Annie Simonian Totah

When Armenia emerged as an independent nation, philanthropist Annie Simonian Totah did what she does best – she took action. Galvanizing a group of Diasporans, she set sail with them toward the homeland under the banner of the Armenian Assembly of America – for many it was the first time they would step foot on Armenia’s soil. While she had supported her homeland from afar, since her days as a tenacious youngster in Beirut, Lebanon, to her relentless advocacy work in Washington D.C., she sought to connect Diasporans with a free and independent Armenia, recognizing the importance of building that integral relationship early on. It was a symbolic trip, not only for the participants, but for herself, the child of Armenian Genocide survivors.

“My goal on these missions was to connect Armenian-Americans with their homeland and to help them see first-hand what is happening in the country and give them the chance to do their share to help,” she said.

During these sojourns, Annie learned about the work of the American University of Armenia, the nascent academic institution that was introducing a Western style of education to the country. Closely following the University’s accomplishments over the ensuing decades, Annie recently decided to support the future of the University as a Pillar, pledging $50,000 in order to serve as a cornerstone of the academic institution to sustain students within the homeland.

“I am impressed with what AUA is doing in Armenia by preparing and educating future leaders and giving them quality academic opportunities with excellent first-class professors,” said Annie. “Upon graduation, these young individuals will excel on their own turf by becoming well-informed, well-educated Armenians so they can help the country grow and prosper.”

The Armenian culture was always close to Annie’s heart. From a young age, she participated in dance, ballet and Girl Scouts while attending the Armenian AGBU private school Tarouhy Hagopian in Beirut. She earned her Master’s degree at the American University of Beirut, where she met her husband Sami. Soon after they moved to the Washington D.C. Metro area where they had four children, who all share the same Armenian spirit, speak the language, teach their own children to speak Armenian and do their part for the community. Although Armenia wasn’t yet independent at the time, that didn’t stop Annie from giving back to the community – she became involved in advocacy work and began calling for Armenian Genocide recognition on Capitol Hill. Witnessing her activism, the Armenian Assembly of America, the largest Washington-based non-partisan non-profit organization that promotes awareness and understanding of Armenian issues, invited her to serve as a Board Member and later, as chair of its Board of Directors – the first and only woman to have that honor.

She has been a familiar face on Capitol Hill for the last 40 years, as she advocates for Armenia and the Armenian people, highlighting the country’s strengths and how “Armenian is part of the solution of the conflict in the South Caucasus region,” particularly after the Velvet Revolution.

“We are on the right track and I am hopeful once we have democracy instilled in the country, along with transparency, justice, rule of law and employment opportunities, the citizens of Armenia will thrive,” said Annie. “It is extremely imperative that AUA and the Government of Armenia work in tandem to create and ensure good employment opportunities for the new graduates. A cooperation like that will entice young and educated Armenians to stay in the homeland. We cannot afford any brain drain from Armenia because that is one of the most precious natural resources that we have!”

From the very beginning, Annie was adamant about initiating funding for Armenia as well as and for Artsakh.

“I saw the sadness and devastation in Shushi and throughout the region,” said Annie during a mission trip in 1998. “Upon my return, I contacted my Senator and urged the Senate to initiate humanitarian aid so the citizens can have basic necessities.”

Within a short time and for the first time, she successfully secured funding from the U.S. government in the amount of $12 million – support that has continued to this date, resulting in $38 million earmarked for Artsakh from the U.S. government.

In addition to appropriating funds, Annie has assisted Armenia on a political level – so much so that then-president Robert Kocharian appointed her to serve as Ambassador of Armenia to Israel. While the role didn’t come to fruition due to diplomatic conflicts, Annie has become known as the “unofficial” Ambassador to Armenia on Capitol Hill.

Her momentous influence also extends outside the Armenian Community, as she serves on more than 20 arts, education and healthcare organizations, from St. Jude’s to the Washington Ballet to the Smithsonian Museum. She has been the recipient of numerous awards, from the Ellis Island Medal of Honor to the Pontifical Encyclical bestowed upon her by His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, for her genuine desire to “uplift the diaspora” and the world at large.

“Through my network and my connections with nonprofits and political organizations, I have always promoted my Armenian heritage, culture, traditions and issues by informing everybody around me,” said Annie.

Her philanthropy and generosity has no bounds. With so many causes, Annie reaches them all through her work ethic, charm and resolve, rooted in her by her parents, who escaped the Armenian Genocide and settled in Beirut, Lebanon, where they had four children. Annie saw compassion early on through her mother, who was a registered nurse at the American University Hospital, taking care of the terminally ill. Her mother’s humanity left a deep impression on her, setting the stage for her lifetime commitment to philanthropy.

“My parents instilled in me the principles and values of how to be a good human being,” said Annie. “Above all, they taught me to leave this world in a better place than I found it.”

It’s safe to say she has fulfilled her parent’s lessons – and then some.