by Suren Musayelyan
Editor's note: While attention is reasonably focused on the out-pouring of Armenians leaving the republic, it is worth notice, also, that a slight but sure trickle is coming from the other direction. More and more Diasporans are uprooting from distant homes and moving to Armenia. We talked to some who say they have no regrets for making Yerevan their new home.
Four years ago Artbridge bookstore/cafÈ opened on Abovian Street in Yerevan and became an immediate magnet for Diaspora tourists, ex-pats and, eventually, a favored hangout for young adult locals.
When it opened, it was unique among Yerevan restaurants. Soon, however, others saw its success and have copied its style in one way or another. None, though, could copy the heart behind Artbridge, 45-year-old Shakeh Havan.
Originally from Tehran, Iran, Shakeh grew up in the United States. She last lived in Walthan, Massachusetts, where she married, and had two children, ZarÈ (13) and SarinÈ (9).
In 1999 Shakeh and the children came to Yerevan.
"I came for one year to get the taste of Armenia and that year has not ended yet," she says, jokingly.
A manufacturing engineer by training, Shakeh decided to combine her love of books and love of business, and Artbridge was the offspring.
The bookstore cafÈ is not an original idea, as it is a common practice abroad. But it was a new thing for Yerevan. Shakeh says that books are closer to her, but in order to keep a bookstore she needed some business next to it. And that's how the idea came to her.
"This format gives me peace of mind, which is very important to me," says Shakeh.
And it gave the restaurant scene a new dimension, if only by the fact that it features early-morning service.
"When we first started, one could find a coffee in Yerevan before 8:30 a.m. only in hotels," Shakeh says.
Now people who visit Artbridge to buy books can read while enjoying a cup of coffee with a muffin, or full-course meal.
There are 11 tables in Artbridge, where the average customer spends an hour and a half browsing, then buying books, then sitting to enjoy them.
"In terms of business it brings no money, as there is no quick change of tables. But our service is deliberately aimed at giving peace to our customers," says Shakeh.
Artbridge was one of the first places in Yerevan to offer tickets for cultural events (previously they were sold only at theater box-offices).
Shakeh was not engaged in business in the United States and therefore cannot compare whether it is more difficult or easier to work in Armenia. But she says that one challenge in Armenia is to learn the new laws which are changing all the time.
"Armenia is a young country, with new laws and I think these laws should first of all be for the people of this country. Laws change everywhere, but ours are simply changing a little too fast," she says. "I have no right to criticize. I didn't have particular difficulties here, because I didn't have expectations and didn't draw comparisons.
"I wish laws were such as to make people respect the state no matter whether they like these laws or not. And I very much want people here not to be passive and to know their rights."
Shakeh says she didn't find the security that Yerevan offers anywhere she lived before. She says her children are safe in this country, which is the most important thing for a parent.
The family lives in a three-bedroom house in central Yerevan. She says she and her family enjoy living in the capital.
"Yerevan is what you make it. The tolerance level here is incredibly high and people from abroad who come here have a lot to learn from the locals," she says.
Shakeh does not tend to criticize people leaving the country, as many others in Armenia do.
"I appreciate this freedom of movement very much. If I, holding a U.S. passport can come here, why shouldn't a Hayastantsi be able to go to America?" she says. "I think it's very natural, especially after the collapse of the USSR when all doors opened before our people."
Shakeh sees tremendous changes happening in Armenia, but she says she'd rather see a slower but surer growth: "When a tree grows slowly it has deeper roots and is much stronger." Yet, she adds: "We cannot afford to grow slowly in the modern-day world, because we will then fall behind the global advancement."
The right choice . . .
"Living in Canada was like staying in a seven-star hotel for me. But a hotel can never replace your home," says 61-year-old Atken Armenian, who, with his wife Hasmig left "seven star" comfort in 1992 to live in Yerevan, in the days when it had lots of stars, but not much else.
For the past 13 years Armenian has been Dean and Extension Program Registrar at the American University of Armenia.
