Intersections: The challenge of returning home

The collapse of the Soviet Union, an energy crisis that followed, a devastating earthquake and a war with neighboring Azerbaijan has driven more citizens out of Armenia than officials would probably like to admit.

While the waves of emigration continue, with more ethnic Armenians making up a worldwide Diaspora than actual citizens of the landlocked country, a small minority are answering the call, and “coming back home” from all around the world — Toronto, Jordan, London, Beirut, Boston and even Glendale.

Intrigued by the dream of repatriation, Vicken Arabian left Glendale for Yerevan six years ago to start a new life with his three boys and wife after the romance of repatriating became a reality when he purchased a home and started a business. A descendant of genocide survivors, living in Armenia was always at the back, or perhaps forefront, of his mind. Now a general contractor who builds condominiums in the city, Arabian's dreams have come full circle.

“I'm enjoying my life,” he says. “Life here is more comfortable, more carefree, despite the fact that there's a lot of hurdles.”

Comparing it to the states, Arabian says the social environment is easier to adapt to, having made the same number of friends in just a few years in Armenia as he did after two decades in the Glendale area.

Despite the idea that people think it's a sacrifice to live in the developing South Caucasus country, he says he never thinks he's sacrificing anything, but leading a more simplistic life that's allowed him to look at what defines quality of life for him.

“People were just too dependent on their daily routine and here it's not like that,” he says. “Not everything is planned. We don't have to make an appointment to see each other, people think Armenians in Armenia are complex people, but it's just the opposite, I think.”

Living in post-Soviet Armenia, as the country faces numerous political, economic and civil challenges — Freedom House, an international organization that conducts research on democracy and human rights, ranked Armenia in its 2011 report as “partly free” — does come with difficulty.

“People don't have a strong belief in the rule of law in this country,” Arabian said, adding that corruption in government affects everybody almost all the time. “We have to start believing in the rule of law, positive aspect of the rule of law, from the most unimportant law to the biggest law. That's the negative aspect that I hate about living here.”

The lack of freedom and civil liberties is an aspect that Hovik, who runs his own IT consulting and software development company and requested that his last name not be used, doesn't like either.

In Glendale temporarily, Hovik is planning to return with his wife, which he met in Armenia, and his two daughters within a year. He says, like Arabian, that life is less complicated in the country and he feels his impact to make a difference is greater than it would have been in the U.S.

“To me, it felt like a great challenge,” he says on the move to Armenia. “To see whether a Westerner can make it in Armenia, both professionally and personally. I was in between jobs and had some business ideas that involved computer software and Armenia was a natural choice for testing the ideas out.”

Coming from Glendale, Hovik says he enjoys the ability to use public transport and relatively inexpensive taxi cabs to move around in Yerevan, and sees the significance of living in a place with thousands of years of cultural history.

For him, the worst thing about Armenia is seeing the poverty the country suffers from, as well as the corruption. Armenia was ranked 109 out of 180 countries in Transparency International's 2009 Global Corruption Report.

“Just like other inheritors of the Soviet legacy, corruption is a disease that affects Armenia as well,” he says.

With a staggering emigration rate — totaling 15,000 people each year between 2005 to 2010, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe in report about aging in Armenia — the country is bleeding more people than it is taking in.

The key to reversing this trend is to make people feel there's a future for them in this country, Arabian said.

“That's the underlying reason that people leave. People need hope, and there's less hope today for the average Armenian than there was six years ago. People feel that they don't have control over their destiny or future. A lot of that is political, the fact that the ruling class is completely out of touch with the people.”

While he isn't sure if he'll call Armenia home for the rest of his life, he feels he's on the right track in the country, he says.

“I can't tell you where I'll be 10 years from now, it all depends on where life leads us,” he said. “Armenia is a great place and we're enjoying our life now.”

LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a writer and editor who has been covering arts, culture and news in print and online for a number of years.

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