergies of their master plan and its long-term development. We’ll be making our humble contribution to assist educational technology for the first year’s cohort. It’s another seed that thoughtful philanthropists are planting—something that I can only admire and support humbly.
A.T.—What role do Armenian-American volunteers play in your organization?
R.A.—We have always had effective volunteers and patrons from day one. A small family foundation needs to scale to make an impact. That said, I hate wasting anyone’s time before knowing what we are doing. So, we scale up with volunteers when we have something concrete to do. For example, if we decide to engage in a global effort to fund social housing for Syrian-Armenian refugees, we’ll need volunteers. If we end up forming an institution that will oversee the supply of housing units, we’ll need expert advisor volunteers in various disciplines such as urban planning, architecture/engineering, social services, finance, etc. I have been fortunate over the years to have receptive volunteers. I can honestly tell you that none of our programs would have been possible without the help of countless volunteers and patrons. The list includes advisors like my friends Sona Hamalian, Mike Mahdessian , project-specific volunteers like LA attorney Taline Yacoubian, and social impact expert Audrey Selian in Geneva. I’ve been blessed with the support of incredible women like Louise Manoogian Simone and Caroline Mugar, and the anonymous immunization program managers and nurses in Armenia’s villages. It’s also been family members like Arpy Coherian (Ani’s sister), my own sister Marielou, and my aging parents who have served on the board for many years and supported the mission. I tear up sometimes when I’m alone and reflect upon the outpouring of generosity from all these incredible souls and countless names that I’m failing to mention here. Volunteers and patrons have been the lifeline of this work. I would have never been able to do any of this alone. I guess that’s part of the lesson and the meaning that I’ve been seeking.
A.T.—What projects do you see ANMF working on in the future?
R.A.—If I had the means, I would have engaged in this work on a full-time basis, but we live in a constrained world. I’ve always tried to find balance and keep ANMF as one of the pillars of my life while raising my son Diran and earning a living. In the short term, and as the foundation transitions out of its vaccine program after 15 years in 2015, I see us involved with finding solutions to the Syrian-Armenian refugee crisis. We have also supported emerging Armenian artists and will continue to do so. In the past we have promoted the works of established artists like Parisian artist Assadour or upstate New York artist Kardash Onnig, and many more emerging artists in Armenia like Ashot Harutunian. Supporting our artists is a form of nation building. I am also going to dedicate time to supporting key strategic initiatives like the scenario planning efforts undertaken by our very capable Razmik Panossian at the Calouste Gulbenkian [Foundation]. I see us working on trying to help ask the right questions and collaborating and framing solutions for the highest good of our people. I feel that purpose in life is a matter of revelation. It would have never occurred to me 20 years ago that I’d be doing this type of work today.
A.T.—In what ways can our readers get involved with ANMF?
R.A.—My hope is that on the eve of the centennial anniversary of the genocide, in addition to commemoration and activism, our global society will assume responsibility towards its own: the decedents of the genocide refugees in Syria. Seeing an effective collective effort and showing compassion towards our Syrian-Armenian refugee brothers/sisters could be the best way for folks to get involved with ANMF and the larger platform of causes we support. Our project for that is still in development, but stay tuned!
A.T.—Any final thoughts?
R.A.—Thank you for this interview, which was not easy for me to conduct. I cannot believe 20 years have slipped away unfolding a very humbling odyssey, to say the least. I still miss my loved ones all the time as nothing really replaces loss. While I’ve made some mistakes along the way, it’s been a privilege to find meaning, grow and act on collective values through the foundation. Thank you again to everyone that was destined to somehow cross paths with this work. Please value your loved souls and don’t take them for granted while we experience this short human experience on the planet.