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 which includes many recent immigrants from Armenia. They seem to be less well organized 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 which 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 organized, and possibly with a faster assimilation rate than Western Europe.

Once the thriving Middle Eastern Armenian Community 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, especially 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 organized, but with their own “growing pain” as acute as in Western Europe if not more, are losing their Armenian identity as well, and it will be hard to reverse the trend.

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

Generally speaking, the Armenians started to arrive in North America in the late nineteen century. But many came after the 1915 Armenian Genocide. The first to arrive were the so-called “Starving Armenians” that came from the 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 in passe on to their children and grandchildren 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 especially revolutionary songs, the Tashnagtsagan Khoomp, Hunchagya zinvor, 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 grandparents 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, especially 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, and music, and especially loved the Armenian dance, the authentic Shoorchbars. At about this time, a big influx of Armenian immigrants arrived from the Middle East that were mostly decedents of the Armenians from Cilicia. This large group of new immigrants managed to change the dynamics and the culture of the Armenian community in Canada and the USA, at the expense of the original lifestyle and culture of Airgeer.

The leadership of this new immigrant generation, born and educated in the Middle East, managed to take over the leadership of the North American Armenian Community without any resistance from the “locals” who considered it to be a blessing. Especially so in Canada which had a 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 especially hardly any in Montreal and Vancouver.

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

Zohrab Bebo Sarkissian.


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