By Harut Sassounian
Throughout the years, since Armenia’s independence in 1991, I have had the unique opportunity of spending hundreds of hours with the country’s three previous Presidents, discussing privately with them Armenia’s many problems. I offered them my professional assessments and frequently my criticisms of the way they were running the country. Although the Presidents were not pleased that I was pointing out their shortcomings and mistakes, they understood that my intent was not to disparage them, but to help them improve the living conditions of the population.
Ever since the earthquake of 1988, I have been doing charitable work in Armenia and Artsakh, initially as President of the United Armenian Fund (UAF), subsequently the Armenia Artsakh Fund (AAF), and as Vice Chairman of Kirk Kerkorian’s Lincy Foundation, delivering over $800 million of humanitarian aid to Armenia and Artsakh by the UAF and AAF, and managing $242 million of infrastructure projects funded by Lincy. Despite all the corruption prevailing in Armenia during those years, I fought hard to protect the humanitarian supplies and funds, persistently bringing to the attention of the Presidents the abuses by high rankling officials, and demanding that they be disciplined or fired.
During my 58 trips to Armenia and Artsakh, I saw firsthand the miserable conditions of most people in our homeland, deprived of money, food, medicines, clothing and other basic needs. Seeing the Presidents’ neglect of the people’s deprivations, I frequently and forcefully brought their dismal situation to the attention of the country’s leadership. I was particularly upset when I heard government officials speaking about Armenia needing investments, not charity. I found such remarks to be callous of the people’s suffering. After each such pronouncement, I confronted these officials explaining the negative effect of their statements.
Consequently, I was surprised when Armenia’s new Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, a man of the people, during his remarks in New York on September 23, 2018, announced that in the context of Armenia-Diaspora relations, work must be encouraged, not charity: “Armenians can assist Armenia only with one option: carry out economic activity in Armenia, establish any business, and work. Today, Armenia’s understanding is the following: It is a country where it is possible to carry out economic activity, establish a business, earn profits, get rich and enrich. Our message to all of you is the following: get rich and enrich. We want Armenia to be known as such a country. Not charitable, but developmental projects must be implemented in Armenia….”
To be fair to the Prime Minister, in his speech, he also spoke about many other topics which I agree with whole-heartedly. He has tremendous support both in Armenia and around the world! He has practically eliminated corruption in Armenian society and has represented the voice of the people who had remained voiceless for more than a quarter of a century since independence. However, just as I have told the previous Presidents, I would like to provide the following explanations to the new Prime Minister:
- I fully support the Prime Minister’s initiative that Armenia needs economic investments in order to create jobs and expand exports. By creating jobs, not only the people will have the income to pay for their daily expenses, but the government will also have the tax revenues to support the country’s and population’s multiple needs.
- However, the Prime Minister’s urging that “work must be encouraged, not charity,” would deprive hundreds of thousands of poor people of their basic necessities. Investments take time to trickle down to the people and produce results. In the meantime, if charitable efforts are discouraged, many poor people will not survive.
- Not all Diaspora Armenians can invest in the Armenian Republic. There are dozens of charitable organizations which by law cannot get involved in economic activities, as they can only do charity. Since the earthquake and Armenia’s independence, Armenian and international charities have provided a large amount of aid to Armenia and Artsakh. If it were not for this humanitarian assistance, the standard of living would have been even lower, jeopardizing the survival of many Armenians. By discouraging charity, we are simply asking charitable organizations not to help the needy people of Armenia.
- Armenian governments so far have been unable to meet the many needs of their population due to lack of money. Diaspora’s charitable organizations have provided the aid that the government could not. If there were no charitable assistance in Armenia ever since independence, the people’s many needs would not have been taken care of and Armenia would have been a poorer country.
- Even if the Diaspora would start investing in Armenia today, that does not mean that the influx of new funds would take care of all the needs of the people overnight. Certainly, a large number of people would eventually be employed, but many others, such as the elderly, would still be left with hardly any income from their negligible pensions. Those who are unaware of the extent of appalling poverty in Armenia should read the Guardian newspaper’s Sept. 29, 2018 article by Nick Danziger, titled: “‘It’s better to die’: the struggle to survive poverty in Armenia.”
- There is the mistaken notion that if there were many investments in Armenia, there would be no need for charity. In almost all countries, even in the most advanced ones, there are hundreds of charitable organizations that tend to the needs of the poor. In the United States alone, billions of dollars are provided annually to needy individuals and families by charitable organizations. If the Americans require charity, Armenians would certainly need charitable assistance for a long time to come.
Paradoxically, Prime Minister Pashinyan’s wife, Anna Hakopyan, recently launched her own charitable organization “My Step Foundation” to support educational, healthcare, social and cultural projects. She is doing what’s absolutely necessary because the people of Armenia desperately need help.