Atken, who was born in Cairo, Egypt, and received his education in the West moved to Canada in 1965 to work as an oil engineer—his first specialty—in Edmonton, Alberta. Later, he received his second education as a teacher at Edmonton University.
He visited Armenia first, briefly, in 1965 and then for a year in 1975 as he was gathering material for his doctoral thesis in foreign language teaching. But he says he found it hard to put up with the communist regime and stay in Soviet Armenia then.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was the event that influenced his decision to repatriate.
"My parents did not send me to an Armenian school and our family was never in Armenian surroundings while we lived in the West," says Armenian. "I had a vague idea of what Armenia and its history were. But gradually my interest towards my Armenian descent brought me back to Armenia."
He remembers that the difficulties in post-independent Armenia did not put him off, but, to the contrary, gave him an additional impetus to stay and help his historical motherland to overcome the period of hardships. A main hardship for the Armenians was being separated from their son and daughter who were in their early 20s then. The separation was particularly hard for Hasmig.
"But gradually she saw the benefit of living in Armenia, where you don't have to explain all the time who you are, and now she doesn't regret my decision either," says Atken.
In Yerevan the Armenians live in a house half a kilometer away from the crossroads of Baghramian and Proshian streets, a house that once belonged to Hasmig's grandmother and uncles who repatriated to Armenia from Egypt in 1947, but, in ironic good timing for Atken and Hasmig, decided to emigrate to Canada in 1992.
"It gives me spiritual satisfaction as well to know that we now live in the house that once belonged to my wife's family," says Atken.
Their 38-year-old daughter Ani and 34-year-old son Van both live in Montreal where they have their own families. Ani has two children and is married to a Canadian. But Van married a girl from Hayastan when he came to visit his mum and dad last summer. Atken and Hasmig make frequent visits to Canada to see the children and grandchildren.
"Now when I go back to Canada and spend a couple of weeks there, I feel as if I am short of oxygen and need to return to Armenia," says Atken, who has a Canadian passport but feels himself to be a Hayastantsi.
"The Canadian passport gives us convenience in crossing the borders, and family connection is very important to us," Armenian admits. And while the Armenians have swum against the migration tide, Atken is far from criticizing other Armenians who either leave the country for good or are reluctant to repatriate.
"You should walk in their shoes to know what it feels likes," he says. "But for me it was the right choice that I never regretted, nor will ever regret."
Looking back at what Yerevan was in the early '90s and what it is now, Atken notices a lot of change—both positive and negative.
"Living standards in Yerevan are much higher now than they were some 10 or 15 years ago, which, unfortunately, I cannot say about the regions," he says. "And, unfortunately, there is not the enthusiasm that I could feel in the early '90s. It hurts to see people who once were ready to sacrifice their lives to win their country's freedom and independence now betray the very ideas they were fighting for."
Atken sees the future of his family closely connected with Armenia. But he thinks that to become a prosperous country Armenia needs to combat many vices, such as bribery, protectionism, corruption that he says often discourage Armenians living in Armenia and abroad.
"I think it natural for Armenians to live in Armenia," says Atken. "My family now knows well that their granddad lives in Armenia and that they have a home here where they are always welcome."
No matter what happens . . .
Varand Bedrosian says his wife Sosi is luckier, as she was granted Armenian citizenship sooner than he. Now he is counting days before it is his turn to be able to hold an Armenian passport.
The Bedrosians, he is 46 and she, 43, moved from war-torn Iraq in December 2003 and applied for citizenship in July 2004.
Varand, whose father was born in Iraq and grandfather was a deportee from Mush (now in Turkey), says they had always dreamed of living in Armenia, but didn't have a chance until Saddam Hussein's regime was overthrown.
During the last 12 years of his life in Iraq, Varand, who is a geologist, was making his living as a jewel-setter. But since he had previously worked for a government agency, he was not allowed to leave the country.
"We have relatives in the U.S., Holland and elsewhere, but we decided to repatriate as soon as the opportunity arose," says Varand. "I always wanted my children to live in their homeland."
