Last week we received the sad news that Edik Stepanyan, mayor of the Paruyr Sevak village, passed away from COVID-19 complications. This tribute highlights the impact he had on our extended family and our collective mission.
It was a warm sunny day in June 2018. Three generations of our family (my wife Susan, our daughter Lauren, son Andrew, our daughter-in-law Marissa and baby Anoush) had just paid a visit to Khor Virap monastery. Our plan was to meet Armenia Tree Project (ATP) representative Ani Melkonyan, who would escort us to the village of Paruyr Sevak village about 35 to 40 minutes south along the Nakhichevan border. Our good friend at ATP, Jason Sohigian (now at the Armenian Museum) had arranged for a visit to the community where we had joined in the effort to build community greenery in that arid climate. ATP had been working with the village for over 10 years. The longevity of the relationship reflected the serious commitment of the village to maintain the investment. An irrigation pipeline had been built to supply water to the targeted areas. We were traveling with our dear cousins from Chicago (John and Beth Hamparian and their son Ben); they have always been enthusiastic partners in our journey together. While traveling to the village, Ani briefed us on the ATP programs in the area and specifics on the Paruyr Sevak village. There was something special about a place named after the great patriotic poet who died in the 1970s. The village itself was fairly typical of that region: stone houses, unpaved roads, a dry climate and the always unmistakable warm smiles of villagers.
We started our visit with a meeting with village officials to discuss the greening project, enjoy their hospitality and accept their formal gratitude. It was during this meeting we met Mayor Edik Stepanyan, the leader of the community for about 30 years. Edik was a modest and reserved man in his sixties with a distinguished mustache and tinted glasses. It was on that day that a new and productive relationship began. Our cousin John took an instant liking to Edik; they shared jokes and promised to have a drink together. How could we not be in awe of the leader of these brave rural villagers who were heroes to us. His humility was always present. We only learned of his patriotic endeavors from others. Without even knowing us, we were welcomed as brethren.
Edik was eager to show us the community garden and forest that was in its infant stages. Just a few hundred yards from the town office, we saw the miracle of thick greening on a plot of several acres. The landscape contrast was vivid. His pride was obvious as he reviewed the mechanical details of the irrigation pipeline and distribution network. We soon learned that Edik loved to share good news. In the middle of this field, he revealed a plaque dedicated to our family. It was a surprise from ATP and the village and a moment we will never forget as he invited us to be a part of his community. So began a relationship with a man from whom we learned about village politics (“we don’t have have parties here…we just work for our people”), regional lobbying (he was always working for support from provincial government and private groups) and life as a working mayor (involved in everything in the village life). We also learned about the importance of hospitality and celebrations.
During our initial visit, we toured the secondary school (grades 1-12) with about 100 students. The staff (Principal Manushak) and students were a model of respect and enthusiasm, but we were left stunned by the lack of resources: curriculum, desks, technology and facilities. We left determined to do something. Little did we know that because of people like Edik jan, it would quickly grow into a sustained partnership. We returned to Yerevan that evening and with the help of our dear friend Mary Mirzakhanyan, we purchased athletic equipment and school supplies for the village school. We called Edik that day and said we wanted to visit again the following day. Without hesitation, he told us we are welcome. Our intent was to surprise him with a van full of much needed items. We simply told him to meet us at the school entrance at 8:30 in the morning with some helpers.
John, two of our children, Mary and I arrived early that morning at the school. The look on their faces was priceless. The feeling in our hearts was equal. As we all unloaded the van, Edik looked at us with warmth in his eyes and said, “Many have come here, but you returned.” I will never forget those words as it cemented our relationships with shared values. We met again before our departure to discuss a project. Both he and the principal stated that they had a great need for computer technology. The old computer room was filled with broken and unusable equipment. We stated we would do what we can, hugged and departed. It had only been three days, yet we felt like we had met a brother patriot. We would return as soon as possible. Until then the images of Edik and others waving to us as we left would sustain us. Our relationship did not involve charity. It was a partnership that others would join to build a better quality of life.
