We call it the “homeland” for a reason. The “land” of our Republic of Armenia and Artsakh (along with our never forgotten western highlands and Cilicia) are where we originated and what we hold in common (our home). It is for this reason that we refer to it as the “home—land.” This week I have the honor of writing from Armenia. My wife and I are here with our cousins for the opening of a kindergarten we have been working on building in the small border village of Paruyr Sevak. It is located along the southern border of the Republic with Nakhchivan (Azerbaijan), and it is here that we have met the quiet heroes of our new Armenia. As we arrived in Yerevan and later in the remote village, I pondered the range of emotions I have experienced from various visits. I vividly recall the rush of energy that consumed me as I gazed at Ararat live for the first time. As the time has transpired and subsequent visits have occurred, I would describe my feeling as similar to the calm, peace and fulfillment that comes from JOY. It is defined as happiness, euphoria, jubilation or triumph. I didn’t feel like I was visiting a place or even one that I am familiar with. I felt at home.
Our “new” Armenia continues to make strides in the post-revolution period. Happiness, energy and hope are visibly evident. The economy is improving at impressive rates. The war against corruption is showing results and boosting the trust of the citizenry. The infrastructure work on roadways is visible and impressive. Several roads we traveled on have been repaved, and travel to the villages is more comfortable and in some cases quicker. We are beginning to address issues of importance that had no voices in the past. In particular, I think of environmental issues (such as Amuslar) and the empowerment of women. Much more work needs to be done, but the debates over action are happening. Advocates now feel they have a voice.
The most impressive aspect of Armenia continues to be the young generation. Many have been born under the banner of freedom as the memory of the Soviet past fades. These young people are bright, educated, motivated and innovative. And they love their country. With the economy improving, they can find employment, thus reducing the risk of emigration. They simply want a quality of life—no different than anyone from the diaspora.
The area that I am disappointed in, that is both visible and problematic, is the area of sanitation and public cleanliness. I have noticed that the streets are more cluttered, and the bins and dumpsters are overflowing. My unscientific observation was confirmed by several local residents who explained the ongoing issues between the municipal government of Yerevan and the rubbish contractor. This is an important health issue, but it will also impact the economy when a city looks dirtier. I am certain this will be resolved in time as it is a hot political issue; given the growth of tourism, Armenia can ill afford to alter perceptions.
Our time in the village was an expression of the love we have developed for these people. They have little, but they are some of the richest people I have known. They understand relationships and life in general. They are creative and abhor waste. They ask for little but are so gracious with what they receive. They bring joy to our lives, because they help us understand that real satisfaction in life comes from the opportunity to meet people like those in Paruyr Sevak and hundreds of other villages in Armenia and Artsakh. It is not what we give to them. It is about what we receive in that process.
Meet the faces, and your heart will be filled with joy.
The opening of the school included food, dancing and entertainment, featuring a pair of great young clowns. This kindergarten is phase one. We reviewed the status of phase two (kitchen and new entrance) and outlined plans for the third phase which will renovate two existing older rooms and open a community auditorium. We have been discussing projects in the playground and those of an economic nature with Mayor Edik Stepanyan. Collaboration is the key, and we have two superb partners in the Armenia Tree Project (ATP) and the Paros Foundation. The children planted ten trees from ATP in what will become their playground and community park. The Paros Foundation is a first class organization that managed the renovation and construction. There are about half a dozen workers on site with several of them hired from the local community. We came back to the community on a Saturday to deliver some goods and saw these workers finishing a new stairwell and laying a floor. We shared a fresh watermelon that we bought on the way at a roadside stand. It is the intersection of many interests coming together. There are many organizations and individuals involved in rural development. Such noble and important work. I encourage all to go beyond donating funds (which is wonderful). Meet the faces, and your heart will be filled with joy.
