Jackie Sahagian’s radiant personality shines through in her colourful sticker designs, which draw attention with an array of blues, purples and reds. She created eye-catching stickers that connect her current home in Toronto with the ongoing war in Armenia, where her family is from. She and her sister sell them through an Instagram account to raise funds for families displaced in the latest round of fighting.
“When the war happened, I couldn’t just sit down and do nothing. I couldn’t do that,” said Jackie, 22, a third-year student at the University of Toronto.
She and her sister Annie, 24, grew up in neighbouring Syria but are ethnically Armenian. News of the most recent outbreak of war in Armenia in September 2020 hit home. They knew they had to do something.
They created an initiative called Sahagian Stickers for Artsakh, a reference to a breakaway state that’s their homeland and the focus of the ongoing war. All the proceeds were donated to Artsakh Fund Canada, a non-profit organization of volunteers that provides humanitarian aid to displaced families in Artsakh.
“As much as it’s great to raise awareness and share on social media, for me, as a person, honestly it’s actions over speech,” said Annie, who is in her fifth year at the University of Toronto.
Watch: The sisters explain their sticker campaign
Creating art in a pandemic
Due to the pandemic, the sisters faced challenges such as finding a printing company that was affordable and reliable. They turned to YouTube videos to learn more about the different types of printing styles and paper because they could not see samples in person.
After weeks of research, they chose a small Armenian printing business in the Greater Toronto Area and dipped into their own wallets to cover the printing costs.
The stickers were inspired by Toronto slang with designs including phrases such as “sus” and “wasteyute.”
“Everything that I would want in a sticker, I created it,” Jackie said.
In just under two weeks, the sticker campaign exceeded the sisters’ initial goal of $500. To the sisters’ surprise, most people who donated to the cause didn’t even want stickers in return. They raised $1,300 altogether — the vast majority of it from non-Armenians.
“I was hoping that people would get inspired and motivated to participate because they would see our energy and our passion for our homeland,” Annie said. “Folks have trust in us because whatever we said, we did.”
The long war
The decades-long Artsakh war, internationally known as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, dates back to the early 1990s. Nagorno-Karabakh (known as Artsakh to Armenians) is internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan but is historically the homeland of ethnic Armenians.
The disputed region has been the source of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with the most recent escalation being in late September 2020. The conflict lasted six weeks and ended with a ceasefire in early November. According to the International Crisis Group, at least 5,489 people were killed there last year, not including those who remain missing.
After the 1915 Armenian genocide, the sisters’ paternal grandfather fled the country with his mother after his father was killed. He was just seven years old. From western Armenia, they marched through the desert until they reached Qamishli, Syria. This chain of events is what led to the sisters eventually being born and raised in Syria’s capital, Aleppo.
“I never felt like I had to choose. I’m both,” Jackie said, referring to identifying as both Armenian and Syrian.
When Canada opened its borders for Syrian refugees in 2015, the Sahagian family arrived and settled in Scarborough, Ont. The sisters hope to one day visit Armenia for the first time.
Their donation to Artsakh Fund Canada helped provide families with emergency aid, such as food, to make it through a pandemic winter.
“One of the achievements that we are most proud of is the distribution of Christmas toys to thousands of orphans who lost their parents during the war,” said Raffy Bekmezian, the chairman of Artsakh Fund Canada, an organization founded in the 1990s, following the first Artsakh war.
Uniting for the cause
Delicia Raveenthrarajan, a second-year student at the University of Toronto, met Annie when they both started working in the arts, culture and media student association. When she heard about Sahagian Stickers for Artsakh, she educated herself on the issue and made a donation.
“[I] saw that this was something that was really close to her and that she was really passionate about,” she said, referring to hearing Annie speak about the campaign. “I thought it’s really important to be able to support one another, especially as women and as people of colour.”
It’s exactly what the sisters hoped their campaign would inspire — an appreciation and understanding of their people’s struggle.
“We never stopped working for our people and we’re proud survivors,” Annie said. “We were not erased. We are here.”
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