Through the grace of God, generous donors and ATP, a new computer room was unveiled in October…complete with 10 state-of-the-art desktops, network/power upgrades and a high-speed printer. We were thrilled to learn the village also renovated the room with carpeting and drapes. On the day of our return, the students honored us with a wonderful cultural performance. We would have been perfectly happy chatting all afternoon with staff and students, but Edik had another surprise. He had arranged a luncheon for the team and teachers. This effort must be understood in the context of the modest means available in this village. We were treated to an incredible array of vegetables, fruit, lavash, protein and sweets. The main dishes were “danced” in by teachers to traditional Armenian music. It was very festive. It was traditional Armenian village life, and we had become a part of it. As always, there was plenty of Armenian brandy as we toasted to nearly every cause in Armenia. Our good friend Arthur Haroutyunyan from ATP was also there. Arthur is head of operations in Armenia and has nurtured the relationship with Edik and Paruyr Sevak for many years. We laughed, we drank and we ate together. I think that day we truly fell in love with Paruyr Sevak.
In the middle of it all was Edik with his quiet and honorable tone…always thanking us and suggesting new ideas. We learned that day, in the absence of luxuries in this remote village, that the real joys of life come from the people whose paths we cross.
In this column, we have often spoken of the bonding of the diaspora and Armenia through relationships. I have learned that regardless of what resources we can offer Armenia, our greatest attribute is listening. Until we understand how the communities function, their subculture and way of conducting their affairs, we, in the diaspora, will have little impact. It will only remain charity. They want brothers and sisters. Perhaps the greatest gift that Edik has left us has been his ability to show, by experience and dialogue, how to have a real impact that maintains dignity, respect and builds true friendships. Sometimes with naive enthusiasm, we inadvertently and with good intentions constrain our ability to hear what they believe they need. Edik had a unique way of reminding us that, while grateful and engaging, they lived each day and understood the needs.
The village life is in many ways a microcosm of the greater diaspora/Armenia relationship. We in the diaspora have strong opinions and always worry that our “investing” is fruitful. Our brethren in the homeland are grateful, but they want their dignity maintained relative to decisions. Edik taught our extended family how to experience the success of partnering along with our incredible colleagues at the Paros Foundation. What resulted was the implementation of several projects fueled by common respect, fulfillment and a shared commitment. The more we worked together, the stronger the trust and the so-called “risks” faded into the woodwork. These villages are filled with people like Edik who serve as leaders of their communities and have witnessed countless disappointments over the years. Many are towns that were isolated after the collapse of the Soviet Union and in most cases have struggled in the years since. They retain their instinctive warmth and hospitality (as evidenced by our initial encounter), but real trust builds with results. This is one of the major reasons why building a personal relationship is the most effective way to have an impact. They are survivors and have found creative ways to sustain their lives and their communities. Edik shared the “recipe” with us, and as a result we feel like Paruyr Sevaktzis.
We mourn our loss of dear Edik. The work will continue, not simply because we have identified more projects, but because we became partners. Early on, Edik shared with me his vision for the community from an educational and economic standpoint. What they were missing was the support to enable vision. This area of Armenia has not been the beneficiary of the type of assistance we have seen in other regions. Edik told us that the village would do their share with their limited resources, and he delivered. Debris had to be removed from the primary school floors in order to start the renovation. He gathered the village resources. Edik promised to complete the outside of the new school entrance with pavers and a walkway. It was done by winter as other renovations in the building were completed. Shortly before his passing, solar panels were installed on the primary school roof to fuel the newly-installed centralized heating system. It will also provide street lighting for the village. He had spoken about this for several years, and his determination made the grant a reality. His values were tied to his family, community and nation. In knowing someone like Edik, I can begin to understand how these villages survived with incredible challenges.
Rest, my friend, in God’s eternal kingdom. Others will continue the work here on earth. You will live in our hearts forever.