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Hundred of people fill a room where a counter is in front, and a woman with a pink top and jeans is running a cash register. You can't see what they are selling.

Oakland Armenian church annual food festival to raise money for refugees fleeing bombings

on October 4, 2023

Beirut. Yerevan. Moscow. Cairo. Buenos Aires. Oakland.

These cities were among the first havens for survivors of the Armenian Genocide in the early 20th century. Today, Oakland’s St. Vartan Apostolic Church remains a meeting place for the region’s Armenian community nearly a century after its founding in 1924. 

This weekend, St. Vartan will host a two-day festival featuring Armenian and Middle Eastern food prepared by members of the congregation, live Armenian music, traditional dancing, children’s activities, and vendors. Take-away food will also be available. Kim Bardakian, one of the event’s organizers, said members have been preparing for the weekend since May. 

Five young girls walk in a straight line, one behind the other, preparing to perform before hundreds of people in a cafeterial. The girls all have long braided dark hair with gold hair bands, gold belts around their waists, long black skirts and tan tight-fitting tops.

68th Annual Armenian Food Festival

When: 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday,
and noon to 11 p.m. Saturday.

Where: St. Vartan Apostolic Church, 650 Spruce Street

Last week, around 100,000 of the 120,000 Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan, fled the region after a blockade and bombings by Azerbaijan.  Armenia’s prime minister has claimed the incursion constitutes ethnic cleansing.

Despite some calls to postpone the festival, the organizers have shifted its focus to raising awareness and money. A portion of the proceeds from food, drinks, raffles, and hand-made crafts will support the St. Vartan Armenian Humanitarian Aid Fund to assist refugees. Organizers will also offer information about the current situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

“The Armenian story has never been a happy one,” said deacon Steve Donikian. Donikian’s parents emigrated to Oakland from Istanbul after violent pogroms in 1955. 

As in festivals past, this year Donikian will be overseeing the kebab pit. His goal for the event is to provide a space for Armenians and non-Armenians to receive physical and spiritual nourishment.

Beth Rustigian, whose grandparents were founding members of St. Vartan, helped tweak this weekend’s plans in light of the events in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Rustigian said that the East Bay Armenian community prides itself on welcoming anyone to its events regardless of Armenian heritage. This attitude reflects an appreciation of the fact that Oakland has given generations of Armenians a safe home. 

Donikian said that Oakland has been an ideal refuge for the Armenian community over the past century. The city, like Armenia, has long been overshadowed by its neighbor to the west, he said. But, he added “We’re still here. The goal now is to make sure that the situation does not become any worse.”

(Contributed photos from last year’s festival are courtesy of Kim Bardakian)


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