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The Armenian diaspora we don’t know

The Armenian diaspora we don’t know

Approximately 90,000 Armenians migrated from a number of other countries to Armenia during what we could call a “second wave,” between 1946 and 1948.

What happened during this great wave, the way Armenia treated these people, the failure for many years to consider them as equals of the local Armenians, discriminating against them and mistreating them, have been major factors in the relations between the diaspora and Armenia. Subsequent to the independence of Armenia, “openings” were initiated for the diaspora. In 1988, a specialized unit for relations with the diaspora was established at the Foreign Ministry; the Committee on Relations with the Diaspora, founded in April 2008, was renamed the Diaspora Ministry in October 2008. Before analyzing the diaspora policy of Armenia and the institutions and projects devised to implement this policy, for a better understanding of the subject matter and of the meaning of Armenia for the diaspora, it is necessary to understand the initial contact between the diaspora and the homeland, how the diaspora Armenians were treated and the relevant phases; only this perspective would help us understand the diaspora better.

Re-emerging dream for homeland

People who were once expelled from their homes, whose families were shattered and their assets gone, became hopeful again that they could go back to their homeland. The Armenians, dispersed all around the world, were influenced by the Soviet propaganda and took a journey to the unknown, changing everything in the countries where they were settled; they were convinced that in their new home, they would have great opportunities for housing, employment and social benefits. With the exception of the newspapers and magazines affiliated with the Dashnak Party, almost the entire media of the Armenian diaspora did their best to call the Armenians back to their homeland; conferences were held to accelerate the process. Back then, the most popular discussion among Armenians was migration to Armenia. Disapproving of the migration was treated as treason within the Armenian community.

But even before arrival in Soviet Armenia, the migrants realized that something was wrong with this dream. Upon the arrival of the ships and trains carrying the Armenians to Baku, Batumi and other border cities, they were asked whether they had previously served in the military or had ties with a political party (particularly the Dashnak Party), and what sort of publications they had with them. The Armenians who did not understand the point of this practice were hoping that things would change once they arrived at their homes, but this did not happen. Life was not as depicted by the Soviet diplomats. There was a shortage in stores of bread after the war; food scarcity was a big problem. There were no clothing stores or chocolate stores in Armenia like the Armenians were used to in their previous homes. There were also limited housing opportunities; with few exceptions, no one was given a house. The people were given empty lands and told to build their own houses. Some loans were provided; however, it was impossible for the newly arrived Armenians to create a new homeland. The promises of employment also failed. The immigrants had to do something to make a living.

Diaspora fooled

They were fooled. It did not take long for them to realize this. A few of them remained calm vis-à-vis what had happened; they were aware that it was a post-war period and for this reason, they would do their best to contribute to their country. But they changed their minds after they realized they were being treated as second-class citizens; when they noticed that no matter what they did, they would remain apart from the locals and suspect in their eyes, a visible schism emerged between the diaspora Armenians and Armenia. The nationalist Armenians were flagged as anti-regime and opponents of the system, and were exiled to Siberia; in addition, the Armenians who were members of the Communist Party in their previous countries were not treated as true communists in Armenia. The newcomers were treated as newly admitted members to the party. According to the Soviets, it was not wise to trust the party members coming from capitalist countries; however, the primary reason these people migrated to Soviet Armenia was to live under the type of government they had been fighting for in their previous states for many years.

Alexan Kirakosyan, who had held top positions in Soviet Armenia, including deputy prime minister, also served as the head of the “migration and issues department” for many years; for this reason, he was someone who best knew what the Armenians from abroad had to deal with. In his book, “Before Sunset,” which he refers to as a memoir, painful as it was to write, he says: “These people had dexterity; they were great masters, and for this reason, they became famous within a short period of time. The Armenian people learned a lot from them in terms of craftsmanship. We failed to settle them, and we failed to ensure that they blended in with the local people; they were excluded. They built their own houses in the empty lands they were given, and they named these places after the homelands they had lost: Arapgir, Zeytun, Maraş… Once, I had a letter penned by one of these people; his son, a student in high school, participated in a school trip to a factory. His son was told that he could not be admitted into the facility because it was part of a defense industrial zone, and he was the son of a family from abroad. I got angry; that much discrimination was just unacceptable. First thing in the morning, I went to talk to the manager of the factory; he was also upset. But he told me that he was complying with orders from outside Armenia.”

