An Age-Old Question

It can be viewed as a miracle that Armenians continue to exist as a people today. No doubt many-an-editorial for the Armenian Weekly has begun on such a note, but it still rings true.

Readers may have noticed that for the last few weeks, our pages have been home to a series of articles, penned by local contributor George Aghjayan, detailing records documenting the Armenian presence around the world. While the objective is to assist Armenians researching their heritage, it also highlights the demise of a number of once vibrant Diasporan communities. Our collective identity has been under constant threat, one could argue, continuously since first forming as a nation. We rarely have experienced any period of peace. Yet, somehow, we have persisted, if in a severely truncated form, to the extent that today, the question of Armenian identity in the Diaspora (whether to embrace it or not) is left to each individual.

Image courtesy Wikimedia

Leaving aside for the moment the difficult question of exactly how much engagement in Armenian community life is necessary for a person to be considered a member of the Diaspora, the fundamental question is how can a Diasporan community survive—or can it at all—and what role does an independent state play in that survival?

Very rarely does such a discussion move beyond the argument that the obvious focus of the Diaspora should be placed on building a strong and sustainable Republic of Armenia. This is most often used as a way to minimize the perceived Diasporan fixation on Genocide recognition. A more nuanced understanding accepts that justice for the Armenian genocide is a critical component to Armenia’s viability as a state.

But just as a thought experiment, let’s say tomorrow, everyone in the world with Armenian heritage decided to pack their bags and relocate to Armenia… Would such a thing be good for Armenia? The Weekly’s editor posed this question recently to Vartan Marashlyan, Director of Repat Armenia, an organization dedicated to promoting repatriation. It’s unrealistic, he said, to believe that all, or even most Diasporans will live in Armenia. He believes instead that the “right ratio would be half-half.” Half living in Armenia, that is, and half living abroad. “We are one of the rare nations that has such a big imbalance between people living in the national state and living in the Diaspora. In the case of Israel, it is now 50-50.”

But a larger problem that Marashlyan noted was not just the lack of repatriation from Diasporans; but rather, the lack of engagement even in their own communities abroad. “We have 7 million people living in the Diaspora, in more than 100 countries. Very different, very diverse. We have 30,000 Armenian organizations worldwide,” he said, citing estimates made by the Ministry of Diaspora, “and still approximately 80 percent of our Diaspora outside of Armenia are not engaged even with Diasporan organizations. It’s a huge problem.”

Could it be possible that, in spite of all the effort we’ve spent securing the sustainability of Armenia proper, we’ve neglected to show the same care to our own organizations in the Diaspora?

It seems timely to contemplate the mutual dependency of Armenia and its Diaspora, both because of the dramatic change in the political leadership of Armenia and also, due to the current visit to the United States by Armenia’s Diasporan Minister. Several questions inevitably arise:

  • What criteria must exist for a Diaspora to survive generation after generation?
  • What obligation does the Diaspora have in furthering Armenia’s survival and prosperity and how does that obligation benefit the Diaspora in its survival?

If one believes that all Diasporas are destined to assimilate, or die out, eventually—let’s compare them in this case to a terminally ill patient—then naturally, the conclusion would be that further investment in the dying patient would be pointless. But perhaps the patient can be saved?

First, one must acknowledge that each Armenian Diasporan community is different and the circumstances surrounding their creation matter. There is a significant  difference between a Diaspora born out of trauma, such as the Genocide (these are the “Pilgrim Armenians,” if you will, a term borrowed from designer Michael Aram, designating those who have been around to settle in their host countries for a while), versus one born of economic mobility (the newer Diaspora). The biggest difference is that, at the very least, as economic factors change, so would the ebb and flow of immigrants. But this does not even begin to address a more complex question, of whether trauma is required to maintain Diasporan identity.

One could argue that the community grew stronger and more mobilized around an almost continuous series of challenges – the 1988 earthquake, the Artsakh movement and war, the independence of Armenia, and other smaller events culminating in the commemoration of 100th anniversary of the Genocide. The full potential of the community is better understood at these times. Yet, either through fatigue or the aging of the population most impacted and mobilized, has there been evidence of a reduction in that potential? Also, as the Minister of the Diaspora stated in a meeting here at the Hairenik building, how can we create a more consistent, engaged Diaspora in the calm between the storms?

The best answer we’ve found so far, is sending youth to Armenia, Artsakh and Javakh through tourism, internships, special projects, scouting jamborees, schooling, jobs, any way possible. In this way, they become more attached, both to Armenia as a place and to their burgeoning awareness of belonging to an ethnic group. But how can we activate young people at home?

The answer is both simple and complex: education.

Unfortunately, in the United States, the Diaspora has lacked the vision to build high quality Armenian middle and high schools in their localities. This, at the very least, seems like an important criteria in sustaining a vibrant community. We compensate for this flaw by other initiatives that, while good and successful, never fully measure up to the impact of an excellent school.

The strength of a Diaspora is directly correlated to the strength of its homeland, as strong homelands are better able to facilitate the maintenance of a Diaspora (which, as we can see, has no shortage of advantages). If maintaining a stronger Diaspora is a priority of Armenia, it would behoove them to begin thinking about investing in teacher programs, and developing a network of schools.

But it is yet to be seen, whether the day we see a strong Armenia, we can also expect to see a strong Diaspora.

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