Our diaspora/homeland family affords us valuable perspectives

Our time on this earth is all about relationships. We define them on a personal level with spouses, children and extended family. For many, they are reflected in a professional capacity, and hopefully we experience a divine relationship with our Lord. Human beings are a social creation, and Armenians as a culture are a shiny example of that attribute. One of the most rewarding aspects of building relationships is that it is a continuous process. Many of us add to our family trees as we start our own families. Some relationships are from our childhood, yet others begin later in life. All are important because they influence what we contribute to our earthly civilization. Just when we think we have fulfilled our quota on relationships, new branches emerge in our life’s journey. When Armenia became independent in 1991, an entirely new universe opened for Armenians in the diaspora. Discovering the homeland has produced friendships and familial relations that were not imagined. These experiences have made permanent improvements in our ability to make a difference and reconnect the broken Armenian nation.

The AYF afforded many of us lifelong friendships that have been sustained for decades. During our youth, several of us committed to each other that when Armenia became free (the optimism of youth), we would visit together. After years of trying to coordinate the availability of everyone, 17 of us went with our spouses (an odd number because one of the wives could not leave her teaching position). To accommodate our diverse group (several were first timers), we decided to hire a guide and transportation for the trip. Working through an established tour group, we were randomly assigned a young woman named Mary Mirzakhanyan. Similar to many of the bright educated guides in Armenia, it was more a mission than a job. She was representing Armenia to this group from the diaspora. Her skills were remarkable in language, knowledge and creativity. Little did we know that Mary would soon become part of our extended global family. We stayed in communication and returned a few years later with our children and granddaughter. Mary became like a sister to our kids and an aunt to our granddaughter Anoush. We explored the unique hidden wonders of Armenia and began to build our relationship base with farmers, NGOs and other quiet heroes. During this time with Mary, we initiated our connection with the Paruyr Sevak village on the southern Nakhichevan border. Our connection with Armenia has not been the same since that first encounter. Our eyes were opened to the remarkable people of the homeland. It became good fortune to build friendships and establish an identity. 

Since first visiting Armenia many years ago, I had longed to know people in a border village. I wanted to understand their struggle and through them perhaps discover the secret to Armenia’s resilience. My paternal grandfather was from a small village in Sepastia and always remained connected to his roots, when he left work in a foundry to run a poultry farm. This was where I spent my summers and imagined what his youth was like on the family ranch in Koch Hisar. As odd as it seemed, it felt like I was meeting my grandfather in his youth when we explored village life in Paruyr Sevak. We were in awe of their commitment and understanding that maintaining the land is the essence of patriotism. Through these regular folks, we have gained such valuable insight into the homeland. Our desire to listen, learn and fulfill a common vision with resources from the diaspora was a beautiful match for these people who have little materially, but are wealthy in every meaningful way. We were searching for something and somewhere to make a difference. God brought us to Mary and the Paruyr Sevak village. It’s that simple.

Sharing a meal with village mayor Ludwig Stepanyan, his family and our dear friend Mary and Paros partners

If we can, just for a moment, forget about geo-political turmoil, political unrest and the enormous challenges of nation building that dominate our thinking. If we choose to search, there is something special awaiting each of us. At the very foundation of the pyramid of life are people and our relationships. It’s what motivates the human soul and provides the creative energy for adding value. From 1894 to 1923, an unnatural state was formed as a result of the atrocities of the Genocide. We became a fragmented people scattered around the globe subject to the impact of cultural assimilation. Our recovery began in Europe, the Middle East and the Americas as we established a new identity with each other. Communities were built in Detroit, Boston, New York and elsewhere. One major piece was missing—a connection to the homeland. Those of us born in various countries of the diaspora longed for an identity with the highlands based on the stories our grandparents told us and by reading the ever-increasing number of volumes on our history, geography, culture and genealogy. When the homeland became more accessible to the diaspora, it was not the buildings but the people within those structures that helped us dissolve the stereotypes established by decades of separation and boosted our global recovery. Building real human relationships with our brethren in Armenia contributes slowly to the reconnection of this dispersed state. It is somewhat tragic when we contribute financially to the development of schools, infrastructure and the economy in the homeland and never realize the opportunity to meet the faces benefitting from our contribution to a prosperous Armenia. Our story is similar to many and has produced global friendships that are life-changing. 

In 2018, when our extended family first visited the arid region in southern Armenia where the village of Paruyr Sevak is located, we were looking to help a border village but the reality was we were looking to make friendships. Friendships build trust and combined with listening created a process of continuous improvement. We live in the United States but love Paruyr Sevak as if we lived there. I feel the same sadness when we leave the village as I did when I left my grandfather’s farm as a kid. I am filled with a void but also the anticipation of return.

There is great opportunity with a simple model of Armenians from the diaspora committing to a long-term relationship with a border village with the assistance of outstanding foundations such as Paros. It is a winning formula that is effective and relatively easy to replicate. It requires a sincere effort to build relationships based on their needs and respect. The physical results are but one aspect of the success. When young people have schools, playgrounds and other quality of life projects, two special things occur. The children begin to dream again as the burden of life is slightly lifted. These people are resilient and ask for little but create small miracles when they are supported. The other gift is that your paths will cross with like-minded Armenians who are going about their important work. We met a group called Focus on Children Now that donates school and playground equipment. They furnished the new preschool and exterior in Paruyr Sevak. Another group called Hoops for Haiastan installed a basketball court with soccer capability for the secondary school. It is their first real playground. The point is that no one is an island in this journey. We network together and move rocks previously thought to be immovable. We lost the longtime mayor of the village Edik Stepanyan to COVID during the pandemic. He was our friend and compatriot. His son Ludwig is now mayor. We met him in late October and immediately bonded in a common vision. He invited us to his home several times to share a meal and more importantly to become family. I was thrilled to hear that a fellow AYF alumnus and longtime supporter of Camp Haiastan John Mangassarian is continuing his own journey in Armenia. He is leading an effort to renovate the gym at the Ginevet/Nor Ughi school that is posted as a project on the Paros website. The village is located near Khor Virap. If you find it in your heart, please contribute to his effort or join them when they go to Haiastan in July. With each project, the foundation between the diaspora and the homeland is strengthened ever so slightly as respectful relationships are formed. The joy that we from the diaspora receive is continuous and self-sustaining. We have never met finer people than our friends in the homeland.

In our quest to understand the people of Armenia and their perspectives on politics, security and sovereignty, there is no better source than those who live on the edge of reality every day holding the land. Go to Tavush, Syunik or Artsakh (when we can) to listen, learn and make incredible friendships. Imagine a diaspora and homeland anchored by thousands of relationships that transcend governments, politics and alliances. These are the foundations of a lasting bond with the homeland. There are times when we as Armenians from the diaspora may inadvertently advocate ideas that are based on where we live. Through friendships like Mary and the countless residents in this precious border village, I have learned that the views of the people securing our presence is invaluable. There are times when geo-political analysis and external sources must be subordinated simply to the idea of what the people who have made the commitment to the land believe. With this approach, together we have made incredible progress, and we have been blessed with enduring relationships.  

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.

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