WATERTOWN, Mass (A.W.)—Cambridge-based Armenian-American entrepreneur Noubar Afeyan has been involved in Armenia’s development for some time now. From the Armenia 2020 initiative, to the formation of the National Competitiveness Foundation of Armenia, to the Tatev Revival Project, and most recently, the 100 Lives/Aurora Prize initiative, Afeyan has led and been a part of several projects engaged in the long-tern socioeconomic development of the country over the last 17 years.
“What’s been frustrating and really difficult to achieve is diasporan engagement in any number of these opportunities,” Afeyan says in a recent phone conversation with the Armenian Weekly. According to him, Armenians in the diaspora have been hesitant to provide capital to any project taking shape in Armenia—some have thought that their money is being misused, and most are unwilling to deploy their time.
The Repat Armenia Foundation is trying to change that. This weekend, for the first time in Boston, the organization will host “Imagine Armenia”—a forum to share reasons and best ways to get engaged with Armenia.
“When Repat reached out and said that they wanted to come to Boston and really show how many things could be interesting to engage with, I thought it was a terrific and unprecedented opportunity,” Afeyan, who will deliver the keynote address at the forum, explains.
For Afeyan, these types of events and dialogues are aimed at providing a notion of a global Armenian who can be active locally, active remotely—whether its in Armenia, Los Angeles, or France—through an Armenian network that may amplify and enrich who they are and what they are doing. “That’s next level that will be really interesting if we could all get there. That’s why I’m interested in it,” he says.
When asked why it is important for him for Armenians around the world to be engaged with the country, he says that he would answer the question differently today than he would 17 years ago. “When you’re trying to get out of a complete mess of a post-soviet reality into an eventually prosperous country, you have to take risks, you have to inspire, you have to choose what you’re good at and count on those. All the things that matter in a start up—branding, relationships—also exist in a small country. If it was India, I could not engage as much, but with a small country like Armenia, people could get things activated.”
“Seventeen years later,” he says, “I would answer it differently—maybe its age or experience, I’m not sure.”
According to him, since the passing of the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide in 2015, Armenians around the need to think about what’s next within the notion of “the genocide defining Armenian identity.” “For me, there’s always this tension between ‘is it the genocide that compels us or Armenia’s development?’ I think that’s a false truth,” he says. “I thought to myself, what could I do to reverse the genocide and quickly realized there’s nothing to do to reverse it. The secondary effect—which is important in the long-term—is the shattering of the physical proximity of the people of the nation. That can be reversed.”
Afeyan says that a new meaning of a post-Centennial Armenian identity can be the reconstitution of the Armenian nation. “There are two kinds of justice. One is that the international community can give us and the other is that we can give ourselves. The justice we can control is the justice that is served by reversing this fragmentation of the nation and that reconstitution to me is enabled by having a state. That’s not to say that the state is going to bring us together because they are in no position to do that. But we are not going to come together around an ideology that easily either. The notion to me of a global Armenian is recognizing that there has to be an attempt made in restoring the notion of a collective, so that when Syria hurts, Argentina hurts, so when Toronto succeeds, France succeeds.”
Afeyan says that the global Armenian community is far from that reality today but by engaging with Armenia-development related projects rather than simple charity, communities around the world can start working in unison. “This could help reconstitute the nation,” he explains.
For Afeyan, Armenia could and should serve as the bonding point for Armenians—regardless of where they may live. “Armenia can give us a reason to talk initially, associate even more, and eventually act. For example, the St. Stephens Armenian School [of Watertown, Mass.] kids visit Armenia every year. That association gives strength and meaning. And I think through forums and discussions like ‘Imagine Armenia,’ we can talk about these important relationships.”
When asked about the fear that some members of the Armenian Diaspora will dismiss the idea of building bridges with Armenia because of the corruption and the huge gap between the very rich and those living in extreme poverty in Armenia, Afeyan says that engaging with the nation is the first step.
“To me nation building is like family building. Either we are a family—whether it’s disconnected or fragmented—or we are not,” he explains. “In my family if we had a drug addition problem, I wouldn’t say ‘I don’t care about you anymore.’ We cannot afford to sit in judgment. We should understand it, work against it, and water the seeds that are able to flourish in Armenian reality,” he says.
“If we get blocked in one area, we should nurture another. At some point we must believe that it will get better enough that we can slip from being generally negative to generally positive. But until then, we cannot sit on our hands and say this is someone else’s problem.”
Repat Armenia’s “Imagine Armenia” forum will take place on May 20 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT – 77 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, Mass.), from 2 to 6 p.m.