From its very inception, the ARF came onto the world stage voicing the call of “Tebi Yergir.” It appealed to all Armenians to go to the homeland directly to take part in its defense and development. As an organization, the ARF has always believed that, ultimately, Armenia is the only place where we could truly flourish as a nation.
Today, after 17 years of Armenian independence, a new generation of ARF activists is seeking to reinvigorate this age-old call to return home and engage in our nation’s advancement. Led by the ARF “Shant” Student Association (ARF Shant), an ongoing campaign has been launched to encourage students and diasporan Armenians to travel, support, and ultimately resettle in their homeland.
The first event to kick off this Tebi Yergir campaign was an “Opportunities in Armenia” Information Fair held on Thurs., May 14, at the Glendale Hilton Hotel. A capacity crowd turned out for the event, which featured over a dozen booths, four speakers, a video slideshow, and a photo exhibit outlining the many opportunities existing in Armenia.
“The turnout was extremely encouraging,” said Vrej Haroutounian a lead organizer in the ARF Shant “Tebi Yergir” Campaign. “The over-150 people who attended only encouraged our committee to push forward with even more vigor towards our motherland. Each person there made us want to work that much harder to help achieve our common goal of returning to Armenia.”
The first portion of the program consisted of representatives from various organizations and institutions, which were stationed at booths along the perimeter of the hall, offering information to attendees about volunteering and moving to Armenia. Some of the groups involved included Birthright Armenia, Hamazkayin, Land and Culture, AGBU, Vernon Travel, AYF Youth Corps, Armenia Tree Project, the Armenian Consulate of Los Angeles, and Imega Tour and Travel. Booths offering testimonials from repatriates and information about job opportunities in Armenia were also featured, as well as a special “Armenia in Seasons” photo exhibit by noted repatriate photographer Arsineh Khachikian.
After about an hour of having everyone visit the booths and gather in the hall, Armen Aboulian, the chairperson of ARF Shant and the mc for the evening, welcomed the audience and invited them to take their seats. Aboulian began his opening remarks by stating that this was only the first of many events that ARF Shant plans to organize, to show that moving to Armenia is a realistic possibility. “Our goal is to make everyone realize that moving to Armenia isn’t just a dream for a few fanatics and hopefuls,” said Aboulian, “but a real opportunity for every Armenian to enrich, not only themselves, but their homeland.”
Aboulian then invited the winner of the 2009 “Visit Armenia, It’s Beautiful” Essay Contest, Nanar Derderian, to the podium. Derderian, an 11th grade student at Alex Pilibos High School, proceeded to recite her first-place essay, for which she was awarded a $500 dollar prize. Written in Armenian, her paper was an expression of her anticipation and desire to visit the land of her ancestors.
“I want to visit Armenia for the simple reason that it is my homeland yet I have never seen it,” said Derderian. “Armenia is all I really think about when in class. I daydream about its rocky landscape, green fields, and ancient monuments on a daily basis.”
Speaking about her own journey to Armenia, Anoush Tatevossian was next to address the audience. She explained how she first traveled there in 2004, upon graduating college, and described how she felt after volunteering there for six months with the Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC).
“When I came back from Armenia, I worked in a boring, 9-to-5 consulting job. It was very monotonous and uneventful,” she recalled. “In Armenia, I was making things happen and seeing the fruits of my labor right in front of my eyes,” Tatevossian exclaimed. “I was making a difference.”
The relative emptiness in her U.S. job led her to apply for the executive directorship of the AVC. “I got the job, applied for a 10-year residency in Armenia, and rented an apartment in Yerevan,” she said. “I went to work every day like I would here, the only difference was that it felt like I was making much more of a difference.”
In addition to the more meaningful impact one can have working in Armenia, Tatevossian insisted that life there is just as promising. “It’s very possible to have the same type of life there as it is here,” she said, adding that repatriation is a very tangible and practical approach to maintaining one’s Armenian identity at a level that generations past could only dream of.
Many of the youth in the audience shared Tatevossian’s assessment of repatriation. “Moving to Armenia is a very viable option for my generation,” said Greg Bandikian, a finance and real estate major who volunteered at the Armenian Ministry of Finance in 2006 and worked with the Central Bank of Armenia in 2007. “The jobs that have left the United States in the last decade are not coming back and things are not going to get better here any time soon,” argued Bandikian. “But Armenia is a developing country and has enormous untapped potential for economic growth.”
Following Tatevossian’s testimonial, the vice-consul of Armenia in Los Angeles, Sahak Sargsyan, took to the floor. Sargsyan spoke about the recent introduction of dual citizenship in Armenia and how one would go about applying for such a status. Those interested, he explained, should make a request with the consulate in Los Angeles. Once the consulate’s new website is launched, Armenians will be able to apply for dual citizenship online, he added. Accompanying his talk was a detailed PowerPoint presentation outlining the key parameters of the new law.
Concluding the program was the keynote speaker for the evening, Dr. Stephan Astourian, executive director of Armenian studies at UC Berkeley. Drawing on his important study of the demographic challenges facing the Armenian nation in the 21st century, Astourian spoke about the changing landscape of both Armenia and the diaspora.
According to his research, the traditional diaspora of the Middle East and Iran is “melting away” at a rapidly concerning rate. This is a threat to the sustainability of the diaspora as a whole, he said, because those communities that best preserved the cultural traditions and identity for generations are now shrinking and less organized. The majority of these Armenians have left for the West—the U.S., Europe, and Canada—where it is extremely difficult to maintain Armenian identity.
Meanwhile, Armenia’s population has been depleted since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with at least 600,000 to 1 million Armenians having left the country in recent years. “Today, it is highly unlikely that Armenia’s population exceeds 2.5 million,” Astourian explained, noting that this is a serious problem for a country that has a small internal market and is surrounded by enemies.
In this context, the Tebi Yergir movement becomes even more relevant, according to Astourian. It is a task that should be taken seriously if we care about the future of Armenians, something that should be approached in a practical and realistic sense. “Tebi Yergir means we should not just see Armenia in a romantic sense but also realize the plight of our people,” stated Astourian.
He also emphasized the importance of not just sending dollars but engaging directly in the country’s development. “We must strengthen the rule of law and the independence and accountability of institutions because the economic progress and investments needed to make Armenia a viable place to live will not happen until the government becomes accountable to the people.”
Attendees at the event were visibly galvanized by all of the talks and information offered that evening. The vast majority of the audience remained in the hall following the program, continuing to visit the information booths and discuss the many points raised regarding repatriation.
“As the inaugural event in our newly initiated campaign, the information fair succeeded in focusing our community’s attention on the critical need for us to look to our homeland for our future,” concluded Caspar Jivalegian, an organizer involved with the ARF Shant Tebi Yergir campaign. “We plan on using the interest and enthusiasm generated from this event as a springboard for organizing a series of future activities which will intensify the growing movement of repatriation to Armenia.”
For more information about the ARF Shant Student Association and their Tebi Yergir campaign, visit www.ARFShant.org.