by David Zenian
Paris — A mélange of integration and a new sense of national identity is revitalizing the Armenian community of France — the largest in Europe.
From Paris to Marseilles and a dozen cities, towns, and villages in-between, Armenians are busy charting a new course, often with priorities that differ from that of earlier generations.
Sustaining schools, clubs, churches, newspapers, a radio station and other traditional community infrastructures are still important, but not necessarily the focal points they used to be.
“Times have changed and so has the direction of this community which numbers well over 300,000,” says Simon Mahdessian, an 87-year-old Armenian Genocide survivor who came to France in 1927 after spending his early childhood and teens in orphanages in Cyprus and Greece.
Mahdessian, a retired tailor, remembers life in Paris in the late 1920’s when Armenians were referred to as “dirty foreigners”, and officially classified as “stateless refugees” exiled from Turkey.
“Those were traumatic days,” he says.
In Marseilles, life for the early settlers was not any better.
“The atmosphere was very hostile until about 1940. While there was no open discrimination on the part of the French government…I cannot say Armenians felt comfortable out in the streets,” says Aram Shehigian, a 77-year-old retired pharmacist and the “unofficial historian” of the Marseilles community.
“The early Armenians were farmers, laborers, craftsmen. Few were educated and fewer spoke French. But they were hard workers,” he said.
It was this generation that, despite the hardships, began building the community and its institutions stone by stone. In one French city after the other, organizations took shape to cater to the needs of fellow Armenians.
One of the first structures was the Armenian Church of Paris which celebrated its 90th anniversary in January this year. Another early institution was the Tebrotsassere School, relocated to Marseilles in 1918 from Istanbul, and then to property donated to the Armenian General Benevolent Union in Paris in 1928 as an orphanage for young girls.
Today the Tebrotsassere School, which relies not only on tuition but also private donations and French government assistance to balance its annual budget, has 216 students — mainly the children of recent immigrants from the Middle East.
With Kindergarten through middle school, the 150-year-old building is too small to admit more students.
“Tebrotsassere is the largest full-time Armenian day-school in the Paris area, and because of its constantly improving curriculum in recent years, it can easily compete academically with local French schools,” says Garabed Dakessian, the school’s principal who holds a Ph.D. in electro-mechanical engineering from the University of Paris.
“You have to evolve to survive,” says Dakessian who is also the principal of the AGBU school in Paris which is open three nights a week for adults and on Saturdays for children between the ages of 6-14.
The school, located in the Alex Manoogian Cultural Center in the heart of Paris, successfully combines Armenian language, history, culture, dance and music classes under one roof.
“We have over 150 students between the ages of six and 66,” Dakessian says. “We have created a happy and highly stimulating milieu for all age groups.”
Often veering from traditional educational methods, the AGBU school combines current affairs with Armenian language and history classes.
“One group comes in to translate news stories from Armenian sources to French for the Lettre de l’UGAB, the highly successful weekly newsletter of the AGBU. This is one way of improving their Armenian language skills and learning something about current affairs,” Dakessian says.
Catering to the needs of an older generation is the Haratch newspaper, the only Armenian-language daily in France, published diligently by proprietor and veteran chief editor Arpig Missakian.
Founded by her late father Shavarsh Missakian in 1925 to serve the new immigrants, the newspaper maintains the same high standards of its early years when it was better known as the “community lighthouse.”
“I will remain faithful to my father’s vocation. I will continue publishing the newspaper in Armenian for as long as I am alive. I will not change it into a French-language Armenian newspaper,” she said.
Ms. Missakian, who took over the newspaper after her father’s sudden death in 1957, refutes suggestions that introducing French as a second language in the newspaper will increase its circulation base from its present level of 2,500-3,000 copies.
“Back in the late 1930’s, more than 5,500 copies were sold at a time when the Armenian community was much smaller than now. As that generation dies of old age, our circulation declines, but Haratch will not change,” she said.
Because of a constant drop in readership, other publications were over the years forced to either fold or change their formats from daily to weekly, and in some cases even monthly.
But the health of a community is not only measured by the number and size of its schools, churches and newspaper readers.
By re-defining its priorities, the community has been able to attract the younger generation of Armenians who were born in France and have not experienced the hardships and bitterness of their forefathers.
It’s this generation which is giving the community a new sense of direction.
“We should not concentrate only on preserving the old. We also need to move on … we should not be cloistered.” says a thirty-something activist.
“While lobbying does not exist as you know it in the United States, increased contacts with French officials is having a very positive effect on the community ,” another young French Armenian said.
According to unofficial counts, dozens of Armenian organizations are now active on the community scene. The AGBU, SOS Arménie, Terre et Culture, the Groupement Inter-professionnelle, the Union des Medicins Arméniens, and the Forum des Association Arménienne are gaining momentum.
Among the more avant-guard is the AGBU’s Alex Manoogian Cultural Center in the heart of Paris which in recent years has become one of the main focal points of community life.
The center is involved in a multitude of community activities such as organizing regular seminars by top French government officials, city mayors, bankers, businessmen and municipality representatives, to lectures on current affairs which attract a great number of young people.
“We are constantly changing and adapting our activities to meet the needs of the community, especially the younger generation of professionals without neglecting the needs of the other segments of the populations,” says AGBU French District Committee Chairman Levon Kebabdjian.
It is this new approach which takes the primary credit for the positive changes that are clearly visible in the community.
Through sustained contact with French officials, Armenians have been able to increase French assistance not only for community projects, but Armenia as well. It is no coincidence that France was one of the first European nations which rushed in to help the victims of the Armenian earthquake in 1988, and Medicins Sans Frontières is still active in a number of Armenian towns and cities.
This link has been strengthened over the years. A new French-language school is under construction in Gyumri thanks to efforts by a number of Armenian organizations including the AGBU.
AGBU contacts with the European Council have already resulted in the initiation of a unique training program for 18 volunteers from Armenia involved in grass root activities such as boy scouts and other community projects.
Similar contacts are on the rise across France.
In Marseilles and Paris, the city authorities often subsidize community projects like art exhibitions and cultural events. On a recent occasion, the Marseilles Mayor’s office called upon the local Armenian community to not only suggest a project, but also to administer a 600,000 franc aid packet to Armenia.
In the Paris suburb of Alfortville, Mayor René Rouquet has followed up his initial visit to Armenia in February 1987 with several others, and enacted special legislation granting sister-city status to the Armenian town of Ashtarak.
One-sixth of Alfortville’s 36,000 population is Armenian, a population ratio which has played a significant role in increasing the amount of aid to Armenia. This includes hospital equipment, powdered milk, school supplies and incubators for premature babies.
“We have a very strong alliance with the Armenian population of this town. Frankly, we do not consider the Armenians as foreigners. We always mention the Armenians as the best example in positive integration,” Mr. Rouquet said.
Unlike the United States, there may be no direct lobbying of government in France, but personal contacts, an enhanced reputation and high esteem within the community at large are tools which are often just as powerful.
The Armenians of France are using all their tools.