Historian Hovann Simonian, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern California, has written a thought-provoking article in the July 26 issue of Hetq Online (http://www.hetq.am/), the publication of the Investigative Journalists of Armenia. Simonian argues that the fashionable topic of Turkified, Kurdified, and Islamicized Armenians deals around a few thousand people who may want or may not want to reintegrate into the fold of the Armenian nation. Meantime, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people are on the verge of being lost, because of both diasporan processes and exodus from Armenia over the past two decades. The core of the Armenian is on danger (the demographic decline of Armenia, including Mountainous Gharabagh, is a case in point), while we play around third- or fourth-generation citizens of Turkey, for instance, who have started to realize that they have some kind of Armenian ancestry forcefully imposed on their identity after 1915. The challenge needs strategic thought at the level of leadership. Some passages from Simonian's essay are excerpted below:
. . . The same last two decades have also witnessed two further interrelated developments threatening the future of the Armenian people, the decline of Diaspora institutions and the acceleration of assimilation trends within Diaspora communities.
In particular, the financial crisis which hit the Venice branch of the Armenian Catholic Mekhitarist Congregation took place a few years earlier, in 1984, and hence could be considered some sort of prelude to the decline of Diaspora institutions that would take place in the following years.
. . . Ill-advised and cheated by a group of dishonest Italian financiers – the same involved in the Banco Ambrosiano scandal that affected the Vatican – to whom they had entrusted the management of their entire assets, the Venice Mekhitarists were almost completely ruined and only saved from bankruptcy by the Vatican.
They never recovered from the crisis. In the ensuing years, the Venice Mekhitarists were forced to close down some of the oldest and most prestigious schools they operated, such as the Collegio Armeno Moorat Raphael in Venice, originally established in 1836, and the Collège Arménien Samuel Moorat in Sèvres, near Paris, founded in 1846.
Both Mekhitarist branches also put an end to their printing and publication activities, limiting the latter to their flagstaff scholarly journals, Pazmaveb in Venice and Handes Amsorya in Vienna, both now published with great effort as single yearly volumes instead of the multiple, either monthly or quarterly, issues of years gone by.
. . . The financial troubles of the Mekhitarists were not entirely to blame for the closing of their schools. Some of the problems of these schools were linked to political upheavals in the Middle East and ensuing demographic trends affecting Armenian communities there.
Thus, the Mekhitarist school in Venice suffered during the 1980s from the inability of the parents of Iranian-Armenian students to pay the tuition of their children as money transfers outside Iran were forbidden by the country’s authorities.
More generally, the Mekhitarist boarding schools in Venice and Paris, as well as the Melkonian Educational Institute in Cyprus, suffered from the exodus affecting Armenian communities in the Middle East from the mid-1970s on as a result of the Lebanese Civil War, the Iranian Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War and political instability in Turkey, as it is these Middle-Eastern communities which supplied much of the student body of the Mekhitarist schools in Europe.
At the beginning of this out-migration, though, assessments about its effects were mixed. There was obviously lament on the weakening of communities such as those in Lebanon or Iran, which had been strongholds of Armenian identity, but this regret was mitigated by the regeneration of Armenian communities in North America and Western Europe thanks to the new blood brought in by Middle Eastern Armenians.
. . . The trump card of Armenians migrating from the Middle East in their endeavors to transmit Armenian identity to the younger generation growing up in North America or Australia was the opening of Armenian day schools.
The movement to open Armenian day schools in North America had started in the 1960s – with the first school opening in 1964 in the Encino suburb of Los Angeles – but it was in the 1970s that it gained momentum in North America, more particularly in the Los Angeles and Montreal areas with their high concentration of Armenian immigrants from Lebanon, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jerusalem and Syria. As a result of this effort, around a dozen schools had opened in the Los Angeles area by the mid-1980s, Toronto, Montreal, Boston and New York/New Jersey counted two to three schools each by the same period, and Philadelphia, Detroit, Fresno, San Francisco and Orange County counted one school each.
By the time the movement to open Armenian day schools came to a gradual halt, around the mid-1980s, however, the total enrollment of Armenian days schools in the United States was around six thousand pupils.