Being treated differently, being suspected, humiliated and condescended to was no longer bearable for the people from abroad who were dubbed “newcomers.” There was a huge difference of perception between them and the local people. For the “newcomers,” trade was a major tool with which to make a living, and they did not understand why it was seen by the Soviet people as an embarrassment. Trade was an offense akin to thievery in this system. The language barrier between the “newcomers,” who were accused of spreading bourgeois ways, and the local people was a whole different problem. These people spoke Western Armenian, only a few of them went to college, they were unaware of Marxism and Leninism and they were not like the Soviet peoples. They called each other “akhbar,” a popular reference to “yeghbayr” (brother). The locals started calling them by this name after awhile; they became akhbars, but nobody liked this word because of the condescending meaning it bore.

Akhbars who made coffee, baloney and kadayıf popular

Avik Isahakyan, a local writer from Yerevan, in an article titled “Our Akhbars,” where he praises the diaspora Armenians, says: “Men shaved all the time. They were elegantly dressed. The women were like ladies and the men like gentlemen. They wore sunglasses in summer. They did not eat anything on the streets like we did, and they did not drink consecutive tanks of beer. They were polite. We learned from them of baklava, imam bayıldı, kadayıf and Turkish delight. And most importantly, when you went to their homes as guests, they served coffee in small cups. And how about the baloney that the İstanbulites made, that was on the black market, and only those who had good connections could purchase it. We offended them; we called them akhbars, and we belittled them. However, they were the best shoemakers, the best tailors, cooks and mechanics. They introduced many things to our lives.” The diaspora Armenians tried to adapt; they learned how to hide their religious orientation and Christian objects, how to get married without a religious ceremony and how to bury their loved ones without reciting a prayer. They were compelled to learn how to pay bribes in order to sell their products on the black markets, and they partly succeeded, but most of them failed to feel like they belonged to Armenia. They looked for any way to escape; some of them did actually find out how to leave the country.

Paris, our home

Amid growing poverty, discrimination and other inhumane treatment, it was necessary to escape. The “newcomers” who gathered at the park where the Shahumyan statue is erected today in Yerevan chatted there about their issues. All of them were affiliated with a committee, and when they were done with their meetings, they came to the park to discuss their issues. They named the park “Garden of Wailing” because this is where they told each other their stories about what they were experiencing and how they were suffering from discrimination. The image they had had in mind in respect to the homeland was completely undermined, particularly when they were exiled to Siberia as political prisoners. Even though this was not a practice peculiar to the newcomers, it hurt them. They were unable to understand where their homeland was. They were aliens in Europe, but how about in Armenia? What were they now? And they got confused; in the early 1960s, they started discussing whether leaving was the best option. Initially, some of them migrated to France; diaspora members raised their voices during an official trip by the French foreign minister in 1962 to Yerevan and said they would like to go home, to Paris; Christian Pineau realized the gravity of the issue and subsequently, he contacted Moscow to ask for the relocation of 7,000 Armenians to France between 1962 and 1964. These relocations, which commenced with France, continued with the United States. An Armenian who applied to migrate to the US explains this in his memoirs: “The officer said: ‘You want to go to the US — do you have any relatives over there?’ I replied calmly, ‘Did you ask whether I had relatives when you sent me to Siberia in 1949 in exile?’”

As of the 1970s, the akhbars started to leave Armenia; the diaspora Armenians have had to deal with difficulties and hardships in other countries. This time, the Armenians — who were not welcomed in Armenia — were treated by the diaspora Armenians as Armenians from Armenia; they were once again discriminated against. It should be acknowledged that the project of returning to the homeland, a plan devised by Stalin, did not pave the way for the reunion of Armenians and construction of a new homeland for them; on the contrary, this wave of migration moved Armenians, who did not know one another, away from their homelands. Bad memories created fears, and the fears generated prejudices. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the children of those who left the country failed to internalize the independence of Armenia. They could not get rid of this prejudice held against them in Armenia, where they visited as tourists; and in return, like they were once treated, they began to belittle the people of Armenia, trying to teach them rather than understand them. Even as late as the 1990s and 2000s, the diaspora and the Armenian people were unable to get rid of the stereotypes they had developed regarding each other.

*Alin Ozinian is an independent analyst.