The Diaspora Could Use a Little More Velvet

How repatriation is understood and spoken about should be at the forefront of our conversations.


Children celebrate in Yerevan’s Republic Square following Nikol Pashinyan’s election as prime minister (Photo; Sofia Manukyan/The Armenian Weekly)

I recently participated as a speaker for a forum in Toronto and Montreal, in which I was asked to speak about the 18 months I spent living and working in Armenia. The event offered me the opportunity to reflect on the impact this time had on me as a person, now that I am once again living in the Diaspora—because when you return to the Diaspora, you start seeing things differently.

There are many misconceptions floating around about what Armenia is versus what it should be. But at the center of this battle between fact and fiction, there lies an important tool: repatriation, or, the act of returning to one’s home country.

How repatriation is understood and spoken about should be at the forefront of our conversations in the Armenian Diaspora. It is the tool that can unite us.

I was born and raised in Toronto, attended an Armenian private school for 11 years, and have been an active member of Toronto’s Armenian community my whole life. My Armenian identity was introduced to me as a politically-motivated cause that I would constantly have to fight for. The more time I spent fighting for that cause by spending time at my community center, the more I felt would be in touch with my Armenian identity.

In Aug. 2016, I completed a four-month volunteer term with Birthright Armenia. By the end of my volunteership, I was offered a yearlong contract with one of Armenia’s leading non-profit organizations, Homeland Development Initiative Foundation (HDIF), which works with women in Armenia’s rural communities to produce one-of-a-kind handicrafts sold around the world, providing jobs and promoting sustainable development.

I returned home to Canada to consult my family, friends, and professional network about accepting the job offer. Within three weeks, the decision was clear. On Sept. 21, 2016—the 25th anniversary of Armenia’s re-independence—I landed in Yerevan with two heavy suitcases, my saxophone, and one of the best years of my life ahead of me.

By moving to Armenia, I suddenly found myself in a position that preserving my Armenian was a part of everything I did.

In the Diaspora, we sing patriotic songs in a banquet hall. In Armenia, we listen to the newest interpretations of Armenian folk fusion at a local music venue. In the Diaspora, we preserve our identity by visiting Armenian community centers. In Armenia, I felt my identity preserved simply by walking down the street to the grocery store. In the Diaspora, we discuss possibilities for change in the country amongst a group of Armenian Diasporans. In Armenia, we discuss such topics with Diasporans, as well as non-Armenians, from all over the world, including those born and raised in the country.

In the Diaspora, we preserve our identity by visiting Armenian community centers. In Armenia, I felt my identity preserved simply by walking down the street to the grocery store.

In Oct. 2017, I moved back to Toronto to help my brother bring to life his vision of running one of the city’s most unique coffee shops, but I am still finding new ways in which I was affected by the time I spent abroad. First, it gave me the chance to encounter and interact with others who had repatriated, either permanently or temporarily. I and everyone I spoke with experienced some kind of shift in their understanding, that resulted in seeing Armenia as a real and tangible place. Sometimes these individuals were making a physical connection with the country for the first time in over three generations. It takes a lot of bravery to rediscover one’s roots after such a large gap.

But also, living in Armenia freed space in my mind and time in my life that gave me the opportunity to be myself to an extent I had never experienced before. I began to realize that no matter who I became, I would still be Armenian.

How connections and shifts of this nature can be achieved and what they might look like are limitless. We are constantly redefining repatriation and discovering new ways to make connections, but physically spending time in Armenia is and always will be crucial.

We also, however, face some major obstacles here in the Diaspora. There are younger generations here who are taught about Armenia’s reality by Diasporans who grew up during a time in which Armenia was for the most part inaccessible—the Cold War years. The Soviet Union, of which Armenia was a part, was culturally very different from and at times hostile to the West. This alienated an entire generation of Armenians in Western countries. As a result, many of them did not have the opportunity to go to Armenia as young people and interact with it the way we can today through programs like Birthright Armenia and Repat Armenia. This can be dangerous, because young people’s desire to repatriate often depends upon how strong bridge of understanding is between the Diaspora and the country.

I feel incredibly lucky that when I when I think about Armenia today, I think about my morning walk to work through specific streets of Yerevan. That I miss things like my usual hangouts, my friends, and the ease of getting around. These tangible thoughts encourage me to have a real interest in what goes on in my homeland and understand how I can best assist the country that made me the person I am today.

Repatriation is an investment in yourself and in cultural preservation. And while it might seem daunting at first, it’s crucial that we encourage Diasporans to put themselves in positions where they can logically approach the idea. That means getting out of your comfort zone, by taking meaningful trips outside of just Yerevan, by volunteering, running a workshop, or trying to spend your two-week trip to Armenia in a different city like Gyumri, Dilijan, or Vanadzor. Only by exposing yourself to the full picture, can you truly understand whether repatriation is right for you.

The events that took place in Armenia two months ago were the epicenter of potential positive and sustainable change, and the Diaspora needs to play catch up in creating an environment for such change. In a youth driven and peaceful act of civil disobedience, the people of Armenia were able to come together and capitalize in the strength that comes with unity. The Diaspora must follow suit and eliminate divisions that exist. We can revolutionize cultural preservation by centering it around repatriation. Take the time to speak to anyone that has recently had the opportunity to live in Armenia or reach out to Repat Armenia, an organization dedicated solely to helping Diasporans integrate into Armenia socially and professionally. They will give you a whole host of different ways to help you define repatriation for yourself.