. . . In Los Angeles, at least sixty thousand Armenian students were enrolled in American public schools – to which should be added an unknown number in private American schools – ten times more than children attending Armenian schools all over the United States.
. . . Yet, the effort should not be dismissed or underestimated, for it was a valiant one. The mere existence of Armenian schools in North America was no small victory, achieved in spite of overwhelming odds, and the belief, held by many in the American-Armenian community, that Armenian day schools could not and should not operate in the United States.
. . . Two factors can be mentioned to explain the halt in the growth of Armenian day schools in the United States.
The first was the economic downturn that affected California and the United States during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Many families could not afford to pay school tuition anymore, and raising donations for new schools or for expanding existing ones became much more difficult.
The second, more determinant, and longer-lasting factor, was the precipitous set of events affecting Armenia from 1988 on. The struggle for the reunification of the province of Karabagh (Artsakh) with Armenia, which came to the limelight in February 1988, brought the homeland to the attention of the Diaspora.
However, it is the devastating earthquake that shook northern Armenia on December 7, 1988, which most affected the course taken by the Diaspora, its priorities and the allocation of Diaspora resources.
. . . Busy with Armenia and its troubles, the Diaspora has mostly neglected itself during the two decades following Armenia’s independence in 1991.
. . . The situation of the Armenian community in Lebanon as it emerged at the end of the civil war in that country in 1990 constituted a striking example of overlooked and unaddressed problems.
Considered the heart of the Armenian Diaspora with its dense network of churches, schools, clubs, papers, printing houses, publishers and cultural associations, the Armenian community in Lebanon suffered extensively from the civil war that took place there between 1975 and 1990.
A greater part of this community left the country during the War, and emigration continued in the following decades mainly because of the country’s poor economic conditions, under which it was particularly difficult for young people to find employment there.
The conditions produced by the Lebanese Civil War generated new social dynamics that allowed assimilation trends to make inroads into a community which until then had appeared immune to them.
The reduction in numbers meant that it became increasingly hard for young Armenians to find their spouse within their own community.
Mixed marriages were also facilitated by the increased number of links and greater solidarity which developed between Armenians and the other Christians communities of the country, as all found themselves living together in the “Christian Heartland” located to the north and east of Beirut and sharing many of the same social and political concerns.
As a result, mixed marriages skyrocketed during the War and afterwards, passing from a mere 10 percent to over half of all marriages. Most of the children born out of these mixed marriages were not sent to Armenian schools and were not taught the Armenian language at home.
It is only when these children came of age, during the 2000s, that the realization set in that a new generation of Lebanese-Armenians unable to speak the language of their ancestors had appeared, a development unprecedented in the history of the post-Genocide Armenian community of Lebanon.
Thus, according to one study, some 25 percent of students at the American University of Beirut (AUB) with an Armenian last name do not speak Armenian.
However, it is not only children born to mixed marriages who are not being enrolled at Armenian schools in Lebanon.
Armenian schools did not emerge unscathed from the Civil War, having lost much of their student body to emigration and suffered severe financial strains.
. . . It was only in 2006, in the aftermath of the conflict between Israel and the Hezbollah, that Lebanese Armenian schools received a donation from the Lincy Foundation.
. . . Within the former Soviet Union, the Armenian community of Abkhazia, because of the multi-ethnic nature of the population of that province – a mix of Abkhazians, Georgians, Armenians, Russians and other minority groups – enjoyed a privileged status. It retained cultural rights, in particular schools, that were denied other Armenian communities, such as the ones of Baku or Tbilisi; the latter saw their Armenian schools closed down during the 1940s and 1950s. Abkhazia Armenians, as well as those of the neighboring Russian region of Sochi, were mostly composed of Armenians originally from the Black Sea Coast region of Turkey, and hence also had the specificity of speaking a Western Armenian dialect, that of Hamshen.
As in Lebanon, the conflict between Abkhazians and Georgians which devastated Abkhazia during the early 1990s left its mark on the Armenian community here as well. Half of the latter left Abkhazia, mostly for neighboring Russia.
