Diaspora Minister Mkhitar Hayrapetyan at the Baikar [photo: Aram Arkun]

Diaspora Minister Hayrapetyan Hosted by Tekeyan and Mirror-Spectator and Other Boston Armenian Organizations, Speaks at Town Hall Meeting

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WATERTOWN – The new government of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has been sending various representatives to meet with Armenians in the diaspora over the past several months. Diaspora Minister Mkhitar Hayrapetyan made a whirlwind tour of three American cities, Los Angeles, greater New York, and Boston, from July 27 to August 7, and held meetings with various organizations and groups as well as town hall meetings with the general Armenian public in each place. His presence elicited great interest, for it was the first occasion for most to meet with a representative of the Velvet Revolution.

Mkhitar Hayrapetyan, left, with James Kalustian of the Armenian Heritage Foundation, at the grass labyrinth of Armenian Heritage Park (photo: Aram Arkun)

In Boston, he held a public town hall meeting on August 4 and separately met with representatives of the Armenian Heritage Foundation, the Tekeyan Cultural Association, the Armenian Mirror-Spectator, the Armenian Museum of America, the Armenian International Women’s Association, Project Save, Camp Haiastan, Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, Armenian Relief Society, Hairenik, Armenian Weekly and State Rep. David Muradian of Grafton, Mass. He visited St. James and St. Stephen Armenian churches.

Massachusetts State Rep. David Muradian, left, with Minister Mkhitar Hayrapetyan (photo: Aram Arkun)

During the Boston visit, he was accompanied by his assistant Vagharshak Hakobyan, Davit Janazyan from the Armenian Embassy in Washington, and advisor Dr. Vahe Sahakyan from Michigan. Sahakyan is a historian and sociologist specializing in diaspora studies. Three days of courtesy accommodations were provided to the delegation from Armenia by Michael Guleserian at the Sheraton Commander Hotel in Cambridge.

From left, Dr. Vahe Sahakyan, Davit Janazyan, Fr. Arakel Aljalian, Mkhitar Hayrapetyan, and Vagharshak Hakobyan at the Armene and Veronica Tarvezian Hall of St. James Armenian Church of Watertown (photo: Aram Arkun)

In his talk at the Baikar building, organized by the Tekeyan Cultural Association and the Mirror-Spectator, as well as at the town hall meeting, Hayrapetyan spoke in fluent English, only halting occasionally to ask for the translation of a special term in Armenian. The meetings were an opportunity for him to become more familiar with the Boston community and its issues and challenges as well as suggestions that it might have for the work of the ministry and new government.

From left, Vagharshak Hakobyan, Mkhitar Hayrapetyan, Vahe Sahakyan at the Baikar building (photo: Aram Arkun)

At the Baikar building, Hayrapetyan met with active members of the Boston community who are supporters of the Armenian Mirror-Spectator and the Tekeyan Cultural Association (TCA). TCA Executive Director Aram Arkun, who is also assistant editor of the Mirror-Spectator, introduced the minister, who in turn introduced his team.

From left, Aram Arkun, Davit Janazyan, Vagharshak Hakobyan, Dr. Vahe Sahakyan (obscured) and Mkhitar Hayrapetyan (photo: Knarik Arkun)

Hayrapetyan began by declaring that he hoped that those present felt how much he loved them and said, “We are bringing with ourselves the positive atmosphere and energy from the new Armenia after the revolution.” He stressed that the revolution belongs to all Armenians throughout the whole world and that the agenda of his ministry would be created in cooperation with all Armenians. Instead of a lengthy prologue, Hayrapetyan asked that questions be directed to him in order to begin a direct dialogue.

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During this dialogue he stated that the relations between the diaspora and government would not be the same as in the past, when the ministry would ask for support from the diaspora. The relations should be mutually beneficial, he said, and the strategy of the government would be changed. There would be more planning, while, he said, “In the past it was only about what we do today, and there was no vision for five or ten years.”

He identified three foci of the ministry and the government in general concerning the diaspora: preservation of Armenian identity, repatriation and strengthening ties between the diaspora and Armenia, in part to use the potential of the diaspora for Armenia. At the same time, the ministry accepts that the diaspora is a permanent one and so will work to make the diaspora stronger. Repatriation efforts, he said, would focus primarily on professionals as well as those who left Armenia in the last two decades, especially on those in post-Soviet countries who still maintain close ties with Armenia.

Some have voiced the criticism during the minister’s trip that all they hear is talk, but the minister pointed out that they must take into consideration the fact that the new government has only been in charge for several months and it takes time to do research, listen to the ideas of the diaspora, and plan proper action.

Among other things, the minister said, the ministry did not have a deep understanding of assimilation, why it happens, and what the government could do to help prevent it. Either new institutions must be created or existing ones be used to do the necessary research.
Hayrapetyan said that in the past the diaspora was treated as a single uniform body but now the government realizes that even in one country it is actually many different bodies. No profound research has been previously conducted, he stressed.

