Filling the Void, Finding the Hope

Maria Titizian

BY MARIA TITIZIAN

Every city has a particular smell. It penetrates through your pores and settles underneath your skin so you can’t escape it. The smell changes, it occasionally mutates becoming pungent and overwhelming. It changes with absence or with the seasons. If you live in a city long enough you become immune to it although you too have begun to smell like it. You may even unconsciously be revolted by it, so much so that you want to flee without understanding why you need to.

Yerevan has a distinct smell, it always did for me. It has changed however. At first it was a combination of diesel, dust and age. It smelled old and not a pleasant old like Rome or Athens or Barcelona. It was a dirty, damp old like a forgotten box of old clothes left in the corner of a damp basement. Walking down Abovyan Street you would get a hint of it with every unexpected soft breeze. It was far from pleasant but it was the smell of your new life and you embraced it. It even had charm. Thankfully it still does although it has changed.

Not for others, not for those who were conceived and born into it and grew up surrounded by it. They want to escape it, and I understand although I don’t accept it because those who want to leave are the ones who must stay, yet they can’t, not anymore.

Bright, intelligent young Armenians, those who have proven themselves capable and competent, who have been able to cleanse the dusty chambers of the past from their existence, are leaving and it’s not a trickle anymore.

One young man held out his phone and said, “Do you know how many numbers I have in my phone of friends who are no longer here?” Another young man said, “There is nothing left here for me anymore.”

I saw a friend a few days ago, a young woman I admire and love. For me, she represents that generation of educated, ambitious, and highly competent people. She had just returned to Yerevan two days earlier from abroad where she graduated from an Ivy League university. As we embraced after a long absence I looked into her eyes and immediately saw it and I knew. I knew she could no longer stay although she had only just returned.

She now joins the ranks of all those young people who have traveled abroad to further their education, to receive degrees from some of the most prestigious universities in the world and have returned only to feel a void they can’t seem to fill. What I saw in her big beautiful dark Armenian eyes was more than sadness or a void – it was wretchedness and a melancholy that emanated from deep within her soul.

She knew that I knew she was lost. I said, “You’ve only been back a few days. You need time to re-acclimate. We need people with your skills, knowledge…” She said, “Maria jan, who needs someone like me.” I told her I did and we made plans to meet in a few days. But there was so much more I wanted to tell her. I wanted her to know that it is because of people like her that I hang on to hope and believe that we are better than what we have become. It is because of people like her that I see and believe in the impossible.

How can she and others like her contribute to the process of nation-building when they feel the nation can’t sustain them or perhaps doesn’t even want them? Why is the smell of this city no longer pleasant or full of charm? Is it because the world “out there” holds so much more potential and promise?

All of us understand the limitations of Armenia yet we often fail to see the endless possibilities. I acknowledge that it’s easy for me to say these things, I have a Canadian passport in my pocket and I can get up and leave whenever I want. I am constantly reminded of this by those who don’t have that luxury.

But I have seen and experienced transformations that transcend imagination and dreams. The arch of my life has been forever altered because I moved here with my family against what many considered insurmountable odds. I have seen ordinary people set and accomplish goals and realize dreams in an atmosphere that isn’t always conducive to change.

Providing gifted young Armenians the ability to go abroad and advance their education is a noble endeavor, it gives them the opportunity to learn among the best, to acquire a skill set unavailable to them here and allows them to see how the world outside of Armenia functions. However, it will be detrimental to this country’s future if these young people lose their way back to Armenia because that will mean that the best are lost to us. If they cannot find jobs equivalent to their education and experience, if they cannot apply their knowledge, and contribute to the empowerment and betterment of Armenia then their achievements will be honored and valued elsewhere.

If we collectively tried, I am confident that we could imagine or conceive of a program where these people could redefine themselves in Armenia. A Global Armenian Youth Fund could be created to assist these young Armenians who are armed with knowledge, education and experience to play an integral role and impact the process of our country’s development. One such strategy could be to ensure job placement for them upon their return or supplements to their salaries if they work within targeted ministries to help raise the prevailing mediocrity or I would argue, incompetency. I used to believe that such programs had to be sponsored by the state to ensure viability and sustainability. However, more and more I am beginning to believe in the power of people and grassroots organizations, both local and Diaspora, in their ability and commitment to ensure long lasting, practical and feasible programs in the absence or ability of the state to do so.

I don’t have all the answers and I don’t have the right to tell someone to come back to a place they might believe holds no promise for them. I do believe in the power of hope and faith but these things alone are not a plan. We need to collectively pool our resources and formulate a program to ensure that the brain drain stops; we need to see these young people re-integrate and bring their talents and vision to everything from state structures to the private sector to education and development.

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7 Comments

  1. Haytoug Chamlian said:

    Quo Vadis… ?

    The latest fashionable trend , in the odd Armenian world – Village of Asterixian, fragmented and spread around the entire planet -, is to open wide your mouth and your terrified eyes, and to hit your knees with your palms, crying that Armenia is being emptied from its population, because of massive emigration.

