Few believed Gabriel Injejikian when he announced that he would open an Armenian school for children from his community.
But with persistence and an unexpected endowment, Injejikian in 1964 transformed a ranch house on White Oak Avenue in Encino into the first Armenian day school in the United States.
For 33 years, the Holy Martyrs Ferrahian Armenian High School--named for the school's major benefactor--has offered youngsters of Armenian descent the opportunity to learn their language and culture. And since its establishment, 25 other Armenian day schools have opened in the United States, with California leading the way with 15.
"My thought was if I can open one school and show the Armenian community that it can work, then others would follow," said Injejikian, who was the school's first principal.
Born in 1930 in Kessab, Syria, Injejikian came to the United States initially to study education at Wayne State University in Michigan. After earning a degree, he returned to Syria to teach. But his thoughts remained with the U.S. Armenian community and his desire to reintroduce its members to a culture that they were losing.
"When I was in the United States, I noticed that the Armenian children and adults didn't have the opportunity to know about their heritage," he said. In Syria, while seeking donations to establish an American Armenian school, he found that Matheos Ferrahian had designated $250,000 in his will for establishing an Armenian secondary school within 25 years of his death.
Injejikian won a court battle for the right to the money and opened a school in a home used by the Holy Martyrs Church.
"During the summer months, I visited as many families as I could who had children to encourage them to learn Armenian," the Northridge resident said.
On Sept. 14, 1964, a dozen students arrived for the first day of class. By the end of the year, 47 students graduated.
The facility now has the third-largest Armenian student body in California and has graduated more than 1,000.
Injejikian, whose three children attended the school, is retired, but says he will always find the time to help "Armenian children learn to be bilingual and bicultural."