Education was among the topics discussed by the guests at the event. Geographical and demographic disparities and funding difficulties are among the difficulties faced by Armenian schools in the US. The suggestion was made by one teacher to organize visits of groups of teachers from Armenia to American public schools to learn of the approaches used here, and similarly, teachers of Armenian origin and also other American teachers be sent from the US to Armenia through ongoing programs.

The question of creating data bases for the diaspora and Armenia was raised by several audience members, but the answer was given that these already existed, at least to a certain extent. Another question was whether it could be possible to coordinate various projects to aid Armenia to avoid duplication of efforts. The minister responded that he is aware of this problem and efforts are underway to create a platform with the necessary information but that sometimes even if the information is made available some organizations might still try to engage in the same activities.

According to Sahakyan, one way the ministry will try to help various diasporan communities is by identifying resources in one community which might help a different one hitherto unaware of this resource, and in this way serve as a bridge for information and contacts.

Hayrapetyan gave a specific example of attempting to harness the potential of the diaspora. He announced that in one week’s time, Prime Minister Pashinyan will announce a new program in cooperation with the Armenian ministry of health. Hundreds of hospitals in the provinces of Armenia do not have a sufficient number of trained doctors. At present, the sick in these areas or in Artsakh must be transported to Yerevan for care. On the other hand, many physicians in the diaspora contact the government to ask how they could help Armenia. Pashinyan will announce all the positions that must be filled in hospitals, and arrangements will be made in all details to connect the physicians with specific positions. They will both do things like surgeries but also train local staff in specialized fields.

Minister of the Diaspora Mkhitar Hayrapetyan at the Baikar building (photo: Aram Arkun)

This approach will be expanded to many other fields outside of medicine, where diasporan skills will be matched to needs in Armenia.  Hayrapetyan said that the diasporan ministry is attempting to be the bridge between the various government ministries and the diaspora.

As part of its attempt to work more directly with the diaspora, 20 to 30 diaspora ministry employees will be sent to be trained for one year as professional diplomats in the diplomacy school of the Armenian foreign ministry, and discussions are in progress for having a representative of the diaspora ministry in various Armenian consulates. This person would work with communities to find out their problems and help solve them. The intent, Hayrapetyan said, is that “the community should have the feeling that Armenia cares.” The only challenge is to find the funds to pay for this, he added.

The ministry will prioritize working with young diasporan Armenians and will soon launch “Nerouzh,” a major project being prepared in cooperation with the IDeA Foundation, AGBA Federation, Dilijan UWC, UNDP and others, for Armenians from 18 to 35 years old.

It will finance 10 start-up business ideas from young diaspora Armenians with up to thirty thousand dollars. They will come live in Armenia and attempt to realize these ideas. Their workplace, residence and professional coaching will be provided. One precondition is to try to place these Armenians in the provinces if their business will work there.

An audience member asked whether English-language television programming could be provided by Armenia for the diaspora along with Armenian programs, perhaps with subtitles or dubbing. The minister said there were already such projects being realized. For example, the Turkish-Armenian community asked for news reports at least one hour a day to be presented in Western Armenian, and it offered to pay for all the costs. The ministry is working with Armenian public television to realize that project.

Hayrapetyan said he cannot promise it, but if he can do it he will. Hayrapetyan’s advisor Sahakyan said that it will have to be done in many other languages of the diaspora as well. Another audience member said that it was more an issue for the local television or cable distributors to subtitle or dub programs into other languages, but Western Armenian programming would also be good for the Republic of Armenia in order to familiarize Eastern Armenian speakers with Western Armenian.

Arkun asked that the request for the establishment of a consulate in Boston be considered, and in addition expressed the wish that the minister return soon to further strengthen ties with the active and large local community.

Mkhitar Hayrapetyan, at right, receives Tekeyan Cultural Association’s gift from Aram Arkun (photo: Knarik Arkun)

At the Armenian Cultural and Educational Center (ACEC), which was packed despite the inconvenient timing during the summer vacation period, the event began with a prayer by Fr. Antranig Baljian of St. Stephen’s Armenian Apostolic Church of Watertown. Afterwards Ani Zargarian sang the American and Armenian national anthems. The minister and his delegation had been welcomed with children in traditional costume bearing bread and salt. Hayrapetyan and his delegation were enthusiastically introduced by master of ceremonies Kristin Asadourian.

Ani Zargarian, left, with Kristin Asadourian at ACEC (photo: Aram Arkun)

Hayrapetyan spoke a few words about the successful nature of the nonviolent revolution in Armenia, quoting Gandhi and declaring that the victory belongs to all Armenians around the world. He said that this is an historic opportunity to show that the Genocide and all other actions against Armenians were failures, and that “Right now, we are showing the world that we are powerful. We are a great nation, with a great future.” He called on all those present to visit Armenia and enjoy the new atmosphere.

