by David Zenian
BUENOS AIRES: The Armenian community of Argentina has maintained its identity with flying colors thanks to its stubborn devotion to the church, school and the family structure.
The battle has not been easy, and the war goes on.
“Most of those who came in the mid-1920′s were poor. They were the so called lucky to be alive Genocide survivors who had taken refuge in Aleppo from places like Ainteb, Kilis, Ourfa and Hajin,” says Kevork Sarafian, who came to Buenos Aires in 1927.
“The first Armenians came in 1908 and some came in 1915, but it was not until 1924-1930 that the community took shape when some 10,000 people settled in Buenos Aires,” Sarafian added.
Subsequent waves of immigrants came from Rumania and Greece. The influx dried up in the early 1950′s. Today, the community is estimated to number 80,000.
While survival was of paramount importance, education was also high on the agenda of the early immigrants.
“They had no money and few of them spoke a foreign language, therefore they gave a great deal of attention to education,” noted Dr. Rosa Manjian, a second generation Armenian who heads the school of journalism at the Kennedy University of Buenos Aires.
“This community survived the difficult years but it is now time to plan for the next fifty years,” she says, adding, “In these modern days, devotion is not enough. We need a think tank to plan ahead.”
Survival of a minority in a land thousands of miles away from its ethnic roots is a difficult proposition. Intermarriages take their toll. Economic factors also contribute to assimilation and a general drifting away from the “old ways.”
But thanks to the “old values”, a touch of “romanticism”, and hard work, the community has still thrived and grown into a highly respected and visible segment of the Argentine population.
Among such “romantics” are AGBU Central Board member Hovsep Youssefian and Haig Emirian, better known in the community as Tio Haig, or Padrino. A vibrant, active, forceful and highly motivated “80 plus young” businessman, Tio Haig has championed one community project after the other.
But he is not alone, by far. A recent banquet honoring community benefactors included 100 guests.
“And maybe some people were forgotten. This is a very active and motivated community. Several generations of people are involved in various community activities from school to church,” says Youssefian, himself a benefactor whose daughter is the principal of the AGBU elementary school.
If the presence of such an impressive number of benefactors is a source of pride for the Armenian community of Argentina, the involvement of the youth is a source of joy and strength.
Basketball fields are full, so are other facilities that attract the younger generation. Buenos Aires is renowned for its folkloric dance and theater groups which perform to packed audiences several times a year.
Argentine Armenians also raise their heads and grin with obvious pride when they speak of the community’s achievements in business and industry.
“This is a self-made community which had a humble beginning. We have many success stories, especially in the textile industry,” Youssefian says.
The community’s who’s-who list is impressive and long and not necessarily because of the wealth they have acquired or the donations that have made to various institutions.
Among them are names such as Leon Carlos Arslanian, Eduardo Eurnekian, Alicia Terzian, Juan Carlos Toufenksian and scores of others who are seen as assets to the Armenian heritage.
Arslanian, who is in his early fifties, is Argentina’s Minister of Justice. A close confident of Argentine President Raul Menem, Arslanian is often called upon to arbitrate thorny issues facing the administration.
A second generation Armenian, Arslanian does not speak any Armenian, but sends his young children to an Armenian school.
“Armenian organizations such as the Armenian General Benevolent Union play an important role. We should all encourage the youth to support Armenia in its independence and democracy. The youth should strengthen its ties with Armenia,” Arslanian said in a recent interview. He is also optimistic about the prospects of Argentina’s recognition of Armenian independence.
“Yes, there is that possibility. Let us not forget that Argentina was one of the first nations to recognize the Republic in 1918. The Argentine Foreign Ministry is looking into the question of recognition now,” Arslanian said.
“Not-so-far-away” from politics is Eduardo Eurnekian, a newspaper tycoon who has recently added a television and two radio stations together with Argentina’s only cable TV network to his empire.
“I started in textiles and moved into communications. I am not a journalist, just a businessman,” Eurnekian says with a grin on his face.
Buenos Aires is full of “Armenian success stories”, of people who have made their mark outside the community.
