Back to their roots? Young people from the Armenian Diaspora on the trail of their ancestors

The volunteers and us. Photo: ©Paul Toetzke

By Elena Ammel

We’ve already heard much in Germany about the Armenian Diaspora – unusually large in size and playing a central role in the development of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. The problem of ‘brain-drain’ has been frequently discussed; the Armenian enclave of Nagorbo-Karaback in particular has struggled against a haemorrhaging of its highly-qualified workforce flowing abroad.

A large number of country’s well-educated youth are currently migrating to the Armenian capital, Yerevan, if not further afield. What is surprising, however, is the emergence of an opposing movement. Nagorno-Karabakh is recruiting young volunteers from across the world. The organisation, Birthright Armenia, founded in 2003 by the wealthy Armenian exile, Edele Hovnanian, promotes itself online with the slogan ‘Inspiring a new generation’. It finances young people of Armenian heritage to undertake voluntary work, over a period of several months, in Armenia. Since this spring, volunteers have also been travelling to Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Our mission is to strengthen ties between the homeland and Diasporan youth, by affording them an opportunity to be a part of Armenia’s daily life and to contribute to Armenia’s development through work, study and volunteer experiences, while developing life-long personal ties and a renewed sense of Armenian identity.“

[This quote and further information about Birthright Armenia can be found online at: http://www.birthrightarmenia.org/en/]

On the first occasion, we meet a number of the volunteers in Nor Maragha, a small village, not far from Stepanakert. Almost all of them are there as part of a trip organised by Birthright to commemorate the Maragha Massacre. Garo, a 32-year-old financial expert from Amman, Jordan, provides a rough translation, giving us a general sense of what was said at the lectern. Alana (29), originally from Chicago, also wanted to interpret for us, but did not feel confident enough about her Armenian. Like many Birthright volunteers, she has acquired her language skills ‘on-the ground’, as part of the obligatory Armenian classes. Alana helps us in others ways, however – she offers us a place to sleep for three nights, at her apartment in nearby Shusi. Volunteers usually live with host families, but Alana wanted to take advantage of a little more privacy currently being offered by the month-long ‘Pioneer stay’, where volunteers test out whether, in the future, participants could be regularly sent directly to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Alana does her thing

Alana does her own thing, no matter where in the world she happens to be. After graduating from the Boston Academy of Fine Arts, she started working for a contemporary art gallery, before travelling to India for a few months. For the last three years she has worked as an art teacher at the Higashi School, a school for autistic children. A fulfilling, but very demanding job, which always prompted her to seek relaxation by holidaying in increasingly exotic locations. She had never visited Armenia, the birth land of her grandfather, until she heard about Birthright Armenia through a friend and determined to go there: “This was as good a way as any to facilitate getting out of the quicksand I felt I was stuck in and getting out of the US semi-permanently.” Alana easily met the organisation’s pre-requisites: she had a high-school education, was within the 20-32 year-old age group and was happy to participate for the minimum period of six-weeks. She wasn’t required to produce evidence that she had left Armenia before the age of 12, as she had never been a citizen of the country. Most importantly, with her grandfather’s birth certificate, she could prove that she was 25% Armenian.

Less than five months after her successful application, Alana found herself on her way into the unknown. With a one-way ticket and just a single suitcase, she flew to Yerevan. On the basis of her previous experience, she was placed at the International Child Development Center (ICDC), a school for children with autism, and at the Armenian Center for Contemporary Experimental Art (NPAK/ACCEA). “Perfect fit”, says Alana, who beams as she describes to us an exhibition she curated, shortly before her departure for Nagorno-Karabakh. It displayed works by her autistic pupils from both the USA and Armenia. The media interest was huge nationwide and Alana was very proud to have addressed the widespread stigmatization of autistic people and to have raised awareness across the population of the meaningfulness of special needs education. This was the highpoint of her first six months in Yerevan. Then it was time to experience a little adventure. Alana registered as one of seven volunteers to work for a month in Nagoro-Karabakh. She had been there once before and had enjoyed the time very much. The historical significance that this enclave has for Armenians, which continues to enact itself through the still smouldering war with Azerbaijan and the precarious socio-economic situation – everything which draws our attention to Nagorno-Karabakh and which, inversely, impels the larger part of the local population to seek their fortunes elsewhere – seemed to have little bearing on Alana’s motivation for going there.

Sevan goes off the beaten track

By the time we reached Shushi, having travelled 10km from Stepanakert by marschrutka, Alana is already into her final week. It will soon be back to Yerevan and from there – Alana’s latest idea – probably over to China, to work as an art teacher. The lively American identifies first and foremost with travel and her work. She connects with the atmosphere of a place, just as she has done in Nagorno-Karabakh. “I felt Shushi growing inside of me, as steadily as the quiet ivy snaking up the side often he ruins next door.” Though, in Alana’s case, her Armenian lineage is the prerequisite for her being there and determines the particular work she is involved in, her devotion is nevertheless unconditional. In the collective memory of many Nagorno-Karabakhers, Sushi is firmly positioned as the cradle of their culture. Indeed, many Azerbaijanis also consider the city to be a place of central historical significance. There is initially little sense of this importance – when we first arrive, everything is shrouded in a dense fog, with hardly a building to be seen, hardly a person on the street.

