Manning the Home Front

Against the Tide

Armenians Repatriate to Live and Give


It is rare today to meet an Armenian without at least one family member seeking opportunity abroad. In this context, it is easy to overlook the reverse trend: a small but noteworthy current of Diasporans and Hayastantsis repatriating to their homeland. Their numbers may be few, but their decision should be encouraged, as they possess skills to share and the passion to create a better future.

When Shushan Avagyan left Armenia on a plane bound for the United States in 1999, she thought she would never return. But after more than a decade of living, learning and working abroad, the 37-year-old decided it was time to bring her translation skills and dedication to teaching back to her birthplace.

Today, Avagyan is a translator of Armenian literature and a professor in her field at the American University of Armenia (AUA), where her students eagerly anticipate her lectures.

Avagyan's reasons for leaving and returning were the same: education. After an academic year at the Institute of National Economy in Yerevan, she was not satisfied with the academic quality and felt the learning en­vironment was lacking.

Her quest for a better education took her to Cedar Crest College in Allentown, PA, where she studied Book Arts. By that time, she had already started translating a number of Armenian literary works into English, as a way to maintain her identity outside her country. She continued on to Illinois State University, earning her M.A. and Ph.D. through her income from a local publishing house and teaching.

At Dalkey Archive Press, she recalls: 'There were no Armenians around me and I was the only representative."

Avagyan was eager to translate Armenian literature for the publishing house, but instead found her niche translating Russian works, notably three books by theoretician Viktor Shklovsky that have been used in various American universities.

While she found success in her career, Avagyan felt the calling to return home after earning her Ph.D. The American University of Armenia—still a nascent institution when Avagyan left—presented a perfect way to take her education home.

Avagyan hit the ground running, joining AUA in September 2012 and founding the university's first Graduate Certificate in Translation program. There, she has the opportunity to do what she loves most—teaching translation courses to the younger generation.

"Students at AUA are very eager to learn and are very receptive. They don't take education for granted. That is important for a teacher, for an educator," she said.

Avagyan reflects that she had several opportunities to obtain a Green Card and eventual U.S. citizenship, but she is happy with her status as an Armenian national and even happier to be back and engaged in the profession she loves.

Today, she is the proud owner of an apartment in Yerevan, which gives her a literal sense of commitment to her chosen home.

"I have a huge debt and I don't know how I am going to get out of that, but I decided I need to have a nest, which I didn't make anywhere else. I wanted to have my first home in Armenia... I really feel content at this point," she said.

When Avagyan was preparing to leave Armenia in the late 1990s, she was often angered or saddened by the re­alities of society and the economy. Today, she encounters many of the same frustrations, including low salaries.

"It is a cultural shock you go through and it has been going on for a long time for me— even today I am still going through this shock," she said, signaling a disregard for the environment and destruction of heritage as some of her biggest concerns.

"When I was leaving Armenia I was seeing corruption. Now I am seeing even more corruption and that's really disheartening for me. But simultaneously I am also seeing a new generation of young people who are very conscious and politically active.

"These people inspire me. I want to participate in this civic life, which was very dead in the place I was living in the U.S.," she said.

For Avagyan, the issues Armenians must address are not only related to the economy and infrastructure, but also tied to a negative mentality.

"We are so not constructive, we are constantly criticizing instead of trying to put something—a brick, a chip—into the new developing identity of this republic," she said.

For Avagyan, the most important personal contribution she can make is to encourage and inspire fellow Armenians.

She admits while returning to Armenia was the most difficult decision she made, it has also proven the most rewarding.

"There are a few positive changes and seeing those, appreciating those, emphasizing those is very important...finding like-minded people and creating coalitions, communities, working towards change.

"I am not the only person doing this; I know a lot of people are coming back. We are not just repatriating, but also returning to the land in which a lot of us had lost faith."

Avagyan reflects: "I was born in 1976. Our generation is this transitional generation when we had the end of Soviet period and then we embarked into this new republic and we lost a lot of years while the schools were trying to figure out how to switch to the new system. This generation has a lot to give back to the post-in- dependent generation."

From Ontario to Gyumri

On a hot summer day in Yerevan, Canadian national Raffi Elliott is perched on a bench in Yerevan's landmark Mashtots Park.

Only one year ago, the pristine oasis in the capital was no more than a rundown plot of land on the chopping block for development. It was hardly a random meeting point for Elliott, 24, who took part in the 2012 standoff against the park's conversion into a shopping area.

Two years after his move to Armenia, Elliott proudly surveys his verdant surroundings, saved after months of protests by his fellow Armenian environmental and civil activists. Located just off Yerevan's central Mesrop Mashtots Boulevard, many feel this piece of greenery is the best example of a civil society victory in Armenia.

Born in Canada to an Armenian mother and Irish father, the activist speaks near-fluent Armenian and uses a playful twist on his surname—Elliottyan—for his Facebook account. Back home, he attended an Armenian school, participated in community events and marched for recognition of the Armenian Genocide. But when it comes to preserving identity, he knows there is no substitute for living in Armenia.

The young man's first experience in Armenia was in 2003, when he accompanied his mother on a humanitarian mission to Gyumri, still struggling to rebuild from the 1988 earthquake. The trip left an im­pression, and he would return in 2011—this time as a permanent resident. Elliott does not gloss over the negative aspects of life in Armenia, but he has no regrets.

"One of the ironic positives of the tragedy was that Genocide survivors had access to education and countries formed on the basis of a social contract, where people understand the basic ideas of personal freedom. The Armeni­ans of the modern Republic of Armenia did not get those opportunities.

"My grandfather was forced to leave this land and I came back. It's my duty as an Armenian to transfer my values and pick up the values that people here preserved as well," he said.

