American-Armenians often speak about their perceptions of the homeland. Unfortunately, in the current environment for many, that perspective is somewhat negative. We hear views about corruption, ineptness and the fear of security. When we limit our knowledge to what we read online or hear from others, the views tend to be understated from reality. The truth about Armenia and Artsakh is much more than the geo-political drama that captures most of our attention. We can all contribute to make the reality and perceptions converge into a healthier view.
One option is to travel to the homeland and witness the remarkable progress. We can become more informed by reading beyond social media and headlines. Another approach is to share our experiences with each other to increase our understanding that every day small miracles are happening that are slowly transforming Armenia’s society. As I submit my Weekly column, we are leaving Armenia after an inspiring and enlightening two weeks. Contrary to the current politically-based perceptions, as a result of this trip, I am more optimistic and proudly encourage all American-Armenians to find their niche in the homeland.
Our primary purpose for this trip was to re-engage with our friends in the Paruyr Sevak village. Given the COVID pandemic, our last visit was in the fall of 2019, but our work has continued remotely. The main project, as many of you may know through our Facebook fundraiser (thank you), was the implementation of a centralized heating system in the secondary school. The children will no longer have to wear winter coats and boots in the classroom. Thanks to another American-Armenian non-profit, Hoops for Hayastan, a multipurpose basketball court is being installed this week. When completed, the secondary school will have its first recreational area—a 15×30 meter basketball, soccer and volleyball facility. This week, we were thrilled to facilitate a preliminary working agreement between the Paruyr Sevak school and the Ohanyan School/Eurasia International University that will impact the quality of education in this border village. The Ohanyan family has been gracious in their commitment to furthering education in all of Armenia. Suren Ohanyan is an outstanding educator and patriot with a remarkable vision for Armenia. Humble heroes and small miracles.
The last time we were here we visited a unique winery start-up led by an extraordinary young man, Samvel Machanyan and his brother Aram. Their family has a long history of winemaking going back to previous generations in Van. This has become their first venture in commercial wine producing. Their company is named Alluria. We visited in 2019 when it was a small operation in its initial stages, but we were enthralled by Samvel’s vision and passion. He and his brother left their jobs in IT and finance to follow their dreams in Armenia. When building our itinerary for this trip, it was important to follow up with our new friend and satisfy our curiosity on their progress. The people of Armenia and Artsakh and their stories are what fuel our boundless enthusiasm about the future. The progress the Machanyans have made far exceeded our expectations. They are producing a variety of superb wines and supplying domestic and foreign markets. A bit down the road from their homestead where the operation began, we were treated to an incredible multi-purpose campus built in the last few years. It contains a modern wine-producing facility that will handle significant volumes, several hectares of vineyards featuring specialty grapes and a very inviting restaurant and tasting location built in a beautiful garden. An entrepreneur extraordinaire who represents the very best of Armenian innovation and leadership. Humble heroes and small miracles.
When in Yerevan, we always visit our friend Tim Straight for updates on the amazing work of Homeland Development Initiative Foundation (HDIF)—a social enterprise that creates jobs in Armenia by producing and selling artisan handicrafts. You may be familiar with their crocheted items and other beautiful offerings. Tim is the ambassador of enthusiasm and hope for the employment that HDIF has brought to many villagers by utilizing their skills with marketable products into Europe, North America and elsewhere. We stopped by to talk with Tim about possibilities for employing some of the citizens of Paruyr Sevak in the HDIF enterprise. HDIF had moved their offices since our last visit to a building near the train station that houses an enterprise called “Impact Hub.” HDIF has an office and retail store here, but we discovered another jewel of Armenian innovation. In this facility, startups in IT can literally rent a desk or a small office to begin their enterprise. We walked through an area where there were many individuals or small groups earnestly at work creating marketable content. We were witnessing something remarkable that was enabling bright young individuals to add value, make money and not be burdened with large overhead. The entire building was oozing with creative energy. Tim shared that many of these enterprises have outgrown their space and are replaced with new innovators. The collaboration and inventive environment is another huge advance. These are some of the business leaders of Armenia in training. These incubation centers are everywhere in Armenia. Humble heroes and small miracles.
