The Diaspora need not be ‘useless’

Born and raised in Armenia, Satenig Mirzoyan playing nardi against France-born and raised Sipan Koroghlian, who graciously hosted us at his beautiful home in Mughni, while Jerusalem-born repatriate Setrag Balian and I, an American-born Armenian, look on.

A sea-to-sea Armenia, Western Armenia, Wilsonian Armenian, Nakhichevan, Artsakh – I was taught to consider all of this the Armenia of my dreams. I recently realized that no one ever taught me to make it a goal of my reality. 

Like other Armenian children, I learned about our history of losing land at an age too young to comprehend what that meant for any of us. It was part of every lesson plan during my 11 years in Armenian school – each time, just a reiteration of history, ending with “but one day, we will get it all back.” I thought we were just fine. Years and years of repetition made me believe the possibility was in our stars. The possibility remained a part of my reality through my adolescent years. With each AYF meeting, dance rehearsal, choir practice or protest that I attended, I believed I was contributing something to its actualization.

Why have we, the diaspora, collectively agreed to make this the focus of our lesson plan? Is it fair to give our youth the impression that they can, one day, have an Armenia that spans far and wide? I would argue that it is a complete disservice. It has created room for people (diasporans themselves) to make claims, such as, “the diaspora is useless.” It has created room for diasporans to feel entitled to the ability to advise Armenians in Armenia how they should fight for a better future for Armenia, based on some grand ideal we have for our country. Of course, if this is what we are taught to dream, we are going to appear and feel useless. We are completely misguided.

Believing in the gorgeous possibility of an Armenia spanning from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea distracted me, and seemingly others, from the fact that what we have now is an Armenia spanning from Turkey to Azerbaijan. The recent war, which I hesitate to mark with just one start date, was the one that brought me to the realization that the diaspora is so ill-equipped to help Armenia at this point in time. The forms of neglect that we have shown the country that we do have right now have made for a terrible disconnect. We wait for “people with money” or organizations to do the work. We take for granted every individual who inhabits the land and gives it life. We have a romantic idea of the Armenian landscape, but we are never encouraged to live it. Why aren’t we taught that the only way to keep land is by planting our feet on it?

I grew up with the idea that I am an active player in bringing about a free, independent and united Armenia. That’s great. But I have only just started creating a space for myself in said Armenia. While I can only credit Hovnanian School and my parents for giving me the language and communication skills to do so, the weight of shaping this space has been on my own shoulders (and on that of some friends and mentors whom I thank God for every day). This past spring, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend a few months in Armenia. I spent time with locals, diasporans who have moved there permanently, and diasporans, like myself, who come and go – and it was we who had it all wrong. It was we who believed that the Armenia of our fantasies somehow breathed hope into its struggling, exhausted citizens.

This gap comes from the cognitive dissonance that many of us are struggling to navigate through these days. The generation before us has worked hard to create a life for us that is “too good” to “leave behind.” At the same time, they have created a sometimes-overbearing space in our otherwise very American (or European, South American, etc.) lifestyle to be and feel Armenian. These two things, however, need not be mutually exclusive. The opportunities that first-generation diasporans have are not “too good” to leave behind. They are too good not to take back to our motherland. Instead of ingraining in us that one day moving to Armenia is a viable, and excellent, option, they have taught us that we are contributing something to our country by being “as Armenian as possible” somewhere else in this world – whatever that means. They have taught us that dreaming about Armenia is sometimes enough. 

So how do we mend this gap? How do we shift our focus to one that empowers our diasporan youth to be and feel useful? The only way to do this is to now, collectively, ditch the notion that some future version of Armenia is our Armenia. The Armenia on the map now is our Armenia. It is a place where we can all live, work and create a fruitful future. We should realize that this notion is all we are useful for. The education of our youth outside of Armenia should be centered around who we can be in Armenia, only decorated with how we can support that with our endeavors in the diaspora. We have no right to dream of the romantic notions we have been so focused on all these years if we cannot hold onto and fortify the soil we have today.

