From Homesickness to Belonging: Discovering the Armenian Church in Abu Dhabi

The unmatched scent of khoong spreads around the room, drawing all shapes of transparent clouds in the sun-lit horizon. Colorful mosaics of all sizes and shapes are perfectly embedded in the walls as if the walls had been pencil-drawn around them, following the exact trajectory of their outline. A sweet, familiar melody permeates through the ‘clouds,’ across the mosaics, until it finally enters deep into my soul. At that very moment, I know I am home. 

A heartwarming corner in the Armenian Sunday School in Abu Dhabi

Finding an Armenian church in Abu Dhabi felt like finding a long-sought treasure, a hidden gem that would give me a sense of connection and belonging, love, friendship, community and home. Living outside of Armenia, far away from all my family and friends, often meant endless days of homesickness and longing, wherein speaking my mother tongue seemed like a luxury that could only be afforded over Whatsapp calls. Speaking about topics related to my homeland with my international friends required me to first summarize a thousands-year-long historical context into a quick five-minute introduction, and only then touch the surface of the current news related to my homeland. I missed having insightful discussions about home, where everyone involved in the conversation would know all the intricacies of the issue at hand and would be equally interested in finding a solution, as the problem would matter, on a deep emotional and DNA level, to all of us. Against the backdrop of homesickness and nostalgia, finding the St. Nahadagadz Armenian Church meant finding a home away from home, but it also meant finding a family.  

Meghrig

After speaking with Hayr Vache Balkjian, I felt like the ground beneath my feet became more firm. “Milena, the moment you need something, as tiny or big as it may be, you give us a call, okay? We are always here for you,” was how Hayr Vache concluded our first phone call, leaving a lasting smile on my face as I realized that I, the petite young woman that I am, am no longer alone in this big city of towering skyscrapers. Despite the tremendous distance between the church and the campus where I live, Hayr Vache helped me secure free transportation to and from the church, as he carefully searched among his contacts to find someone who would live in close proximity to my current residence. That’s how I met Meghrig, a warm and kind Armenian woman who happened to live very close to NYU Abu Dhabi. When Meghrig and her beautiful family arrived to pick me up, I was greeted with the lovely and delightful sound of Western Armenian, the language of our hearts, which I enjoyed for the next 30 minutes of our long yet pleasant drive to church. The word “Hayastan” was used perhaps 50 times during our conversation, as we talked about our origins, the current situation at home, our relatives living in Armenia, the Armenians living outside of Armenia, and many other topics wherein motherland was always the central theme, and everything else was marginal. 

We arrived at the church around noon, which meant that most seats were already occupied by fellow Armenians on this Easter Sunday. One of the first things that struck me was the surprisingly high number of Armenians living in Abu Dhabi and how they have all come from all corners of Abu Dhabi to the not-central-AT-ALL part of the capital, simply to celebrate Easter together. The Divine Liturgy, performed entirely in Armenian, was followed by an event during which every participant was given a beautiful keepsake for the home with the message “God Bless this Home,” with the name of St. Nahadagadz Church written at the bottom. 

The St. Nahadagadz Armenian Church in Abu Dhabi

My next visit to the church was in the scope of the “Banakum” initiative, an annual event that brings together Armenian children and youth from all the corners of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The official opening of the three-day event took place on April 21 and was followed by a variety of activities, including lectures and discussions about Armenian culture, identity and values, the Armenian Genocide, Armenian patriotic songs and lessons on Armenian traditional dance movements and bracelet making. The children also participated in fun and energetic games that aimed to encourage a healthy and active lifestyle. Then they cleaned up the Armenian Sunday School (located right in front of the church) and its surroundings, thereby learning to appreciate and take care of their environment. The “Banakum” event concluded on April 23, on the eve of the commemoration day of the Armenian Genocide. After the commemoration liturgy, each of the participants was asked to leave a flower on the memorial, thus paying tribute to the victims of the Armenian Genocide. 

A fun and energetic game inspired by Vardavar, organized in the scope of the Banakum event

I had the honor of participating in the “Banakum” event as a photographer, a role that made me appreciate the event even more than I otherwise would, as, with each shutter sound, I was able to capture a sincere smile, endless happiness in the eyes of the youth, the joy of feeling reconnected with their origins, speaking their mother tongue, learning about their culture and identity, feeling home away from home, exactly as I felt, or maybe more. I understood more deeply the role of the Armenian church as a powerful bridge to connect different members of the Armenian community who would perhaps never know each other if not through the church, and who have now turned into a strong and supportive family where everything, be it food, news, happiness or sorrow for the motherland, is shared without reservation. A family in which each member stands up for the other, supports in any way they can, building each other up and thinking of creative ways to help rebuild Armenia. I never thought speaking Armenian in the UAE would be not the exception, but the norm. I never thought seeing Armenians in Abu Dhabi would be not a surprise, but a weekly occurrence that would set up the mood for the rest of the week. I never thought I would be so close to home while being so far away from it, and I could never be more grateful than I am today for the existence of an Armenian church and for people like Meghrig and Hayr Vache who, within only three weeks, have managed to do so much for me that I don’t hesitate when referring to them as my second family. They entered my heart as seamlessly as the colorful mosaics have entered the walls of the St. Nahadagadz Armenian Church, bringing with them a warm hue of bright colors that I can’t help but associate with the heartwarming colors of Armenia.

The participants and organizers of the Banakum event
Milena Baghdasaryan

Milena Baghdasaryan

Milena Baghdasaryan is a graduate from UWC Changshu China. Since the age of 11, she has been writing articles for a local newspaper named Kanch ('Call'). At the age of 18, she published her first novel on Granish.org and created her own blog, Taghandi Hetqerov ('In the Pursuit of Talent')—a portal devoted to interviewing young and talented Armenians all around the world. Baghdasaryan considers storytelling, traveling and learning new languages to be critical in helping one explore the world, connect with others, and discover oneself. After completing her bachelor's degree in Film and New Media at New York University in Abu Dhabi, Milena is currently enrolled in an advanced Master of Arts program in European Interdisciplinary Studies at the College of Europe in Natolin.

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