For many of us from the diaspora, we have all shared this experience—after months and perhaps years of anticipation, our first trip to the Republic of Armenia. The homeland. The motherland. The Hairenik. Whatever your preference, we all know it as the place where our indigenous people reside. Perhaps, you have been there several times or are still planning that inaugural visit. Maybe you have families to reconnect with or like myself, as a Western Armenian, simply love it because it is our miracle. For those who have been there and even those who are anticipating, let’s go back to that first visit.
Prior to that first visit, many Armenians from the western diaspora are wrapped up in pretty common perceptions and concerns. “Will I understand the eastern dialect?” “Can I function without a working knowledge of the Armenian language?” “Is the food the same?” “My roots are in the west. Will I identify with the Republic?” Amazingly these questions into the background by the excitement of being in a sovereign Armenian state. Most arrive in the evening and go to bed only to wake up to the sight (on a good day) of eternal Ararat. That first view is an inflection point in our lives. A moment we will never forget. I remember many years ago on our first family trip, I woke up at about six in the morning and stood on the balcony of our hotel room. Staring at me like a timeless silent guard were the mountains of Ararat. This was not the framed picture that adorned our churches and childhood homes; this was a beautiful crisp landscape that was even more stunning than I could imagine. I ran outside the hotel to get a full view and kept yelling, “Mer Ararat, mer Ararat.” The local citizens looked at me like I was having an anxiety attack. Some were ambivalent, while a few looked at me with compassion. I compare it to visitors of New York City, who tend to look up at the architecture of the urban landscape while walking down the street. Nobody from New York City looks up. Similarly, only the visitor to Armenia stands and stares at Ararat. But they do understand that those of us from the diaspora were raised with this symbol, and to see it for the first time is a very emotional experience. After seeing Ararat and walking the streets, all of the questions I had were answered without a doubt. This was our Armenia.
Most of us are “visitors” on our first trip. For Armenians, I try to avoid the word “tourist.” It never made sense to me to be a tourist in your homeland. Being a visitor is ok. It simply means we are in the familiarization period. If we embrace the ambiance of Armenia, we will quickly evolve from visitor status as we fall in love with the homeland. First-timers usually participate in structured tours because they do offer distinct advantages. We booked a tour on our first visit. The problem I have with some of these tours is that they are not very creative and seem to assume that the diaspora knows little about Armenia and will be happy with repetitive ventures. Most of the tours limit meaningful interaction with the biggest asset of Armenia—its people. Yes, there are some quality opportunities, but by and large, they take you to see objects. They are incredible in and of themselves, but when you meet the people, your love for Armenia goes to a new level. This is why many “do their own thing” on return visits to focus on particular areas of interest that tours usually cannot cover. When you go to Armenia, I encourage you to meet the wonderful citizens to complete your experience.
There is a magnetic connection to Armenia that will draw you back. Perhaps it reminds us of pictures we have seen since our youth or relatives who came from our historic lands. It may be the food, the history, the people or the culture. For Armenians from the diaspora, with a few exceptions, we live in a world where meeting another Armenian is an event. It is one of the attributes of our survival. We seek out each other.
Imagine the legacy of being part of establishing a prosperous, thriving republic after centuries of horrific oppression.
Then we go to Armenia and we witness a density of Armenians unprecedented in our lives. The signs, the voices, the people—all Armenians. A simple, but incredible experience. It creates a comfort level and a peaceful feeling. It reminds me of the less-inhibited America I grew up in when fear played a lesser role. Last year we brought our then one year-old granddaughter to Armenia. Wherever we went, women would approach us to comment on the child and even hold her. This is unheard of today in the West. In Armenia, it is very natural and felt comfortable. Think about that for a minute. If you are one of the many who feels the pull to return to Armenia, it is important to internalize the opportunity. We are experiencing a miracle in our lifetime.
Since 1375, Armenia had been an independent state only two and a half years until 1991. After suffering centuries of territorial loss, historic Artsakh was liberated in 1991. We have the privilege of living during this remarkable opportunity. Armenia is free, and we can be a part of it. It is the fulfillment of a dream. We feel an attraction to return. This is a part of the miracle.
The next step in our relationship with Armenia is a choice. If we are to help Armenia and not simply patronize it, we must follow the path from “visitor” to “enabler.” Do we continue as “visitors,” or can we embrace a greater purpose? What is an enabler? Merriam Webster defines an enabler as “a person or thing that makes something possible…to provide with the means or the opportunity.” Making something possible and providing the means! That might be you today or could be you! When we return to Armenia, we have the opportunity to join the nation-building process. Imagine the legacy of being part of establishing a prosperous, thriving republic after centuries of horrific oppression. We have the freedom, education and the means to do what our ancestors couldn’t. By the grace of God, the window has been opened during our watch.
As the jewels of Armenia become more visible, it is fast becoming an incredible tourist destination. This is a remarkable development as we share the wonders of Armenia with the world and reap the economic benefit. Armenians of the diaspora should not aspire to be tourists in the homeland. Armenia will become a place where all Armenians can find their identity and call home, whether they live there as citizens, part-time or in the diaspora. It will be the central point of the Armenian existence which will strengthen the diaspora, which will in turn “enable” great things in Armenia.
This begs the question of what will be your role in this transformation. It has begun. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Armenians from the diaspora are joining the “enabling” movement by looking deep into their hearts to share their gifts. Some are investors and job creators. Others are engineers or environmentalists. A large number are teachers and medical professionals. Scores of NGOs have been established to drive change as Armenia matures. Many participate in rural development. Others have moved there to continue their lives as Armenian citizens. The opportunities are endless. It is important as we join the wave that we understand and respect the sovereignty of Armenia. It requires us to give our best from our heart for the benefit of Armenia. It is not our place to seek political influence or to dictate direction for our work. Sound naive? Perhaps a bit idealistic, but the point is that our “enabling” comes from our purest intentions. Our reward? Private enterprises should expect to make a reasonable profit, but the overwhelming reward is that you are building a piece of the bright future of Armenia. No longer are Armenians an unknown ethnic group with no presence on the world map (as it was until the post-1991 era). Our job should be to visit Armenia, find our niche and join the enabling movement.
For decades and generations, Armenians have yearned for an independent nation, where our culture can thrive and our history can continue. It has arrived, and it is rapidly improving. With the success of the diaspora and the recent changes in Armenia that have refocused on nation-building, it is time for all of us to do our part. Most of us in the diaspora are blessed with the skills and means to contribute in some way to improving Armenia. We are all children of the same lineage that simply took different routes as a result of the genocide. One hundred years later, we have come full circle as a nation. Look into the mirror and into your heart. If you are part of the “enabling” movement, God bless you, and stay the course. Share your experiences, and inspire others. If not, it may be your time. Your life will be enhanced. Guaranteed.