WATERTOWN — Samuel Sarkis Karabashian is, as his LinkedIn account announces, “an aspiring geopolitical and national security expert.” A grandchild of survivors of the Armenian Genocide in his late 20s, he has become increasingly involved in Armenian activities, and plans to move to Armenia next September for a year at least.

Sarkis Karabashian

Until the summer of this year, Karabashian was working at Deloitte, the multinational consulting and business services firm, doing national security consulting. There for some 3 ½ years, Karabashian said, “Working at Deloitte helped me find my passion for problem solving and interest in geopolitical events, which were skills I could apply to the Armenian case.”

When asked more specifically what he did, he replied, “I can’t speak directly about my former clients, but we worked in person alongside  them to figure out how they operate, how they can improve, and what they need – and measure things that they need, because they can then make a case for more funding, and make a case for how X amount of funding can provide what they need, and X objectives or Y objectives can be accomplished as a result. So there is an amount of analysis that goes into it on the strategic level, but in order to get very solid strategic level analysis and recommendations, you have to be in person with them operationally, and just observe and participate as needed.”

One good aspect of this type of job is that the longer you work in this field, the more people you know, he said. People tend in this field tend to stay and assume higher level positions, so networking makes a difference here.

Karabashian also began a master’s degree program in security studies at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service in August 2022. He said it specializes more in the defense and security realm as opposed to traditional international relations. As of July 2023, he became a fulltime student, planning to graduate next May.

He previously obtained a bachelor’s degree in 2019 from Biola University in business administration and business analytics.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

The Road to Armenia

“It has been this gradual story of restoring something that was lost,” Karabashian said of his involvement with the Armenian culture and community, and Armenia itself. His grandparents were genocide survivors. His mother’s parents were from Van and Izmir, he thought, and had left the Ottoman Empire prior to the Genocide to settle in the US, first in New York and then in Pasadena before that became known as a major community of Armenians.  His father was born in the US to a mother who didn’t speak any English and struggled to survive in this country. Karabashian speculated that as his father belonged to an earlier generation, born in 1937, he saw being Armenian as a detriment so he attempted to become more American.

However, his mother, raised in Pasadena, worked at the Armenian Assembly of America and helped organize a trip to Armenia in 1988. His father went on this trip and the two fell in love and got married. Karabashian was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

He said, “My parents did speak in Armenian but I think they wanted me to assimilate so they gave me an English name, Samuel, a biblical English name. They were a very religious family. We spoke Western Armenian generally but over time I lost it, the ability to speak, because we prioritized English in the house. I also didn’t grow up around an Armenian community.”

However, he did have some important experiences with Armenians, including with two Armenian exchange students Karabashian’s parents hosted when he was a child. These teenagers, Karabashian said, grew up to be very influential people with great integrity in Armenia, who years later became important contacts in Armenia.

Karabashian’s connection with Armenia dramatically changed when he was 16 years old. In 2013, his family took him to Armenia for the first time. They went to all the major touristic attractions, but then one day his mother ran into Peter Abajian, with whom she used to work at the Armenian Assembly. Abajian had become executive director of the Paros Foundation and was leading a group of college students on a trip called Service Armenia.  He invited the Karabashians to join the group and distribute Toms shoes in a village.

“When I helped give out shoes to these children, something in my heart lit up. I remember that moment very clearly, seeing a kid so excited to have his first pair of Toms shoes,” recalled Karabashian. The next two consecutive summers Karabashian formally joined the Service Armenian program and got to see various regions of Armenia. After that, he said, he interned briefly with the Homeland Development Initiative Foundation, with founder Timothy Straight, doing some international marketing work for several weeks in Armenia during the summer of 2016 after his freshman year of college.

At Biola, he said there was no Armenian students’ association, but there was one at California State University, Northridge (CSUN) where he had friends, and he worked with them. Biola, in Anaheim, California, is a Christian university, he said, and there were few Armenians there. Yet, he said, “I am very conscious about the fraternal aspect of being Armenian, so I would always find the other Armenians around campus, [and say,] you are Armenians, you are going to be Armenian, and we are going to be friends. There were a few who were very whitewashed, so through our friendship I helped them find value and beauty in their Armenianness. One of those guys I am friends with to this day.”

Karabashian did an internship as an analyst at the Center for Strategic Initiatives, which was a government-affiliated think tank in Yerevan that developed foreign direct investment opportunities for infrastructure, focusing on the top three industries of tech, tourism and agriculture.

In the summer of 2019, having graduated college, Karabashian interned with the Armenian National Institute in Washington as part of the Armenian Assembly of America summer internship program, after a brief period at the Embassy of the Republic of Armenia. Dr. Rouben Adalian, its director, recalled recently: “Sam distinguished himself with his energetic commitment to his internship and his serious interest in learning about his Armenian heritage.  He deeply appreciated the work at the Armenian National Institute (ANI) and took pride in making his contributions to its mission.  He also displayed qualities of leadership that made him the center of a very dynamic group of summer interns.”

Then in 2021, he went back to Armenia with Paros during the pandemic on a young professionals service trip. When asked recently about Karabashian, Paros Executive Director Abajian declared, “I am very proud of how Sam’s connection to Armenia has grown over the years. I have spent a fair amount of time discussing Armenia and its development with Sam and I have witnessed his passion to figure out just how he can benefit Armenia and its development through his time, talent and career.”

