The Armenians of New Zealand

The Holy Armenian Mass held at the John The Baptist Anglican Church. The Armenian community borrows the church, as they do not have their own Armenian Apostolic Church in New Zealand. Ter Avetis Hambardzumyan is visiting from Sydney, Australia to celebrate the Holy Mass. Assisting him (wearing the blue robe) is Noobar Yaghobian, Chairman of the Armenian Society of NZ. (Photo: Tamara Azizian)

The morning sun streams through the windows of the quiet, empty hall of Meadowood Community House. Inside, beige linoleum floors lie vacant waiting to be used. Outside, a large field of lush green stretches off into the distance towards the highway. Just like the hall on this Sunday morning, the highway is quiet, but will soon be busy humming with traffic. 

The quiet is interrupted by an echo of footsteps, followed by the rattle of someone unlocking doors. Noobar Yaghobian energetically moves around the room unfolding trestle tables and rolling out stacks of plastic chairs from storage. An electronic engineer who describes himself as “Armenian by origin, Iraqi by birth and Kiwi by choice,” Noobar has been the chairman of the Armenian Society of New Zealand for the last three years. Today he’s alone with the task of setting up the hall for the gathering. His focus and agility show that he has done this many times before. 

There are approximately 220 Armenians in New Zealand, with the majority immigrating here in the 90s from Iraq, Iran, Syria and Russia. Established in 1996, the Armenian Society of New Zealand serves the local needs of the Armenian community and helps keep the culture alive. It organizes many events and celebrations, such as Independence Day, Genocide commemorations and religious holidays. The community has been gathering at Meadowood Community House since 1999.

One of the Sunday’s Armenians & Friends breakfast gathering. (Photo: Tamara Azizian)

Today is a regular event that occurs every third Sunday of the month. The community meets for the Armenians & Friends breakfast. The Ladies’ Committee is making delicious broad beans, eggs, brownies, apple cake and baklava. 

The Ladies’ Committee is currently made up of ten women. They frequently meet to share recipes and discuss menus for upcoming events. They play a vital role in the community’s fundraising efforts. Their motto is “To feed people” and to give others an opportunity to discover the delicacy of Armenian cuisine. 

The Ladies’ Committee gathers frequently to share recipes, discuss menus for upcoming events, and most importantly to catch up on the latest news. (Photo: Tamara Azizian)

“The people come mostly for the food,” Noobar jokes. He thinks there will be a turnout of about 15 to 20 families. 

When the tables and chairs are finally set, Noobar pulls out the table cloths. Every event has its own different type (selected dutifully by the Ladies’ Committee). He pauses for a moment before running his hand across the red-checkered tablecloth, smoothing out any wrinkles. “I hope today I’m selecting the right color for the event,” says Noobar. He smiles with a tinge of worry.

Soon enough people start to trickle through the door and gradually the Community House fills up. The energy rises, and so do the voices exchanging happy greetings. There are hugs, pats on the back, warm smiles and quick stops to catch up on the news. 

The Ladies’ Committee has taken over the kitchen. They’ve put their aprons on, and the synchronized chopping of the onions begins. On the kitchen bench next to them are the neatly stacked trays of eggs, pressure cookers, pastries and condiments. Everything has been planned. 

One of the members, Rima, is decorating the tables in the hall. On each table she places a paper basket packed with fresh lemons and mint. Each one gives an amazing fragrance that makes the room come alive. She says Noobar didn’t pick the right style of tablecloth, but it doesn’t matter. It seems the tablecloth selection has passed the test. 

By ten o’clock, the previously bare hall has completely transformed into an Armenian meeting house. The tables are full with mingling friends and families enjoying their food and catching up. Here, Armenian language is the language of choice with Russian and English translations on demand for the minority who do not understand. In the far corner, a group of kids dressed in traditional Armenian attire are rehearsing their dance performances. Upbeat Armenian music flows through the hall from speakers in the ceiling. 

Hedy Ohanian – an educator from Baghdad, Iraq, and one of the core members of the Ladies’ Committee. Hedy says she feels blessed to be an Armenian. (Photo: Tamara Azizian)

The enticing aroma of fresh coffee draws attention to the dessert table. Hedy is in charge here. Next to the tempting homemade desserts for sale are polished silver trays with stacks of demitasse cups. All of the sales from today are part of a fundraising initiative. “Last year we took it to Armenia and donated it to three organizations,” recalls Hedy with a gleam of pride in her eyes. “One was an orphanage. One was for the children with special needs, and another was for an establishment that takes care of the victims of domestic violence.”

Just as she pours the lusciously brewed coffee into a cup, someone asks for tips in making the best coffee. “The secret of Armenian coffee? Is that it’s done with love,” smiles Hedy.