    The paradox, in this industry of lamentations, is that it is riding on some Grand Ideas and Big Principles which could easily compete with Sassountsi Tavit’s Kourkig Tchalali, but at the same time, it pretends to be situated on the most realistic, clear-headed, close-to-the-people level. The contradiction is that, for those pathological weepers or professional cry-babies, said Ideas and Principles should especially exclude any notion of patriotism, thus considering that the latter is not only obsolete, old-fashioned and laughable, but downright irrelevant.

    In this false debate, this abstract – and intellectually fratricide – extreme fighting, for which the Armenians hold the secret recipe (just like the one for the magic potion), what is missing is a serene analysis, based on modern and contemporary, historic realities, on irrefutable facts.

    Lebanon, 1975 to 1986. An endless, infernal civil war. In the absence of an independent Armenia at that time, the Armenian community of that country – which had actually ceased to be one – decided, resolutely, to stay.

    Can anyone really pretend that the conditions in which the majority (in fact, the quasi-totality ) of the Armenians of Lebanon were living during that period, were better than those of the Armenians of Armenia, today… ? No work, no school, shortage of everything – often including even bread -, lack of water, gas and electricity, continuous shooting and bombings, kidnapping, torture, rape, confiscation of belongings, invasion of properties, looting, a totally dark and clogged future… They stayed. The largest majority put up with it, endured, and knowingly decided that they shall not leave, they shall not run away, they shall not abandon.

    Why? Because they assessed that the survival and the future of the nation dictated it. Considering the particular specificity of that community during that era, this was actually true, on several levels.

    Even today, the same phenomenon is happening with Syria. The logic is less true, since there is Armenia now. But it is the same idea, the same principle, the same profound conviction. Somewhere between stoicism and patriotism. When the sense of collective interest supersedes obtuse individualism. Despite horrifying conditions, ultimate and daily risks and dangers, many are hanging on, and are determined to stay. Even if that means losing their lives.

    By studying the subject of emigration from Armenia from this point of view, in the name of all those who, in every sense of the word, sacrificed their lives in the Diaspora, for the love of the nation, and also on behalf of all those who have chosen to renounce a substantial portion of their tranquility, their comfort, their pleasures, their personal affairs, their business, their career, their leisure and their financial success, in foreign countries where they can very well relax, enjoy their lives and prosper, without worrying about anything else, and instead, have dedicated and devoted themselves to the painful and laborious emergence of the Motherland, we are entitled to say to some of our compatriots of Armenia: enough with the whining already. Love her, or leave her.

    Haytoug Chamlian, Montreal

  2. Dave said:

    Well formulated.

    I would like to add only that lack of job opportunities is not a main reason of immigration. Main reason is sense of injustice and fear. Too many people like oligarchs, their relatives, senators, their bodyguards etc etc that fill that can do anything and everything and a part of young people like described in this article that feel completely helpless to defend themselves.

  3. Antoine S. Terjanian said:

    Ապրիս Մարիա
    This is what I call a well thought positive article about our Hayrenik together with concrete proposals.
    Yes, while sustainability via government endorsement can be ensured for a while, I also worry about arterio-sclerosis. I have recently met a group of dynamic people working on something similar to what you propose (see http://www.luysfoundation.org/index). I was impressed that they claimed to have a very low overhead and all their funds went directly to supporting education and ensuring that those going to study abroad keep in touch with local students and mentor them.

  4. Stepan said:

    This article addresses the core issues in Armenia….. Employment, young generation and hope( or lack thereof). Surely a complex problem to solve. We can build the infrastructure, better the environment and thus create opportunities, but this process is slow and time allows the brain drain to continue.
    It does bring to light the relationship and role of the diaspora. It is frustrating and arrogant for us in the diaspora to say ,” you stay and struggle ” while we enjoy our lives in relative ease. Our biggest problem is the guilt we may feel or a sincere emptiness. Maria’s article offers an alternative that the diaspora could rally around….use our most available asset… Our wealth…..to find ways to,accelerate the employment process for our emerging generation. Good things are being done… There are countless examples of wonderful investment by Armenians that have resulted in sustainable employment., but we need to,take it to another level. It,would require a higher level,of coordination and unity of thought. But it does address the core issue.
    Don’t our brethren deserve the same opportunity to experience their lives as we do… To have hope, to provide for their families and to fulfill their dreams?

  5. Levon said:

    We are failing to address the core issue: why should an individual sacrifice his or his family’s individual potential and prosperity for the sake of nation or nation-building, especially when everyone else is not doing it? This is relevant in both Armenia and in the Diaspora.

    Until we can answer this question honestly and convincingly, everything else is secondary. Even within the segments of our community that on the surface-level appear to be committed to nation first and individual second, closer examination reveals that individual motives often drive involvement and so-called activism. Even if those individual motives are purely “feel good” motives.

