Shushanik Hayriyan in Maine

Young Woman from Artsakh Forges New Ties Thousands of Miles Away from Home


BOSTON — For many college students, moving away from home is a rite of passage, albeit one in which they know they can expect visits from family and also return during breaks. For Shushanik Hayriyan, however, this experience is interlaced with an international tragedy — the blockade of Artsakh (Karabakh) by Azerbaijani forces.

Hayriyan, 23, now a freshman at the College of Idaho, hails from Sghnakh, a village outside the town of Askeran, in Artsakh. Her family is now stuck behind a blockade while she is in the US, unable to visit home.

While her story is frustrating and shot through with sadness, she has also made a deep connection with many people locally who have in effect created a new family around her. And that development came full circle through friendships forged by those supporting a remote corner of Armenia, as well as activists in the Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA). Through quick action, a group of women were able to connect Hayriyan with Judith Saryan, who has opened her home to the young student for the summer, changing both their lives.

Said a grateful Hayriyan during a recent interview, “It feels like my actual family, honestly. They’ve been very nice to me and the fact that they understand what is happening in Artsakh and the situation with my family is very important to me. For most of my time in Idaho, you never get people who are actually interested in my part of the world,” she said. “When it comes to the Armenian community, I find a lot of people are caring about Karabakh and the future of Armenia and it feels good to be around these people. I feel the diasporan Armenians are actually with us.”

From Yerevan to Idaho

When Hayriyan was 8, her family moved from Sghnakh to Stepanakert. She was accepted to the United World College in Dilijan, Armenia, better known as UWC Dilijan College, for two years after concluding 11th grade in Stepanakert. The school is part of the United World Colleges program, in which graduates receive international baccalaureates.

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She attended UWC on scholarship and at graduation, she received a full scholarship to the College of Idaho, where she is majoring in journalism and international politics.

“I graduated [from UWC] in 2019,” she noted during a recent interview. She then took a gap year, which was then extended by the pandemic.

Shushanik Hayriyan, seated with a young child on her lap, and with other family members, in Artsakh

Hayriyan, the seventh of nine children born to parents Albert and Ruzanna, started attending the College of Idaho in Caldwell, on the outskirts of Boise, in February 2023, during the university’s spring term, because her visa issues had delayed her expected start date in the fall semester. She had been living in Yerevan to take care of her visa issues.

She had last visited Artsakh in December 2022, right before the blockade. When she arrived there, on December 3, the Azerbaijani government closed the border for a few hours but quickly reopened it. She said goodbye to her family on December 9, only three days before the Azerbaijani government imposed its ongoing blockade.

After the semester ended in May, it became clear Hayriyan could still not go home.

“For the summer I was thinking what I am going to be doing, because I thought going back to Armenia is not very wise now since I won’t be able to see my family, and as a student, I can’t spend that much money, get to Armenia and then not see my parents,” she said. “I was thinking of staying in the US and staying at the College of Idaho, where they have some student summer jobs. But I thought it’s better to connect with the Armenian community in the US, just because it feels like home, with them honestly.”

She reached out to a friend, American-Armenian expat in Armenia Serena Hajjar Bakunts, who hails from the area and has since relocated to Yerevan and married a young man from Artsakh.

Zela Astarjian, vice president of the AIWA Board of Directors and the New England Affiliate President, shed more light on how someone from Artsakh and now based in Idaho was able to find connections so far away from both her original home as well as her US base.

The younger Astarjian connected Hayriyan to her mother, Zela, who got the ball rolling.

“Serena somehow heard about this girl and she was talking to Anais [Astarjian] and she said there is this girl and she could not get back to Artsakh,” Astarjian recalled in a recent interview.

“I talked to her a couple of times to figure it out and have her come to the East Coast rather than somewhere else,” Astarjian noted.

It was then that AIWA friends “sprang into action,” Astarjian said.

