BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
Let me take you to the Armenian community in Buenos Aires…
Elena Achdjian is the dean of the Armenian language school at Marie Manoogian Cultural Center on Armenia Street in Buenos Aires. I met her on Monday, the day after Christmas.
Before arriving in Buenos Aires, I established a connection with Achdjian via the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) and learned a bit about the center. Elena welcomed me with a big smile.
In 1974, at the age of 13, she was among 17 students that formed the first class of the school. Before that she had attended Arzruni Armenian Primary school in the Flores neighborhood, which is also in Buenos Aires, about a half-hour drive from the city center.
Elena told me that AGBU started its work in Buenos Aires back in 1911, in the Palermo district. At that time the land was very cheap. Now Palermo is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Buenos Aires.
The AGBU Cultural Center that stands today on Armenia Street in Palermo was developed in phases. First, in 1960, the organization purchased a large old house with numerous rooms. It initially served as offices and a social club, and a few rooms were used as a makeshift school to teach children the Armenian language on weekends.
Next, with community donations and the strong support of the Alex Manoogian Foundation, the center transformed into a seven-story building with a total of 118,000 square feet.
Armenian Street in Palermo stretches to fourteen blocks between Cordoba and Santa Fe. It was named Armenia when Vazgen the First, Catholicos of Armenia, visited Argentina in 1984.
In addition to offices and meeting areas, the Center includes a school from primary to upper grades, basketball and volleyball courts, a full catering kitchen where food for students and staff is prepared, and a half- Olympic size swimming pool offering aquatic classes for kids. In the evenings the pool is open to the public use.
In Argentina, Christmas falls during summer, so the day I was visiting there the main school was not in session. Instead, a summer school program for kids from 3-11 years old was running.
I arrived around lunch time. The kids were playing outside in the back. They came inside to have lunch. The younger kids had brought their own lunches, but the kitchen served food to the older kids and the staff.
Elena invited me to have lunch. Together we sat at a table and had delicious rice, cheese-borak and salad prepared by Maria Terzian, who has been the main cook for 20 years.
Most of the summer school students come from non-Armenian families. However, during the regular school year the majority are Armenian kids. The regular school has 370 students, ranging in age from two to 18. The monthly tuition for primary school is the equivalent of $400 and for the higher grades it is $350.
The center has the following groups and committees:
1- A women’s auxiliary committee which overseas different projects within the center.
2- A youth group.
3- Zoravar Andranik Scout group.
4- Young professionals.
5- Committee of mothers (they volunteer for different projects)
6- Sports committee
About thirty years ago, the mothers of the sophomore class started a project to raise funds to send the graduating class of the school for the summer vacation to Armenia.
With the help of a special cook, they began serving dinner on Friday and Saturday nights to the public when the school was in session.
The program has gained tremendous popularity. Each night about 340 people are served dinner. As I was traveling on a bus one day I met a guy who told me that he had come for dinner at the center.
I was curious to know how Elena’s parents came to Buenos Aires. She said her grandparents on her father’s side arrived in 1928 from Beirut, and originally they were from Adana. At the time, her father was just six months old. They settled in Flores, one of the neighborhoods where Armenian refugees congregated.
The same year they arrived, the church in Flores was built. At first the church was made of wooden planks, but in 1945 the structure was rebuilt with stone. Elena told me, “Dad went to a local public school and in the evenings took Armenian language classes at the church.”
Her mother came to Buenos Aires, in 1955, with her family from Aleppo when she was 15. Elena’s parents married in 1960. I asked her if she knew any stories told to her by her grandparents about her family’s Genocide experiences. She said that they never talked about it.
To give you a little insight about Argentina: In the 1900s, Argentina was one of the wealthiest countries in the world. It is no wonder so many Armenians flocked to Argentina at the time. Today, the estimated number of Armenians in Argentina is around 100,000, which includes Armenians in the cities of Cordoba and Buenos Aires.
After I took a few pictures of the building and the kids at summer school I left, but I retuned around 5:30pm to watch how parents pick up their kids. It was a great spectacle. I think around 200 parents swarmed at the door to pick up their kids. Parents gave the names of their children and staff were bringing kids to the door. Most parents had more than one kid. Some families were walking home, some parents carried kids on their bicycles, and a very few had their own car. But everybody seemed very happy, and why shouldn’t they be? Their kids have a great and safe place to be during these summer months in Argentina!