The next three days, however, are unexpectedly bright and colorful. Alongside Alana and Garo, we also get to know Sevan, from the USA, and other volunteers from Argentina and Libya. We eat together, play cards, explore the city and let it reveal itself to us in all its symbolism. Time and time again we encounter contradictions; on every street corner, in every story. We try to understand, but there is much we cannot yet grasp. Sevan, a happy-go-lucky guy from California, seems able to take it all in his stride. He knows little about the bloody history of Artsakhs, as Nagorno-Karabakh is known to the Armenians. When we meet, he is on temporary leave, having broken the rules (he’s rumored to have had one drop too many on occasion) and he is using the time to travel around the country and find out more about daily life in Armenia outside of the capital.

“If you only surround yourself with the diaspora, you’re missing a huge chunk of what is true Armenia. It’s a hard life for people who don’t have money abroad. Yerevan is a wonderful city and Armenia’s attempt to modernize, but the rest of the country is far behind.”

[Christopher Sevan Khudaverdyan]

Like Alana, he has cut loose his ties in the US and, for an indefinite period, has left his hipster life in Portland Oregan behind him; his job at a company specialising in printing for unusual wine labels, his friends, his family. Yet it was precisely these things, Sevan tells us, that motivated him to make the trip to Yerevan with Birthright. Growing up in an Armenian-American family, he always had the feeling that, because of his rudimentary knowledge of Armenia, it was difficult to forge a real connection with his father’s side of the family. It was the realisation of the approaching death of his grandmother, who, after decades in America, still speaks only Armenian, which brought him to Armenia. He wanted to learn more about his language and culture. His trip started out primarily as an endeavour to broaden his horizons. Sevan wanted to be able to understand his grandmother and to tell his unborn children his own stories about his father’s birthplace.

Although Sevan ultimately parted ways with Birthright, after nine months in Armenia he is today a positive example of what the Birthright mission can accomplish. Back in Yerevan, he is setting up a small business cultivating fruit trees, through which the rural population will be able to secure a sustainable income. His plans are still somewhat vague but, when you listen to Sevan, there is no doubt that he has developed a strong bond with the Armenian people during his stay: “Armenia is a relatively newly independent country. It has come a long way, and has a long way to go. I’m hoping to help it any way I can!“

A new staff member at the Ministry for Culture

Garo’s life, however, has long been shaped by Armenia tradition. The financial expert from Jordan seems, in many ways, to be the antithesis of Sevan. Not only does he play Armenian folk songs at Alana’s apartment of an evening, he is also bilingual, speaking Arabic and Armenian, and a strict Christian, who confidently walks the path of his God-given fate. Alongside his work in the finance department of a company, he also earned extra money in Amman playing night after night as an accordion player, pianist and singer. Having found himself close to burning out, he put his foot on the brakes and submitted an application to Birthright. When his application was accepted, shortly after, he had already formulated 10 business plans, with which he could set himself up independently in Armenia, once he had completed his voluntary service. When we meet, he tells us about one of his latest ideas, which involves staying in Nagorno-Karabakh. He wants to help enable the locals, who he describes as exceptionally gifted, having bravely endured the misery of war, to finally live a good life: “I moved because I wanted a true purpose for my life, instead of working behind a computer screen on a virtual world created by man to make the rich richer.” Since then, Garo has accepted a position at Nagorno-Karabakh’s Ministry of Culture.

In search of something

Despite their differences, there is one point the three young people all have in common, which seems, in general, to ensure that the volunteers are also able to forge a bond with each other: before setting off on their journeys, they have all made a clean break with their existing homes, their place of Diaspora. It would be presumptuous to speak of escape; it is, rather, a quest. The volunteers that we meet are searching for something. Birthright Armenia offers a framework for this search. The direction in which the volunteers will ultimately steer, however, is a complete unknown. It is difficult to imagine that everyone will fulfill the Birthright mission of becoming a leader and returning to their “local communities worldwide” to share their experiences and so help to build, in the long-term, increasingly close ties between the Armenian Diaspora and the Armenians. It is likewise unclear to what extent the contributions made by Alana, Garo and Sevan will help to inspire the “Armenian homeland youth”, to realize and energetically engage in their own central role in their country’s nation building process. Nor is it certain that these youths will not, like their counterparts, leave their home – perhaps to take a chance on a new beginning and to search for happiness in distant places.

Translation by Jayne Goss.