Among such names, and they are many, is Alicia Terzian, one of the most charismatic and dynamic musical figures currently living and working in south America.
A native of Cordoba, her catalogue of works consists of more than fifty different compositions for orchestra, chamber ensembles, choral, symphonic band, solo instruments, ballet, electronic means and voices.
Ms. Terzian’s contribution to music is similar to the life-long endeavor of Maestro Jean Almoukhian, a founding member and driving force behind the fifty-member, thirty-four year-old Arax Choral ensemble.
An Armenian born in Greece who came to Argentina in 1947, Almoukhian conducts the all-volunteer group with such passion that he bonds its members into a single voice.
“One of our singers is seventy-one years old and he has been with us since the day the group was formed. The passion to sing and excel in the presentation of Armenian music unites the group,” Maestro Almoukhian says.
Architect Juan Carlos Toufenksian, a quiet man, is similarly motivated. For the past thirty years, the bearded engineer has taught Armenian architecture at the University of Argentina to non-Armenians.
“On the average twenty-five students take the course which concentrates on 4th to 18th century Armenian architecture. Thanks to the AGBU Alex Manoogian Cultural Fund, a 200 page Spanish textbook on Armenian architecture will be in the hands of my students soon,” he says.
The Argentine Armenian community’s impressive who’s-who also stretches into the country’s world of industry and trade, mobilized five years ago by the formation of the 400-member Armenian-Argentine Chamber of Commerce or the Camara Argentino Armenia de Comercio e Industria.
If money talks and if unity is strength, Camara is rapidly building into an Armenian force to be reckoned with.
“Camara is an impressive power base for the Armenian community of Argentina. We have no political coloration. We are just a group of pragmatic businessmen who are highly motivated and determined to help fellow Armenians,” says Camara’s current president Miguel Sarian.
If Camara has gathered the industrialists, businessmen, traders and bankers together, a single street in central Buenos Aires should be credited with taking the first step toward “Armenian Power.”
A 100-meter stretch of Armenia Street houses the Armenian General Benevolent Union, the AGBU Marie Manoogian Educational Institution with its 400 students, St. Gregory the Illuminator School which has another 400 students, the Armenian Center, the Tekeyan Cultural Association and the offices of Buenos Aires’ two Armenian newspapers, Sardarabad and Armenia.
“The concentration is incredible. There are more (Red, Blue and Orange) Armenian flags flying along this small stretch of Armenia Street than maybe Independence Square in Yerevan,” observed a recent visitor.
Over the years, Armenia Street has acted as a mirror, reflecting the conflicts of the Armenian community. Today, the spirit of unity and purpose vastly overshadows other considerations.
“In the United States people ask each other which church they attend. Or in other words, they ask if one goes to an Etchmiadzin or Antelias affiliated church. Here in Buenos Aires that question is redundant. The people are united around one See of Etchmiadzin church,” AGBU chairman Vahram Hayrabedian says.
Scattered outside Armenia Street across Buenos Aires, the European-style capital of Argentina, Armenian community life revolves around the city’s three other Armenian Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches.
The vast length of its “list of benefactors” is a testament to community involvement.
Apart from the nearly 2,200 students in seven schools, the community also maintains an old-age home, several sports and cultural centers, choirs, and theater groups to mention a few.
The old-age home, built by a generous donation from the Diarbekirian family, provides shelter for fifty-five people between the ages of seventy-five and ninety-five. The five-floor building contains a small medical clinic, recreation and reading rooms and other facilities.
No single project reflects the mood of community life and involvement, but one comes close to showing how far people are willing to go.
Week in week out, the parents of the AGBU high school graduating class cook a special dinner to raise funds for a project that has become a tradition.
“The mothers do the cooking, and the students act as waiters and waitresses at the school’s Friday night dinner for more than 200 guests. The proceeds are spent on the annual graduating class trip, or pilgrimage, to Armenia,” a parent said as her child served on one of the tables in the packed AGBU school dining hall.
“This might look frivolous to some, but not for this community. It is part of the extended family concept which makes the Armenian community of Argentina special,” says AGBU chairman Vahram Hairabedian.