Amongst the bustle in the middle of the hall, a small group gathers in a circle. They are passing around a mobile phone, each taking turns watching a video sent from a community member who is currently in Armenia visiting family. In the video, against a spotlessly clear blue sky, stands Mt. Ararat. Its snow-capped peak glows in the sun. The phone continues to orbit the group with everyone marveling at the view. Most of the people watching have never visited Armenia. 

Making crosses from palm and olive branches in preparation for Palm Sunday. (Photo: Tamara Azizian)

The conversation at the table shifts to the upcoming arrival of Archbishop Haigazoun Najarian from Australia’s Armenian Apostolic Church. The Archbishop and the priests themselves travel from Sydney to Auckland a few times a year to conduct ceremonies, as well as bless the souls of those deceased at the local cemetery. As there’s no Armenian Apostolic Church in New Zealand, a local Anglican church is borrowed for the religious masses and ceremonies. To make the Holy Mass possible, some members of the Armenian community, including Noobar, don clergy robes to assist in the process. “We are a small community here in New Zealand,” explains Noobar, “so we have to contribute in any way we can to make things work. And at times it means an engineer learns to assist in a Holy Mass.” For Noobar these visits provide a pillar of strength for his community in helping to keep the Armenian language, heritage, identity and Christian faith alive. “The church is very much our spiritual home,” he adds. 

Taisia Grigoryan, stands next to the Armenian Alphabet Monument. The alphabet was carved in Armenia and shipped to New Zealand in 2018. (Photo: Tamara Azizian)

The Archbishop’s final event is the blessing of the monument of the Armenian alphabet. Over two meters high and made from basalt, the stone was carved in Armenia before being shipped all the way to New Zealand. The journey took many months to complete and over 16,000 kilometers to travel. The stone was officially unveiled in October 2018 as a symbol of friendship between the two countries and now stands beside the Meadowood Community House. The Ladies’ Committee held fundraisers, and the Community House sponsored the installation and other costs. “This is the multicultural strength of New Zealand,” says Noobar. “It encourages and supports small communities to grow and sustain.” 

It’s nearly 12 o’clock, and it’s time to go. As swiftly as they set everything up, the ladies are clearing the kitchen. With the help of others, the tables are folded before being put back with the chairs into storage. After plenty of hugs and goodbyes, the hall is bare and quiet again. 

As people leave, a young Armenian woman stops by the alphabet stone outside. She’s gently rocking her infant son cradled in her arms. Both are gazing admiringly at the carved monument. She shares that she recently started learning the language herself as she runs her hand over the letters. She wants her children to grow up knowing about Armenian culture, including the language. And with the energy, determination and commitment of this small community, it seems nothing is impossible.

Singing the Armenian anthem. (Photo: Tamara Azizian)
Tamara Azizian
Tamara Azizian is a documentary photographer, writer and filmmaker. She lives in Auckland, New Zealand.
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11 Comments

  1. Yes indeed, “we are blessed to be Armenians”! Thank you for the great article. Let the world know that We Armenians are the finger print of global civilization. We are a Global Nation for a good reason; to bring civilization, language, art, music across the globe.

  2. Dear Tamara, thank for your beautiful recount of the small but very vibrant Armenian society that continues to preserve its rich culture and makes valuable contribution to New Zealand’s community on so many levels. Your photos depict the true emotions of ordinary people who brought their Armenian ‘home’ from far to build a new home in this amazing country called New Zealand.

  3. Thank you Tamara jan for this comprehensive and inclusive article which had touched every part of the community activities. It is people like you who can show New Zealand and the world that we are few but are called Armenians. Well done . We wish you success in your future tasks.

  4. To add to Tamara’s article, readers might be interested in the following snippets.
    Armenians first arrived in New Zealand during the Otago gold rushes in the 1850s.
    Dame Sian Elias, who was appointed New Zealand’s first Chief Justice in 1999, was of Armenian ancestry.
    Zohrab Street in Wellington is named after Constantine Zohrab, also of Armenian ancestry.

  5. 1.1.2020
    Tamar = thank you for your article (though incomplete)
    1) Where in what city is located ‘Meadowood Comm. House’?
    2) What city are most of the members of NZ armenian community?
    3) while you list you live in Auckland, but the rest of armenians…?

  6. Hi, I have been in NZ for 20 years, originally from Uruguay but with Armenian Ascendants.
    I have just found this group, I had no idea there were so many Armenians in NZ. I used to speak Armenian like my first language and now I cannot remember it, nor can I remember the alphabet. I think this group it is a great chance to re-candle my Armenian heritage.

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