We also traveled to Gyumri at the invitation of our partners at the Paros Foundation to observe some of the work going on in Armenia’s second largest city. We visited an IT company called Digital Pomegranate (DP) that is thriving in some unique ways. Aside from the employment of many software and programming professionals producing content under contracts, they also train and find employment for individuals. We were happy to meet with their current training class of graduates who will all receive job offers within a week either at DP or another company. Many of the graduates were mothers seeking a career option or others looking for a career change. The optimism and hope on their faces was obvious. As Peter Abajian from Paros told me, “This is an instant middle class transition.” Later in the day, Peter wanted to show us their latest venture. Paros wants to expand their offering of services for children and adults to a poorer area of the city. The government gave them an abandoned three-story building across the street from a school. Today it is an empty building strewn with trash and lacking any infrastructure. In one year, it will house a children’s after-school center to mirror the current one (Debi Arach) and other Paros services on the first floor. The second and third floors will become 18 one- and two-bedroom apartments that will be given to those currently living in the domiks (metal containers that are remnants from the earthquake); the domiks will be torn down. Paros recently launched a fundraiser in Detroit to seed this project. These are life changers for the citizens of this region. Humble heroes and small miracles.
Through our friends Judy Saryan and her husband Victor Zaroogian, we learned of a sculpture of the Armenian writer, humanitarian and activist Zabel Yesayan in the town of Proshyan. We were unable to attend the dedication, but we still wanted to stop and visit. Judy arranged for us to meet with Arthur Grigoryan, the director of what is now known as the Zabel Yesayan Agribusiness Center (ZYAC). What we discovered was much more than the beautiful likeness of this incredible woman. The ZYAC has acquired several hectares of prime land where the center is located and has a clear vision to transform the campus into a research and teaching center for agricultural enterprises. We were honored to witness the impressive start with plans for a vineyard, beehives research and orchards to bring innovation and productivity to many agribusinesses in Armenia and Artsakh. Arthur showed us the phases of expansion to fulfill their vision. Judy and Victor are activists in their own right, quietly promoting these breakthrough programs. This campus will enhance and expand a very important segment of Armenia and Artsakh’s economy. The possibilities are almost endless. Humble heroes and small miracles.
We found the atmosphere in Armenia to be generally positive. Yes, there is poverty and geopolitical fear, but the underpinning of Armenian society continues to be the incredible innovation of the people. Whether it is the remarkable ability of the village residents to find joy in relationships versus material wealth or the inspiring creativity of the young generation, Armenians remain builders and contributors to civilization. The presence of western diplomats and observers is welcomed by the nation. We met some of the European observers who are providing security to the eastern border simply by their presence. I was proud to see the Congressional delegation and the US Embassy participating in their government dialogue. The Iranian government continues to take a clear and strong position on the Syunik border situation. The growing military relationship with India is encouraging. I was heartened to read of Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan challenging his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov relative to the failure of the CSTO to meet its defense obligations to Armenia. Prime Minister Pashinyan has challenged Aliyev publicly on his fantasy “corridor” as having no basis in the tripartite agreement. It is a different atmosphere than 2020 when Armenia was isolated and humiliated. Many nations are now overtly blaming Azerbaijan for the violence and demanding their withdrawal from Armenia. The physical presence of observers from both the EU and OSCE is a deterrent in addition to documenting the situation first hand. We can hope that this trend continues and Armenia leverages the options.
There are so many dedicated Armenians from the diaspora making a difference in a quiet way that one can begin to feel that we are becoming slowly (perhaps too slowly) a global nation. If Armenia is to become the center of our nation, then it must be a place where our civilization can prosper, its citizens enjoy the pursuit of freedom (social, economic and political) and those from the diaspora establish a sustained identity. We can all accelerate this journey by committing an appropriate amount of our time, wealth and talent to that goal. What is appropriate? Open your heart to the possibilities and let them guide you. Discover the humble heroes and small miracles that occur every day in the Republics of Armenia and Artsakh. It will alter your perception and enhance your life knowing that you are contributing to our dream of a prosperous Armenia.