It is the new year and a time for optimism. Whether our resolutions last for a month or our dreams of a better tomorrow prevail, we start the year with hope. It seems to be an inherent part of human nature to be positive regardless of the past or the present. After all, what is life without hope? The last year has been difficult by any standard. Perhaps it is relative to the current reality that we believe that things have to get better. As an Armenian born in the United States and the grandchild of Genocide survivors, I have often thought about my affinity for Armenia. Why has it strengthened despite the obstacles of generations, language, time and geography? I have always felt a connection to the political cause of justice, but that’s rather common for descendants of the crime of genocide. It does not necessarily translate into an enduring rapport with the homeland. In fact, many in my generation developed a strong connection to Hai Tahd, but during the Soviet times of our youth had a lesser feeling for the Armenian state. It is probably accurate to say that our connection was more to the occupied western lands due to the personal lineage and the injustice of the Turkish crimes. This resulted in a new and somewhat undefined encounter in the post-1991 period. Many in the diaspora had no functioning relationship with Armenia at the time of its independence. The tragic earthquake melted some of that ice as humanitarian and philanthropic projects built bridges that carried into the sovereign period. During the first decades of independence, I would speak to many Armenian Americans who felt great empathy for the work they participated in the homeland but at times were missing the emotional connection. The sheer magnitude of the challenge in a post-earthquake and blockaded Armenia kept the focus as the nation building began slowly, while the core relationships developed.
When our time to travel to the homeland arrived, I felt incredible anticipation. I had no family there, and many of my emotional connections were in the west with grandparents from Sepastia and Adana, yet something very powerful was calling me. Our first trip was a tourist adventure and was our last as what I would call a visitor. During our touring of the historic sites, I felt pride and gratitude, but something was missing. I discovered what that was later in the week at the St. Hripsime Church on the outskirts of Etchmiadzin city. Our tour was overly structured, and I admittedly was somewhat annoyed that we would leave areas simply based on a schedule. I didn’t see the point in keeping a schedule to visit yet another church without any interactions with the people of Armenia. It was almost like a glass wall separated the “visitors” from the residents, yet the only thing that really separated us was the geographic impact of the Genocide. On one of our scheduled stops, we attended the St. Hripsime Church early Sunday morning just prior to the start of the badarak. Just as the faithful were arriving and the beautiful service in this seventh century jewel was about to begin, our tour guide abruptly said we must leave to attend service at Holy Etchmiadzin. Those of you who have attended badarak at Etchmiadzin know that it is hardly a peaceful experience with crowds shoving, tourists snapping photos and people carrying on endless conversations. That was enough for me. I told our guide that I was staying, and the others joined in the affirmative. I was rewarded with a remarkable gift. It was at that moment in St. Hripsime that I had a revelation that heightened my spiritual experience, answered the question of what was missing and guided our families’ relationship with Armenia. It came to me as I was standing on the huge and ancient stone flooring with the residents of that region. There were students, young people, farmers and village merchants. I began to think only of the thousands of people who had worshipped in that same spot over the centuries. It was revealed to me that the people of Armenia are the enduring quality…not the buildings and sites (all of which are important, but not the core). I had been given a window into the soul of Armenia. I was overcome with a beautiful emotion. During the “topor” where the celebrant and the servers carry the cross around the church to the faithful, I spontaneously burst into tears of joy. I watched the congregants of all ages and backgrounds kiss the cross or the vestments of the priest while offering incense for the service (an Armenian tradition somewhat lost in this country). There was no rational explanation other than it was clear to me that these people and their incredible human attributes were the reason for my enduring affinity to a homeland that I was not born into or lived in but felt was an important part of who I am.
That experience helped me define my ongoing personal relationship with Armenia. My tenure as a tourist or visitor ended, and it was now about building relationships and adding value to the nation. The people of Armenia make you feel that no matter the relative impact of your efforts, they are not only grateful but consider you family. Despite this feeling, I wondered if it was sustainable and not simply a fleeting emotional experience. That question was answered with perfect clarity in 2018. Our paths crossed with the small village of Paruyr Sevak located on the Nakhichevan (Azeri) border in the Ararat Marz near the Vayots Dzor provincial border. Our work with the people of this village has focused on improving the physical facilities and infrastructure of the two village schools. Through this journey, we have developed friendships with parents, teachers, administrators and local citizens. Whenever you engage in this type of work, there is always an open question as to whether the village community will embrace the effort, maintain the investment and be motivated to do more. Our partners—the remarkable Paros Foundation and earlier the Armenia Tree Project (ATP)—have a process for understanding the village needs to minimize any risk. One key rule is that whatever is done must be a desire of the community and not the result of “outside” influence. After several small to medium projects, the complete renovation of a nearly empty building into a preschool with a nursing facility and modern kitchen would be the test of our relationship. Would they maintain it and use it to inspire new life in the community? Through the relationships we have established and the professional feedback from the onsite Paros project resources, we received the answer beyond any of our expectations. Since the opening of the preschool in the fall, we receive almost daily pictures of school activities that include art projects, learning activities, happy children and remarkable creativity. The community has turned this building into a vibrant center of learning and child development. This beautiful and humble village has helped us to understand the eternal nature of Armenia. The buildings are vestiges of our culture, but the people are the soul, and the souls are eternal. This is why the gifts we have received far exceed what we may have done.
The world is a troublesome place right now. Armenia and Artsakh are hurting, and the future is not clear. I believe in staying informed. As such, I read many periodicals daily to gain information. This has a downside. Sometimes reading about the homeland, particularly in the last year, can have a confusing and almost depressing result. When that saturation occurs, I switch to western news which can have an equally debilitating impact. When that happens, I think about the people of Paruyr Sevak to put things in the correct perspective. The great irony of Armenian Americans in Armenia is that we possess material wealth, yet we look at Armenia as a place of what has become diminished here in America: our overemphasis on wealth as a means for happiness and overload impact on the family. They may view our lives as better, yet I am grateful for the “grounding” that meeting many of our brethren in Armenia gives us. Of all the things that I have missed during the pandemic, perhaps the greatest has been interacting with the people of Armenia. It has given me and my family not just an identity but a sense of purpose. I feel that I have been invited into a portal where the solid foundation is based on relationships and compassion.
I can honestly say that at the end of the day, my perception of Armenia is not based on the current leadership, corruption or bad decisions. Those have become serious, but short-term distractions. My heart connects with the people: the scholars, scientists, farmers, shopkeepers, students and teachers. This is why I believe that Armenia has survived and will survive this chapter. It does not minimize the danger to our sovereignty or the need for astute action. It simply says that God has graced us with the gift of survival, and it is reflected in the wonderful souls of the people. We can never truly understand the core nature of Armenia until we make a commitment to build relationships with our brothers and sisters. When that occurs, we open a window to Armenia and Artsakh that will change our lives.
In this new year, despite the ominous reports of instability and threats in the homeland, take heart with the one constant that transcends all challenges: the timeless strength of the Armenian people. It should not ever be taken for granted but rather discover and inspire action. Tear down artificial walls, eliminate conflict and never turn your back on Armenia. Governments come and go. Enemies can unpredictably weaken, but the greatest asset of Armenia and Artsakh is immune to these challenges. They have been the constant in a sea of uncertainty and will continue to guide our future.
Shnorhavor Nor Daree Yev Soorp Dzunoont!