‘Our Doors are Always Open’
It has been a busy year of advocacy for the Armenian National Committee of America, which has engaged in what it calls a “360-degree advocacy” of Armenian-American priorities. Last week, Asbarez sat down with the ANCA National Chairman Raffi Hamparian, who highlighted some the organization’s key priorities while welcoming all to take part in the grassroots activism advanced by the ANCA.
Below is the complete interview.
Asbarez: To start off, please tell us a bit about yourself?
Raffi H. Hamparian: My background, in short, is that I was born in New York City and grew up in suburban New Jersey. My parents were Ardashes Hamparian and Mary Aljian Hamparian, who were both born in the 1920s in the New York metropolitan area and were very active in community affairs for their entire lives.
The town I grew up in – Demarest, New Jersey – is a very small town and was home to only two or three Armenian American families.
After graduating high school, I attended Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Following graduation, I had a number of jobs, including working for the Armenian National Committee of America in Los Angeles and working for two members of Congress from New Jersey – with one of those jobs on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Currently, I work for LA Metro, where I serve as the agency’s Senior Director for Federal Affairs. I live in Pasadena, California with my wife, Dr. Mireille Hamparian and our four children, Areni, Zabelle, Meghri and our youngest child, Saro.
Asbarez: When people hear “Armenian National Committee of America” what do they usually think the organization does?
R.H.H.: I think the answer to your question really depends on who you are asking.
For some, the first thing that comes to mind might be that we focus only on the Armenian Genocide. While working for justice – and the security that would come with it — is certainly a righteous and necessary task. That’s just part of what we do.
Individuals who follow the ANCA’s efforts in Washington, DC and around the nation know we address a broad array of issues from policy priorities like securing U.S. aid to Artsakh and strengthening the U.S.-Armenia relationship, to supporting our communities in the Middle East, pursuing justice with respect to the Genocide, and dozens of other issues. All of these are aligned with our core aim: the security, freedom, prosperity, and long-term viability of the Armenian nation.
At the same time, we work to expand the Armenian American voice at all levels of civic life through our focus on voter registration and turn-out and tools like the ANCA Rapid Responder system, March to Justice Action platform and QuickConnect calling to legislative offices.
We recently published our ANCA 360 document, which covers the full range of issues we tackle on a daily basis. For folks interested in a deep policy dive they can read about our aims and objectives by visiting anca.org/anca360 or by calling our office at (202) 775-1918 and our dedicated staff will send a hard copy of this document to you so you can read it in the comfort of your own home.
Asbarez: Let’s talk about the Republic of Artsakh. What is the ANCA doing with respect to Artsakh and efforts to strengthen that independent state?
R.H.H.: Well, let me take the question in four parts. First, for over two decades now, the ANCA has led local, regional and national efforts to recognize Artsakh’s independence and support the path of self-determination chosen by the people of Artsakh. Through these grassroots efforts, led by our local and regional ANCA offices, eight U.S. states have recognized Artsakh’s independence and, in many cases, stopped Azerbaijani efforts to misrepresent Artsakh as a conflict, instead of an independent country deserving of international affirmation.
Second, the ANCA has a two-decade long history of working to secure direct U.S. aid to the Republic of Artsakh. We are proud of this advocacy, which has directed over $40 million in U.S. aid to Artsakh for everything from healthcare and water infrastructure, to ensuring the HALO Trust has the U.S. funds it needs to complete its demining efforts.
Most recently, the ANCA has taken the lead in advocating for direct U.S. support for the Baroness Cox Rehabilitation Center in Artsakh, which serves children with physical and learning disabilities, among others. We are grateful to the thousands of ANCA supporters across the U.S. who work with us as ANCA Rapid Responders to get their Federal representatives in the House and Senate to support our efforts with respect to the Baroness Cox Rehabilitation Center.
Third, I think any mention of the ANCA and Artsakh should draw into focus our work on the Royce-Engel peace proposal, which we ardently back. Proposed in a bi-partisan fashion by two pro-ANCA members of Congress – one a conservative Republican from California and the other a liberal Democrat from New York City – the Royce-Engel initiative has three prongs. First, it seeks to have all snipers withdrawn from the line of contact between Artsakh and the Republic of Azerbaijan. Second, it seeks to increase the number of OSCE observers. And lastly, the Royce-Engel peace proposal seeks to introduce gun-fire locators, like the type that are used in a number of major U.S. cities, to figure out who is violating the cease-fire and with what type of weapon. Not surprisingly, Azerbaijan is the only party that is rejecting the Royce-Engel proposals.