The following letter was sent by Knights of Vartan Avak Sbarabed Dr. Gary Zamanigian and Avak Tbrabed Deacon Richard Norsigian to Very Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikian, Primate, Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, Eastern.
Dear Fr. Daniel:
The Brothers of the Knights of Vartan are concerned and strongly oppose the recent efforts to either sell and/or lease all or part of the property of St. Vartan Cathedral Complex in New York City.
Even as a non-church affiliated Christian organization, the Knights of Vartan recognizes the importance of the St. Vartan Cathedral Complex in New York City and is dedicated to its preservation. This complex is recognized both nationally and internationally as a symbol of the survival of all Armenians as Christians, regardless of what church, political affiliation, or even religious persuasion one may or may not have as an Armenian. It is as well of national significance to all Armenians regardless of where they geographically live in the United States.
This holy edifice and its campus is the legacy of both our Genocide Saints who gave their lives and the Genocide survivors. Upon its completion in 1968, it represented, and after 50 years, still represents, the fulfillment of a broad collection of the drams and aspirations of our forefathers. Historical documents reflect the crucial involvement of the Knights of Vartan in the realization of this Cathedral and Diocesan project, which is also reflected in the Cathedral being named after our namesake, Vartan Mamigonian. This property also needs to be preserved as possible the most valuable singe asset of Armenians in the world.
On July 13, 2018, at its annual convocation, the Knights of Vartan, with delegates from throughout the United States and from all churches and political persuasions, unanimously approved the sending of this letter as its formal opposition and objections to the sale and/or lease of any portion of either the land or buildings of the St. Vartan Cathedral and Diocesan Complex in New York City.
Dr. Gary Zamanigian and Deacon Richard Norsigian
For more information about the Diocesan Council’s undisclosed plans to sell or lease St. Vartan Cathedral Diocesan complex property, please see the latest coverage originally published by the Armenian Mirror-Spectator:
“Diaspora Must do Better in Keeping Institutions,” by Taleen Babayan, July 24, 2018.
“Extraordinary Petition Requests Special Session of Eastern Diocesan Assembly on Cathedral Complex Proposal,” by Aram Arkun, July 28, 2018.
By Taleen Babayan
Among the maze-like streets of Bourdj Hammoud, where crossed wires hang on for dear life and the Armenian language swirls in the air exist buildings that evoke an integral part of Diasporan history. Once crown jewels, these landmarks now teeter on the edge of obsolescence — an unheard of development for the thousands who once called these corridors home.
Growing up, we all heard stories from our grandparents, who came of age during a significant make-or-break era. Genocide survivors themselves, or children of the brave who escaped the atrocities, they arguably helped save a race from succumbing to destitution. But the stories I heard from my grandfather were seldom set in his birthplace of Aintab. Instead, they took place in the port city of Beirut, in the hallways named after one of the Armenian people’s most revered poets.
While it had been three decades since his black leather laced wingtips tapped the concrete floors of the Vahan Tekeyan School, I still felt my grandfather’s presence in the classrooms and stairwells during a recent visit; the air tinged with his spirit and service. These were the very same pathways where he served as principal and taught his students, through both word and action, the pride in being Armenian and the importance of contributing to the nation and culture in a positive way. A lesson he made sure to instill in all his grandchildren.
At the height of the school’s success — in the gilded Golden Age of Lebanon in the 1960s and early 1970s — my grandfather oversaw the education of thousands of students, each a mere generation or two removed from the crippling Armenian Genocide, which could have very well expunged the remaining survivors. But it was the Vahan Tekeyan School, akin to a handful of its counterparts around the Diaspora, that rose to the occasion — and lifted those students to their rejuvenated feet, citing countless successful alumni in its wake.
But now these venerable institutions are at a crossroads. And it is not just limited to Beirut and the political upheaval of the Middle East. Each carefully constructed Diasporan community, which built up communities and neighborhoods in their adopted countries, is vulnerable.
Armenians are capable of building — there is no doubt about that — but are they capable of preserving?
Far away from the turquoise ripples of the Mediterranean, the polluted East River envelopes the St. Vartan Cathedral, home to the Eastern Diocese, which is on its way to purportedly selling its air rights for $50 million. The Diocesan Council, ostensibly a democratically-elected body, has not been forthright in its public pronouncements of this rumored deal, which according to New York real estate savvy individuals, is well below market value.
What would the founders of the cathedral — those genocide survivors who barely made it to the U.S. with only the tattered clothes on their back — have to say about this charade? And how would they feel about the fact that the new wave of donors who picked up where their forefathers left off were shut out of this ill-conceived undertaking? The cathedral elevated the Armenian Diaspora to new heights in the New World — a golden dome smack dab in the middle of midtown Manhattan. To sell its coveted air rights, for a short-term fix, is shortsighted, to say the least.