“I called Judy [Saryan] and a couple of other people,” she said. Among the people who expressed their willingness to open their homes to Hayriyan was Barbara Merguerian, an AIWA founder and former editor of the Mirror-Spectator. Eventually, Saryan and Merguerian spoke and decided that since Saryan is in Cambridge, an urban hub, it would be a much easier fit for the young visitor than Merguerian’s home, which is in the Metro West area.

Noted Saryan, “We have a deep connection with Artsakh and we are excited to have a young person from Artsakh stay with us.” She added, “We were very concerned that she could not go home.”

Shushanik Hayriyan with braids of dried aveluk (wild sorrel) in Maine

The experience has been great for Saryan. “I found her to be very bright, and a very imaginative, knowledgeable person. She has a lot to say and is thoughtful. She is a strong person. I am very impressed with her. I felt she had this strength of character and independent spirit. She was enthusiastic about spending time with us.”

Hayriyan accompanied the family to their home in Maine earlier this summer, where they all unexpectedly had experiences harkening back to Artsakh. When they were walking around, Saryan recalled, Hayriyan spotted aveluk, wild sorrel, and “we braided the leaves and dried them. We also picked rose petals and made rose petal jam.”

Thus, Saryan said, “a little taste of Artsakh” was revived in Maine.

Saryan said that their young guest would often speak about her father, who had trained as a vet and has his own business. “She has a special bond with her father,” she noted.

Saryan summed up the rollercoaster experience of her young friend: “To have these opportunities and yet be so concerned about how her family is doing… She dreams of visiting them.”

Astarjian said she enjoyed getting to know Hayriyan, taking her to various places in the city, including the Seaport.

Astarjian noted that this was not the first time that the AIWA network were able to help someone. Last year a stranded duduk player from Lebanon was able to stay with her.

“This is happening all the time. We need to have a place” for such stranded visitors, she stressed.

“She is lovely. It really tugs at your heart that she cannot go back. Your heart breaks and you want to help as much as possible,” Astarjian noted.

Silva Katchiguian, president of the AIWA Board of Directors, added, “For 32 years AIWA has been at the forefront of women’s empowerment. And by that we mean paving a way for women to be educated and informed to know their rights and to give them the “power” to independence. We know this is essential for the growth of any nation, and Armenia is no exception. Our goal at AIWA is to connect and support women so they have a trusted community of leaders navigating similar challenges. Diversity is core to our organization. The tools of the 21st century — connectivity, access to knowledge, access to each other — are tools that AIWA women can and do put to powerful uses. It is what we do at AIWA. It is in our mission to connect and elevate Armenian women globally. Globalization has given women a power they lacked in the past, the benefits of family planning, child care, good health care etc. and hopefully the power to end the system that breeds poverty, exploitation and oppression to some extent. We offer programs, mentoring and networking opportunities to Armenian women all over the world through our on-line platforms.”

Missing Home

For Hayriyan, getting in touch with her family now is not easy. “Most of the time there is a time zone difference and electricity outages. They don’t have electricity and the internet connection is not good.”

Hayriyan’s family seems to be doing okay, so far. “If I talk only about my family, I feel they are doing fine. They’ve always been very self-sufficient. We’ve been growing some of our food, potatoes and such, for our own use. But if we are talking about Artsakh’s people, more importantly, it’s a very uncertain situation in Artsakh. People don’t know how to feel about what’s happening. They definitely feel it’s a bad situation but they also don’t know who to call. It’s definitely not the Artsakh government and it’s definitely not the Armenian government because they don’t have any legal responsibility.”

She continued, “When it comes to the Russian peacekeepers, [protests and requests have] to be done on a governmental level and the people of Artsakh, even if they protest against the Russian peacekeepers, it’s not how it should work. It should be demanded on a governmental level that these peacekeepers have to do what they are responsible for. And when it comes to the blockade, it’s only because they are not doing what they are responsible for that we have the blockade,” she said.