One of the important aspects of our trip has been to expand the opportunities both from an economic and educational perspective for the village community. In that regard, we had some very enlightening meetings on Yerevan. The first was with Tim Straight and the Homeland Development Initiative Foundation (HDIF). This is a remarkable group that is focused on rural development by utilizing the skills of women in rural villages to create products and market them internationally. They sell to Free Trade countries (Europe, Russia and the United States.) They work with 16 communities and also sell their products with a retail store in Yerevan and online. HDIF is making a real difference in the lives of these people with their high quality products. We brainstormed on the possibilities in Paruyr Sevak and HDIF. We are thankful to Tim and his team for all he does for Armenia and hopeful of the possibilities.
We also visited the amazing Ohanyan College community in Yerevan that educates hundreds of students from nursery through advanced university degrees. The teaching processes, methodology and results are impressive. Our visit was intended to explore possible collaboration between urban and rural schools to enhance the educational and social experience for both groups of students. The educational complex is run by Arevik Ohanyan as she continues the vision of what her parents started. We are so grateful for the warm reception and enthusiasm for the collaboration concept. Many possibilities were defined that we will now explore. These are just two examples of remarkable work going on in the homeland. Both started as visions and are now improving the lives of thousands.
Another aspect of the optimism in Armenia is the thriving entrepreneurial culture. Long a core element of our makeup (everyone knows an Armenian who owns her own business), it is returning at warp speed in our new Armenia. Our dear friend in Armenia, Mary Mirzakhanyan (an incredibly talented guide and “ambassador” for Armenia) and our driver arranged for a visit to a winery on the outskirts of Etchmiadzin. We were told the wine was incredible, and the winery was not open for public tastings and tours as it is still in its early stages of business development. This is what we were told.
What we learned was the remarkable story of two incredible entrepreneurs. Samvel and his brother Aram Machanyan come from a family of generations of winemakers whose passion was making, not selling wine. The family originated from the eastern side of Lake Van and grew grapes for winemaking before being forced to leave due to the genocide. They settled in what is today the Republic of Armenia. A family that values education, Samvel and Aram’s father was a banker, and they each had successful careers of their own. In 2013, they decided to commercialize that passion of winemaking that had been in their family for generations. They built a wine making facility on the family land, expanded the family vineyards and began a journey of intriguing experimentation to find “their wine.” The result since 2016 has been the Alluria collection of reds and whites. Listening to Samvel talk about their experience and the uniqueness of the wine is mesmerizing. He has roots in Boston as he is a 2009 Tavitian scholar of the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University. In 2017, Samvel and Aram traveled to western Armenia in search of their ancestors’ vineyard. They found the village and incredibly found the live remnants of the vines. The local Kurds did not care for the taste as they were wine grapes and not for eating. They brought back with them several cuttings and one survived. It now is thriving in their garden where we talked and sampled. Imagine the emotion they must feel every time they touch those vines as they mature into fruit bearing plants. It was so inspiring to be in their midst. The wine is truly fantastic, but I equally marveled at the spirit of these two brothers and their family. God bless them. This is what will make Armenia prosper. It is happening in IT, in textiles, in tourism, in agriculture and elsewhere. This self-starting and “can do” spirit, with the help of a supportive government, is returning hope and optimism. You can see these “flowers” blooming everywhere in the country.
There is much work to do as there is in any society. But this one is ours. I see people from all over the non-Armenian world who experience what Armenia has to offer and leave with incredible memories. A major international IT trade show will be hosted in Armenia in early October. Buildings are going up everywhere and all you see are signs of progress in rural areas. Infrastructure projects have become a major priority that is improving access to remote areas and transit routes. The diaspora has a role to play in this evolution of social change and economic prosperity. It goes beyond sending money to your favorite charity. Go to Armenia. Meet the people. Find your niche, and you will receive far more than you could ever hope to give. Help the social transformation needed for Armenia to become a model democracy. Invest in Armenia. Invest in the miracle of Armenia and Artsakh. This was not a visit or a trip to Armenia. I experienced the joy of coming home. Armenia wants to share that with everyone.