Are We Shaping a New Armenia?

The author (first from the right) with fellow interns

Last year, I spent the summer in Hayastan, researching the effects of the Velvet Revolution. With a borrowed video camera, I took taxis, marshrutkas and back alleys to the unmarked offices of NGOs not used to the freedom to exist in public. I talked to journalists, youth activists, teachers and organizers, asking them about their participation in the revolution and what they saw in the future. Almost all of them mentioned the idea of a new Armenia, coming not necessarily from the change in government, but from the fact that participating in the protests made people realize that they had the power to affect change. Some were already skeptical of the new government but believed fully in this newfound energy. Even sleepy towns like the border town of Berd had come alive during the protests and were looking towards the future. One year later, now that this government has disappointed many, as most governments do, I return to that idea of a new Armenia. Is it larger than governmental change? What does it mean for our communities?  

The author (second from the left) with friends at the site of the Berry House

During my two and a half months, I saw the spirit of a new Armenia outside my workplace as well. Strolling up Northern Avenue and around the Opera, I talked to my friend Diana about her consulting internship, and to my friend Emily about her volunteer work at a hospital. We shared our desires to move to Armenia some day. Over dinner, my host-sister’s husband talked about his repatriation from Canada, and his newest project of an app mapping out Yerevan’s water fountains. Through a Facebook connection, I was invited to go hiking with a group of young women in the tiny village of Aygedzor. There, Astghik, in her last year of studying tourism and hospitality, showed me the site where she was planning the Berry House, a guesthouse where tourists would be able to explore the natural wonders of her village and learn about the region’s food, arts and culture. By the end of the summer, I noticed that even the non-Armenians in my internship group were falling in love with the country and making plans for their return.

In the fall we all dispersed, but our dreams and networks followed us home. Emily pulled me into the AYF, which gave me a space to meet other Armenians my age while I immersed myself in my Armenian identity, learning the language, doing research and writing. I was introduced to a different Armenia than I’d seen in Hayastan, one that was both Armenian and American, an embodiment of the “hye-brid” identity I was cultivating. It was an Armenia that didn’t need a place, one that could materialize even at Junior Seminar in rural Pennsylvania, as long as there was an oud, a doumbeg and enough people to dance. Attending Junior Seminar as a newcomer to the community, I had the unique opportunity to see everything for the first time, and to be awed and fascinated by the strength, structure and continuity of this organization. I especially thought about this during Unger Greg Bedian’s lecture on the history of Armenian immigration to the U.S. He described the way that new waves of immigration gave the community an essential opportunity to revitalize and reshape itself. But now, he pointed out, it’s unlikely there will be another major wave of Armenian immigrants to America. Without another wave, will we manage to keep the strength of our community? His lecture echoed a fear I have often heard in the community: will we continue to lose people to the pressures of assimilation?

A scene from Yerevan, artistic expressions of the Velvet Revolution

As I thought more about these ideas, I began to wonder if our next revitalization will come not from another wave of immigrants, but from new ways of pulling people into our community. This especially struck me during Unger Ara Khachaturian’s lecture on revolution, where he talked about how the ideas of the Armenian Revolutionary Movement of the late 1800s, the Velvet Revolution and others can be used to spark different kinds of change. At the end of the lecture he asked everyone to think about what kinds of movements they could be a part of. I joined a group of 14 and 15 year old girls from my cabin, and before I could ask, one of them started telling me excitedly about their idea for a massive social media campaign to spread awareness of the continued denial of the Armenian Genocide. Soon we were all fired up, brainstorming hashtags, types of posts and groups we could connect with. The idea followed me back home to Chicago, where I began to think about how it paralleled the ways I had used social media to tell Armenian stories and make friends in Armenia and the diaspora.

This, I thought, could be our new wave. The internet and increasing globalization of societies give our already global diaspora opportunities to form closer connections and pull in new people. Programs like Birthright, the AYF internship and the Armenian Volunteer Corps bring people to Armenia and even start repatriation journeys for some. In my own life, my work in Armenia and the people I have met through online and in-person networks have led me to collaborations with magazines, artists and leaders. I’m even part of a three-year project documenting nonviolent resistance in Armenia’s areas under military threat. In my observation and experience, this new wave does not mean leaving all traditions behind, but rather embracing Armenia’s historical identity as a crossroads for exchanging goods, ideas and experiences. It means building on old traditions, bonding over our ancient language and music and connecting and building the Armenia we want to see through old and new organizations. It means building on the work of our elders in social activism, science, arts and business. To me, it also means embracing new tools, new projects and new ideas, as well as embracing my own identity as a mixed-ethnicity Armenian American, and what that allows me to bring to, and gain from the community. It is not simply social media, but a growing movement to create a global community that embraces Armenians and non-Armenians—one that is open to a wide range of Armenian people, ideas and experiences, and does not disenfranchise people for their diversity. Through opening our communities in this way, we can pull in new people, giving them a reason to resist the pressure to conform and give up their Armenian identity by creating a strong and welcoming community where we can all grow and belong.

This community, along with the tools of the internet, allowed me to reconnect with a friend from my internship last summer over lunch while I was visiting Washington, D.C. As we talked over lunch, I thought about the way our friendship embodies my experience of this new Armenia. She is not Armenian, but she was deeply influenced by her experience doing social work there, which led her to the job she has in the State Department now, as well as lasting connections with her coworkers and her host sister, who she still talks to frequently. We talked about her new life, people she’s met through Armenian connections, and my work writing for the online feminist platform Kooyrigs and collaborating with Armenians as far as LA and Australia. We reminisced about OST lahmajoon and trips to Tatev and discussed our burning desire and still-vague plans to go back. As I left, I felt energized—the same spark I had felt after talking to revolutionary leaders in Armenia, coming home from Junior Seminar and after ending a video call with Kooyrigs team members. This role of creating and connecting, I felt, was the one I want to take in building a new Armenia, and shaping the next wave in our communities.            

Araxie Cass

Araxie Cass

Araxie Cass is a member of the AYF Chicago Ararat Chapter, as well as a student of Creative Writing and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. Her work includes creative non-fiction and short stories, focusing on Armenian topics, as well as social justice, culture and community.

1 Comment

  1. Great Article, Araxie!!! Best wishes to you for all your future dreams! You are a role model for many Armenian Youth!!!
    You make us proud to be an Armenian!👏🏿❤️👏🏿❤️👏🏿❤️👏🏿❤️

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