BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
It was around 8:30 p.m. when I arrived at “Parev-Doon,” a hostel-type lodging in Yerevan. The aromas of homemade lasagna and pizza filled the air. Zabelle Berberian, the proprietor of the “huranotz” (hostel), was serving dinner to a group of Armenian students from Toronto, Canada, who were staying there.
I was there to meet Yetvart Balian, the principle of the St Sahag & St Mesrob Armenian Saturday School in Toronto. It was easy to spot him among the noisy teenagers. I wanted to talk with Balian to learn about the Armenian community in Toronto and the group of students that he was accompanying.
This is Balian’s second year as principle. The school has been in existence since 1956, and operates under the auspices of the Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic church. It is named after two saints, Sourp Sahak and Sourp Mesrop.
The school has 220 students and operates only on Saturdays, holding classes from nursery school age (three-year-olds) through 8th grade. The curriculum is in Western Armenian, but they hold one class in Eastern Armenian. The school uses the AGBU’s (Armenian General Benevolent Union) school compound for its classrooms.
The main goal of the school is to promote Armenian identity, and preserve heritage and culture. For the last 11 years, it has organized annual tours to Armenia for graduating 8th graders. This year they had 20 graduates, 17 of which participated in the tour.
Andranik Chilingarian, the teacher of graduating class, has accompanied each group of 8th graders since the inception of the tour in 2001. Another teacher/chaperon is Nairi Ghazarian, who herself once was a student at ARS Armenian school.
With 25,000 Armenians, Toronto has a very active Armenian community and a full calendar of cultural events. The ARS (Armenian Relief Society) has a regular day school, with 500 students from preschool to 12th grade. The Armenian Catholic Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator conducts another Saturday school from kindergarten through 8th grade. Unfortunately, this year, AGBU had to close the doors of their school.
The evening I met the group, they had just arrived from visiting Lake Sevan. They had also enjoyed swimming in the lake. The day before they had gotten a kick out of being doused during the water-feast of Vartavar. As I talked to a few of the students, they told me that it was fun when a car stopped and someone from inside of the car doused them with a water-gun. They’ve celebrated the water-feast of Vartavar in Toronto, but not to the extent they experienced in the streets of Yerevan where buckets of water are thrown.
The group arrived July 10 and was scheduled to leave July 25, giving them two weeks in Noah’s Land to marvel about our ancestral past. The first day of the trip was spent visiting the “Dzidzernakabert” (genocide museum), where they were exposed to the dark pages of our history.
I asked Balian which of the places on their tour the students enjoyed most. He said, “Their most favorite and memorable sight was Khor-Virab. They also enjoyed the singing fountains of the Republic Square in Yerevan. They were really charmed by the synchronized movement of the colorful fountains dancing to the songs of Charles Aznavour.”
Being the school’s principal is a volunteer job for Balian. He puts in a tremendous amount of time, and he enjoys it a lot. He says, “it is gratifying to pass the torch to the next generation.”
Balian was born and raised in Bolis (Istanbul). Growing up in Bolis, Balian felt oppression from the Turkish government towards Armenians. His grandfather was from Sebastia, Turkey, and had witnessed the mass deportation of Armenians and the atrocities toward his people, however he never talked about it.
After graduating the Armenian Mkhitarian high school, in 1980 Balian moved from Bolis to Montreal. He is married with two children and has been living in Toronto since 1988.
After talking to Balian I asked Berberian to tell me a little bit about the kids staying at the lodge. “Parev Doon” the lodge has hosted the group of the students for their summer stay. Berberian herself is a Canadian-Armenian and she enjoys having the group, that has stayed there for the last seven years.
She said, usually when the group arrives, at the beginning there are a few kids who are homesick, but by the end everybody is happy to have spent two weeks in Armenia. She thinks it is a great endeavor from the part of the school to bring the kids to Armenia and to connect them with their roots.
She also mentioned that it was this group that seven years ago at their first stay, gave the lodge, the name of “Parev Doon” – “Hello Home.” She and her husband had started the business a few years earlier but they had not finalized a name.
I left Parev Doon with a heart full of joy and wondered about all the efforts that everybody is putting to rebound Armenia.