School festival celebrates Armenian culture

CRESCENTA VALLEY — Garo Melikian, a father of two, attended the Armenian Cultural Day festival Sunday to see his daughters recite poetry, songs and skits in front of a crowd of hundreds at Vahan and Anoush Chamlian Armenian School.

His fourth-grade daughter, Nairi, is improving her Armenian language speaking and understanding each year. She and her classmates recited poems and songs in Armenian, and Melikian could see her improvement.

Watching his daughter perform is what a father lives for, he said.

“She grows and performs much better every year,” Melikian said. “It’s a very proud day for a parent. That’s why we’ve been taking pictures.”

Hundreds of children, parents, grandparents and school teachers and staff celebrated the annual Cultural Day with an event of songs, dancing, poetry and food. Students and school staff wore white T-shirts with the phrase, “School is where culture is kept.”

Enrollment remains strong at the first-through-eighth-grade campus. The school educates roughly 500 students and is one of few Armenian schools that offers language classes in western and eastern dialects.

“It’s a great show of unity,” said Saro Nazarian, chair of the Eastern Armenian Department. “Encouraging kids to learn their heritage and history . . . they recognize how their ancients lived in their homeland, and that’s what we try to convey to these kids who were born in the U.S. in a multiethnic society.”

The festival celebrates the creation of the Armenian alphabet in the fifth century, Nazarian said.

“Armenians are one of the most ancient cultures on Earth, and we want to keep that alive,” he said.

The Cultural Day provided valuable learning opportunities for Armenian language and history instructor Vilma Kouyoumjian’s first-, third- and sixth-graders.

“This is how they learn,” she said. “It’s not a Broadway show, but it’s fun, and it is memorable.”

Her students master the language by repetition and by doing. Many students read arags, or short Armenian fables, aloud in class. Kouyoumjian recounted one about a fox that criticized a lion for producing only one cub. The story is illustrative of quality versus quantity, Kouyoumjian said.

“The themes can be applied to all humankind,” she said. “When they listen to how you speak [Armenian], they pick up and use your words.”

The day was meant to promote a day of belonging and community, said Carmen Ohanian, who logged countless hours planning the festival with other parents on the organizing committee.

“It’s a lot of work for parents, but the results we see, it’s why we send our kids to Armenian school and see them becoming Armenian American citizens,” she said.

Students recited patriotic poems in front of a mural of men and women in traditional Armenian dress. In the center of the background was a ripe pomegranate, a sign of prosperity and abundance in Armenian culture.

“Pomegranates are always broke in half for good luck,” said Varouj Keledjian, who was selling handmade jewelry pieces and bronze pomegranate sculptures. “There’s supposed to be 365 seeds for every day of the year. It doesn’t matter if it’s small or big — that’s what they say. I’ve never counted.”

Across the yard, Armenian food was being prepared. Parent volunteers served soujouk, taboule and zahtar, a crepe-style dish with thyme and sesame seeds. Harissa, a barley and shredded beef dish, was also available. Three self-serve bowls of cumin, cinnamon and paprika let eaters add some kick.

Red peppers are an important ingredient in many Armenian dishes, as are onions and garlic, the cooks said.

Houri Douzjian bakes cookies, turnovers and a lasagna dish using traditional Armenian recipes. Her cookie recipe calls for mastic, a Greek and Mediterranean gum, as well as walnuts.

Eighth-graders Arman Shabanian and Allen Dishigrikyan said the food was the highlight of their day. But they also acknowledged they would soon be graduating and would miss the friends and teachers they discovered at Chamlian.

“It’s important to know who we are and important to express that,” Allen said. “It’s the least we can do.”


 MAX ZIMBERT covers education. He may be reached at (818) 637-3215 or by e-mail at max.zimbert@latimes.com.

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