When he came to Armenia with his wife and two daughters—19-year-old Ayg and 7-year-old Arpi—he didn't have many job offers. He first worked briefly as an agent for a commercial distribution company, then wanted to set up his own jewel-setting business, but didn't have enough capital and "vigor" to compete with younger jewelers in Armenia. Then briefly Varand worked for one of the jewelry producing companies in Yerevan, but after three months of working there had to give up his job as his sight was not what it used to be.
Now Varand earns his living by working as a translator for a local fish-breeding company facilitating correspondence with the Arab world and other markets abroad.
"My salary here is far less than it was in Iraq, but we have to get accustomed to it. I think it will be better in the future," says Varand, who gets only $150 a month, but has to pay $160 monthly for his rented 3-room apartment near Barekamutiun metro in Yerevan. The family sold property in Iraq, and are now living on the money they brought with them.
Soon the Bedrosians will be moving to the house they bought in the capital's Erebuni district, which is now under repairs. They say it will make their life easier as they will not have to pay a sizable sum of money for the rent every month.
Sosi occasionally takes up a job as a specialist in Western Armenian. This year she was part of the experimental project of teaching Western Armenian among 9th grade students at Armenian schools in Yerevan and in five regions.
Sosi, who worked as the secretary of Archbishop Avak Asadourian in Baghdad and also was part of the editorial staff of the local Armenian newspaper, says she enjoys her life in Armenia.
"I will be a perfect Hayastantsi in 10 years' time," she says. "Armenia's nature and countryside are a paradise and the country is growing fast."
Ayg is now a first-year student at Northern University in Yerevan. She studies English and French.
"My future is definitely connected with Armenia. Now I'm starting to forget our life in Iraq and feel more at home here among my new Armenian friends," says Ayg.
As Varand tells the story of their life in Iraq, remembering both their happy moments and times of despair during the bombings, he takes out a thick copybook which he started to write in 1980, and in which he put down the quotes from Armenian books he read away from home.
"Armenian intellectuals, revolutionaries and patriots said everything instead of me in my collection of their famous quotes," he says, mentioning among them Aknuni, Christopher Mikaelian, Khrimian Hayrik and others.
"I have been inspired by the thought of repatriation since my childhood. And now it is my strong determination to remain here in Armenia no matter what happens in the future," says Varand.
No reason to stay abroad . . .
Norair Melkom-Melkomian never regrets his decision to move to Armenia and says his choice to live in Armenia was one that he was destined to make at some point.
The 54-year-old manager who was born in Tehran and lived most of his life in Iran came to live in Yerevan with his family in September 1991, the month when the country declared its independence.
"Armenia is where we belong. It is our environment. When a fish is taken out of its natural environment its natural desire is to return to water and so was ours," says Melkomian.
Melkomian spent six years studying business management in the UK. It was there that he met his wife Nanik, 57. They married in 1979, the year of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. But against the odds the couple decided to return to Iran.
"It was relatively easier to preserve our national identity in Iran than in the UK," says Melkomian.
The couple's four daughters, now adults, were born in Iran.
Melkomian says his family fully supported his decision to repatriate although he had a good job as director of Iran's largest household and industrial spring-producing plant
The businessman says that for more than a year he stayed without a proper job in Armenia, spending his life's savings in the meanwhile. Then he was involved in transport and tourism business in Armenia until 2003 when he founded Elite Hygiene, now the only producer of feminine hygiene products in Armenia, where 23 people are employed.
"I had no expectations when I came here," says Melkomian. "When Armenia gained independence, as an Armenian I no longer had the reason to stay abroad and that was my choice."
Now Melkomian lives with his large family in a four-room apartment on Yerevan's Amirian street. His daughters all graduated from higher institutes in Armenia, but one of them is now continuing her studies as a veterinarian in Manchester, UK.
"But all of us know that we are strongly connected to our homeland and will hand down this connection to our generations to come," says Melkomian.
The successful businessman calls Armenia a safe place to live and sees a bright future for the country.
