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20.3.14

Reflections on "Depat" Armenians


Nareg Seferian

I am a member of the Facebook group that the Repat Armenia Foundation maintains. I am, in fact, a fan of that organization, which provides assistance to Armenians who wish to move to the Homeland, whether in terms of technical or legal information, employment, or some guidance on housing. It’s the sort of function that one would have wished the state to perform, that one might have expected the Ministry of the Diaspora to take on, via Armenian embassies or otherwise. To be fair, we are talking about a big deal, highly resource-heavy in realization, and also ideologically and philosophically heavy in its own right.
The issue of moving to Armenia has been in focus in recent years, even celebrated, both because of the alarming numbers of emigrants from Armenia, and also because of the influx of . The latter group has indeed been given some support both by the state and otherwise, but a significant part has moved on to a third country, or has returned to Syria.
The group on Facebook often discusses the sensitive issue of Armenia-diaspora relations, how the Republic and the Homeland may or may not be the same thing for all Armenians all the time, and, regardless of any such possible nuances, how we face the imperative of populating and working towards prosperity in Armenia and Artsakh (Karabagh). I am sure the reader can imagine the back-and-forth on these fronts.
I often find myself caught in the middle. On the one hand, I did make the conscious decision to live and work in Armenia, including taking on citizenship. On the other hand, I likewise consciously waited to take on that citizenship until I was too old to be carted off by the army. What I mean to say is that I do indeed wish to be a part of Armenia in a meaningful way, but there are practical considerations and day-to-day matters to take into consideration as well. I have felt for some time that moving to Armenia is like moving to any other country, with all the technical issues that entails, only with the additional motivation of national sentiments. But without any extreme, exclusive nationalism. At least in my case. I cannot speak for all the repats.
That term, I feel, is a little inaccurate. A “repat” or “repatriate” is one who returns to a homeland, a patria. My ancestral homeland is not Yerevan. There are a few cities and countries on the historical way back to Marash, in my case.
And yet, I wish for the Republic of Armenia to become the Homeland, don’t I? I suppose one should be glad to be referred to as a “repat” in that sense; it is a welcoming word. “Neopat” might be another option; both the patria and the “patriate” are new, after all, in many respects.
But what of former repats, those diasporans who made it over but somehow made their way back? I thought of a few acquaintances myself—“depats,” I’ve decided to call them (this word is apparently a versatile one)—each with a different story, and they did me the service of responding to my highly unscientific survey via e-mail. I asked them why they moved to Armenia in the first place, and then why they left. I asked them about their ties to Armenia today, and whether or not they would ever consider living there again—and what that would take.
“I wanted my two children to spend at least a part of their childhood living outside the United States,” Vincent said. “That would give them—and has given them—a more global outlook on life. My preference was to raise them, at least for a few years, in Armenia because it would establish and give substance to their Armenian identity, strengthen their Armenian language skills, give them a circle of Armenian and international friends and relatives.”
“I originally went to Armenia just after I finished my bachelor’s degree,” Dave responded, “as I was looking for something different to do. I didn’t want to start graduate school right away and couldn’t find a job that held my interest, so I signed up to volunteer for one year. However, I do not consider that my ‘move’ to Armenia. That was my ‘volunteering’ in Armenia. My move came after I completed my volunteer work and decided to stay. I made some great friends, enjoyed the life style, and wanted to stick around. I was also able to find a job that allowed me to transition from ‘volunteering’ to ‘working,’ which made the whole thing possible.”
Needless to say, the job situation was an essential element. And, in fact, changes in the job situation and family ties contributed to both Vincent and Dave heading back to the U.S. Neither of them considers their ties to Armenia cut off in the least, as friends, relatives, and visits attest. Whether or not they could ever move to Armenia again was a little difficult to clearly state, for different reasons, but both Vincent and Dave certainly wish they could spend more time in the country more regularly.
The third person who responded—Talin, originally from Canada—echoed the love of the lifestyle in Yerevan. But her pedigree stretches a bit farther back: “After my third trip I stopped counting. Instead, I decided that a couple of months in the summer were not enough, so I got a job teaching in Yerevan. Those years in Armenia were difficult; the winters were hard and like everyone else I survived without heat or running water for days, sometimes weeks. But the people, their will to survive and their generosity, more than compensated for all the necessities which we all lacked.”
Family and job security played a role in Talin heading back, too. But as I found when I e-mailed her, she is in fact returning to Armenia very soon, to stay. “My quality of life is better in Armenia. Intellectually, socially, and even physically! It is as simple as that. There seems to be more job opportunities as well. The one thing that has always been consistent in my life has been the fact that I love being in Armenia.”
I figure that Talin will consider herself a “rerepat” or maybe a “repeat” (I am just having fun with the word at this point).
As for me, nothing is dissuading me from wanting to live and work in Yerevan. But would I turn down a good job offer, a chance to gain experience (and, sure, more money), to broaden my horizons in another country? I deeply cherish the education I received abroad and feel that I am a better citizen of the Republic of Armenia for it. Returning to Armenia later still with even more experience to offer would sound enticing, but who would be in a position to guarantee that I would return at all, even with the best intentions? What if I fell in love with someone from Somalia tomorrow? On the other hand, I could get married to someone from Gyumri or Meghri, and settled down in Dilijan. Who’s to say?
Questions more to the point: How do I convince myself and those around me that things will get more stable in terms of the economy, politics and society, and human rights in Armenia? How do I convince the hundreds of thousands of Armenians who have left already? These are the more pressing issues that are at times secondary for members of an Armenian Diaspora community, as opposed to Armenian citizens of an Armenian state.
My three friends above had good experiences in the country, but surely a number of diasporans leave Armenia in a huff after facing those difficulties mentioned above, and some decide to just give up, or perhaps take a break.
I still maintain that moving to Armenia is not a romantic step to take, nor an achievement, but a serious calculation to be made, and that anybody who thinks and acts otherwise is being naïve. But I am sometimes myself made to wonder whether my own ideals and consequent efforts in Yerevan amount to anything at all. The only conclusion I can draw for myself, for now, is to try and trust that they will be worthwhile in a larger context. And to invite others to do the same.

"The Armenian Weekly," March 19, 2014

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