Fourth, and this is brand new, the ANCA has worked with Congressman Frank Pallone– the longtime chairman of the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues – this year to introduce the Artsakh Travel and Communications Act. The goal of this bill is rather simple. For too long, Azerbaijan and quite frankly, some in the U.S. government have sought to isolate Artsakh. They have worked to keep Artsakh out of the OSCE Minsk Group talks and to discourage high-level visits to Artsakh by U.S. officials be they from the State Department or Congress. The ANCA rejects this approach. We embrace the idea that a long-term peace for Artsakh will be secured when all parties talk and when all officials have the opportunity to visit Artsakh and to see and speak to the freedom-loving people there. So for these reasons, we are strongly supporting the Artsakh Travel and Communications Act that encourages senior level U.S. officials to visit Artsakh, which in effect would end the current U.S. policy of foolishly seeking to discourage such visits.
We saw, last year, the benefits of Congressional travel to Artsakh, during the visits of Representatives David Valadao, Tulsi Gabbard, and Pallone. I was there with them on this remarkable trip. They got a first-hand view of the situation, saw the positive impact of U.S. aid programs, and, upon returning home, were able to share this information with their Congressional colleagues.
Asbarez: In your last answer you mentioned ANCA Rapid Responders – who are they and what do they do?
R.H.H.: For decades, the ANCA has called upon people to take action for the Armenian Cause. That is in our DNA. So we recently developed a new opt-in system where people can sign up once – and they are automatically enlisted to be ANCA Rapid Responders – meaning that they commit to participate in all of our ANCA Action Alerts – say supporting a certain bill or backing a certain ANCA initiative.
So for example, the ANCA recently worked with U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Congresswoman Katherine Clark (D-MA) on a bill entitled the Haiti and Armenia Reforestation Act that would permit Armenia to invest in reforestation efforts and get credit for that on debt that Armenia owes the U.S. Treasury. That’s a good deal for Armenia and a good deal for the United States. ANCA Rapid Responders sent close to 20,000 messages to Congress – from over 30 states – backing this bill. That type of message is heard loud and clear on Capitol Hill – which is why the ANCA Rapid Responder program is so important.
Asbarez: How many ANCA Rapid Responders do you currently have?
R.H.H.: Our Board of Directors has announced a target of 10,000 Rapid Responders by the end of the year. With the efforts of our local and regional advocates – and outreach at events like the Homenetmen Navasartian Games and AYF Olympics – we are getting close. The program even inspired Boston University student Armand Manoukian to make his own video encouraging folks to register. We loved it so much, we shared it with over 100,000 advocates across the U.S. – and have gotten an excellent response.
Asbarez: In addition to ANCA Rapid Responders – who does the ANCA count on to advance the Armenian Cause across the United States?
R.H.H.: The really beautiful part of the ANCA is that it is a true grassroots organization – not astro-turf, like many organizations, which only pretend to have grassroots support. Counting our ANCA activists and donors – the ANCA has tens of thousands of backers in all 50 states. I am very proud of this fact and proud of the people – young and old – who join us in the arena, advancing our common cause.
At the end of the day, the strength of the ANCA is our volunteers – who participate with local ANCA chapters and through our two ANCA Regional offices – one on the West Coast and one on the East Coast. Through the ANCA Regional offices and local ANCA chapters – the ANCA has a volunteer army, or as we say in Armenian, a “gamavor panag.”
Asbarez: Let’s go into the world of policy wonks – and ask you a number of questions about ANCA initiatives that we have heard about. First, can you tell us about the ANCA’s work on a new U.S.-Armenia Double Tax Treaty?
R.H.H.: The long story made short here is that the U.S. had a double tax agreement with the Soviet Union but never moved to sign a new double tax agreement with the Republic of Armenia when it became an independent state. This is not good because it creates added risk for U.S. investors and quite frankly, makes them pay higher taxes, which discourages investment. We have worked with both the Obama and, currently, the Trump administrations, to open the doors needed for a new tax accord between the U.S. and Armenia. While we have gotten the U.S. government to commit to exploring negotiation of such an agreement, we have yet to see much action in Yerevan on this issue. The ANCA remains hopeful that the relevant government officials in Yerevan will act on this issue in the coming months.
Asbarez: A second policy question relates to the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and the ANCA’s interest in seeking a second compact for Armenia that is focused on Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM). What can you tell us about this?
R.H.H.: For those who follow the U.S. government’s engagement with Armenia, they will remember that back in 2006 both governments signed a compact that would provide $235 million in U.S. funds to reduce rural poverty. While that agreement was successful – its success was only partial – because in 2008 the State Department moved to cut $62 million from the compact based on democratic problems in Armenia.
