As Armenian parents or prospective parents in the diaspora, we worry about our future. Will our children enjoy the same sense of community and identity with our heritage that we have inherited? How do we instill the knowledge and emotional connection necessary for an Armenian living in the diaspora? Can we succeed in establishing its importance in the priorities of their ever increasing hectic lives? The cycle of life has a way of reminding us of things that we may have been oblivious to in our youth.
I don’t remember stressing over the future of the community or our ethnic identity in my developing years. We simply enjoyed the environment that our parents either created or were connected to. We went to camps, Sunday school, youth groups, athletic events and of course family gatherings (Sunday chicken and pilaf). We took full advantage of our “dual identity” as Americans and Armenians. For many, the weekdays were full of the things typical American kids did—school, neighborhood friends and athletic commitments. On weekends, we morphed into Armenians with family, church and organizations. Of course, it was not always as binary as this, especially if you lived in a densely Armenian populated community. But for most, the duality was reality.
As I grew into my 20s and began to invest my time in my career and my marriage, I began to have a different perspective. It was then that I developed a much deeper appreciation for what we inherited and how my parents must have thought about the future of our identity. Maturity and experience tend to open our eyes. I realized that without commitment, we could lose all of this. From that moment, the tagline of our community involvement has been “respect the past, and build for the future.”
I have always been fascinated with this topic concerning our Armenian identity in the diaspora. It is a serious one, but we have to be careful not to over-intellectualize the challenge. It is about responsibility, knowledge and action. My generation was the last to have the blessing of grandparents who were survivors of the genocide and native to historic Armenia. When we dreamed of Armenia or imagined what it was like, we looked at our grandparents. We admired their accents and loved to learn about what village they were from so we could say what “tzi” our families were. As that generation passed on, many of us felt a significant void. It was not simply because of them as grandparents. Of course we loved them dearly, but in many ways they were our connection to Armenia and its civilization that our parents advocated in our education. This was a difficult transition but it made that generation realize that they had that time with the surviving generation for a very important reason beyond family. It was to be inspired, to learn, to prepare. It was now our responsibility to carry forward just as many generations had for centuries.
There is no “aspirin” for building an identity with our heritage and faith.
We have a tendency to think of this responsibility only from a family perspective. This is natural and generally where the battle of identity is “won or lost.” It is even more daunting when you think of it in a macro or communal level. Much time has been devoted in this column to the challenge of sustaining our institutions in the diaspora. When our children were born, I would think as I held them, “Can I do the job as well as my parents?” Has the generational environment changed such that the task is infinitely more difficult? We do have a substantial network of infrastructure and programs, but we also are more dispersed and distracted in our daily lives. These are the questions that many live with as Armenian parents.
I am of the belief, however, that we have received wonderful blessings from God as a people. How else can you explain our survival through the centuries with the level of adversity that has vanquished many peer groups? Another miracle has arrived that, if we choose to, can help us answer these questions of sustainable identity.
Just as the surviving generation was departing this earthly life, Armenia became a sovereign and independent nation in 1991. At the same time, after generations of territorial losses, the Armenians liberated the historic province of Artsakh. Armenia and Artsakh have suffered through a few decades of poverty, emigration and corruption, but none of that mattered to a diaspora hungry for a relationship with the “Hairenik.” Thousands of Diaspora Armenians initially visited and then began investing in the nation-building process. The corruption era soured the honeymoon for a period, but confidence and enthusiasm are once again growing.
As the relationship with the diaspora has matured, from this small and struggling nation, a pot of gold has been discovered. The value of Armenia and Artsakh to the diaspora goes far beyond any possible material offering. It represents an opportunity for our children and grandchildren that we could only dream about.
There is no “aspirin” for building an identity with our heritage and faith. It can happen a number of ways and at various times in our life. For decades, Armenian identity happened without full access to the homeland. But then it appeared—a place where our good fortune and talents can be exercised. This is a bi-directional blessing. For all that we may give, we receive the fulfillment of dreams and a connection point to our faith and heritage. The opportunities are abundant and expanding: Birthright, AYF Youth Corps, Paros Internship, AGBU Internships, ANCA, Armenian Assembly, church pilgrimages and countless NGOs. We have all seen it happen. Our children go to Armenia and they return a changed person. They exude love and excitement for Armenia and as a result their heritage. How is this possible?
It has something to do with an “emotional connection.” In the diaspora, your Armenian identity is a choice. You can grow up in a totally immersed Armenian environment and still drift with choices you make as an adult. Likewise, many were removed from their heritage in their youth but found a connection later in life. This is the diaspora. Eventually, it’s in your hands. When the identity light is lit, it means there was some form of “emotional connection.” This goes to your heart and becomes part of your being and motivation. Armenia offers this gift to us. When I go to Armenia and see many American Armenian kids looking happy and excited, it is inspiring. It is even more remarkable when they come back to America and apply their passion in our communities or perhaps a project they are initiating in the homeland. Our children are building a stronger Armenian “network” than many of us ever had. Ours was primary domestic built through relationships at camps, ACYOA, Homenetmen and AYF. They thankfully have that opportunity and in addition are building relationships with peers in Armenia and elsewhere in the diaspora.
These young people are incredible peer role models and should be more visible in the community. We should be providing that opportunity. Their stories are incredible, and others look at them and say, “That could be me.” A few years ago, NAASR sponsored a university panel discussion on identity with four young Armenian American panelists with various backgrounds (American-born parents, born here first generation, non-Armenian parent, etc). During the course of the panel, one of the young women shared her identity struggle when she went to Armenia on an internship. She did not “look” Armenian and did not have an Armenian surname. Initially she felt some discrimination from her peers in Armenia, but she was searching for that “connection” and would not be deterred. Eventually, she found her connection and had a great relationship with her peers from the diaspora and Armenia. It was a remarkable discussion that energized an engaged audience as she spoke to the essence of our opportunity.
So what’s the moral of this story? Worried about your children’s connection to their heritage? Find the right program for them, and get them to Armenia. Concerned that their “home” experience has not been fulfilling? Get them to “Mer Hairenik.” It is a special experience to participate in the building of a nation. It cements your identity in a way that is personal and sustainable. No direct family opportunity? Consider sponsoring a young person in your locale. The essential ingredient is to consider this option as part of your parenting plan. The window is open. Armenia and Artsakh are waiting with their arms open ready to welcome you. No excuses now. As we continue the excellent work that our brethren in the diaspora do every day for Armenia, we should also internalize what Armenia offers us. It carries little risk and huge upside that can be applied to our communities in terms of resource development and replenishment. Reach out, do the research, define a plan and make it happen. The only regret is to miss the opportunity.