Diaspora and the Armenian Identity (Part.1)

The Armenian Diaspora is very large and scattered all over the world. The largest seems to be that of the Russian Armenian Community that includes many recent immigrants from Armenia. They seem to be less well organised than some of the old qaghoots, but their proximity to Armenia, the similarities of the lifestyle and culture, their frequent visits to Armenia, and also the fact that, they consider Armenia as a possible “safe haven” in case of unforeseen political and economic difficulties in Russia, are the best attributes to preserve their Russian/Armenian identity and culture.

Western Europe that has a large and relatively better organized and active Armenian Community, is feeling the “growing pain” for keeping its European/Armenian identity and heritage that is fading away. The Eastern European Armenian communities are relatively new, less well organised, possibly with a faster assimilation rate than the Western Europe.

Once the thriving Middle Eastern Armenian Communities that has been the role model for the preservation of Armenian identity, is reduced to a shadow of its past vibrancy because of the massive out-migration of its community members to safer heavens, specially to North America. Maybe for some of them, it is not their Armenian identity that is at stake, but even their existence as a Community.

The large South American/Armenian Communities too, although better organised, but with their own “growing pain” as acute as in Western Europe if not more, are loosing their Armenian identity ass well, and it will be hard to reverse the trend.

The North American Armenian Community, the second largest after Russia, is the best organised community that I will talk about specially of Canada, where I have lived since 1965, and of the United States, (USA) that I know about through my frequent visits and some of my past organisational interconnections. Although it has a long history, but it seems it is getting continuously renewed with new immigrants from different countries at different times, that brings with them new cultures and traditions from the countries where they have lived and prosper.

Generally speaking, the Armenians started to arrive in North America from late nineteen century. But many came after 1915 Armenian Genocide. The first to arrive were the so called “Starving Armenians” that came from their ancestral homelands they called Airgeer. Places like Kghy, Van, Erzroom, Kharpert etc. (Starving Armenian was used often by supporters of the protestant missionaries to raise funds in support of their missions in Turkey)

This first generation of Armenian immigrants apart from their distinct Armenian dialects, brought also with them their distinct culture and traditions. They built Churches and Community Centers Agoomps and recreated a new Airgeer for their families.

They succeeded to passe on to their children and grand children whatever culture they grew up with back home in Airgeer. Their culinary, the Choercks, Boerecks, Mantees, Dolmas, Sarmas, Khimas, Koeftas etc. Their music, their dances, the Kocharies, Tamzaras etc. All at its original form as it could be. They also brought with them their songs specially revolutionary songs, the Tashnagtsagan Khoomp, Hunchagya zinvor, and grvetsek dgherk etc. And true to the spirit of the last song, they did so with passion, as they have done in Airgeer.

The second generation, the children of the “Starving Armenians”, educated in the American public schools, and most of them also university graduates, got their Armenian identity from their parents and grand parents and partially learned the Armenian language through the Saturday and Sunday schools, and summer camps etc. They barely managed to be able to occasionally speak Armenian with their family members and other Armenians specially at community functions, weddings, baptisms, picnics, etc.

The third generation, the children of the second generation, were mostly English speaking, but still loved the Armenian food, music, and specially loved the Armenian dance, the authentic Shoorchbars. At about this time, a big influx of Armenian immigrants arrived from Middle East that were mostly decedents of the Armenians from Cilicia. This large group of the new immigrants, managed to change the dynamics and the culture of the Armenian community in Canada and USA, at the expense of the original lifestyle and culture from Airgeer.

The leadership of this new immigrant generation, born and educated in Middle East, managed to take over the leadership of North American Armenian Community without any resistance from the “locals” who considered it to be a blessing. Specially so in Canada that had few very small old communities from Airgeer in Southern Ontario. (St Catherine, Hamilton, Brantford, and Gault/ Cambridge). There were hardly any sizable numbers in Toronto, and specially hardly any in Montreal and Vancouver.

Currently the Brantford Armenian Community that was the first and the largest Armenian Community in Canada, no longer exist. The St. Catherine and Hamilton Communities each with an empty Agoomp, and an empty Church, seems to be on the “Life Support System”. So seems to be the Armenian Communities of Niagara Falls and Syracuse of New York State, at close proximity to Southern Ontario. Are Cambridge, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, destine to the same faith?. Yes?, No?, Maybe?.

Zohrab Bebo Sarkissian.


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