Mkhitar Hayrapetyan at ACEC (photo: Aram Arkun)

Furthermore, he said, a strong Armenia means a strong diaspora, and vice-versa. He stated that he was “appointed by the leader of my country Nikol Pashinyan to heal, yes, let me say to heal, the ties between Armenia and the diaspora.” He promised to be honest in his promises for actions. He said he came not to ask for money but support and action, as well as to get to know the diaspora and introduce to it the government’s vision.

Hayrapetyan immediately began to answer questions, read by the moderator and other organizers, which had previously been collected in written form electronically. He said that the ministry is going to prioritize the target young people living in the diaspora because this was a group overlooked by the ministry under his predecessor, with its potential underrated.

One important point made by the minister was that in the past, the ministry was identified solely with the person of the minister. Whoever came to the ministry would always only want to meet with the minister, not any employees. This was true, he said, for all ministries. Now, he continued, “We are doing a restructuring to limit my privileges. … It is about the collegial decision making process.” He emphasized that his deputy ministers make decisions just as he does. In the end, the institution itself must be strengthened. He concluded, “Ministers will come and go but the institution should stay forever.”

Most of the remaining topics were also discussed in the Baikar meeting. At the end of the evening, a person who had submitted a question electronically which was not read insisted on submitting her question in person. She asked about the position of the ministry concerning the Melkonian school in Cyprus as well as the closing of other diaspora Armenian schools in general. This question had been asked previously at the town hall meeting in Los Angeles and there the minister declined to make any statement.

This time, he said that he had met with Armenian General Benevolent Union president Berge Setrakian in New York the day before on this topic, but declined to state anything further for the present. He did say that he spoke with the Armenia Fund leadership in California during his visit there a few days ago and asked them to consider allocating five to ten percent of funds raised to the diaspora. This could help, among other things, to cover the expenses of diasporan schools which suffer from financial tribulations and at the same time would connect diasporan communities to one another. This is one example, he said, of how Armenia can help solve the problems of the diaspora.

The minister’s last statement, a repetition of the one he made in Los Angeles, was that he and his ministry (and the new Armenian government in general) would work with any individual or institution ready to serve Armenia, strengthen the diaspora, and strengthen relations between Armenia and the diaspora.

In Los Angeles and New York/New Jersey, the minister and his delegation met with a large range of representatives of Armenian organizations and institutions. A separate article in this issue describes the town hall meeting in New Jersey held at the TCA Center in Englewood Cliffs. In Glendale, among many other visits, he met with the officials of the Armenian-American Museum (see Mirror-Spectator, August 4), and a public town hall assembly was held by the ministry with the Armenian embassy to the US under the sponsorship of Mayor Zareh Sinanyan office on July 30. Many of the same themes noted in Boston above were brought up there first. Just as the Armenian community is much larger in numbers in Glendale, the size of the crowd that night was much larger.

Mkhitar Hayrapetyan, right, on stage with moderator Gev Iskajian, at the Pacific Community Center, Glendale, on July 30 (photo: Aram Arkun)

The crowd was also more unruly. During the question and answer session, they lined up to ask their questions in person, and some who made long statements instead of questions would resist efforts by the moderator to stop them. Some audience members who declared themselves to be longtime supporters of Nikol Pashinyan’s movement asked the minister why the government should work with elements in the diaspora which supported or collaborated with the old regime, and not in a way reward the local supporters. The minister reiterated in response the intent of the ministry and government to work with all elements of the diaspora willing in turn to work in good faith with the government, regardless of their previous political positions.

Audience surrounds Mkhitar Hayrapetyan at Pacific Community Center, Glendale, Califiornia, at end of event on July 30 (photo: Aram Arkun)

A curious incident occurred in connection with the Los Angeles public assembly. Hamazkayin and some other organizations connected with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation advertised on Facebook that they were sponsors of the assembly. In response to this and evidently other rumors, Hayrapetyan wrote, “Recently, it was brought to my attention that according to some rumors, my visit is organized by organizations affiliated with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. In order to address any misconceptions and concerns, I want to restate that all my meetings during the trip are organized and sponsored exclusively by the Government of Armenia and the Ministry of Diaspora.” The Facebook advertisement was afterwards changed.

Hayrapetyan was appointed as minister this May, and previously served on the political council of Pashinyan’s Civic Contract Party. He was coordinator of diasporan affairs for this party from 2016 to 2018.

Minister Hayrapetyan earned a master’s degree from Yerevan State University’s Department of Oriental Studies in 2013. Afterwards he served as an analyst for Armenian news media organizations for several years as well as led travel tours from the Republic of Armenia to Western Armenia, in present-day Turkey. He is fluent in Armenian, English, Russian and Turkish.

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