In Armenia, the Velvet Revolution saw a youth-driven initiative take power away from outdated forms of authority and unite as a nation. I think the Diaspora could also use a little more velvet.

Shaunt Tchakmak

Shaunt Tchakmak

Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Shaunt has a background in political science and spent years as an active member of the Ontario political system. In May of 2016, Shaunt started a 18 month journey living and working in Armenia for one of the countries leading non profit organizations. Today, however, he has switched gears to help his brother run one of Toronto's most unique coffee shops. Since December of 2017, Antikka - Cafe & Records continues to bring together specialty coffee (including the Armenian variety), vinyl records and a live venue to create a music lovers paradise.
Shaunt Tchakmak

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  1. We must “eliminate divisions that exist” proclaims the author. But aren’t calls for “unity” exactly what the old school of (mostly) self-proclaimed diaspora leaders liked doing, liked doing with a fondness that almost equaled their fondness of medals (getting them) and banquets (attending them). The “everyone must unite and do what I say should be done” type of division elimination does nothing except promote alienation. I thought the new Armenia was about allowing divisions, allowing a diversity of opinions, and of the roads permitted to be traveled in life. People who call for unity tend to produce only more disunity.

  2. The Diaspora like the convenience of being Armenian Diaspora without having to suffer the hard realities of actually living in Armenia. It is easy being “Armenian” when all the pleasures of life, including freedom and rule of law, are taken for granted in various countries where many Diaspora live. Where was the Diaspora during 25 years of post-Soviet corruption and cronyism in Armenia, subsidizing the HHK with charity aid to “undeveloped Armenians” but not upsetting the political status quo which compromised the country’s future? An in-house revolution from within Armenia makes the Diaspora look inept and impotent, but ready to jump on the bandwagon once the hard work has been done. Even if Armenia doesn’t fancy the (money spending) Diasporans, the Diasporans fancy Armenia. More velvet? The Diaspora could use more (moral) backbone. (writer understands this is a generalization, with validity, that cannot account for all varieties of involvement by Diasaporans with Armenia itself)

    • Thomas, are you suggesting that members of the Diaspora should have withheld charity aid while at the same time trying to influence domestic politics in Armenia? Do you really think that would have worked? I would be skeptical of any group, even if it shared my ethnicity, that lived in comfort overseas and lectured my country about its politics, while not contributing a dime to help.

      Most members of the Diaspora do not speak (Eastern) Armenian, do not pay taxes to the Armenian state budget, did not fight in Armenia’s wars, do not have relatives on the front lines today. They did not feel like they had any standing to intervene in the domestic political affairs of the country. Contributing economic and humanitarian aid was a reasonable way of trying to help.

      The only way the revolution could have succeeded was if it was “in-house”. I cannot think of any revolution worth repeating that was funded and instigated from abroad. Perhaps you can point out examples to the contrary. If the Diaspora “led” this revolution, it would have been instantly discredited among most citizens of Armenia as being “Western,” “Soros-backed”, etc. One of the brilliant moves of Pashinyan was that he explicitly said that this revolution did not have any foreign policy element to it–it was done wholly and completely by Armenians in Armenia.

  3. I love your article and your approach towards the return to our roots in one way or another.In order to preserve the velvet revolution and as you very well put it the Diaspora has to use more velvet itself. At the core of preservation of the velvet revolution by the Diaspora is to help the country stand up on it’s own two feet economically and urgently in these difficult times, in order to relieve the people from their long period of social desperation and ASAP. Peoples patience has long been exhausted. The priority of the Diaspora action should now be investing in the country by creating employment where people can work, feed and cloth their families, educate their families. This should be done by the Diasporan masses, the people, and not only depend on the business people. The Disaporans must feel happy that they took part in this velvet revolution in their home country. Then and only then can Armenia be able to assist in the repatriation and accept with open arms its people socially and on equal bases. Regardless of its hard economic conditions Armenia accepted Armenians who escaped the wars and the killings resulting from the middle East Arab Spring Revolution, as Armenia was their first port of call. The Diaspora is in a very good position “at present” to help improve Armenia’s economy. As we understand there are nearly four million Armenians living in the Diaspora and surely when they all get together they can improve the lives of two million Armenians who remained in the country. ” Voghormutyoun” has to stop because it teaches people to depend on charity and depend on begging. ” Inchu anor dvik indzi chi dvik” and so on. Good luck in your approach to your people in illuminating and rekindling in them the love of their country. We need more people like you. I am ready to send you my article about improving Armenian’s economy. Best regards.

    • I’ve seen so many articles teaching (both Diasporans and Armenians who live in Armenia) what to do; so many “feasibility studies…” They are not worth much, unless the Diasporans roll up their sleeves and invest both money and their knowledge, talents, abilities – and time – going to Armenia, being there physically and helping create new jobs, establishing new companies, helping create new technologies, etc. Anything less is cheap talk. The talent is there; but Armenia is being suffocated by Azerbaijan and its allies, from Turkey to Kazakhstan, etc., all of which dream – and work hard – to destroy Armenia. That, tragically, is a fact. So we, the Diasporans, simply HAVE an obligation to go there and help, rather than suggesting to send in our articles and feasibility studies. Respectfully, Ken Karapetian

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