It was during this 2021 trip, Karabashian said, that he came into contact with iGorts, a program of the Armenian government which invites diasporan professionals to work in the public sector or government of Armenia for a year, and Birthright Armenia, a program for young professionals to volunteer in Armenia. He began thinking about returning for one year and also improving his mastery of the Armenian language. He started teaching himself and can read and write now.

At Deloitte, Karabashian said that he had a few projects that concerned Armenia. One is a water sustainability project that Deloitte implemented with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Deloitte oversaw the contract and delegated the actual work to local partners. Karabashian said he helped conduct interviews with specialists with his medium-proficiency Armenian. He did research on the water sector, measuring the viability of the project, and educated a lot of the company leaders on the project, as most of them had not been to Armenia for almost two decades.

Most recently, while concluding his studies at Georgetown, Karabashian tried to incorporate Armenian issues in his work. He said, “What I have been doing mainly at the moment is writing a lot, making every single one of my finals and midterm papers about issues like the Zangezur “corridor,” and US policy towards Armenia. In the meantime, I try to advocate with representatives on the Hill as well as friends that I have who are in the State Department or are serving in the European and Eurasian Affairs area.”

Connecting People with Armenia

Karabashian stressed that he feels a deep loyalty to the United States: “I owe the US. It afforded my grandparents the ability to live and survive after the Genocide, so I do everything I can to give back with the opportunities that God gives me.” While an American first, he said, “My goal is to get this degree, work for a little bit more, and see if I will be a good fit for iGorts or maybe another NGO, where I could advise, help and connect the right people, because I think that Armenia needs help and there is a lot it can offer the West. There are a lot of good things it can contribute to the world. It just needs the time, stability and the willingness of diasporans who are competent and smart to contribute more than just monetarily, but intellectually, and generously with their time.”

He has an overall vision. Armenians want the world to know their pain and struggle and who they are, but despite their clamoring for attention, he said, “We have never achieved more than being simply a weird place on the map that no on has ever cared to look at, or a footnote in history, or [connected with] a trending media personality in American culture, or blocking highways [as part of protests in Los Angeles] and pissing people off.” However, Karabashian said he has come to understand that people do not care about what you try to tell them. He said, “They care about what they have experienced personally,” and this is the way trust and rapport is developed.

To achieve this, he said, “My idea is to bring more odars [non-Armenians] to Armenia to experience it because I have seen with every single Armenian, including myself, and with odars, that when they go to Armenia, there is something in their soul that wakes up. There is something in that experience with this country, its history, its spiritual Christian roots and the tangible nature of the country’s existence.”

He did a small test of this this last summer, when he invited six friends to go with him to Armenia: “So I brought six of my friends from college, all odars, and one Armenian who had never been to Armenia, and I took them everywhere. I took them all the way down to Syunik, I took them to Khndzoresk, Karahunj and Yerevan. I had them meet local friends and spyurkahay [diasporan] friends who were visiting.” They interviewed people during the trip, as one of the friends was a videographer, and asked questions like what it meant to be Armenian, or why people love Armenia, and ended up with a small documentary.

The group of friends Sarkis Karabashian took to Armenia last summer, at Tsitsernakaberd’s Armenian Genocide monument in Yerevan

“After this trip, not one of my friends walked away the same. It was one of the most memorable experiences that they had,” Karabashian related. It convinced him that his mission should be to bring more non-Armenians to Armenia from Ivy League circles. He looks to a Jewish organization called itrek as a model. It organizes trips for non-Jewish graduate students in fields like law, STEM, policy and business to Israel so that when they eventually reach positions of power and influence they remember Israel. He said, “I have the same vision for Armenia. I am currently trying to start a non-profit. My vision and desire is to see more Armenians and Armenian student associations in universities across the country organize trips to Armenia and bring their odar friends…One day they will speak up and have a voice, and say, I was there. This place is worth protecting. This place is worth keeping alive. We should be involved. It is wrong for us to sit back and watch.”

He is looking for donations and also initially for a 501c3 organization to partner with until his paperwork with the IRS goes through. He is going to Armenia for two weeks this December to volunteer as much as he can in Meghri, in southern Armenia, as well as prepare for his move to Armenia next year after he finishes his studies. He remarked, “What I am doing is a bit independent and the details are still coming together. I have a saying: whenever you go to Armenia, you don’t really plan because Armenia will inevitably plan for you.”

When asked about how the domestic Armenian political scene might affect his work, Karabashian was not very concerned, declaring that “despite the bitterness that a lot of diasporans are feeling towards the current administration in Armenia, my policy is that you have to work with what you have…and if you are not willing to work with what you have to make it better, then you are not worthy of complaining in the first place.”

An important thread ever-present in Karabashian’s life is his faith. He said, “I will do whatever God calls me to. I will always proclaim the Gospel as best as I can in the moment when I see somebody needs and wants to hear it. I am growing in my faith. I am trying to figure it out. I know that whatever we are doing we are called to represent Jesus. I am trying to figure out how that looks like for me.” Consequently, he may also work with organizations like Samaritan’s Purse, an Evangelical Christian organization providing emergency aid while preaching the Gospel.

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: