Fresno, California, is home to one of the largest and oldest Armenian communities in the United States. But how did this community come to be? What were the challenges and opportunities that the first Armenian settlers faced in Fresno? And how did they preserve and share their rich cultural heritage with the rest of the society?
The First Wave: Evangelicals from Marzvan
The history of the Armenian community in Fresno can be traced back to the late 19th century, when a group of Armenian Evangelicals from the town of Marzvan in Western Armenia decided to seek a new life in America. They were motivated by religious persecution, economic hardship, and political oppression in their homeland, as well as by the prospects of freedom, prosperity, and education in the New World.
One of the pioneers of this group was Mardiros Yanukian, who arrived in Fresno in 1878. He was a native of Marzvan and a convert to Protestantism. He had escaped the horrors of Ottoman Turkish misrule and changed his name to “Normart” (“new man” in Armenian). He was followed by his four brothers, who also adopted the same surname. They became successful farmers and businessmen, and also helped other Armenians to settle in Fresno.
By 1890, there were some 1,000 Armenians in Fresno, mostly from Marzvan and other nearby towns. They were mainly of Protestant faith, but also included some Apostolics and Catholics. They formed their own churches, schools, and organizations, and maintained their language, traditions, and customs. They also integrated well with the local society, and contributed to the development of the region, especially in the fields of agriculture and commerce.
The Second Wave: Survivors of the Armenian Genocide
The early 20th century brought a tragic turn of events for the Armenians in their ancestral homeland. Between 1915 and 1923, the Ottoman Turkish government carried out a systematic campaign of genocide against the Armenian population, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians and the displacement of millions more. Many of the survivors fled to various countries, including the United States, where they sought refuge and assistance from their compatriots.
Fresno became one of the major destinations for the Armenian refugees, who arrived in large numbers in the 1920s and 1930s. They were mostly of Apostolic faith, and came from different regions of Western Armenia, such as Van, Bitlis, Kharpert, and Sivas. They faced many challenges, such as language barriers, cultural differences, and discrimination, but they also found support and solidarity from the established Armenian community in Fresno.
The newcomers brought with them their own churches, schools, and organizations, and enriched the diversity and vitality of the Armenian community in Fresno. They also shared their stories, memories, and experiences of the Armenian Genocide, and raised awareness and recognition of this crime against humanity among the American public and the international community.
The Third Wave: Immigrants from the Soviet Union and the Middle East
The Armenian community in Fresno continued to grow and evolve in the second half of the 20th century and the early 21st century, as new waves of immigrants arrived from different parts of the world. Some of them came from the Soviet Union, especially after its collapse in 1991, when Armenia regained its independence and faced economic and political difficulties. Others came from the Middle East, especially from countries such as Lebanon, Syria, and Iran, where they had settled after the Armenian Genocide, but had to leave due to wars, conflicts, and instability.
These immigrants brought with them their own perspectives, backgrounds, and aspirations, and added new dimensions and dynamism to the Armenian community in Fresno. They also faced their own challenges, such as adapting to a new environment, finding jobs and education, and preserving their identity and heritage. They found opportunities and resources in the existing Armenian institutions and networks, and also created their own initiatives and collaborations.
The Legacy and the Future of the Armenian Community in Fresno
Today, the Armenian community in Fresno is estimated to number around 50,000 people, making it one of the largest and most influential Armenian diaspora communities in the world. It is composed of a diverse and vibrant mosaic of generations, faiths, regions, and cultures, reflecting the rich and complex history of the Armenian people. It is also an integral and active part of the broader society, contributing to the social, economic, and cultural life of Fresno and beyond.
The Armenian community in Fresno has a proud and remarkable legacy, but also a great responsibility and a bright future. It has the duty to honor and remember the past, to celebrate and cherish the present, and to envision and shape the future. It has the mission to preserve and promote the Armenian identity and heritage, to foster and support the Armenian cause and homeland, and to engage and collaborate with the other communities and the world. It has the potential to be a source of inspiration and innovation, a force of resilience and solidarity, and a bridge of dialogue and understanding.