A new friend, now a dear one, describes his recent move (from Canada) with his spouse (from America) to Armenia as “the most selfish thing he’s ever done.” Those of us in the diaspora who are struggling with the hows and whens of making this move should take example of this notion, while neglecting the one that lets us become too comfortable in the diaspora. We should refocus all that we aspire to do for our cause to be grounded in the land itself. If the diaspora suddenly decided to operate this way, we would be harnessing its potential in ways like never before. We would not just be useful to our homeland; we would be beneficial. 

No one ever taught me how to make a sea-to-sea Armenia a goal of my reality, and rightfully so. That, in actuality, is out of my power. What is in my power is to become the best version of myself with all that I have, and in turn, contribute my greatest potential to today’s Armenia.

Arianna Mesrobian

Arianna Mesrobian

Arianna Mesrobian has been a member of the AYF New Jersey "Arsen" Chapter since she was 10 years old. She spent summers at Camp Haiastan, AYF Camp in California, as well as AYF Youth Corps. She is currently a first-year medical student at Temple University School of Medicine. She spent the last four months working at a hospital in Armenia.
Arianna Mesrobian

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  1. Good grief, this is the first piece I have ever seen on Armenian weekly which accurately describes the situation and actions needed to rectify Armenia.

    Diasporans need to look at themselves in the same way local Armenians have been made to look at themselves over the last 30 years.

    What have we truly achieved? Are we supposed to still harp on about Charles Aznavour and Cher in the 1988 earthquake as the Diasporan contribution? Or a shambolic annual fundraising of 17m usd, which was even more disgracefully squandered (at best) up until recently.

    It always confused me as to how Diasporans could sing about martyrs and warriors in Armenia, but never allow themselves the ‘sacrifice’ of moving to Armenia because it would be difficult. Well a) it’s not difficult b) those fighters you sing about went through a hell of a lot more than you complaining about the level of animal care in Yerevan.

    Get over it.

    The legacy organisations have failed us in the diaspora, in order to self perpetuate their ever weakening need for their organisations. There is no excuse for middle Eastern and Iranian Armenians to not move to Armenia. There is a worker shortage in Armenia, and houses are being made interest free, what else do you want? If you still want to move to Canada, fine, but don’t sing and dance to Armenian songs and pretend you care.

    If I have to hear one more Diasporan (speaking as a repat) talk about we have to be like Israel I will burst….the Israelis are still moving to the front line of the conflict from California, New York and Paris, yet diasporan Armenians don’t want to even move to Yerevan ( which btw is a better place than hell holes like Beirut, Aleppo and Tehran).

    We have to face reality or die.

    Great to read this article particularly from a younger Armenian.

    • It is not easy dropping everything and moving to another country. People are tied to jobs, kids to schools, friends, etc. What jews leave Paris, New York to go fight wars in Israel? Link please. Israel has full US backing, Armenia has semi Russian backing sprinkled with some France, US, etc. Armenians have always been dealt a bad hand in history.

  2. This commentary is spot on. Growing up in the diaspora, I remember in the early 2000s when I did a talk for youth groups about the prospects for repatriation. I talked about tax rules, employment opportunities, salaries, cost of living. I remember their blank , confused faces like it was yesterday. I realised then that the vast majority of the diaspora simply does not see the Armenian state as part of their identity. Whilst I respect the work done by diaspora community groups, I strongly believe that the traditional institutions perpetuate this notion by monopolising what it means to be ‘Armenian’. E.g. knowing the language, knowing history, knowing what the Turks did, is being Armenian. Knowing the Armenian constitution, knowing how many MPs are in the Armenian parliament, or knowing what the media freedom index is is simply ‘alien’. It is NOT being Armenian. This HAS to change. Until every diasporan has a vision for how they will eventually (If not them, then their kids) return to Armenia, then we are in trouble. Sadly, we have a long, long way to go with this. But it’s happening. Articles like this are proof of that. Thank you

    • Thanks for your comment… Your experience is heartbreaking and exactly what I was trying to get at here. I cannot blame Armenians in their 20s and 30s for having a tough time visualizing their lives in Armenia. That possibility was never planted in our minds… And if it was, it might have been too late. I would love to see (and would not mind working to bringing about this change) our curriculum expand to include information about present-day Armenia. It is the only way for an entire generation to be willing and prepared to repatriate.

