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From the shadows: Berj Najarian uses My Cause, My Cleats to shine light on Armenia

My Cause, My Cleats is an NFL initiative that encourages coaches and players to wear custom cleats, highlighting organizations and issues that are important to them. Patriots.com will be highlighting stories throughout the month. Many of the cleats will be put up for auction, with all proceeds benefitting the chosen charities. You can learn more about all Patriots My Cause, My Cleats here.

Berj Najarian is one to keep a low-public profile. As the Patriots director of football/head coach administration, Najarian's job keeps him behind the scenes, and most of the time, that's how he likes it.

But this fall, Najarian went out of his comfort zone to shine light on an important human rights issue. An Armenian-American, Najarian joined Instagram with the intention of bringing awareness to the deadly and unrelenting drone attacks on the Armenian people by neighboring Azerbaijan.

Through his presence on social media, as well as taking part in My Cause, My Cleats for the first time, Najarian is bringing the conflict to the forefront.

"It starts with awareness. Let's start there because so many people are unaware of this situation that didn't just start a few months ago. If we can get that, then that's a start," he said. "Otherwise, nothing is going to change. There's not going to be any action until there's awareness."

The conflict is over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh (or Artsakh to Armenians) region, which is one of the ancient provinces of Armenia that was annexed by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to the new republic of Azerbaijan in the early 1920s. While the region is autonomous and populated predominantly by Armenians, the conflict represents much more than simply a contested piece of land, Najarian said.

While it may seem like a faraway problem for non-Armenians in the United States, Najarian said there is much more to it.

"It's hard when you just see there's a dispute, there's a war going on in another part of the world about a tiny piece of land between two countries no one's heard of," he said. "How are people here going to relate to that? I think everyone can relate to families being torn apart, racism and oppression."

Given all that this year has brought on, Najarian said those in the Patriots organization were already having open conversations about equality, human rights and oppression, and because of this, those in the locker room were eager to learn.

After the killing of George Floyd in the spring, like so many other groups, households and companies across the country, conversations shifted to systemic racism, and the Patriots began hosting meetings to discuss social justice initiatives. Players spoke openly about their experiences with racism, and experts from local organizations offered insight.

In light of this, Najarian was asked to speak to the team about what was happening in Armenia, the country's history of oppression and how he feels history is repeating itself by dictators who are being enabled.

"I jumped at the chance and I did that. It was tremendous. It was a lot to cover, and the guys were really receptive to learning the background," he said. "There's a lot here beyond just a fight over a piece of land. I think that sparked interest from some of the guys, given their take on what they heard from me and their take on human rights and equality and humanity in general."

It didn't take long for Patriots players, coaches and staff members to support Najarian's efforts publicly. Coach Bill Belichick wore an Armenian flag pin as a show of support to the White House in 2015, and more recently, said "he stands with Armenians through these difficult times" in a video. Matthew Slater and Devin McCourty voiced their support in an effort to "speak up for the voiceless." After the Patriots 45-0 win over the Chargers, Cam Newton wore Najarian's shoes around his neck during his postgame on-field interview.

This reception from those in the Patriots locker room means a great deal to Najarian.

"Personally, I don't know if they could ever do anything that I could appreciate more. This is it for me. It goes back to my identity, my family's identity," Najarian said. "There are a lot of people that they've touched, not just me, and they've touched me in a huge way. They've touched a lot of people that I've heard from directly, too many to count. It's incredible, and it's a credit to them that when they stand for something, they mean it and their actions prove it.

This identity is a point of pride for many Armenians, Najarian said.

Beginning in 1915, Armenians were systematically and brutally killed simply for being Armenian. What began as a population of about two million in 1915 was less than 400,000 by 1922, according to the New York Times.

The Armenian Genocide took more than a million lives, and many countries fail to acknowledge the atrocities. The United States only passed legislation to formally recognize the genocide in 2019.

For Najarian, he did not need a history book to learn what happened. His grandfather recounted his own tale of survival often: how his parents were killed when he was 10 years old, how he traveled to Syria for refuge, spending a decade in an orphanage before making his way to France and eventually the United States.

This history of oppression and the attempts at silencing their history has created a culture of resilience among Armenians around the world.

"I think the reaction from many Armenians and definitely from myself is that when you attack our homeland – again – you are attacking the identity of all Armenians," Najarian said.

It has also created intense pride. Najarian traveled from New York to Franklin, Mass., as a kid to attend a camp focused on Armenian culture and history, the same camp where his parents met.

With that in mind, it is not surprising at how quickly his efforts have gained attention. His custom sneakers to benefit the Armenia Fund, an organization providing humanitarian, civilian and medical relief, are up for auction through the NFL. At the time of publication, Najarian's sneakers are going for more than $8,000, the highest of any participating Patriot.

"It's obviously not about me," Najarian said. "We know that … It tells you how passionate the Armenian people are about our identity because this tells our story, and we're proud of it. Our hearts are in this."

You can learn more about the Armenia Fund here. To place a bid on Najarian's sneakers or other Patriots players cleats, check out the NFL Auction here.

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