More recently, the Republic of Georgia was able to secure an MCC compact – their second agreement – in the amount of $140 million – with a focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). In part, these funds are being used to rehabilitate 90 schools across Georgia, in addition to instituting STEM learning centers in schools around the country.
While the ANCA is very happy for Georgia, we also believe the Republic of Armenia would benefit from a similar second compact and to that end, we have been working with the Executive and Legislative Branches of the U.S. government to open the doors needed for Armenia to negotiate a second STEAM focused MCC compact in the amount of $140 million. While we have made good progress, we recently encountered an issue connected to the World Bank, which conducted an economic study that apparently sets income levels in Armenia above the minimum threshold permitted for MCC compacts. We are currently working on this issue and remain hopeful that Armenia will meet all relevant eligibility requirements and be able to compete for a $140 million STEAM focused MCC compact that will strengthen Armenia’s greatest asset – its youth.
Asbarez: Having discussed a number of the ANCA’s policy priorities, what would you describe as the best part of your job as national chairman?
R.H.H.: The best part of this volunteer job is working hand-in-hand with community members who are filled with lots of love and hope for our Diaspora and Armenia and Artsakh. Traveling around the country meeting young and old—rich and not so rich—people, who all share that love for our community and cause, is really a “mountain-top experience.”
Asbarez: At the risk of being politically incorrect, what is the least favorite part of being ANCA Chairman?
R.H.H.: The worst part is actually just the flip side of the best part. Sometimes I come across folks who have lost hope or who feel helpless. They worry – and rightfully so – about Armenia’s future, in a tough neighborhood, facing serious challenges domestically and powerful enemies, both in the region and in Washington, D.C. So, all too often, they throw up their hands, or worse start pointing fingers.
It’s understandable. But it’s not acceptable.
There’s nothing I enjoy more than engaging these friends, showing them our work and even better, involving them in our advocacy. That’s really the most rewarding part of the job. Seeing individual transformations, the fact-based, results-driven realization among sometimes cynical but truly devoted people that they can make a real and lasting difference. We see it all the time.
Asbarez: While the questions for this interview could go on forever, let me ask my final question about programs the ANCA has for young professionals?
R.H.H.: Well – you saved the best question for last. Of all the initiatives the ANCA has taken over the last two decades – two stand out. First is our Leo Sarkisian Summer internship program, which has been running for over three decades and serving as a boot camp for the Armenian Cause for hundreds of talented young Armenian Americans. The program is named after Leo Sarkisian, a longtime ANCA leader, whose faith, dedication and service to our common cause, remains the gold standard when it comes to grassroots activism.
Our second signature program is the Hovig Apo Saghdejian Capital Gateway Program. Started in 2003, this program welcomes college and university graduates from across the United States and houses them – at no cost – at the ANCA’s Aramian House, while giving them professional assistance on finding jobs in our nation’s capital. The program has been a spectacular success, placing a remarkably diverse number of Armenian Americans in jobs on Capitol Hill, with think tanks and advocacy organizations representing broad and diverse goals.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that the Capital Gateway Program is named after Hovig Apo Saghdejian, a dedicated AYF member and ANCA supporter from Fresno, California – whose life ended far too soon. Hovig’s memory lives on forever with the ANCA and our work to inspire a new generation of Armenian Americans.
I also want to pay a special tribute to Sue Aramian and her remarkable sisters – the late Margo Aramian Ragan and Martha Aramian – for making the ANCA’s Aramian House possible through their generous and ongoing donations.
For anyone visiting Washington, I would encourage them to visit our ANCA national headquarters and ask to meet some of our ANCA Leo Sarkisian Summer Interns and Hovig Apo Saghdejian Capital Gateway Fellows. They are young students and professional of the highest caliber who, quite frankly, make you feel very good about the future of America and our common cause.
Asbarez: Thank you, Raffi. Any final thoughts?
R.H.H.: Thank you for this opportunity to have a shared and positive dialogue. I want to just conclude by sharing that the ANCA is grateful… Grateful for the opportunity to work with our community to strengthen the twin Republics of Armenia and Artsakh. We are also grateful to the tens of thousands of Armenian Americans who contribute to us – through their activism and their hard earned donations. We appreciate and respect each of our ANCA supporters.
Lastly, as my mother Mary Aljian Hamparian often told visitors to our home in New Jersey – mer tooruh meeshd patz eh – our door is always open. So I hope that everyone reading this interview comes and visits the ANCA in Washington, DC, at our regional offices, or in their local community this month or next; this year or next. Our doors are always open.
Link: ‘Our Doors are Always Open’