Several years ago while visiting Armenia, my wife and I had the privilege of visiting Orran (Haven). It was founded by Armine Hovannisian in response to the number of children on the streets of Yerevan who were not attending schools. It has grown into a remarkable after-school program where children receive age appropriate tutoring, outdoor activity and cultural classes. The program is based on an agreement with the parents that the children will attend school and receive support through this program in the afternoon. They are off the streets, receiving an education and valuable mentoring from a professional staff, including volunteers who offer the kids subject tutoring, homework time, a meal, as well as music, dance, woodworking and art classes. The results have been impressive. During our visit, we interacted with children who may have been begging or selling wares on the streets a few months earlier. They were smiling, happy and full of life. This organization has literally saved lives and is an investment in the future of Armenia. There is nothing like the enthusiasm of a group of young children to inspire the rest of us. As we walked through the building to visit the classroom activity, the sheer joy was evident. The objective is simply to afford each of these precious gifts the opportunity to become their best. I vividly remember one classroom of third or fourth grade students. Each child was asked to introduce themselves to us and share what they wanted to do when they became adults. We were brought to tears with their confident and passionate statements about becoming a soldier, dancer, doctor or teacher. In a follow-up discussion with Armine and her staff, she mentioned something that has remained with me to this day. She told us that these children were “dreaming again.” In their former lives of street survival and family economic despair, they were robbed of their childhood and the freedom of imagining their future. They were trapped in a day-to-day life of existence. They did not have the luxury nor the environment to dream. That ability has been restored and with it their future. It truly has become a haven to allow these children and families the dignity they deserve. Dreams begin the creative process, and when refined, they become our life’s work.
As adults, there is much we can learn from our children. The beauty of their unconditional love is unconstrained by a world of “learning” and “experiences” that often lead to biases and narrow thinking. There is something remarkable about a young mind that possesses the freedom of no limits. It is so fulfilling to hear my five-year-old granddaughter say, “This is the best day of my life” or “ I love those animals.” Unencumbered by the rigors of “maturing,” our children teach us that all good things start with a dream. It is one of the essentials of human development that is carried forward from adolescence. Dreaming is the beginning of creative thought leading to a vision which inspires action. Our ability to act as individuals, as a family or as a community is what sustains our betterment. In its absence, we stagnate and either dwell on the past or are stuck in the present. The greatest accomplishment of the Orran team is the restoration of dreaming in these precious children. If we truly have internalized that these children are tomorrow’s leaders, then this transformation ensures the opportunity for hope. This core essential can be understood in the context of our global nation. A nation that has experienced independence for a small percentage of time in the last 150 years is highly dependent on the catalytic nature of dreaming. The idea of a sovereign nation was kept alive during almost 500 years of Ottoman Turkish rule. After the Genocide and the humiliation of expulsion, many abandoned the vision of an independent state as impractical. Some continued to dream, and the First Republic was born under unlikely circumstances. After the Sovietization and Turkish aggression, again many set aside the dream in the interests of survival. Others were able to hold onto the dream and rebuild in the diaspora or in Armenia. Patriotic notions of freedom were retained in the diaspora and taught to a new generation. We would chant “Azad Haiastan” as an ideal without a clear plan. It was in our hearts. In Armenia, these ideals were never extinguished, but simply were embedded in their souls. A nation that continued to dream, build a vision and work survived attempts at extinction by defying sociological norms. Maintaining the mental freedom of conscience to dream is a powerful tool and an essential in our nation’s recipe. It rewards us with fresh air to breathe. Once we stop, we enter despair. Something has changed, however, in our experience with this time tested formula. Do we still have dreams as a nation? Do we have a unifying vision fed by the dreams of our people? My observations both in the western diaspora and in the homeland is that our dreams have been interrupted by a reality that we cannot seem to shake. There was a time when euphoria for the homeland not only was a unifying signal, but it had re-energized the diaspora. For decades under the Soviet regime, there was an artificial wall between the diaspora and Armenia. With the emergence of the Republic in 1991, there was great hope that the walls would be replaced with a singular purpose. Although progress has been made to that end, most Armenians are disappointed with the depth of the relationship. Plotting the relationship on a line graph resembles the current volatility of the stock market. It seems that many in the diaspora have taken a step back in the last few years, given the regional turmoil and political crisis in Armenia. Certainly and thankfully, there are still thousands of Armenians from the diaspora who are still living their dreams through the educational, economic, cultural and social nonprofits that serve the citizens of Armenia and Artsakh. The mood, however, is troubling. Our dreams have been interrupted with conflicts and turmoil. Everyone seems to have an ominous opinion about the current state in the homeland. I have spoken with many, and the unscientific perception has become reality. People are not visiting because they fear unrest. Individuals are not donating because they fear corruption in the church and are confused on how to resolve their lack of trust. There is almost unprecedented concern about the future of Armenia given the lack of political leverage. Our disunity globally is being exploited by our enemies. Erdogan and his neo-Ottoman cronies never fail to mention the “diaspora” as an obstacle to normalizing relations. Our public conflicts feed their propaganda. It is one matter to have disagreements in a democratic society. We have them, and it does not exist in Turkey or rogue Azerbaijan. We must ensure that it does not reduce the effectiveness of the Republic. On the west coast, the political debates have impacted the functioning of the community. When debates over the homeland start affecting our communities in the diaspora, we have gone too far. Our Achilles’ heel has always been our disunity, or shall I say our inability to subordinate our egos to a greater mission. Beyond the public distractions, I fear that our cause has taken a backseat to our obsession with political squabbles. If we knew how to keep them in the right perspective, we would never allow debate to evolve into conflict. We must all take responsibility for our role in this global nation. While we play battle of the titans with each other, the Turks are tightening the noose. One thing is clear. Regardless of the time, the venue, the current issues or the players, the Turks have a single objective: to see to the elimination of Armenia and Armenians in order to facilitate regional hegemony. Pick an era—1895, 1920 or 2022. The goal has remained constant. While our children dream in their world, the adults have become dangerously distracted. The disappointment that has engulfed the global Armenian nation is understandable. We are still in shock over the loss of life and territory in the 2020 ambush by the Turkish cousins. We have a history of loss, and the impact has influenced our psyche as a people. It is particularly damaging after the heroic defenses from 1991-1994 that led to a liberated Artsakh. It reminds us of the First Republic’s inclusion of Kars, Ardahan and Ararat, only to lose it to Turkish aggression in 1920. The diaspora was founded essentially as a result of the death and destruction of the Genocide. The recovery of what was lost (Hai Tahd) and the sensitivity to any aggression from the Turks are ingrained in the generational mentality of the diaspora. Justice is not only a valid political issue, it is a moral one for the descendants of the victims. It has created generations of dreaming. The Turks and others who will exploit our global diversity will work overtime to create dissension among us. Teasing our wounded Republic with “normalization” and then shedding the olive branches to reveal the same wolf appearance of their ancestors is intended to weaken us as people. We must be wise to keep our debate and concerns within the “family” and never let our differences become fuel for the Turks. This requires less emotion and more discipline. Dreaming again as a nation is not an exercise in impractical thoughts. It is the beginning of clarity and vision that creates a sense of purpose. When those children at Orran began dreaming again, they restored a sense of direction in their lives and that of their families. Each of us has a responsibility to enable working together under a common vision. Those of us in the diaspora must realize that any backing off from the homeland not only damages our potential, but does not support Hai Tahd. If we allow ambivalence to replace negativity, we will still swing and miss. The only answer is to define common ground and build upon it. A nation must always dream.