    I would argue that we should not expect any person to have to sacrifice himself for the abstract notion of nation. Rather, we need to find ways to make individual prosperity and collective prosperity (in this case the prosperity of the nation) work in tandem and leverage each other.

  6. German_in_Yerevan said:

    I personally know at least a dozen under 26’s that left Armenia in the last 4 years (and I only spend 6 months a year here and don’t mingle that much). It is sad and lamentable that such a beautiful country with so much potential is being slowly but surely depopulated.

    Unlike Maria though, I refuse to lay the blame squarely at the Government’s door let alone attribute the brain drain to some overwhelming “system” that (in Maria’s mind) supposedly produces fear and intimidation to the point that the younger generation feels it is unable to cope and so leaves.

    I have learned that there is a nomadic component to the Armenian soul that transcends and overrules any contemporary circumstance or hardship just as it would completely be oblivious to positive situations. Even if everything was hunky dory (which I don’t claim is the case either), I am pretty sure those young people would get on the first plane out to chase a mirage or try to locate El Dorado so that the gold digging may begin.

    I often hear mothers boast about their sons and daughters “successfully working in Russia/US”, “soon to get a Russian/US Passport” and/or are “hopeful to receive an immigration visa to Sweden and working on it”. I see not a hint of shame in these mother’s eyes. To them success vs. failure translates to only one “bottom line” – that is how much $$$ their children get at the end of the month and that they can pick up their share from the transfer their children make from time to time.

    When I pose the question of whether these young, talented people plan to return to Armenia once they make some hard cash and/or do they plan to pool family and friends resources together in order to open a future business in Armenia I often get a blank look. If I push harder I get a flood of excuses to ‘enlighten’ a foreign idiot like myself on how futile and naive my proposals are. But I know I am not an idiot nor am I naive.

    I am a frequent visitor to the Republic of Georgia and have seen that country transform itself from the economic and geopolitical lows of August 2008 (following the foolish attack on Ossetia by then President Saakashvili) to the confident and forward looking country it is fast becoming. I am yet to feel the same energy and dynamism in Armenia and yes, the President was right in saying that cynicism is part of the problem. I would go further and say it is a huge part of the problem.

    I consider myself an economic refugee. I ran away from the high taxation and hopelessly wasteful and bureaucratic EU to Armenia. I can assure you that despite the problems posed by the oligarchic elite, Armenia is still a much easier place to conduct business than most countries. Ambitious people can get much higher returns and truly professional people (by professional I don’t mean the people who commonly purchase their diplomas from the lower end colleges in Yerevan or graduate from silly language schools unable to speak a single coherent sentence in a language they supposedly studied 4 years!) can find their niche as do skilled foreigners who come here by the thousands every year.

    The truth is Dear Maria that Armenians are yet to develop a true sense of patriotism and Nationhood and are more often than not pursuing narrow, selfish aims with little sense of common responsibility. Hence, the near complete reliance on foreign powers and the constant meddling with the (self defeating and counter productive) ‘mightily influential’ diaspora that will always come to ‘save the day’ (if the occasion rises). I admire you for having returned to your ancestral homeland but I doubt you have left your diaspora mentality behind. The latter has found a self defining identity and a religion in one. That is (in a nutshell) a sense of victimization and an obsession with attempting to find someone to blame for one’s own faults and shortcomings.

    The truth is that graduates from top schools such as your disenchanted friend that graduated from an Ivy league university is not always the recipe to success and growth. The hordes of over qualified educated people in bankrupt Cyprus, Spain, Egypt and Venezuela will attest to this reality.

    In my humble opinion your talent for writing would be much better utilized by exposing the shortcoming of the average man on the street and the inept inability of ‘Araik Average’ and ‘Hasmik Average’ to reconcile themselves to the fact that much difference can be made by every single citizen’s choices (and I don’t mean only the choice made in the ballot box!).

    If the diaspora is serious about the growth of this country it should create a global fund that awards mothers with a monthly income for having babies and that with every extra baby a citizen mother has the monthly ‘wage’ goes up, i.e: $50/month for the first baby, $200/month for two babies, $500/month for three babies… This will be much more fruitful than providing free money to fresh graduates from upper middle class families that can afford to send their children to study abroad…

    Though I am not a citizen, I too have done my share by helping an underprivileged family marry their daughter off locally (now they have a baby boy), with donations directly to children at the orphanage, youth church activities and provide employment to people who would typically be at the mercy of the “generosity” of ‘Araik Average’ (‘Araik’ is typically not even an oligarch but often just as stingy, or worst…nuff said!)…

    Last but not least I don’t refrain from expressing my heartfelt views that it is the lack of maturity and reluctance to translate patriotism into actions of the ‘Average Araik’ that is keeping this potential cheetah of a country from sprinting ahead. And you may be surprised to know that the younger generation is listening and often agrees with me. They are citizens of the world and are no less fond of Armenia than I am and they have healthy instincts. They know minds and hearts must change and change soon because Armenia can not survive, let alone thrive with the kind of ‘black cloud’ mindset that you constantly indulge in drilling through your writing.

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