By Liana Aghajanian,
The dispersion of any people from their original homeland” is the dictionary definition of diaspora, but it doesn’t do much to capture the complexity, challenges, nuance and difficulty of what it means to function outside of the place you originally came from.
When you’re involuntarily dispersed across the world, forcibly losing culture, you sometimes spend a lifetime trying to get it back. Sometimes there is success, but you often end up with more questions. You try to find your grounding, but end up permanently stuck in limbo.
It is not easy being part of a diaspora, no matter your background. Things feel fragmented — your identity, your loyalty, your language and family.
Armenians have been part of the American fabric for centuries, having contributed to society in ways that are often unseen — from medical advancements, law, art, entertainment and politics. These contributions are often ignored or unknown, but important. They offer a complex, three-dimensional glimpse of our legacy in this country.
Our story does not begin, nor end with Glendale, a place so synonymous with Armenian identity that even a hotel owner in the disputed territory of Abkhazia had told me he had heard of the city as the place to be for Armenian Americans.
But while Armenian Americans have adapted, assimilated and absorbed their American identity as much as their Armenian one, this involuntary displacement, sometimes two or three times over several decades, has added immense challenges to our experience.
Not only are we separated by dialect, food, class and political affiliation, we carry another country in the back of our minds, that for many, feels like a conundrum, even alien: Armenia.
We have projected much on to this young republic — barely 25 years independent, a piece of land where many were cut off for so long, a small country the size of Rhode Island coated in the sweet, sticky paste of blind nostalgia.
But in the last few years, access to real-time information has given Armenians in the United States and across the world a glimpse into a country that cannot and should not be neatly contained into a postcard, should not be confined to black tufa-stone souvenir key chains or bottles of brandy.
We have come to find out that Armenia is a real place, as real of a place as America. A place that has problems — from poverty to domestic violence to corruption and human rights violations. A place where Syrian-Armenian refugees have relocated to and faced challenges, but also shown resilience in the face of extraordinary hardship. A place that has more pressing concerns than just genocide recognition.
This realization has created an atmosphere of potential unity, an atmosphere that defies the very definition of diaspora.
A letter published in the New York Times on Friday confirmed this. As the Armenian General Benevolent Union, one of the oldest nonprofit organizations in the United States celebrated its 110th anniversary, a group of signatories linked to the “IDeA Foundation of Armenia,” a charitable organization dedicated to socioeconomic development have called on worldwide Armenians to use their collective energy as an opportunity to “pivot toward a future of prosperity, to transform the post-Soviet Armenian Republic into a vibrant, modern secure, peaceful and progressive homeland for a global nation.”
The group includes French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour, Carnegie Corp. President Vartan Gregorian, London-based Lord Ara Darzi, one of the leading surgeons in the world and Edward Peter Djerejian, a former U.S. diplomat who served in eight administrations — from John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton.
Collectively, it calls for a pooling of resources, commercial investment, innovation, expertise and active involvement dedicated to the advancement of Armenia.
Except for Salpi Ghazarian, head of USC’s Institute of Armenian Studies and whose commendable involvement in and outside of Armenia is vast, noticeably absent from the group of 23 signatories are women.
As Armenia and segments of its diaspora struggle with gender-equality issues and a growing cohort of feminist activists fight for legislative changes in the country, the equal representation of women in a letter as meaningful as this is not just important, but absolutely necessary. They, too, need to be included at the forefront of this fight.
Despite these shortcomings, this message feels unprecedented, surprising even — a chance, as the letter says, to not just have survived genocide, but to “reconstitute and thrive.”
“Diaspora” is a loaded word. It tends to simplify and group people together who often only have their heritage and nothing else as a connection.
Caring about a country 7,000 miles away isn’t a requirement, it’s a choice, a choice that should be embraced wholeheartedly, not just when it feels convenient, a choice that embraces both beauty and blemishes and works to heal the latter. For a scattered diaspora, it’s a choice whose timing has never felt so right.
LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.