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Berj Najarian runs 2022 Boston Marathon, but that's nothing compared to his Armenian ancestors

The Patriots director of football/head coach administration is running to raise money for his non-profit Who We Are

Berj Najarian.PDC

There are aspects of his Armenian heritage that Berj Najarian would have never learned in school or through his own research.

As many different cultures have evolved with time, one as ancient and rich as his was attacked throughout its history and almost eradicated completely in the first genocide of the 20th century.

Through first-hand stories from his maternal grandfather, Najarian learned about the tragic plight and resilience of those who kept his culture from extinction. With that, comes a shared pride felt by him and other Armenians across the world -- one that could only be cultivated from a responsibility to keep their culture alive.

In his own attempt to do just that, the Patriots' longtime director of football/head coach administration will run the 2022 Boston Marathon on Monday to raise money for Who We Are, the non-profit he founded in 2021.

"There absolutely is a survival mentality and that exists within the Armenian people," Najarian said. "I mean, I'm here in this country because my grandparents and great grandparents survived hell. What they had to go through just to live is hard to imagine, which is why we owe it to the people who came before us to carry on the things, the traditions, the culture, and the identity that they've provided us."

Who We Are is committed to preserving those cultural identities and passing them on – celebrating every diverse background and ethnicity.

Najarian grew up in an Armenian-American household surrounded by the language, traditions, music, cuisine, and religion of his ancestors. He has an ethnic name, as do his brothers, and as a teen, he even attended (and now sends his children to) the same Armenian summer camp where his parents met in Franklin, Mass.

His mother grew up in Watertown, Mass., where many Armenians initially landed after fleeing to the United States to escape Ottoman oppression in the early 1900s. His grandfather, Papken Kechichian, was among several members of his family who survived the Armenian Genocide, where more than 1.5 million were killed. Kechichian made the harrowing journey through the Syrian desert to an orphanage in Aleppo. The family eventually went on to Paris before settling in the Greater Boston Area.

Conflict never completely subsided in the Caucasus, though.

To this day, Armenian cuisine shows the influence of the regions that surround it, a reminder of the wars and invasions that made their people so resilient. Yet, many don't learn about the systematic deportation and destruction of Armenians relative to genocides that followed. Ancient churches and one of civilization's oldest alphabets still exist in Armenia, the first state to declare Christianity its official religion, but they remain threatened.

"The Armenian Genocide was the first of the 20th century," Najarian said. "It was a crime on a massive, unmeasurable scale, and unlike many other genocides, there were no repercussions. No accountability, no punishment, no sanctions -- nothing.

"People have survived, physically, and they've managed to keep their cultures alive as well. That's where Who We Are is coming in -- to try and aid in that however we can."

The idea for the non-profit stemmed from 2020, as conversations about social justice took front and center across the country and NFL locker rooms alike.

Simultaneously, ongoing conflict at the Armenian border escalated that fall, with attacks from neighboring Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

It lit a fire under Najarian that incentivized him to get on social media and raise awareness about the war. He didn't quite know the power of his platform at the time, having spent most of his career behind the scenes. But support was overwhelming, and his Armenian-inspired cleats were auctioned off for $40,300 as part of the NFL's My Cause My Cleats campaign.

"To see the bidding go crazy like it did was surprising in a sense, but also, knowing on the other hand how Armenians feel about being Armenian, it didn't shock me but it did blow me away at the same time."

That money supported the Armenia Fund, but Najarian wanted to come up with a way to make a continued change, controlling what he can control in a complicated geopolitical issue while not limiting the impact to only Armenian causes.

"I really kind of looked at well, why is this so important to me?" Najarian reflected. "What is it about my heritage, why is this so important? It comes back to culture. As an Armenian, I think I speak for most Armenians out there -- especially the ones I know in this country -- is that you have this sense of heritage and culture ingrained in you from the beginning and all the way through, whether it's art, music, dance, food, religion, knowing history, just having this feeling of identity and purpose.

"That exists for me as an Armenian and I know that it exists for lots of other people from other backgrounds. So that was really the motivation to start this foundation called Who We Are -- to support and promote all these great things that we all have, and make sure they're preserved and strengthened and live on in our communities."

For Najarian, keeping his culture alive is a responsibility. Initially, it was Armenian political activists, intellectuals, and community leaders who were rounded up, deported, or killed. What other ideas and technologies were lost along with them?

"I think about what would have become of those people if that hadn't had happened," Najarian said. "If approximately 1.5 million out of about 2.2 million weren't wiped out? What would have become of this population 100 years later? That's a hard thing for me to wrap my head around. Not just the lives lost, but the future lost."

The sneakers Najarian auctioned off are now displayed at the Armenian Museum of America in Watertown – a city symbolic of safety and prosperity for Armenians. Because of Watertown's connection to his family and the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, he felt compelled to run the marathon for the first time the following year.

The second time around in 2022, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine prevalent in news coverage, Najarian runs it again to benefit his own mission.

"For my whole Patriots career, I've been behind the scenes -- that's just my role and that's great," Najarian said. "But that war, and me really having a fire lit, coincided with our team and players and organization really getting involved with a lot of social justice causes and speaking up, raising awareness, and shining lights on things, and really getting personal. Thankfully I had the opportunity, given by our players, to express myself about something that was important to me. I'm forever grateful to be able to do that."

After the marathon, Najarian is motivated to brush up on his Armenian, and with the initiative of Who We Are, perhaps help kids learn the language of their ancestors, too.

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