Diaspora Values, the Homeland and Patriotism

Posted on May. 27. 2023

by Stepan Piligian | The Armenian Weekly

One of the most under-appreciated behaviors in our communities is the remarkable generosity of diaspora Armenians. We are, for the most part, familiar with the diaspora-based non-profits that accomplish miracles every day with their heroic work in housing, education, employment and social services. In addition, there are thousands of dedicated individuals who are self-motivated to lead, participate and contribute to the betterment of the homeland. They ignore politics, corruption and other conflicts as mere distractions. What they all have in common is a desire to give of themselves. From leading groups such as the ARS, COAF, AGBU or individuals who contribute on their own, these people and organizations have decided to make a difference. They share a common bond of patriotism. The most fundamental form of this patriotism is the desire to serve others with time, talent and treasure. We all know people in our communities who fit this description, and perhaps you even see one in your mirror. It is extraordinary that such commitment and generosity exist within a community geographically and generationally separated from the homeland. It is a tribute to the communal values that are instilled through participation in our churches and organizations. We are all quick to criticize each other for our shortcomings or failures. Working on our challenges is important. It enables sustainability, but we also need to take the time to recognize the unique nature of our philanthropy.
The diaspora culture has been nurtured by our families and communities to connect with each other. Our clannish nature keeps us whole. It is always a joy at church fellowship and receptions to watch the Armenian “network” functioning. We relate to each other and learn from each other. We find new relatives, build professional relationships and share a common bond. Prior to 1991, this common bond in the diaspora was based on the tragedy of the Genocide. Every family had their story of anguish, and it became a foundation of many relationships. This is a double-edged sword. There is a certain darkness in speaking about the Genocide from a perspective of loss. This is why the cause of justice is important beyond its redemption. It becomes therapeutic by focusing our energy on solutions and the future. After the independence of Armenia, the diaspora found a new common bond with each other…the homeland. For most of us, the land of Armenia was removed by several generations and in a different geography. For many, the pictures of Ararat were the bond. The Republic of Armenia made the land of Armenia real and accessible. It also triggered the value of service in a new and exciting way. The American Armenian community has always been giving in its nature by building an entire infrastructure of schools, churches and centers across the United States. Giving to Armenia gave many a connection to their broken family trees by investing in what remained of the land their ancestors were forced to exit. When Armenians in America contribute to the homeland, they are completing the cycle of their families’ lives broken by the horror of dispossession. This is why it is sustaining, because it is sourced deep in their souls. Diaspora philanthropy has endured political instability, corruption, disappointment and outright failures. Why? The motivation is much more fundamental by connecting to the people and the land. We have all heard of individuals who contribute “under the radar” of these distractions because they are focused on the core of Armenia’s society…children, elderly, families, communities and hope. Larger groups are able to confront some of Armenia’s weaknesses and provide for an improved environment. Together they continue their mission. This represents a pure and humble representation of patriotism.
This past weekend, my wife and I were asked to speak at a “Ladies Tea” fundraiser at our local parish. It has become an annual event the last few years where the women of our community gather to celebrate Mother’s Day and raise money for the church. Every year, they commit half of the profits to a philanthropic cause in Armenia. This decision is commendable. The church has financial needs, yet they feel the need for outreach beyond the local parish, particularly in the homeland. This is not unique. It is happening in virtually every corner of our piece of the diaspora. The diaspora maintains its own needs and is emotionally invested in the homeland. In past years, the parish has honored the Women’s Support Center in Yerevan, which does lifesaving work for the victims of domestic violence. This year, they decided to support the schools of the Paruyr Sevak border village in Armenia. Susan and I were thrilled since this is the village we have been working with since 2018. On that particular day, we witnessed a microcosm of this value of giving from the American diaspora. The event was a major success and will provide substantial funding for current projects in the village. This is the result of the patriotic values of the event organizers and attendees. We were overwhelmed with gratitude as we witnessed many individuals writing checks to supplement the proceeds. Each of them had this wonderful spirit of giving. The emotions in their eyes displayed their love for the homeland and commitment to their heritage. Many have never been to Armenia, but there is still a magnetic connection between the homeland and their sense of purpose. Too often in the Armenian community, we are clouded with the negativity of daily life. There was no talk that day of the government, conflicts or the Turks. All I felt was their love for their brethren far away whom they have never met. It is such a unique circumstance. Somehow, as a community, we have managed to transfer this love from generation to generation and apply it with quality of life work. There were a number of young women at the event who were filled with knowledge and enthusiasm for the work in the homeland. Some have been involved through internships or Birthright. Others will surely experience this in the coming years. They are the next generation that will continue to lead with their love of the nation.
When we speak of financial investments, it is common to characterize them in terms of risk and return. Investing in the homeland is similar, except we define the risk as assimilation in the diaspora and the return is our identity. The diaspora is very familiar with the concept of communal sacrifice. When the volume of survivors arrived here in the decade after World War I, there was very little infrastructure to retain our collective identity. It was built by people with limited education and sparse financial resources, but they were off the charts in terms of commitment. That spirit has driven the diaspora engine for over a century and has fueled the patriotic commitment we have seen at the organizational and individual level.
Last week, the Weekly reported about a project to renovate a gym at the school in the village of Ginevet/Nor Ughi. This initiative is being spearheaded by a longtime friend from the AYF, John Mangassarian, along with his wife June. John has been an ardent supporter of Camp Haiastan for decades. This a noble effort as they are “adopting” this village to bring improvements in the quality of life for our brethren. The model is both realistic and sustainable as we have the resources in the diaspora to implement. It is not just about raising the funds (although that is essential). The American Armenian commitment and its “can do” attitude is a huge advantage. John wrote about the impact of Camp Haiastan in building the values that drive our commitments as adults. On a higher level, his comments reflect that the experiences we have growing up as Armenians in America have given us the knowledge, passion and commitment to serve Armenia and our heritage. Without those experiences, our talent would be applied elsewhere or perhaps wasted. The AYF with its camp, Junior Seminar and Olympics offers such experiences that many, such as John and his team, are applying in Armenia. They are making a difference. You can also. John articulated what many believe—that the camp teaches our youth to acquire knowledge and to serve. The evidence is clear. The camp has one of the finest records of generational transition. Campers become counselors, who become board members and benefactors. Invariably, many of our leaders refer to their years at the camp or in other groups as the place where the emotional connection to their heritage was established. This is a critical event if the diaspora is to thrive and have the bandwidth to help Armenia. It’s not all about serving and giving. We also receive a precious gift. When diaspora Armenians make a difference in the homeland, they receive the beauty of a meaningful purpose in this world. There is no greater reward.
Whether it is the gentle smile that accompanies the generosity of our senior community colleagues or the pure enthusiasm and passion of our youth who have discovered an identity, we should be thankful for this legacy of giving. I remember in my youth the fundraisers for schools in Beirut. I asked my father once why we support this. He simply responded that we are one people, and our good fortune should be shared with others. I have never forgotten that simple motivation as I have seen it applied countless times. It has been said that the only difference between the affluent American Armenian community and our border village brothers and sisters is that during the Genocide many of our ancestors went to the Middle East, Europe and the Americas. Others migrated to the eastern highlands or were native to the eastern homeland. It has been our good fortune to live in an environment where education, professional development and freedom have been abundant. I am very proud that our communities have retained the giving and service values of our ancestors. There is room on this train for many more.

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