by David Zenian
Addis Ababa — A Boeing 757 passenger jet has more seats than the number of Armenians living in Ethiopia, but there is more to what a community means than simple arithmetic.
From a high 1,200 to a low of less than 150, the Armenian community today functions despite the drastic loss of manpower. It’s school is open, and so is the Armenian church and club.
A handful of activists are keeping the community infrastructures alive in Ethiopia. Prominent businessman Vahag Karibian is busy revitalizing the AGBU which has already financed the purchase of new furniture for the Armenian community school. Others like Arakel Sakadjian are involved with the academic well-being of the school and various aspects of community life.
“It’s all a matter of faith in why you need to preserve your culture and heritage. There is nothing old fashioned about this,” Archdeacon Vartkes Nalbandian said in a recent interview.
Once a community of influential traders, factory owners and goldsmiths, the Armenians of Ethiopia are gradually resembling a lost tribe, effectively isolated from fellow Armenians not only in such nearby African countries as Egypt and Sudan, but also the rest of the Diaspora and even Armenia.
“We have no newspapers and no organized communication with other Armenian communities. Most of us do not know what is happening in Armenia, and the very little we hear is from the Armenian broadcasts of Voice of America.
“We are like a lost tribe which has survived hundreds of years simply by faith and a lot of hard work … but the question is for how much longer?” community elder Avedis Terzian said.
“You might find this strange coming from a 90-year-old Armenian born in Ethiopia, but with the wave of emigration the New Armenians are the Armenians of the United States, France, Canada, Australia and other western nations where people have a chance to develop into a new breed of Diaspora Armenians,” Terzian said.
Hundreds of Ethiopian-born Armenians have already settled in California and Canada, but for those who have chosen to stay “in the land of our grandfathers”, the battle of survival continues.
And given the size of the community, the battle sometimes resembles a full-fledged war.
Take the Armenian Kevorkoff Community School. Opened in 1935, the K-to-elementary school today has about 100 students of which only 11 are Armenians — including six children of mixed parents.
“Our annual budget is 12,000 dollars, and if we were to keep non-Armenians out of the school, we should have closed and gone home a long time ago,” says school principal Emma Gueverian.
“Our kids need an Armenian education, and we can sustain that by accepting people from outside the community,” she says. The school’s weekly schedule includes ample hours of instruction in the Armenian language, history, geography and religion.
Today, the school has a multi-national student body — including the children of several Egyptian embassy diplomats who prefer the Armenian community school over other private institutions because of “the clean family atmosphere at Kevorkoff.”
For the academic year ending June, 1994, three Armenian children will graduate from the Armenian elementary school and will, like others before them, hopefully make their way to the Melkonian Educational Institute of the Armenian General Benevolent Union in Nicosia, Cyprus.
But the number of graduates will drop in the coming years if the demographic structure of the community does not improve with new births and less deaths.
According to available figures, two Armenian youngsters will graduate from Kevorkoff in 1995, but none in 1996 and 1997, and only one in 1998, two in the year 1999 and up to three again in the year 2000. Not an encouraging picture, as Archdeacon Vartkes Nalbandian sees it.
The community today consists of about half a dozen under 12 years old, five over 12 years old, 10 between the ages of 20-25, some in their mid-40’s and a majority of 60 to 80 year olds.
According to church records for the period 1979-1994, there have been nine Armenian weddings in Addis Ababa, 37 births and 55 deaths.
“This community is not growing in numbers. We are facing a very difficult future,” says the electromechanical engineer turned Archdeacon .
The St. Kevork Armenian Church, built in 1934, lost its last “real” clergyman in 1980, leaving the parish in limbo.
“The Armenian and Ethiopian Orthodox churches are very close, but this community was not ready to get a clergyman from a non-Armenian church to bury its dead or baptize its children,” Nalbandian said.
“For a while after the last priest left we used a tape recording of Holy Badarak as the centerpiece of our Sunday service. Imagine a handful of people sitting in church listening to the Divine Liturgy on tape,” he said.
“This was not adequate, and as an ordained Archdeacon, I somehow took over. Now, for the past 14 years, I am a chemical engineer during the week and a man of the frock on Sundays.
“I do the occasional baptisms and a lot of funerals — and weddings if I am sure of the background of the couples involved. I also do the Holy Badarak every Sunday of the year — without any exceptions,” the forty-something Nalbandian said after a recent Sunday service at which his wife led the choir and his teenage son played the electric organ.
“The last wedding was in 1990, and it involved a couple from Canada who wanted to get married in their place of birth for sentimental reasons,” he said.
While the Armenian school and Church keep the community together, the Armenian Club helps cover the costs of maintaining the much-needed infrastructure.
And it does that with style.
The “Ararat” Armenian Community Club has in recent years been widely recognized as the “place to be” for Addis Ababa’s diplomatic corps and visiting businessmen.
The Club’s restaurant, also called Ararat, is “by reservation only” and foreign diplomats and others gladly pay annual membership fees to join.
“This is one of the few places you can eat in Addis Ababa. It serves authentic Armenian food, and it is home cooking at its best,” a Swiss diplomat commented recently.
A good income generating enterprise, the Ararat Club and restaurant pay for the facility to stay open, and produce enough cash to help the Armenian school and church balance their budget.
“With such a small community, we have learned to improvise. The old rich Armenians left many years ago, and now we have to take care of ourselves without a single cent of financial aid from outside. It is not easy, but we do it,” Nalbandian said.