A diaspora in reverse: Armenian Americans return to the homeland
As a fourth-generation diaspora Armenian, Mihran Papazian never imagined himself returning to the homeland permanently. He was a classic “summer Armenian,” visiting Armenia regularly on vacations, but never for more than a month or two at a time.
“We always said, ‘We’ll move to Armenia when we retire,’” he said between puffs of tobacco from a narghile pipe at a cafe in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, speaking of his family — himself, his wife and two young children. “Then we thought, we should move there while the kids are still young. And that became, OK, we’re moving tomorrow.”
The cause of the shift? Abruptly winning an Armenian government-funded program for diaspora entrepreneurs during a visit late last year. “We decided to enter [the start-up contest], and ended up being one of three winners,” Papazian said. “We learned in December that we had won, and the thought was, well, are we doing this?”
They were. Within a week, the decision was made. A hundred years after his ancestors left Armenia during the Armenian genocide, Papazian was coming home. Armenians worldwide mark Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day on Friday.
Scholars are building a record of memories from the Armenian diaspora that chronicle an often untold perspective on life under the Ottoman Empire.
His journey is not unique. Since coming to power following 2018’s Velvet Revolution, the government of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has made a concerted effort to attract diaspora Armenians — who outnumber their indigenous compatriots by more than 2 to 1 — to move to the homeland.
They have already found some success. Last year saw more than 15,000 migrants arrive in Armenia, the largest number in over a decade, according to Hrant Mikaelian, a statistician and researcher at the Yerevan think tank Caucasus Institute.
Though most of these are from countries such as Iran, Lebanon and Russia, each of which has a large Armenian community, Western countries are increasingly providing repatriates as well. The Los Angeles area, with perhaps the largest diaspora Armenian community in the world — anywhere from 150,000 to 1 million, with a large concentration in Glendale — is a key contributor to this.
Exact statistics are difficult to determine, but by examining the 2018 and 2019 demographic figures and border crossing numbers from Armenia’s national statistical committee, a rough figure can be established: About 350 Americans, roughly half from California, have moved to Armenia since the revolution, Mikaelian said.
One of these was Papazian. At 37, the French-born entrepreneur has extensive experience packing up everything and relocating. He moved first to New York at 19, before settling on a more exotic destination the next year — China. That detour would last a decade.
“China was where I really grew up,” he said. “I spent an hour with a tutor every single morning learning the language, five characters a day.” Papazian honed his Chinese skills by hiring exclusively non-English-speaking employees at the shipping company he ran in Shenzhen.
After nine years, he and his family started to look elsewhere. They wanted a more Armenian environment, so Los Angeles and its community were a natural choice.
It was his wife who rekindled his dormant Armenian-ness, Papazian said.
“Of course I knew Armenian as a young kid, but my schooling was entirely in French,” he says. “There [were] about 10 years where I didn’t speak it at all.”
But when he met his wife, originally of Syrian Armenian extraction, in New York, his nearly nonexistent English necessitated a return to his roots. “Armenian was our common language,” he said.
Los Angeles had been the family’s home for five years when something extraordinary happened in Armenia. Anger over a constitutional change that would in effect allow the longtime Armenian leader, Serzh Sargsyan, to rule for another decade or more spilled over into massive street demonstrations in the capital.
Within weeks, his government would be toppled, with protest leader Pashinian the beneficiary. Not a drop of blood was spilled, a fact that won international acclaim and led the Economist magazine to declare Armenia its 2018 “country of the year.”
Papazian acknowledges he was surprised. “I never imagined such a thing would happen in Armenia,” he said. That led to a late summer 2018 trip to the country, where he filed his fateful start-up grant application.
The Papazians’ next trip to Yerevan came in February 2019: a three-month trial balloon, to see how the adjustment went. It was a success, and the Papazians moved permanently in June.
The role of the 2018 revolution in changing the perception of Armenia among the diaspora was huge, says Vartan Marashlyan, executive director of Repat Armenia, a nongovernmental committee. “People used to have a very pessimistic view of Armenia” abroad, he said. “Now we are having the opposite problem — managing people’s very high expectations.”
Repatriation from the diaspora has been occurring in some form or another since shortly after Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Different diaspora communities have different motivations: For U.S. Armenians, the reasons are usually “more emotional” than economic, Marashlyan said.
But Papazian stressed that he sees real financial reasons for relocating. He’s already planning to utilize the country’s human capital — “huge, especially in IT,” he said — in conjunction with his Chinese business partners. He now runs a dental products manufacturer, Brushette.
“China has the capital, but Armenia has the know-how and the affordability,” Papazian explained. “If you’re a Chinese company, would you go to L.A. or San Francisco and pay someone $80,000, $120,000 a year? No! Come to Armenia, and pay them $500 a month.”
Papazian is not the only recent repat launching a business in Yerevan.
Luca Keushguerian, a 26-year-old Maine native, has also found his niche. He moved to Yerevan in summer 2018 and works as a rock climbing guide and instructor.
“I felt like Armenia was a good place to live and start a business,” said Keushguerian, whose sister and several other family members had repatriated in years prior. He had been considering the move for several years, but in the wake of the revolution, things fell into place.
Other repats have come from closer to the Caucasus. Hrayr Barsoumian, a Lebanese Armenian, followed his dream of relocating to the ancestral homeland 18 years after his first visit in 2000.
“[Repatriation] was what I believed in all my life,” said Barsoumian, a financial risk manager. He credits his motivation to four pillars: his parents, his school, the Armenian diaspora organization Homenetmen, and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation.
Harout Mkhjian made his own move to Armenia in fall 2018, trading Amman, Jordan, for Yerevan. Mkhjian’s repatriation had economic considerations as well as emotional. “I have a good opportunity to gain experience as a full-stack software engineer,” he said.
Now firmly entrenched in Yerevan, Papazian has no plans to leave anytime soon. He has just purchased an apartment for his family in a district overlooking downtown’s scenic Cascade monument — the “Hollywood Hills of Yerevan,” he jokes. His business is growing, with 10 employees now.
He’s also taken on a more active role in promoting Armenia to other would-be repatriates. Papazian has done a number of live events and Q&A sessions with Repat Armenia, and he’s putting together a handbook covering the legal basics of living and working in Armenia.
More L.A. Armenian repatriations are in the works. “I know five or six families [in L.A.] who are on the verge,” he said, adding that each success story builds more momentum.
As the narghile burns down and the evening temperatures start to drop, his family’s century-long journey home seems to be complete. “I think we’ll be here for a long time,” he said.
Hauer is a special correspondent.
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