Where is the vision that was once tirelessly pursued by leaders of our beloved institutions? It was only 50 years ago, that after decades of tireless fundraising, the doors swung open to thousands of faithful as the 12 Godfathers of St. Vartan Cathedral, their eyes brimming with tears, stood alongside His Holiness Vasken I, of blessed memory, as he consecrated the first Armenian cathedral in the Western Hemisphere.
Why is it that so few today are questioning the status quo and demanding better governance? Why are rational voices stifled as calls for a transparent conversation are neglected? Why are donors quickly called upon in times of financial need but not during times when their opinion should matter most? From top to bottom there is no accountability, discipline or leadership. Could this be a sign of national amnesia — a nation that is tired of itself?
My grandfather, though rooted in tradition, was a keen proponent of vision. In fact it was this vision early on in his tenure that expanded the Vahan Tekeyan School from an aluminum hovel to a robust, concrete building, all within the course of 10 years. What he was averse to, however, was mismanagement. With thousands of students and hundreds of faculty under his wing, he traveled around the world to fundraise — before, during and after the devastating Lebanese Civil War — inspiring donors to give to the educational institution during a time when the Diaspora wasn’t even half as prosperous as it is now. So for those in decision-making positions to claim that these institutions can’t be supported anymore, financially, is therefore, a complacent response. It should be the priority of leadership to be fiscally responsible. In this case, the Diocesan Council needs to shore up continued support and interest to sustain the Diocesan Center and St. Vartan Cathedral instead of throwing in the towel — and that can only be achieved by regaining trust in donors and ruling, not with an iron fist, but through transparency and consensus. Prudence and foresight — not egos and backroom deals — should lead commercial deals of this magnitude.
These historic institutions don’t just support local communities; they support the Diaspora as a whole. And a strong Diaspora is a prerequisite for a strong Armenia. I vividly recall all of my grandfather’s students who would visit him, years after he retired from a 60-year career in education and public service. He remembered each one by face, by name, by voice. Tekeyan wasn’t just a school or a job to him. It was his life. His family. Each of those students were his children. So much so that 30, 40, even 50 years later, they still referred to him as their “Harkeli Baron Dnoren Yervant Babayan.” My grandfather, who studied in Paris, spoke five languages and could have easily remained in Europe and entered a fruitful life in the private sector, gave his heart to the Vahan Tekeyan School and that is an integral reason for its bone-deep impact. In the case of the Eastern Diocese, there seems to be no business sense, but more dangerously, there seems to be no heart. And with no heart, there can be no pulse.
Lack of funds is not the real problem. Apathy is the evil. St. Vartan Cathedral and the Diocesan Complex were built by thousands of donors, large and small, and there are thousands of donors who still give, large or small, myself included. Yet it’s being torn down by a few in front of our own eyes. I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers the heyday of the dynamic activities of the cathedral and the Diocese: the headline-making all-inclusive One World Festival, the vibrant Armenian school programs, or the talented theater ensemble.
Based on contemporary history, the culturally rich Diasporan communities in the Middle East have faced political turmoil and conflict in addition to financial burdens. It is, to an extent, understandable that the most influential Diasporan communities — Beirut, Aleppo, Tehran, Baghdad, Cairo — don’t have the sizable presence they once did, though they continue to possess innate vigor to keep their communities alive. But what about the so-called stable communities in, say, Paris, London or New York? Aren’t they also on the verge of gradually dying out? Could the prospect of apathy and assimilation be even more menacing than that of political conflict?
Selling the air rights may spur a fatal domino effect, setting the precedent for New York City’s St. Vartan Cathedral and Eastern Diocese to become an “in memoriam” like many other Diasporan institutions, that too, weren’t “sustainable” anymore, vanishing into the annals of unrecorded history.
As Armenians, it is not that we can do better, it is that we must do better. Isn’t it time to override the corroding dysfunction that plagues many Armenian organizations? We must expect more from those who sought to assume leadership positions. We must read their intentions, their motives and their abilities before entrusting them to make these critical decisions. And we must examine if they are indeed upholding their duties. Above all, we must honor and respect donors — those who have built, stone by stone, the very bedrock of our most revered Diasporan institutions.
I thought fondly of those donors and their sacrifices as I made my way out of the Vahan Tekeyan School, pleased to witness the dedicated staff in action. While stepping back onto the maze-like streets of Bourdj Hammoud, a teacher stopped me. He proudly revealed a book given to him by my grandfather, who had authored the tome. Our family ties went back — his father was a student of my grandfather’s in Aleppo when he had served as principal of the Giligian School. And the teacher, himself a graduate of the Vahan Tekeyan School and a holder of a master’s degree, chose to educate the next generation at his alma mater. As he clutched the book, he told me he still read through the pages for guidance and inspiration, my grandfather’s lessons, too, ringing in his ears.
That, dear reader, is my legacy. What is yours? And more importantly – what are you doing to protect it?
This article originally appeared in the Armenian Mirror-Spectator and is reprinted with the expressed written consent of the author.