The Armenian community in Australia is fairly young, but as its numbers grow, so does its activism. Last October, the parliament of New South Wales became the third state in the world to officially recognize the independence of the Nagorno Karabagh Republic. This summer, the Armenian National Committee of Australia (ANCA) accompanied a group of Australian politicians on a weeklong visit to Armenia and Karabagh. ANCA Executive Director Vache Kahramanian spoke with the Armenian Weekly about this trip, as well as other facets of Armenian-Australian life.
Lilly Torosyan: Talk about the Armenian community in Australia.
Vache Kahramanian: The Armenian community in Australia was founded in the early 1960’s. The first wave of immigrants arrived predominantly from Egypt, fleeing the social unrest that had started to occur there. The main wave of immigration occurred in the 1970’s when many Armenians came from Lebanon during the Civil War, and also from Syria, Iran, and other countries throughout the Middle East. The community at present numbers around the 50,000 mark, and is predominantly based in the Sydney metropolitan area, with small pockets of communities in Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, and other Australian cities.
Like most diasporan communities, there exists a wide range of community organizations, including the Armenian National Committee, the Armenian Relief Society, Hamazkayin, Homenetmen, the AGBU. And of course the church plays an important role in the community, as well.
The ANC of Australia was formed many decades ago to carry on the role of advancing the Armenian Cause within the context of the Australian political environment—that is, to promote genocide recognition; recognition of the independence of Artsakh; a strong, free, and united Armenia; and economic aid and security to Armenia and Artsakh. Those four pillars are the driving force behind what the ANC does in Australia, and of course, what it does all around the world through its offices, whether in Washington, D.C., Brussels, London, or the Middle East.
L.T.: You recently visited Armenia with a group of Australian politicians. How was that experience?
V.K.: We had a group of Australian state legislators from the state of New South Wales, which is the largest, most populated state in the country. Australia has a population of 22 million people, 7 million of which live in New South Wales. That state became the first in 1997 to recognize the Armenian Genocide by passing a unanimous motion in both houses of parliament. In 1998, the parliament passed a motion to erect a khachkar [Armenian cross-stone] memorial in its peace garden to honor the memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide and to mark April 24th each year as a day of remembrance in that state.
In 2012, that state again became the first in Australia—the third internationally—to recognize the right to self-determination by the Republic of Nagorno Karabagh. It came only behind Rhode Island and Mass., which were the first two states in the world to pass similar motions.
In New South Wales, there is multi-partisan support for all issues of importance to the Armenian community, whether that is Artsakh [Karabagh], genocide recognition, or a strong and secure Armenia. So we had the opportunity to take seven members of parliament on an official visit to the Republic of Armenia, whereby they had the opportunity to meet with the president, His Holiness Karekin II, and other high-ranking government officials, including the speaker of the House and various members of parliament within the National Assembly.
In a broader context, they had the opportunity to see Armenia with their own eyes—a country of descendants of the genocide—and to see what the modern-day implications of genocide recognition mean, not only to the people, but to the national security of Armenia…
The members of parliament also had the opportunity to make a historic visit to the Republic of Nagorno Karabagh, and what that allowed them was to experience first-hand the brutality of Azerbaijan. They saw the destruction and also the hope that had come out of the Armenian people to rebuild Stepanakert to the wonderful and majestic city it is today, only 25-odd years after it was ravaged by war. They had the experience to address a special sitting of the National Assembly, where they conveyed a message of hope and solidarity with the people of Nagorno-Karabagh.
They also had the opportunity to meet with everyday people on the street, to realize the hardship and difficulties they went through, and the massive loss of life that Armenian families experienced during the war. But they also witnessed the hope and optimism of the people who were living there on the ground, and the work they have done to rebuild society in a truly democratic fashion.
They left Nagorno-Karabagh with the viewpoint that it is a land of great optimism, and that the motion they passed in 2012 was the right thing to do. By recognizing the Republic of Nagorno Karabagh, they expressed their solidarity and continued support to ensure further recognition, throughout Australia and on an international level. What was most interesting to see with this foreign delegation visiting Armenia, and in particular Artsakh, was that they were expecting a war-torn ravaged country, but what they saw was the complete opposite. They saw the resilience of the people, where almost 100 years ago, they experienced the genocide; 20 years ago, they experienced the brutality of the Azeri armed forces. And through all of the struggles the Armenian nation has lived through, they were able to see the hope and prosperity of the people to create what is today a free and independent Armenia and a free and independent Artsakh.
L.T.: How strong are the Azerbaijani and Turkish communities in Australia? Are they a growing community?
V.K.: The Turkish lobby that exists in Australia is very similar to what we have seen across the world. The empty threats and, in particular, the blackmail that they use against legislators, threatening all sorts of actions, including severed economic ties and so forth, is a common thing that we have seen Turkey portray over the last three or four decades on an international level. That is no different to what has occurred in Australia. Thankfully, there are members of parliament who have stood steadfast in the face of this blackmail to ensure that such issues are not politicized or used for political advantage. At the end of the day, we’re playing with human lives and human emotions, and these issues trump all forms of party politics, and are common to each and every person. We are grateful that there are many members of parliament all across the nation who have stood firm against the continued empty threats of the Republic of Turkey and the Azerbaijani lobby, whether it be on recognition of the genocide or Artsakh. It is a continuing battle, and we have to stay steadfast because it is very easy to one day have this conversation and not be talking about a free and independent Armenia, and a free and independent Artsakh.
L.T.: What is left on the agenda for ANC-Australia?
V.K.: We never rule out anything in terms of future strategy or action plans. We will continue to remain entrenched on the front lines, advocating for all issues of importance not only for the Armenian community in Australia, but for the people living in Armenia and all around the world in diasporan communities. The Hai Tahd team is a brotherhood all around the world that lives shoulder-to-shoulder with one common interest: a free, strong, and united Armenia. All the actions and plans that we have in place continue to serve that noble goal. We do everything on this very distant and far away island known as Australia to help ensure that we can continue to add our voice to this important Cause.
The wonderful strength of our diaspora is our grassroots support and the success of Armenian professionals in all walks of life who are ready to step up to the plate to continue to advance the common goals of Hai Tahd.