“There are between 40 and 50 thousand Armenians in Greece , 16-17 thousand of which are Greek-Armenians born here. The rest are people who have come from Armenia over the last ten or fifteen years.” This we were told by Hovsep Parazian, the editor-in-chief of Azat Or, the official newspaper of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF/Dashnaktsutiun), when we met with him in Athens . No one knows exactly how many Armenians there are among the one million immigrants in Greece today. “Many people come and move to the islands to work; they aren’t registered anywhere,” said David Aivazian, editor of the newspaper that the Hayastan Social-Cultural Center of Athens puts out.
The Armenian community in Greece is not united; like Diasporan communities elsewhere, it is divided along party lines, Church affiliation (subordinated to Echmiadzin or Antelias), and Hayastantsi-Hunastantsi identification.
“The problem that our compatriots who have recently arrived have is that they haven’t been able to find their place within Armenian circles, clubs, and unions. In the Diaspora everything is partisan – you either belong to one of the parties or you’re isolated. The Antelias See implemented a policy of not accepting newcomers, especially regarding children – they would not accept children into their schools. A large number of children couldn’t go to Armenian schools, so they went to Greek schools. The boarding schools run by the Dashnaktsutiun party or the Ramkavar party had the potential to accommodate the children from Armenia but they didn’t do so. And this is how the children from Armenia are becoming Greek. The party bureaucrats say that by not helping them, they encourage people who have come from Armenia to go back. But the problem is that if they can’t settle here [in Athens ], the newcomers go to the islands, where no one can keep track of them. And if they left Armenia it means that they had problems there, doesn’t it?” Aivazian said.
I’m in Armenia
There are three places in the city where you can encounter Armenians – Ramkavars get together at the offices of the Ramkavar-Azatakan Party, Dashnaks at the offices of the ARF, and people who have no without party affiliation at the Hayastan Social-Cultural Center . The ARF is the strongest group here, and no doubt aware of its position, has little contact with the Ramkavars or non-partisan Armenians. “They don’t even invite us to their events, or their holiday celebrations,” said the regulars at the Hayastan Center .
The Ramkavars have a three-storey office building in one of the central districts of Athens , which also houses the editorial offices of their party organ Nor Ashkhar. According to Armenians from Armenia , the building’s large playground, its state-of-the-art gym, and its well-equipped music club, are almost always empty, and newly arrived young people are not invited to use them. Two members of the party, Comrade Sargis and Comrade Hakob, complained to us about the indifference of Armenian youths toward the party, and political and national problems. The Ramkavars were aware that generational change, revitalizing its ranks with young, people, particularly from Armenia, was a big problem for the party, but they also admitted that they were doing little to address it.
For Minas Minasyan, who came from Armenia to Athens with his family in 1996, the Hayastan Center represents the only possibility of remaining Armenian and maintaining contact with Armenia. “They didn’t admit my son into the Armenian school; they said they had no room. But there were places in both the Dashnak school and the Ramkavar school. I was forced to send him to a Greek school,” he said. His son, Karapet, has adapted to this society and has no intention of returning to Armenia . “I might move to the US from here to devote myself to professional music, but I doubt I’ll go to Armenia —or if I do, I’ll go as a tourist,” Karo said.
Minasyan and David Aivazyan founded the Hayastan Social-Cultural Center in 2000. “I had just come from Iran ,” Aivazyan recalled. The main problem that our newly arrived compatriots had was that they had no place within Armenian circles, clubs, unions. Wham they first arrive, they don’t have residence permits or jobs, they don’t know the language, they’re isolated and hanging in the air. We saw their problems; they were in a crazy situation. At the same time, there were students from Armenia who had come through the interstate students’ exchange agreement who faced similar problems. Nobody met them when they arrived, they didn’t know how to get to the university. We met with some of these boys who are now back in Armenia . They tried several times to establish contacts with some Armenian circles here, to found a students’ union of local Armenians, but they didn’t succeed, since they were told from the very beginning that they had to join a political party.
“So we got together with our compatriots working here and decided to create this center to assist newly arrived Armenians. At that time, many young women were coming here and marrying Greeks just to get the necessary papers. The students built this center, voluntarily, without any pay. The main assistance was provided by those Greek-Armenians who are cut from the local politicized and partisan community. Many of them don’t even speak Armenian, but are constantly making donations to the center.”
In 2000, the center began publishing its newspaper, Hayastan, which mainly provides information about Armenia and has a circulation of about 1,500. The center offers Armenian, Greek and English language courses for children free of charge, with the help of students and teachers who have come from Armenia to live permanently in Greece . They run an Armenian Sunday school as well. Parents and teachers organize performances and holiday festivities for the children. Marietta , a teacher from Vanadzor came to Athens nine years ago; she subsequently brought her only daughter, and then, two years ago, she brought her father and mother to live with her as well. She teaches Armenian language and history at the Hayastan Center on Sundays. On weekdays Armenians from Armenia gather at the center at 8 p.m. to learn about each other’s “Armenian and Greek” worries and problems, and to exchange news and information from the homeland. Every conversation here turns to Armenia.
“Now when people phone each other and ask: ‘Where are you?’ the answer is. ‘In Armenia .’ We’ve created a little Armenia here. And we have one principle – we won’t allow the center to be politicized, to become partisan,” David Aivazyan said.
One day, we’ll all go home
“It’s hard for an artist to leave his country at 40 and to create an environment in a new place. It’s like uprooting a tree,” said Armen Gizgizyan, a painter. He, his wife, and their two children left Armenia to live in Athens temporarily in 2001. “At first we decided to come here for six months, to save some four or five thousand dollars and go home. At that time, 2001, $ 5,000 was quite a sum. I could at least solve my family problems, and I wouldn’t have to sell my paints or melt high-voltage cable for 2,000 drams (about $4) a day to buy a little bread, and to go to the Vernissage on weekends to sell some paintings. If I had earned $200 a month in Yerevan at that time I would have stayed there. Now I earn 1,500 Euros a month here, though I still don’t live normally; I pay my bills every month and send a little bit of money to Armenia.
“I dream about stabilizing my financial situation and going back, because I’m getting tired... I’m tired of being alone. There’s no on here of my color to relate to, to curse your fate, to just sit with, without talking. Because I grew up in another environment, it’s like cutting a person from his roots and bringing him here. Now you can say: no one brought you here by force, you came yourself. There are so many tens of thousands of Armenians with a status like mine. People look at them and say, they are traitors, they left their fatherland. But I assure you that many of the people who are living in a foreign land deserved to be called Armenian much more than the people doing the talking,” Gizgizyan said.
“True, an Armenian is first of all a person who lives in the homeland, but you appreciate your own country when you’re in a foreign land. Perhaps the people of Armenia should be taken to another place to live for a few years to understand what their homeland is, then be brought back in order to live with each other with love and without grievance.”
All the Armenians from Armenia we met in Athens dreamed of returning to Armenia , but few of them saw it as a real possibility. “The problem is that the children are growing up here and it’s hard to imagine their future in Armenia . If I take my son there, how is he going to fit in with the kids there? My children don’t even understand Armenian jokes now. In Yerevan they would say, who is this fool? This is one of my biggest problems, one that really upsets me, that my child will be like a Diasporan in Armenia. I’m from Yerevan, and my child will be a stranger in Armenia.”