Hovhaness sits across the tiny table from me as he begins his story. His head is shaved clean except for his thick eyebrows over his piercing eyes and long lashes. He is somewhere in his mid forties, solidly built with a calm demeanor with a steady and piercing gaze.
He is a lucky green card lottery winner from Yerevan who moved to Los Angeles three years ago with his wife Sonia and sons Haik and Kevork.
“I didn’t want to come to America,” he says, “but my sister-in-law and my wife collaborated and submitted for the green card.” Sonia wanted a better life for her sons. Having lived through the hardships of the difficult early years of the young republic, she believed her children’s future lay elsewhere.
“Sirelis [my love], America is a 280 year old country. Armenia is only 12 years old and in that time has seen war and hardship. What do you expect? Be patient,” Hovhannes would respond to his wife’s supplications. He describes his good life in Yerevan where he was a driver for Grand Candy, Kevork was a medical student and Haik a swimming champion. When his brother joined the two women to convince Hovhaness to accept their good fortune of winning a green card, Hovhaness was overwhelmed. “’You have no one; we’re already 45 years old. Come here and let’s spend our time together. I’ve already been here 20 years. Come here for your children’s future. Make some money, then you can go backs,’ my brother said. After a while I gave in to the pressure,” Hovhaness says of his decision to finally make the transatlantic move.
“Here I drive a tour bus and work for a limo service.” A Hummer of course. Most of his customers are American, Mexican or Philippino. “They’re very different from us in culture, thought, behavior. They don’t think about tomorrow. They don’t take an interest in their children whether they come home, drink or smoke. But Armenians aren’t like that especially our women,” he says expressing his high regard of Armenian women regardless of their origin. “Armenian is Armenian. Caring for family is in our blood,” he says.
In his position as a limousine driver Hovhaness has had the opportunity to closely observe his ethnic brethren and concluded that here in the U.S. Armenians put too many differences between themselves stressing their identification as Persian or Lebanese. He believes that if we put all that behind us then America would become another Armenia. “A person who has contact with the greater world, reads books, sees plays and meets new people is enlightened enough not to see the differences [between Armenians].”
What truly has shaped Hovhaness as an adult is the time he spent in the military fighting to protect Nagorno-Karabagh, the Armenian enclave that declared its independence from Azerbaijan. He joined the fight in 1989 and stayed until 1994 during which time he was wounded twice in action.
“It was very difficult to be in a war,” he explains where at first he was very homesick and wanted to go home.”I couldn’t take the broken bodies. It’s hard for me. After three days a body has a scent that doesn’t leave your nose,” he says. The experience changed him but knew that he, and others like him, was the only barrier on the 465 kilometers border between the Azerbaijani forces and Yerevan. “The fear and the love of country stayed in me and I became accustomed to the death, the blood, the wounded. You hope that no one else will see what you have seen.”
He’s decided to write a book about his experiences during the war and his observations of man’s capacity to inflict harm and endure the suffering. He will recount stories like when his war buddy was hit by shrapnel, ripped open his abdomen and his intestines fell out but Hovhaness managed to stuff them back inside the body cavity and hold them in until he safely delivered his friend to a medic. Happily the patient is now healthy, alive and living well in Yerevan.
These are difficult memories for anyone to forget. Even though the experiences changed Hovhaness and he now leads his life half way around the world away from where they were created, he yearns to return to his homeland.
“Yesterday I sent my 19 year old son back to Armenia. He couldn’t get used to it here,” he says. Haik wasn’t able to adjust to this country with its social norms and customs so different than the ones with which he grew up. “Life is easier in Armenia,” Hovhaness says “Yes, work is difficult but those who want to work can,” he explains. After three years of living and attending high school in Los Angeles, Haik chose to return to be with his friends in Armenia implement his plan to launch a limousine company.
In contrast, his older son Kevork, 21, has acclimated just fine to his adopted city. He loves the freedom and the choices afforded him here. “He came here, got freedom, started to drive – his uncle gave him a Lexus,” laments Hovhaness with a slight shake of his head. Kevork now works as a cashier and, after some gentle persuasion from his father, is now attending college in the hopes of resuming his medical studies.
Even though there are few family members, his brother in Los Angeles and some distant relatives of Sonia’s in Armenia, Hovhaness is drawn back and plans to return to Armenia sometime in the next two years. “I’ve made an oath to do so but I don’t want to go back empty handed,” he says of the overall purpose of his time in the U.S. – making enough money here to live a comfortable life there but now, with one son back in Armenia and the other firmly staying here, Hovhaness and Sonia must soon make a difficult choice.