TCA Vahan Tekeyan School students protesting the illegal blockade of Artsakh

BEIRUT — The once-mighty Armenian diasporan community of Lebanon has suffered greatly as a result of the nonstop onslaught on the country’s economy. While many have left to seek a better life abroad, others have stayed put and are trying to make life better for their fellow citizens there.

And what better way to help the Armenian community than to steward its youngest by offering them a good education for free?

That is exactly what the Tekeyan Cultural Association’s Vahan Tekeyan School, located in the Bourdj Hammoud neighborhood of Beirut, is trying to do.

Annie Lachinian-Magarian, left, and Sevana Semerdjian Darakjian

The school is one of several around the world that the Central Board of the Tekeyan Cultural Association of the United States and Canada (TCA) has sponsored. In the past three years alone, the board has raised and given about $125,000 to the school,

Two people making decisions for the school are Annie Lachinian-Magarian, chair of the school’s Board of Trustees, and the principal, Sevana Semerdjian Darakjian.

In an interview in July, the two described the struggles they are facing as well as the strides they are making.

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Lachinian-Magarian has been the chair of the school’s Board of Trustees for two years, and is currently the secretary of the TCA Founding Board of Trustees.

“The role has transformed because there is more collaboration with the school on a regular school, and my background being in education, has somehow benefited facilitating and coaching and mentoring our new principal,” after the previous principal had to travel to Canada for family reasons.

“We were lucky to have Sevana willing to join as a principal. The past two years, the learning curve has been really very steep and she has more than fulfilled expectations,” Lachinian-Magarian said. “We are very pleased with the progress she has made and her dedication and commitment are really exemplary.”

Young students at the TCA Vahan Tekeyan School

Darakjian has a long history at the school. Before she became principal two years ago, she had been an English there for nine years. And before all that, she was a student at the school.

Lachinian-Magarian is the university registrar at the Lebanese American University, one of the largest universities in the region, and is also a lecturer in English. Before that, she was principal of the Melkonian Educational Institute in Cyprus. Before that, she had been in the Sultanate of Amman in one of the universities established there by the AUB.

Darakjian has a BA from Lebanese University with a teacher’s diploma. She taught at Al Ahliah School for two years, before coming to teach English at her “second home.”

Seven Decades of Education

The school, offering nursery through grade 9, was founded in 1951, through the efforts of Hratchya Setrakian, under the patronage of the Board of Trustees of Tekeyan Cultural Association. According to the school’s website, its mission, aside from instilling a strong Armenian spirit in students, is “to bring out individuals who are full of service spirit and believe in universal human values.”

At its peak, 40 years ago, the school had 900 students.

Older students visit a museum with Principal Sevana Semerdjian Darakjian

Sadly, the past five decades in Lebanon have been marked with an ever-worsening economic situation and runaway inflation, which has led to a decimation of the population, including the Armenian minority. When it wasn’t the civil war or state corruption on a monumental level, it was the explosion of illegally stored fireworks three years ago which leveled parts of Beirut.

Still, the school persists. In the upcoming academic year, the school is expected to have between 140 and 150 students. The number has risen from 120 the previous academic year and 109 the year prior to that.

One of the ways the school is encouraging a higher enrollment is by offering free tuition to the financially strapped parents.

The challenges are many, “especially during this economic problems that Lebanon is facing, it has been challenging, but I was always ready to meet up the unexpected and carry it strongly,” Darakjian said. She praised Lachinian-Magarian as “the backbone behind my success.”

“There was a turning point in Lebanon when there was that port blast on August 4, and the school and our Tekeyan Center were damaged. With the help of Tekeyan Cultural Associations, the AGBU, individual donors and other associations, we were able to rebuild and renovate as much as possible,” Lachinian-Magarian said.

Added Lachinian-Magarian, “That was a very difficult economic year for our parents. Our students mostly come from low-income families. Most Armenian schools at the time, three years back, decided not to charge tuition. In solidarity everybody did that, including our school. Financially it was very challenging for the TCA, but we managed to do that.”

What was worse, many parents could “hardly put food on the table,” much less pay for schooling, and therefore the school decided that to encourage parents to enroll kids in the school, rather than in free public schools, they would waive tuitions.

“We wanted them to stay in the Armenian community, get a good education in a very safe environment,” Lachinian-Magarian said. She added that the school will be free next year, also.