She noted that while moving to Idaho and living in a dormitory were difficult for a variety of reasons, being a part of a diverse student body was not an issue.

“I studied at UWC and it’s known for its diversity. I didn’t have a big culture shock,” she said. The student body at Dilijan’s UWC comprises students from more than 88 countries.

“I would say Idaho is a very safe state, but there’s not much happening,” she said.

One source of frustration is that understandably, most people don’t know where Nagorno Karabakh is. “Some people who are majoring in politics might know about the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan but I would say it is still very hard for expel to understand what people of Nagorno Karabakh are going through,” she said. “The concept of a blockade is not very familiar to people. My friends are [however] very interested in this. I share stories on my social media platforms. I am not sure how much it can change but I feel that’s one of the things I am supposed to do.”

Hayriyan continued, “For me it’s very important to talk about the Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh and to put the stress on who is responsible for this situation because Russia is in fact our ally but we can see they are doing nothing,” she said.

“Let’s be real. The Russians are the ones who actually have responsibility over this corridor. They are the one we have a peace treaty with in 2020 and they signed the trilateral agreement, where the Russians said this corridor’s ‘free movement of Armenians’ would be guaranteed by the Russian peacekeepers,” she said.

Another photo of Hayriyan with her family in Artsakh

Help for the Homeland

Saryan is no stranger to Artsakh or philanthropy. Through the Tufenkian Foundation, Saryan and her husband, Victor Zarougian, have sponsored several projects in Artsakh as well as Armenia.

Saryan said that a center in Kornidzor, in Syunik, Armenia, near the Azerbaijan border, where the organization All for Armenia had created the KorniTun project to help the beleaguered area, was one of the projects to which they donated, to make the border region safer for the inhabitants. Through her support for KorniTun, she was able to connect with Bakunts and Matthieu Sahakian, both expats, who are helping the effort.

Saryan praised it as a “combined diaspora-Armenia effort,” in which the locals do a lot of the work.

“That is how we got to know them,” she said.

In addition, Saryan and Zarougian have supported Artsakh and Armenian though the Tufenkian Foundation, Children of Armenia Foundation and Christians in Need Foundation. For COAF, the couple donated to a family center in Stepanakert for children with emotional and speech difficulties. Through the Italy-based Christians in Need organization, in Stepanakert, they are renovating the Antonia Arslan Italo-Armenian Hamalir.  The upper two grades of the school offer courses in design and dressmaking, carpentry, and other vocational training.

They had also helped with the renovation of Shushi’s Yeznik Mozyan Vocational School, which sadly was lost after the war.

The couple believes in the future of Artsakh and has doubled down on helping since the end of the war in 2020. “It is important to create the sense that we are still trying to build an educational effort in Artsakh,” Sarysan said. “We want to offer hope. We want them to know people are playing attention to them and that we see them.”

Another effort is to provide students with biology and chemistry lab kits in Martuni, in Artsakh, one of the efforts the couple supports through the Tufenkian Foundation. According to the foundation, schools in Artsakh have long been under-resourced, with most having no lab equipment for students to learn about the sciences first-hand through experimentation. Designed to integrate with the 7th-grade biology curriculum, the lab kits support specific assignments throughout the school year. The kits include a microscope, specimen slides, Petri dishes, and many other items. The second phase of the campaign, which will provide lab kits to support the chemistry curriculum for the 7th, 8th and 9th grades, is scheduled to kick off in August just prior to the school year.

Back to Idaho

Hayriyan is set to start her classes on August 23.

When asked what she wants the government of Azerbaijan to hear about Karabakh, she said, “My number one message would be you can’t break us. We have been through this a long time and everyone knows how resilient and strong the people of Artsakh are. We are indigenous to this land and you know all the fake history you’re creating, no one will believe that,” she said.

She said her family is not considering leaving. “They’re going to keep on staying in Artsakh,” she said. She added, however, that fears for the safety for her family and all others there are very real.

For now, she said, she wants to “hug my parents.”

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