"What Armenians need most is the sense and appreciation of collective interest. We need to learn to sacrifice our personal interests in favor of collective ones," says Melkomian when describing what he believes to be his negative impressions of the local ways of life.
But he adds: "Armenians have a fantastic aspiration towards learning."
The businessman pins a lot of hopes on the state, which he distinguishes from any particular government and believes that even the worst state is better than no state at all. "I believe that the situation will get better. It is another matter that it could be improved faster if we managed to find the strength to grapple more effectively with social pessimism, government corruption, etc. innate in our society," he says.
Now the Melkomians are looking into the future and see Armenia as part of the Western civilization.
"Still in ancient times Armenia was the upholder of Greek and Roman values and I see no alternative to European integration for Armenia," Melkomian concludes.
"A common effort . . ."
They are both young and energetic, with a background in business administration, who came to their historical homeland to work and live.
Stepan Panosian, 29, and Sam Samuelian, 28, are from Lebanon. But Stepan was raised and lived for 24 years in Cyprus. They met as students abroad and it seemed right that when both decided to repatriate they should set up a partnership in Armenia.
Sam moved here in 2001, continuing his studies for a MBA at the American University of Armenia. Stepan came here later, in February 2003.
"Man is like a tree. It will grow where you plant it and the sooner you uproot this tree and plant it in a new place, the better it will grow," says Stepan, who met a Hayastantsi girl and got married in Armenia.
"I felt that Lebanon was not my home," adds Sam. "Once I visited Armenia I felt what it is to be an Armenian in the Armenian land."
A year ago they opened their business venture together, Square One, a stylish restaurant that has become hugely popular with Yerevan's young adults.
About 300-400 customers visit Square One every day attracted by its American and European menu, high-quality customer service, music and atmosphere.
Each customer spends about $4.50, say the restaurateurs, adding that hygiene and hospitality is their policy at all times.
Sam and Stepan admit that running a business in Armenia might be difficult at first, as one has to learn new written and unwritten laws, but after some time it gets easier.
"Bureaucracy is time consuming and makes your work less effective," says Stepan. "Besides, people with Soviet-style education are mostly unprepared as a labor force, while representatives of the younger generation seem to be more ready to learn new things and change."
Square One's co-owners say they attracted Lebanese capital to set up their business in Armenia.
"We decided to start with a restaurant, which was a convenient choice of business for us. Unfortunately, our potential investors in Lebanon were at first afraid of investing in an Armenia-based business as the country had a bad name," says Sam. "But as we proved that ours was a successful business investors started changing their attitude."
Now, according to Sam, they want to initiate another project connected with semi-prepared-food products in Armenia.
"There is no easy way of making money in the world. One should examine the business environment well before starting a business in Armenia," says Sam. "Thinking that, well, I am an Armenian and Armenia is my country does not guarantee that this country will accept you with open arms. Business is business and it has its laws."
Stepan and Sam say that from the outset they didn't examine well the local food market and didn't make a correct comparison of local and international food prices and now they have to raise prices in their menu a little to stay competitive in this business.
"Food in Armenia is more expensive than we thought it was," says Stepan, adding that they are particularly pleased to use partly food of local production.
Now Stepan lives in a one-room apartment together with his wife. He says he enjoys the city life and sees the changes happening around: "The state is doing a lot, but people, too, should feel that Yerevan is their home and try to keep it clean."
For Stepan dual citizenship is an awaited change in Armenia's constitution. He says that few Diaspora Armenians would reject their foreign citizenships to become Armenian citizens and that's why this law is needed for people like himself to become Hayastan citizens.
"I'd like to see myself living and working in Armenia, expanding my business, enlarging my family," says Stepan.
Sam, who rents an apartment in central Yerevan and will be joined by his girlfriend from Montreal soon, has the same expectations regarding his citizenship. He is also encouraged by the competition among local banks in regards with mortgage plans, hoping that it will soon help him buy a home in Armenia.
"It's a pity to live abroad, when we have such a great country that simply needs a common effort to be built," says Sam.