Sometimes the answer we seek is right in front of us

These are trying times for the global Armenian nation. Our beloved homeland continues to be threatened by a relentless enemy bent on our destruction. While Armenia searches for a formula for peace, Azerbaijan continues to be a disingenuous neighbor, creating more obstacles than solutions. Frustration has led to internal protests that are fueled by emotion and unclear direction. The absence of leadership in the church has been replaced with opportunistic conflict, which has no clear path. Our diaspora is divided between supporting Armenia and levying public criticism. Rather than unifying in these difficult times, our legacy of sub-optimizing continues. We have two choices: either wallow in our misery as victims or reach down deep to fortify why we exist. There is so much negativity that it can be deafening. An alternative is to find that silver lining among the dark clouds. 

Specifically, I am concerned about our young emerging generation. We should all keep a watchful eye on their maturation and enable their place in our communities. Much of our infrastructure exists to educate and inspire our children and establish a clear Armenian identity. It can manifest itself in our culture, our faith, our national causes and more. The AYF, AGBU, Homenetmen and ACYOA have provided a mechanism for bringing thousands of young Armenians into the community. It is a critical function of each senior generation to ensure the transfer of knowledge and identity. Without it, we will experience decline and dysfunction. The job is challenging, and for that reason we must temper our expectations to prevent discouragement. We set the bar high but must adjust in light of a dynamic diaspora.

The diaspora in the United States should be proud of the establishment of some very high quality immersion programs, camps and organizations that serve as vehicles for establishing and nurturing identity. Our successes are acknowledged, but we must always stretch our vision to reach more of the wandering diaspora. The capacity of camps, retreats and seminars must be expanded. These programs prevent assimilation and give a life-enriching identity to our youth. Membership drives must be constant to increase the outreach of all our youth organizations. The emergence of “gap” groups such as AGBU Young Professionals and business networking groups are particularly important to build bridges in the 25-40 age group. Our children are getting married later in life, and these organizations provide important identity vehicles after the traditional youth groups until families are established.

Considering the infrastructure built by multiple generations and the innovation that continues with attractive programming, we still continue to generate stress over this question with no answer: will my children continue to identify as Armenian? Our diaspora has developed several approaches to addressing this challenge. For some of our brethren, the answer lies in maintaining literacy with the mother tongue. Of course, that question has become more complicated over the last few decades, with the challenge of Eastern versus Western Armenian. There are advocates for language fluency who are concerned about the possible extinction of the Western dialect. The dialect issues should be superseded by the need to maintain a spoken and written language. While it is a critical factor, it is not a guarantee. We have many Armenians with competent language skills who are estranged from our communities.

There are others who advocate for cultural connections such as dance, voice and other performing arts. These are also important relationships, because they enable an emotional connection to our heritage. Another area is the political arena and advocacy for Armenian rights. Participants build a strong connection to our history of injustice. This area of focus requires an emotional connection to the mission but pragmatism and professionalism in execution. A final domain is in the spiritual dimension, primarily through the Armenian church. The long-established integration between the church and our civilization (essentially the last 2,000 years) makes a decoupling of the two particularly emotional. Of course, there are significant differences between personal faith and the institution called the Armenian church. Since many Armenians practice their faith through the church, they are often viewed as interchangeable, but we have learned in the diaspora that if the church does not earn respect, many may practice their faith outside the institution.

Despite these limitations, there are many wonderful options for young people in the diaspora to build an identity based on our communal values and personal interests. In a world where secularism and “melting pots” are encouraged, ethnic identification can be challenging. The remarkable improvement in the visibility of Armenians as an ethnic group in America, along with the cultural changes in the U.S. that advocate for ethnic diversity, have provided a more opportune environment. I grew up in a time, similar to many of my generation, when there were few Armenians in our schools and little widespread knowledge of the Genocide. Our existence as a civilization was limited. Thankfully, that has changed significantly, and we now are strong enough to advocate for improvements. Nevertheless, as long as Armenians remain a people with a diaspora, the challenge of generational identity retention will remain.

Despite our efforts and the remarkable investment of several generations, the numbers have not been encouraging. Armenian church membership in the United States is down when normalized against demographic changes and increased base population. Sunday School attendance, long a barometer of youth participation, is significantly down, as much as 50% in many parishes. Immersion programs targeted at teenagers are vibrant but are not reaching enough of the next generation. Are there enough young people involved and educated to meet the critical mass requirements of running communities 20 years from now? The barometer should be how prepared we are for long-term sustainability.

It has been my experience that the connection with our Armenian identity is initially an emotional one followed by content. As an example, I would like to share the work of a young woman in the Boston area, Meghri Dervartanian. At some point in her young life, she developed an emotional bond with the Armenian language. She also developed her gift academically and through programming in the community. Meghri has now authored several children’s books with a unique approach to motivating children to connect with our mother tongue. I have been fortunate to watch her work with children and to see some of her published material. It is special. What began as a bond with the language many years ago has become a professional mission. She is teaching and establishing identity.

(Photo: AYF Internship in Armenia)

There is another option in our identity portfolio that is underutilized: the homeland. This was not a viable option before 1991, but since the independence of the republic, new opportunities for our young people have emerged. Our homeland offers that opportunity for our young people. Perhaps you have heard of Birthright, Paros Service Armenia, the AYF Internship and service programs, AGBU service programs and the ACYOA service trips. These are but a few of the countless programs designed to encourage a bonding with our heritage or faith. The organizations sponsoring these programs are doing their utmost to provide a quality experience that will springboard sustained identity.

Armenia is the source of our civilization. When seeking identity, what better asset than the primary source?

We have all heard stories of marriages, extended study, repatriation and professional volunteering arising from participation in a service trip or internship. Equally important are the kids who go, feel emotionally inspired and return with a renewed sense of connection, which they apply to our communities.

Our challenge is not to the organizational sponsors but to the families out there who have not yet made the connection between their familial identity and what awaits them in the homeland. Every time I speak to parents of young American Armenians and discuss how their children are doing relative to being an active Armenian, I offer a simple suggestion. Do your homework, and send your child to Armenia. You will not regret it. We love to talk about Armenia as tourists, and there are a plethora of opinions on the political issues. We should dedicate much more energy to what a relationship with Armenia has to offer our children. 

I hear many inspiring stories every day — medical students interning in Armenia, students studying for the summer or a semester in Armenia, and high school and college students on service trips who return with sustainable identity. We need to challenge all the sponsoring groups by fully subscribing to all the programs. We need more of our youth experiencing Armenia, but that will happen only when the programs are all sold out. At that point expansion becomes a legitimate discussion. It is a tragedy for any opening to remain unfilled. 

Armenia is not a place for us to make a “one and done” tourist trip. It is not a punching bag for our individual opinions. It is the source of our identity. We should go there to search for connections. My family is from Sepastia and Cilicia, but I have found many answers to who I am in Armenia. When I pray at St. Hripsime or at St. Anna with the people in Yerevan, I feel a sense of spiritual renewal that refocuses our work here. Our young people should be able to experience that moment in their youth in order to establish that foundation early. Worried about identity? Send your children to Armenia. It will be the most gratifying investment you will ever make and may just answer that concern we all harbor.

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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