When You Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

I dedicate this week’s article to Harutune Yessayan, a benefactor in his early 90s who recently contributed $325,000 towards the construction of a hospital in Armenia. Mr. Yessayan confronted me last week in Toronto, Canada, with a copy of my last column in this newspaper and asked me to focus on some positive developments in Armenia. I surmise he wanted to be assured that the contributions from diasporan organizations and individuals are not meant to fill in sinkholes in Armenia but contribute towards a solid foundation for Armenia.

It is a historic fact — and no one with a clear conscience can deny it — that every time Armenia has lost its independence and fallen under foreign domination, internal conflicts have contributed to its eventual collapse.

Yes, indeed, Seljuks were barbarians from the Central Asian plains, who invaded Armenia, but had the Armenians been strong internally, the medieval city of Ani, with its 1,001 churches would not have collapsed and been overrun by those barbaric invaders.

The Mamluks were equally ferocious. They came all the way from Egypt to conquer the Armenian kingdom in Cilicia, taking our last king, Levon VI, as a prisoner. But had our princes at the time used some vision to consolidate the kingdom, rather than fighting with each other, or even worse, colluding with the enemy, most probably Armenians would have kept their state in Cilicia and Mihran Damadian would not have resorted to an ill-fated coup d’état in 1920 and Aram I, Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia, would not have to appeal to courts in Turkey or the International Court of Human Rights to claim our legitimate religious center in historic Sis.

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Traditionally, our individual egos are so inflated that we lose the perspective of the future by failing to act collectively.

Today is no different; we have more naysayers than true believers. We have more critics than contributors.

Armenia is located at a geostrategic part of the world and has its external enemies who have rushed to set their operations before any charitable organization could reach there. A well-financed news media is already in place to amplify any mistake or defect to move the population to desperation.

After the last parliamentary elections, part of the USAID’s Millennium Challenge Account was cancelled, damaging the agricultural sector, which is already ailing. The excuse was that the elections were not fair and democratic. While Azerbaijan is the worst violator of human rights, with the largest number of journalists in jail, every rule is bent (i.e. Freedom Support Act, Article 907) to continue pumping economic and military aid to the Aliyev dynasty.

Many foreign agencies foresee variations of orange or rose revolutions in store for Armenia and they keep fanning the flames of political unrest in the country. Their activities are complemented by diasporan do-gooders, who are engaged in introducing democratic reforms in Armenia by creating a remote-controlled parliament.

Every person, every group, has his or her own prescriptions to save Armenia, seldom realizing that the only prescription is to lend a hand to the vital sectors of the economy to keep the country going.

I am thinking of the doctor in Istanbul, listening to Armenia’s national anthem on her death bed, confronting the finality of life with a clear conscience that she has contributed her life savings towards establishing a political science department in a Yerevan university, to train young diplomats to run their country.

I am thinking of the Diaspora Armenian businessman who built a million-dollar factory in Karabagh, saying, “If we lose Karabagh, the hell with my million.”

I am thinking of Levon Kebabjian and his wife, who leave behind their luxurious apartment in a Paris bedroom community, and spend months on the Karabagh mountains to donate cows to families living below subsistence levels.

I am thinking of a Herman Hintiryan, a jeweler with a heart of gold, in the US, who single-handedly is funding the Terchounian Orphanage in Gumri.

I am thinking of the Armenia Tree Project which is helping to recover Armenia’s ecology.

Fortunately, there are so many individuals and groups who contribute financially and technologically to save the country.

Kirk Kerkorian is one of those who have poured hundreds of millions to shore up the roads and to renovate venerable cultural institutions, which had fallen into disrepair, despite the naysayers knocking on his door.

Architect Osep Sarafian has raised more than a million dollars for projects sponsored by the Armenian Social Investment Fund (ASIF), ensuring that the country receives 95 percent of matching funds from the World Bank. To date, almost $18 million in projects have been completed benefitting 122 villages in Armenia, including water projects, irrigation and cultural centers.