  3. I recently saw Elia Kazan’s “America America”, which mainly focuses on a young Greek man in the Ottoman Empire trying to emigrate to the US. It also features some Armenian characters, and touches on the Turks’ treatment of these groups.

  4. For centuries, Jews in Eastern Europe would put aside 10% of their earnings into a fund for the reconquest of Israel. This happened rain or shine, good year bad year, pogrom or not. Where is our Armenia reconquest fund?

  5. People move to follow their dreams and improve their lives. Tough reality we as Armenians collectively face, there are those who have moved out of Armenia and there are those that have been and again moving to Armenia. Perhaps the diaspora Armenians need to recalibrate in facing this reality and work together in coordinating the creation of programs that incentivize the rebuilding of families in Armenia. The diaspora Armenians need to push the Armenian Billionaires, who by the way didn’t lose a dime on the loss of Artsakh, and force their commitment on funding programs aimed at stabilizing and strengthening Armenia economically, militarily, and spiritually.

    The revolution must begin within ourselves (as Armenians) first.

  6. This is a wonderful and thought provoking article most of which I agree with. Those who are so moved to repatriate to Armenia from the US and Canada have my utmost respect for the sacrifice they are making. That being said Armenians in the diaspora can play a useful role in harnessing the ideas, wealth, and political leanings of their countries to help Armenia. It is not a binary choice. In fact if we all repatriated to Armenia it would make it too easy for the Turks and Azeris to completely exterminate us.
    As an older physician, now retired, I had the opportunity to facilitate the donation of medical equipment (video endoscopes, processors, and monitors) to Armenia in 2007 and briefly tour two medical facilities I would recommend the following to the author. Get all your formal training in the US or Canada. Spend a few years in practice here. Then you will have the knowledge, skills, and experience to make a transformative change to your future field of endeavor in Armenia. Best of luck.

  7. Nicely done and so relevant. I guess with passion, love for our Hayastan and courage… we will make the necessary changes in our lives. Thank you fir this and good luck in mes school!

  8. The most important thing at present is to keep the Armenia we have. The war and the present state of the politics is, to put it mildly, in shambles. We need experienced politicians economists etc. to run Armenia. The diaspora can provide this know how but are not encouraged by their counterparts in Armenia. We need to wake up otherwise we will lose Armenia as we lost it in 1920.

    • What encouragement do you need? A red carpet? A pat on the back? It’s your country, own it and stop looking for excuses.

      It’s not even a sacrifice to live in Armenia, it’s not the 90s. Either put your two cents in through action or stop complaining

    • We can keep saying that the country is in shambles, but that is the attitude that has discouraged so many diasporan Armenians from having the backs of the actual citizens. I think we need to get to a point where we work for a better Armenia DESPITE all of its issues. We can discuss issues with the country ad nausam… and while we do that, we’ll lose what we have.

    • The problem is te constitution which does not allow diasporan involvement in governement. It is going to take time for most corruption to go, it has been reduced by 40%, democarcy is messy, it requires the diaspoarans to plant ther feet on the land and work on it from the grounds up, it is not going to happen from top to bottom. I am tired of Armenians sitting abroad judging and complaining about conditions in Armenia. Go there and do the work, or do the work from wherever you are.

  9. The best thing these Diaspora organizations should have done is not spread maximalist “from sea to sea” propaganda, so that the Government of Armenia would have had the political space to compromise with Azerbaijan in 1997 and with Turkey in 2009.

  10. Congratulations Ms. Mesrobian for a very balanced and realistic article.
    Let us stop blaming one another and let us join hands. We are all sisters and brothers that were separated in a storm.
    There are many actions we can individually take to help us remain a nation and not disappear like other nations have. Ms Mesrobian’s suggestions are to the point.
    Indeed moving to Armenia and working from Armenia are excellent approaches, like your former columnist, Raffi Eliott, and his brother Patrick Elliott did. (see Patrick’s recent English-Armenian interview on ).

  11. Love the vision in the article.
    Like many, we are still awaiting REPRESENTATION of the diaspora. Some organisation to provide direction, encouragement, motivation for the mission.
    Then some goals like establishing a fund to support both diasporan organizations and ARMENIANS in Armenia Artsakh. Helping the following generation be more than they can be through their heritage.

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