And as in Lebanon, Armenian schools paid a heavy price to the conflict and to the social and political changes it generated. Not only did schools lose the students who left the country, but an increasing number of parents chose to give their children a Russian education rather than an Armenian one, knowing that the future of their children might well lie in Russia given the poor economic condition of Abkhazia and the uncertainty about its future.
The choice of Russian schools over Armenian ones also says a lot about the opinion of Abkhazia Armenians regarding Armenia’s future prospects and any desire, or absence thereof, to resettle there one day.
What is unfortunate is that no help – with the one-time exception of the support by the Lincy Foundation to schools in Lebanon in 2006 – came from North America or Europe based Armenian associations or wealthy individual donors to the rescue of troubled Armenian institutions in Lebanon, Abkhazia and elsewhere in the Diaspora.
Yet, with a relatively modest effort, the vicious cycles which had been set in motion in various Diaspora communities might have been broken and the decline of these communities stopped before points of no return were reached.
. . . It is not only in countries torn by war and affected by large-scale migration that developments worrisome for the future of Armenian Diasporia communities are occurring. In the United States, whatever was achieved with considerable effort from the 1960s to the late 1980s now appears to be in jeopardy.
The early signs of decline started to appear around half a decade ago and were limited during that initial period to a few Armenian day schools; during the past couple years the decline has extended to include almost all of these schools.
For over two years now Armenian educational institutions in North America have been suffering from a significant drop in the number of students, from budgetary crisis, and from a more general, existential malaise.
The economic crisis of 2008 only helped to bring this latent crisis to the surface. Families with modest income are wondering whether they should continue tightening their belts to send their children to Armenian schools, while wealthier ones are choosing expensive private American schools, which they hope may open the doors of Ivy League universities to their children.
The truth is that a large number of immigrant Armenian families chose to enroll their children in Armenian schools not so much out of the wish to maintain their children’s sense of Armenian heritage as out of the desire to provide them with a safe environment.
Once they became more familiar with the country they had settled in, their self-confidence increased, and they realized that not all American schools were a hotbed of crime and drugs, these families started considering the other options available to them based on their means and needs.\
Yet the biggest failure is one of leadership, as people in charge of Armenian educational institutions failed to anticipate these problems and look for solutions to them, preferring instead to turn a blind eye.
An element of the Armenian Diaspora leadership does not appear to mind the decline of Armenian schools or even rejoices in it. The Armenian General Benevolent Union is as a case in point. It first shut down the small school it owned in the Boston area. Then, in what became a shattering symbol of the Diaspora’s decline, it decided to close down the Melkonian Educational Institute in 2005.
Much has been written about the closing down of Melkonian by its parent organization, so it is not necessary to return to it. The AGBU also apparently intends to close down its school in Athens but has been prevented so far from doing so by the local Armenian community, and it wants to reduce classes in the school it operates in Toronto. To its credit, and perhaps to compensate for the criticism it generated throughout the Diaspora by closing down Melkonian, the AGBU opened a new school in Pasadena, a suburb of California. One factor which was neglected in the discussion over the closing of Melkonian, however, was that the Cypriot-Armenians who criticized the AGBU were not entirely blameless, as an increasing number of them had been sending their children to non-Armenian – generally British – schools rather than to Melkonian.
It appears now that Diaspora communities in Northern America and Western Europe are headed in the same assimilation-bound direction as they were over thirty ago, prior to the great influx from the Middle East.
The pattern is clearly more apparent in smaller communities, such as Geneva or London, yet it is visible everywhere. Mixed marriages are the rule rather than the exception, whether in the East Coast of the United States or in France.
A majority of children born in Northern America or Western Europe to parents who migrated from the Middle East speak Armenian poorly if at all.
Everywhere, it is only a modest fraction of the estimated numbers of Armenians which maintains any kind of Armenian-related activity, such as attending an Armenian church, belonging to an Armenian association or subscribing to an Armenian paper. A vast majority of the people of Armenian background or heritage have simply no links to or interest in anything Armenian.
In the middle of this bleak picture, might some solace be found in believing that the massive migration out of Armenia over the past two decades would reinforce the Diaspora communities of the receiving countries and hence delay the assimilation of these communities?
