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“Refuge” Showcases Artifacts of Fresno’s Armenian Heritage

Refuge ShowcaseBy Jacqueline Arikian

Hidden in the special collections section of the Henry Madden Library at Fresno State, exists a display of Armenians in America: Fresno as “Refuge.” It is in the side room of the fourth floor where one can walk through Little Armenia and grasp a taste of Armenian life.

In this exhibit lies the stories of those who first stepped foot in the agricultural area of Fresno. Displayed books tell the story of Hagop Seropian and his brothers who came to Fresno in 1881 and started a grocery business. Shortly after their arrival, they wrote letters to their families in Armenia and in 1883, forty five families arrived from Marsovan to begin a new life in Fresno, California.

Other books tell the story of William Saroyan, an infamous Armenian writer to one and all. On display are pictures of the author and copies of some of the books which he has written.In addition to all the stories, one can also see the lyrics and musical notations of old Armenian folk songs. These songs were passed down through generations and were sang as a means of entertainment.

In this display also lies the core importance of Armenian life, the church. Pictures and manuscripts express the religious customs and beliefs of the Armenian people.In this presentation, one can also see the detail of illuminated manuscripts, the reproduction of carved wooden crosses, hand made table decors created through needlework, and slippers that were once used in public bath houses.

This wonderful display of Armenian life was put together through the help of Dr. Dikran Kouyumjian, Dr. Isabel Kaprelian and her friends Meline and Sarkis Kalfayan, Barlow DerMegredechian, and the special collections department of Fresno State.The showcase was inspired by a display which can be experienced at the Chinatown Art and Education Art Gallery. It is there that one may see photos of the impressive work of Lawrence Cone (Condragian), the first Armenian architect in Fresno.

This display was essentially the inspiration for the Armenian showcase at Fresno State. “It was a nice tie in with what we wanted to do,” says Tammy Lau, one of the coordinators at the special collections department.

This display is unique in the sense that it truly captures a wholistic view and representation of Armenian life, what it was once was, and in similar ways, still is. It also takes one back into time, guiding him through the history of a people who struggled to create a new life for themselves in the Little Armenia of Fresno.

It was because of Rueben Minassian, the first Armenian visitor to the San Joaquin Valley, and Melkon Markarian and Stephen Shahamirian, the first Armenian settlers in the Valley, that Armenians today have residence in Fresno and the surrounding valleys.

Not a day goes by in this Valley and in the city of Fresno, that one does not run into an Armenian. It is then that one begins to learn the history of each others’ family and discover the intertwining involvement of Armenians.

For those who do not have a piece of this depiction, he can obtain it through the eloquent display at Fresno State.