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The Armenian Diaspora Remembers And Mourns

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide was marked by commemorations across the world this week. Some of the biggest were in our backyard here at NPR West. Nearly half of the Armenians in the U.S. live in the greater Los Angeles area, and the largest concentration is north of the city in Glendale. Tomik Alexanian is a longtime community leader with the Armenian Society of Los Angeles. He calls this area the capital of the American Diaspora, and thousands have come over the years, with each new family following the other.

TOMIK ALEXANIAN: So the first wave from close to 1980s - early 1980s. And then the second started from 1995. And the third is still continuing from 2002 to present. So just imagine, from a small number of Armenian in Glendale, now we are over probably 100,000 - close to 100,000 Armenians living in Glendale.

RATH: We met at a candlelight vigil held every year to commemorate the genocide. Most of the other cars here are decked out in their Armenian flag, squares of red, blue and orange fluttering from their windows. And the event was mobbed - a sea of cars, but a peculiar degree of traffic courtesy considering the swarm. Tomik is not surprised by the turnout.

ALEXANIAN: You know, this is in our blood. This is in our history. Almost any Armenian family that you talk to, they lost someone in the genocide, regardless of where they come from.

CHILDREN: (Singing in foreign language).

RATH: Sometimes expat communities struggle to hold on to their roots - not here - tons of enthusiastic young people in this crowd. A choir of local children are on the stage. The little ones, about six years old, are in the front, a row of teenagers in the back. All of them are wearing black T-shirts with the words, I remember, in purple letters. They're singing the Armenian national anthem.

CHILDREN: (Singing in foreign language).

RATH: After the performance, I spoke with six-year-old Aya Najarian (ph).

You did a beautiful, beautiful job.

AYA NAJARIAN: Thank you. It was good, and I was not nervous.

RATH: And her sister Hasmik (ph), who's 12.

HASMIK NAJARIAN: I've been coming here for over seven years. And, like, already all these people that are here that perform with me, they're not, like, my peers. They're more like my family, you know?

RATH: Their mother, Araxia Najarian (ph), says, in this community, they've been able to maintain a strong connection to their culture and history.

ARAXIA NAJARIAN: They both were born in the U.S. in Glendale. And they speak fluent, read and write Armenian. I'm very proud of that. They have the culture instilled in them, already, you know, being Armenian. And it's very important for us to keep it going so...

RATH: Araxia says it's difficult to talk to kids about genocide, but her children know about the history. Everyone here mentions that Pope Francis and leaders of countries like Germany have use the word genocide, even President Vladimir Putin of Russia, but all are deeply disappointed that President Obama decided not to use that word when marking the centennial. Tomik Alexanian says that's a betrayal of a promise Mr. Obama made when he was running for president.

ALEXANIAN: I am Republican, but I voted for Obama because of that reason - only reason. There was no other reason for it. I lost family in that genocide. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.