Young students at the TCA Vahan Tekeyan School

At this most difficult time, the school found benefactors Sam and Silva Simonian of Dallas, who with a $100,000 donation helped it remain not only operational but also able to waive tuition for students. Sam Simonian is an alumnus.

Said Lachinian-Magarian, “We owe to their generosity the fact that we are able carry on tuition free. We know this will is not going be everlasting, but if the situation improves a little bit in Lebanon, we would again start asking for some tuition from parents.”

Both educators stressed that Armenian education is important.

“We believe that propagating Armenian culture and identity is very important. It is only in the Armenian day schools that you can efficiently inculcate all the values, mores, principles, songs and traditions,” Lachinian-Magarian said. “If we really want to encourage people to think, feel, to have the spirit in total Armenians, then the role of the Armenian school is very, very much needed, especially in this part of the world.”

Darakjian concurred and added, “In brief, to keep the Armenian identity alive.”

In the post pandemic world, the task for the educators has changed, Darakjian noted, adding that the school has to address more than the educational needs of the students.

According to Darakjian, “After corona our students suffered from being anti-social, emotional traumas, isolation, especially during this dire economic situation, since many of our students are from low-income families. As we have realized, the past two years they have suffered from emotional distress. As a school and teachers, we always cooperate with the parents. We hired a behavioral and special education therapist through the Howard Karageuzian Foundation,” she said. “She [the specialist] was able to take care of those students who were suffering with mental issues. We were able to contact the parents. The work will be ongoing the next year or two.”

Lachinian-Magarian said the small size of the student body makes it possible for the teachers and administration to address the special needs of children.

Darakjian said, as an example of these efforts, “Last year we incorporated a character education program which our teachers presented in different ways in order to each our students and give them the values” they need and “it’s helping them a lot. It helps in one way or another their perspective in how they view things.”

Darakjian noted that an immediate need for the school is a bus with at least 30 seats.

The TCA in the US regularly holds fundraisers in support of the school. Just this spring the Greater New York chapter of the TCA raised $5,600 for the school, while the Western TCA raised $3,000 toward the purchase of the bus.

Another item on the school’s wish list is solar panels, because the “generators, especially nowadays are very expensive as they need fuel,” Darakjian said.

“Our idea is we don’t want donations for scholarship purposes, but we have projects and needs,” Lachinian-Magarian said.

Young students at the TCA Vahan Tekeyan School

Aram Arkun, the executive director of the TCA of US and Canada, said, “The Tekeyan Cultural Association of the United States and Canada has supported Beirut’s Tekeyan School over the decades. In fact, its creation in part stemmed from efforts to raise money for the school.  We will continue to support the school as much as possible while the school continues to struggle with the difficult overall economic and political situation in Lebanon.  The high quality Armenian education it offers students, many of whom are from economically disadvantaged families, is extremely praiseworthy.”

TCA Greater New York Chapter Chair Hilda Hartounian added, “Access to a proper education is a universal human right and plays a pivotal role in the preservation of Armenian culture, so supporting institutions like the Vahan Tekeyan School is of the utmost importance to TCA. I feel personally connected to the Vahan Tekeyan School because my father, Krikor Kuredjian, spent years on its Board of Directors. Ever since I was a child, I’ve been aware of and appreciated the school’s value, which I am dedicated to preserving.”

“I may say that especially with the new board, our school is on the right track for a brighter future. In all aspects, not only in construction, but building students who can be future leaders. It’s all positive and we have many aims. One of them, it’s my dream, … my aim is to have secondary level,” Darakjian said.

The school already has the license for the secondary grades but it does not have the finances to make it a reality.

The two repeatedly thanked their donors.

“We feel privileged that we have a lifeline of donors from abroad. … Our lifeline is mostly from the US, from the TCA and major generous donors and we would like the message to go through that first we are very grateful and second that we have the courage, commitment and passion to carry on the torch of education here, in very difficult circumstances,” Lachinian-Magarian said, while Darakjian added emotionally, “against all odds.”

To make a donation to the school, visit or send checks to the Tekeyan Cultural Association (memo: Beirut Tekeyan School), at its headquarters (755 Mount Auburn Street, Watertown MA 02472). For more information, email or call 617 924-4455.

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