How Jackie Speier elevated the Armenian community

‘There’s a lot of allies in Congress for the Armenian story to be told’

Rep. Jackie Speier, who has represented the Peninsula on the local, state and federal level for more than 40 years, will be remembered for many things long after she retires this year. But to Armenian Americans, it will be that she was one of their own —that she was able to elevate issues important to them and serve as a role model for youth.

She is one of just two Armenian members of Congress, the other being Rep. Anna Eshoo.

“The pipeline hasn’t grown as much in Congress,” Speier told the Examiner. “But there’s a whole generation of Armenian Americans who are in elected office on the local level and in state legislatures. Over time, I think their voices are going to be heard. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of allies in Congress for the Armenian story to be told.”

Speier’s district is home to the Krouzian-Zekarian-Vasbouragan Armenian School, a bilingual private K-8 school by Lake Merced, two Armenian churches and a senior Armenian community center. Besides Speier, who is Armenian through her mother’s side, the Bay Area is home to an estimated 50,000 Armenians, many in San Mateo County, and a few dozen Armenian American community organizations.

Speier’s long and storied political career somewhat overshadows her heritage. She survived being shot during the 1978 Jonestown massacre while working for Congressman Leo Ryan, who was assassinated. She served in the California state legislature, supporting its assault weapons ban and became the first in the governing body to give birth while in office. In Congress since 2008, she’s known for fighting against sexual assault in the U.S. military, supporting humanitarian causes and abortion rights which includes talking about her own.

Along the way, Speier and Eshoo repeatedly advocated for the United States to recognize the Armenian genocide of 1915, when Ottoman authorities killed or forced ethnic Armenians from Turkey — including their family members.

“Typically, we spend quite a bit of time educating our public officials as to what the Armenian community is all about and what our concerns are,” said Roxanne Makasdijian, co-founder and executive director of the Genocide Education Project. “She came into office knowing all of those and fully willing to act on behalf of the Armenian community. You have a head start with Jackie Speier.”

Speier credits Eshoo with feeling the time was right in 2019 to shepherd the recognition through in Congress, assisted by the leadership of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Adam Schiff, who represents the Armenian community of Glendale.

President Joe Biden followed in recognizing the genocide in April 2021, the first sitting U.S. president to do so.

It was a long time coming for the Armenian diaspora. It could have taken longer.

“It really, really helped for her and Congresswoman Eshoo to tell family stories,” said Aram Hamparian, executive director of ANCA, based in Washington D.C. “These are things that had not been possible when there weren’t Armenian American representatives in Congress. Personal testimony carries a lot of weight.”

Speier reflected on the impact the genocide had on her mother that she sensed growing up. Speier visited the Eternal Flame, a memorial to the genocide in Tsitsernakaberd, Armenia, to commemorate the 100th anniversary. There, she said she left a pin cushion, which her mother used to make using stuffed tuna cans, and a program from her mother’s funeral.

“There was always this cloud that she kind of carried around with her, of sadness,” Speier told the Examiner. “It speaks to the anguish about the Armenian genocide. In some respects, I feel that I have completed the journey for her that didn’t happen when she was alive.”

She also just discovered on Wednesday that her grandfather on her father’s side spent one month in a German concentration camp, making both sides of her family touched by genocide.

The effects of obscuring history and what happens in present-day Armenia continues to have ripple effects for the Armenia diaspora. In 2020, Bay Area churches and the KZV Armenian School were vandalized as deadly conflict emerged again in the Nagorno-Karabakh region in Azerbaijan — backed by Turkey. The area is known as Artsakh to the ethnic Armenians who governed it.

Rep. Jackie Speier hugs a group of schoolchildren at KZV Armenian School. (Courtesy KZV Armenian School)

Rep. Jackie Speier hugs a group of schoolchildren at KZV Armenian School. (Courtesy KZV Armenian School)

Speier condemned Azerbaijan for “military aggression” at Artsakh, which she visited in 2019, and called out disparities in aid to Armenia compared to Azerbaijan. A border crisis between the two countries has been ongoing since April 2021.

“More than 100 years later, that hate is still being fanned and reaching us here in the farthest corner of the world from that region,” Makasdijian. “It really brought home the reality of the fact that if the international community does not hold each other accountable and responsible for their misbehavior [that] denial [was] allowed to foment over so much time.”

Speier also co-chairs the Armenian Congressional Caucus, which has helped bolster aid to the country, including $40 million for democracy assistance in 2019. The congresswoman added that while Turkey and former Soviet Union territories have become more authoritarian, Armenia’s democracy has strengthened and the United States must protect it.

“Congresswoman Speier has been an extraordinary advocate for Armenia and the Armenian community here in the U.S.,” said Eshoo in a statement. “She has strengthened ties between both nations, helped secure vital funding to bolster Armenia’s democratic institutions, and has grown the Armenian Caucus into a powerful force for change on Capitol Hill. As the only two Armenian-American Members of Congress, I’m losing my best partner with her retirement.”

Hamparian noted that Speier has been very eager to mentor and that the community will now lean more on Congresswoman Eshoo, who is also Assyrian and represents the district just south of Speier’s, to elevate Armenian issues and foster mentorship.

KZV Armenian School takes “great pride” in being represented by someone also Armenian American, said principal Grace Andonian. Students have seen Speier in Washington D.C., at their school and many community events. Some alumni have also interned for her.

“We are fortunate to have Congresswoman Speier as a real-life representation of the type of person we want our students to be in the future,” Andonian said. “Our students, from our kindergarteners to our middle school students, are always excited to see Rep. Speier. She is a true role model who embodies what it means to be principled and compassionate leader.”

Senekeremian believes the foundation built by Eshoo and Speier, who said she will continue to use her voice and stay involved, will grow. And Hamparian sees great promise in upcoming Armenian American leaders to step in, like Michigan state legislator Mari Manoogian and Peter Koutoujian, a sheriff in Massachusetts and a former state legislator.

“We’ll just miss her terribly,” Hamparian said. “She’s been such a treasure and a role model and a leader for our community.”

imojadad@sfexaminer.com

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