Armenia’s major problem is its brain drain. During the Soviet period, the republic was part of a huge global economic unit with immense resources and commensurate markets. Scientists gravitated to Armenia as it was at the vanguard of many scientific achievements. The Mergelian Institute was the foremost hub of scientific and military projects. With the collapse of the Soviet empire, many of the prominent scientists scattered across the globe and landed lucrative jobs. No matter how patriotic they are, the economics of the situation do not allow them to return to Armenia, where opportunities as well as high compensation are rare.

However, the country is resource poor. Some uranium, gold and molybdenum mines are tapped mostly by foreign firms, sometimes to the detriment of the environment. Still, the main resource remains the well-educated and exceptionally bright youth and the initiatives to counter the brain drain are the most viable avenues for Armenia’s survival.

Throughout the blockade, Armenian scientists were able to export their products on line, contributing to the economy and helping the young talents living and creating in the homeland.

In this particular arena, a visionary project has been the founding the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies. A 75,000-square-foot facility sitting on 50 acres of green space in the heart of Yerevan, it is designed to educate more than 1,000 students daily on computer technology at no charge. The campus is the creation of Sam and Sylva Simonian, from Dallas. It is estimated that more than $50 million was invested in the project, with millions slated for continued upkeep of the site and salaries for the staff.

Another world-class project is the Cosmic Ray Division on Mount Aragats. It is part of the Yerevan Physics Institute, founded in 1943 by noted physicist Artem Alikhanian. Despite the loss of the Soviet central government investments, the division, headed by Ashot Chilingarian, employs 80 physicists, engineers, technicians and students, under dire conditions. In the winter, they are stranded on the mountain for weeks. The CRD has two high-altitude cosmic ray and solar monitoring stations on Mr. Aragats: the Aragats Station at 3,200 meters and the Nor-Ambert Station at 2,000 meters.

CRD’s two observatories collect data, which is analyzed using sophisticated mathematical software developed by the CRD itself. Their research is of both theoretical and practical interest. Solar flares and mass eruptions, when directed toward each other, adversely affect power grids on earth and can damage satellites as well as endangering astronauts. Scientists there are now working on an early warning system prototype which can alert satellite operators up to 30 minutes before the damaging effects of solar flares reach the earth. This service can result in billions in savings.

CRD scientists represent Armenia at a number of international scientific conferences and have received wide acclaim for their efforts.

It has been supported by Giragos and Harutune Vaporciyan and their families from the US, with contributions running more than hundreds of thousands. Anahid Yeremian, a physicist at Stanford, contributes from the West Coast with a missionary zeal and promotes the CRD worldwide in scientific circles. In fact, she and a few others have formed the group Friends of CRD, whose sole mission is to raise funds so that CRD can keep employing the same brilliant minds.

Another major initiative is the founding of the Dilijan International School. Sometimes one can hear complaints that oligarchs in Armenia and Russia do not help their kin. Rouben Hayrapetian, who is sitting in a Russian jail, has contributed hundreds of millions to his native Artsakh. Despite rampant pessimism, Rouben Vardanian and his spouse, Veronika Zonabend of Russia have invested $115 million in the Dilijan School, which is the 13th member of the United World Colleges and the first international boarding school in Armenia. Besides Vardanian, the founding patrons are Gagik Adibekyan (Russia), Noubar and Anna Afeyan (US), Vladimir and Anna Avetissian (Russia) and Oleg Mkrtchyan (Ukraine).

Once you start to detail projects and initiatives, the danger is that many similar projects are left out. But these salient contributions will speak about the positive outlook of the rest.

Of course, Armenia Fund, and our traditional organizations have been continuing their support. The AGBU, ARS, AMAA, Tekeyan Cultural Association, Knights of Vartan and many, many other groups have made Armenia’s survival a priority.

There are many unsung heroes who contribute to charities or initiate businesses to keep Armenia live. The difficulties are tremendous, some of them artificially created. Corrupt functionaries try to get their cut, before Armenia benefits from diasporan generosity. Many well-meaning people are turned off for good — and for good reason. But others find ways to bypass the hurdles and continue their positive work.

Armenians have armchair diplomats, pundits and philosophers around the world with a profusion of ideas and suggestions. Some of them are well meaning while others are disingenuous and self-serving.

Over and above all ideas and suggestions, Armenia will survive on positive and material contributions.

Armenia will survive and thrive when we put our money where our mouth is.