Babken DerGrigorian

An Expat Heads Efforts to Improve Diasporan Relations

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YEREVAN — Babken DerGrigorian’s life trajectory is emblematic of Armenian history: continent-hopping family and fluent in several languages, looking for, and ultimately finding, a new home.

DerGrigorian was appointed deputy diaspora minister in May, and in the wake of the absorption of the Diaspora Ministry into the remaining ministries in the government, he has been “tasked with coming up with a model of how to go about transitioning in the face of the high commission for Diaspora affairs,” he said in a recent interview from his office in Yerevan.

While most in Armenia and in the diaspora agree that the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, created in the government of President Serzh Sargsyan and led since its founding by Hranush Hakobyan, was not able to accomplish much by way of building bridges between the citizens and government of Armenia with the sprawling Armenian diaspora worldwide, the announcement by the post-Velvet Revolution leadership and new Diaspora Minister Mkhitar Hayraptetyan that the ministry would close resulted in much grumbling.

Now, the government, with DerGrigorian as its point person, is reaching out to the diasporan press to let them know about their plans for diasporan relations.

According to DerGrigorian, the high commissioner is going to be the prime minister’s main person in contact with the diaspora. “It is the symbolic and connective aspect of the ministry,” he said.

He stressed that the way the commission is designed to operate is planned to be different from a traditional one. “It will be much more engaged and more than a ministry” he explained. He added that with the position not being a ministry, it would afford the high commissioner to be “freer to be able to be more engaged” with diasporan questions.

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DerGrigorian stressed that the high commission will focus on four issues: reparation and integration; pPreservation of Armenian identity (hayapahpanum) and community support; creating a pan-Armenian agenda and tapping into the diaspora’s potential to help Armenia.

And, he added, that though the high commission has the purview to operate within the 12 other existing ministries, coordinating their diasporan outreach.

“Any of these 12 ministries will be able to actualize programs,” he stressed, such as the Ministry of Education or Ministry of Culture, and work toward maintaining and realizing constructive ties with the diaspora, he added.

“We are going to develop policy and monitor the implementation of that policy and maintain contact,” DerGrigorian said.

By contrast, he said, there was little coordination in the previous approach. “We are taking it to a higher level,” he said.

DerGrigorian, an early supporter of Pashinyan and his former spokesperson, praised the prime minister for “doing a great job communicating” with the diaspora, including recent trips to Iran, Belgium and Germany, where he met with many members of the community.

The plans for the diaspora issues gelled only in February, DerGrigorian said.

“We are gearing effort to get that message out. The press conferences have been effective, speaking to the diasporan press and meeting with diasporan leaders when they are in the country,” he said. “It is not closing but being transformed.”

Family History

DerGrigorian’s family history crisscrosses continents. His parents are from Iran and he was born in Paris. His family then moved to Los Angeles, where he grow up. After finishing his undergraduate studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, he moved to the UK, where he received two master’s degrees from the London School of Economics and Politics. He came back to the US to work for the presidential campaign of Barrack Obama in Florida for six months.

That experience, plus his time with Birthright Armenia, helped propel him deeper in the realm of activism in support of a government for all in Armenia.

He decided to give Armenia a try and moved there in April 2012.

Babken DerGrigorian on a television program

“It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that it was the best decision of my life,” he said.

In Armenia he worked at several organizations., including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) office, Open Society, HALO Trust as well as Transparency International.

“One thing led to the next,” he said. “Life has been more interesting.”

There were also ups and downs in his early and eager involvement with activism in Armenia. “I was arrested a number of times but it was all worth it,” he recalled.

Yet even he was surprised by the success of the Velvet Revolution. “I think anyone who says they predicted the revolution is lying,” he said. The protests were getting bigger and people learned from Electric Yerevan, the previous wave of protests for the rising cost of electricity. In fact, he said proudly that he coined the phrase Electric Yerevan.

DerGrigorian is brimming with optimism. “Armenia is the land of opportunity now,” he said. “Even before [the revolution] it was good place to be. Whatever you set your mind to, you can accomplish,” he said. Now, he added, “people feel they can contribute to society.”

Now, post-revolution, with the demonstrators in office, they have to work within the system and Pashinyan and his band of revolutionaries have to deal with reality in the face of the many promises they have made before getting into office.

“The bar is set very high. I think it should be very high. There are dedicated people who have been looking for change. I think especially once the government structure is changed, there are big changes that will happen quickly,” he said.

The government is not flawless, he said, but added, “what you finally have is a legitimate government that is genuinely interested in making Armenian reach its potential.”

“The important thing is for the diaspora to feel that the new government is very invested in engaging the diaspora,” he said.

So does this child of Los Angeles miss anything from home? “Maybe In and Out Burgers,” but not much else, other than family, of course, he said.

His mother is still in Los Angeles and his sisters in the UK. His wife, Karena, is also an Angelino and happy in Armenia.

“We plan to slowly bring everyone,” he said. “The important thing is for the diaspora to feel that the new government is very invested in engaging the diaspora,” he said.

 

 

 

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