. . . The gap in mentality between Homeland and Diaspora Armenians often prevents or makes difficult interaction between the two groups.
Yet more problematic is the overarching concern of Armenian emigrants to integrate as quickly as possible in the countries they move to, often at the expense of their own Armenian identity and that of their children.
This concern remains very high for the few parents who choose to send their children to Armenian schools.
Thus, a teacher at an Armenian school in the Los Angeles region narrated how she is often confronted by mothers of her students, who come to protest when they perceive their children are assigned what they consider to be too much Armenian homework. “Armenian is not important” is a sentence she claimed to have heard regularly from the mouths of these mothers.
In their hurry to integrate, immigrants from Armenia appear to have decided to shed the Armenian language and culture in twenty or thirty years, the space of one generation, while it took the post-Genocide Diaspora in Western countries some eighty years to reach that stage, not to mention medieval Armenian migrants to Poland, who preserved their identity for hundreds of years before succumbing to assimilation.
In some cases, Armenians emigrants remain hostage to the means they adopted in their desperation to leave Armenia. Thus, some 20,000 Armenians, claiming to have Pontic Greek ancestry, were able to take advantage of the Greek government’s repatriation program offered to Pontic Greeks inhabiting the former Soviet Union. Most of these Armenians, however, were of only partial Greek ancestry, having at most one Greek grandparent or great-grandparent, or had no Greek ancestry whatsoever. Settled by Greek authorities in northern Greece, they prefer to avoid any association with Armenians, worried that such association may betray their lack of Greek credentials.
A similar story took place with the few thousand Armenians moving to Israel after having “rediscovered” Jewish origins, and who generally tend to avoid contacts with Armenians, fearing their lack of authentic Jewishness may be betrayed by such contacts. One can only imagine how thoroughly assimilated the next generation of these Armenian migrants in Greece and Israel will become.
A 2006 article in Transition Online revealed that in the Krasnodar region of southern Russia, where hundreds of thousands of Armenians from Azerbaijan, Armenia and elsewhere in the Caucasus have settled, it is prevalent racism that is pushing many of these Armenians to exchange their Armenian family names for Russian ones. However, racism is not the only cause of the change in family name. Individuals who were born in Krasnodar or who migrated there at a young age consider the Kuban their homeland and do not feel a similar connection with Armenia. The fifteen or twenty years since their parents moved to the Kuban may be a short period in absolute terms, but to these individuals, this period represents their entire lives. According to the head of a local Armenian association, there may be a more general problem with Armenians settled in the region, who “do not care about their culture, language, or history.”
At the beginning of this article, the decline of the Mekhitarist Congregation, the interruption of its publishing activities, and the closing down of its once prestigious schools were mentioned as a symbolic starting point for the decline of Armenian Diaspora communities. Perhaps, then, the shutting down of another prestigious Armenian institution, the daily paper Haratch from Paris, should be mentioned as part of the conclusion of this article. While ten years ago, in 2000, the paper still had a readership of around 3,000 subscribers, this readership was down to 700 by the time it published its last issue in 2009, which says a lot about the decline of the Armenian language in France. Equally telling of the decline of the Western Armenian language in the Diaspora is the recent classification by UNESCO of Western Armenian as a “definitely endangered” language.
. . . With two million inhabitants, Armenia now is a dwarf among nations, while the Diaspora as we know it will be gone in one generation.
Under these tragic circumstances, the recent frenzy over Turkified and Kurdified Armenians is hard to understand. It is not very clear why Armenians worry about re-armenianizing Armenians Turkified over a hundred years ago when Armenians who lived until very recently in Armenia are shedding their names and identity right before our eyes in the Kuban, northern Greece and Israel to pose as Russians, Pontic Greeks or Israelis.
Rather than naivety or poor judgment, the discussion on Turkified and Kurdified Armenians might be a most telling sign of despair. Armenians hoping to see Turkified Armenians return to the fold of Armenianness may not be oblivious to the condition of the Armenian home.
They are perhaps aware of it, and in their despair, hope that these Turkified Armenians will save the Armenian home by moving back into it.