In this pursuit, Elliott and an American-Armenian friend recently founded the Transparency Resource Center, which aims to promote transparency and efficiency in the rooming NGO field.

"The biggest industry in Armenia is the NGO sector. They get the grants but we never know if the money is used efficiently, if they're actually helping their beneficiaries."

In response, the Transparency Resource Center formulated a methodology on auditing NGOs. They also offer recommendations on how to do a better job and gain access to grant money and use the money properly.

"The flip side of the idea is to give independent analyses of the real NGO world in Armenia to Diaspora donors and interna­tional organizations so they get an idea of who is worth donating money to, and who isn't," he said.

Elliott has also returned to Gyumri, Armenia's second largest city. Unlike a decade before, his visit was not for humanitarian relief but to invest in the economy. There, he founded Nest Innovation, a four-employee tech company.

"It is an outsourcing company. We do web development and maintenance for small and medium businesses around the world, generally owned by Armenian professionals," said Elliott. He even considers moving to Gyumri one day, whose earthquake survivors he describes as "hardworking, honest and reliable."

Elliott's current goal is to convince some of his family members to move to Armenia. He thinks his younger brother will join him in the future and hopes his parents will retire here.

"A lot of people in the Diaspora live in a paradox. On the one hand, they seem to be obsessed with the idea of preserving a sense of 'Armenianness'. On the other hand, they are not making the connection with that and being involved with Armenia—which is a living, breathing country."

Elliott hopes his fellow Disasporans will gain a more open and nuanced understanding of Armenia and to be "personally involved" in making change for the better.

 "When there is an actual political will for change, it can be done extremely quickly. [Armenia] can be a great place. I would like to be here when that happens, and I like the idea that I can help build that reality."

Living the Dream

Shant Petrossian, born in Iran and raised in Southern California, usually shuns dis-cussing his reasons for moving to Armenia. When he first decided to repatriate at age 26, fellow Diasporans viewed him as a "martyr" for giving up a comfortable life in the United States. The truth, he stresses, is far from the perception.

"I had to deal with peoples' constant questioning of why I was going, and with their warnings of how terrible a decision it would be, which was based on their experiences from the immediate post-independence period and negative stereotypes propagated by Armenian citizens abroad," he said.

For Petrossian, who had never been to Armenia in his life, there was no better time to test the waters for himself. The inspiration came from an instructor during his undergraduate years at the University of California Los Angeles.

"I had had a teacher who had gone to Yerevan State University [for his master's degree] before going to UCLA for his Ph.D. That sparked an idea of doing the same thing," said Petrossian.

Such a course would allow him to immediately integrate in the local society by meeting fellow students his own age. The American University of Armenia, with its United States accreditation, seemed like the perfect fit.

"I had no plan other than immersing myself as much as possible while at AUA, learning as much as I could and being open to anything," he said.

Petrossian enrolled in the Political Science and International Affairs master's program. He hit the ground running, starting classes one week after touching down at Yerevan's Zvartnots International Airport.

"The entire class quickly became a unit, both in terms of academia and social lives. I never felt like I was alone or had no one to talk to or relate to," he said.

The two-year program also allowed him to collaborate with professors on projects and carry out his thesis on rural development. He gained real world experience as a research assistant for the AUA Extension program, an AGBU supported outreach initiative offering subsidized certificate courses throughout Armenia and in Nagorno Karabakh.

On the eve of graduation, he was delighted to find a job posting in his field: manager of the Extension program's regional offices.

For Petrossian, who had discovered his passion for development over the course of his studies in Armenia, it was the ideal next step. The Extension administration agreed.

"I do not exaggerate when I say my job at AUA Extension is a dream job," said Petrossian. "We are taking education to those who need it and cannot get to it. The course offerings and structure are based on the needs of a particular community, defined by both its residents and us."

Petrossian firmly believes education is the key to success, both for individuals and nations. Through his work, he has put that belief into action, enthusiastically taking on diverse roles and initiatives for the program. So far, his most fulfilling project was directing a weeklong summer leadership camp offered in the village of Mets Tagher in Nagoront to work Nagorno-Karabakh.

l got to work with young, driven people and give them an introduction to a very important subject while being able to socialize with them, as well as the people of the village. It was truly an amazing and unfor-gettable experience," he said.

At home in Yerevan, 28-year-old Petrossian enjoys the company of his old university friends, most of who are local Armenians. The few Diasporans are those who have adapted to life in Armenia and—like Petrossian—are committed to staying. He is optimistic about his generation.

"Society is definitely becoming more open. Young people, especially in Yerevan, are very worldly. There are still many social issues that need to be addressed, like the secondary place of women in a male dominated society, but I feel that these are changing over time," he said.

Petrossian believes that Diasporans can also help spur positive change.

"Armenians in the diaspora are versed in virtually every field in virtually every country. That experience—localized in Armenia, channeled through appropriate mechanisms and disseminated through local Armenians—is a potential force that is immeasurable."

As a development expert, Petrossian is conscious that mass repatriation will not hap. .pen spontaneously—it will start from the ground up.

"Diasporans need to slowly introduce themselves into the country and (view it) as a real place and not a vacation spot or myth. Then they should seek opportunities to apply themselves in their professions," he said.

Most importantly, he emphasized, repatriates must share the positive side of Armenia to combat the "negative propaganda" spread by Armenians themselves.

Looking back on his own decision to move to Armenia, Petrossian has no regrets:

"My peers are wonderful people—helpful, intelligent, friendly and caring. Aside from the comfort this gave me, it gave me hope for the future of the country, since hopelessness is the biggest problem.

"I do not feel like I gave anything up. On the contrary, I feel that 1 have gained more in Armenia than I could have anywhere else."

Originally published in the 2013-10-01​ issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

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