From November 16 to 20, I attended a few movies at the eleventh Pomegranate (POM) Film Festival in Toronto. The four-day program included 38 films from 14 countries. One of the movies I attended was titled “Temple of lights” Տաճառ Լուսոյ. It was 68 minute documentary on Melkonian Educational Institution (Melkonian) Մելգոնեան Կրթական Հաստատութիւն (Մելգոնեան) of Cyprus, directed by Nigol Bezjian of Beirut Lebanon.
It was a well-prepared documentary about Melkonian which has been one of the most important Armenian orphanages turned Boarding schools in once-thriving Armenian Communities of the Middle East. Unfortunately, this unique educational institution is closed as of 2004 and currently is just an empty edifice. At the time, the decision to close the institution was challenged by many alumni members but the school remains closed and the documentary did not shed any new light on its future either.
The interviews with many alumni members from Beirut to Istanbul to the USA were testaments to the important role this institution played in their lives. Apart from nostalgic memories and friendships, they also spoke about the Armenian atmosphere, and the culture of the institution that shaped their Armenian identity, and many of them became Armenian School principals, teachers, newspaper editors, community leaders, etc.
At the Q & A period, (moderated by Award-winning Canadian Armenian actress Arsine Khanjian of Toronto), Nikol Bezjian said it is sad that another Armenian orphanage turned Boarding School the Birds Nest Թռչնոց Բույն in Jbeil Lebanon, also closed its doors and part of the beachfront property was leased to a Lebanese private developer for 99 years to build a luxury hotel/resort on it. He also said the only Armenian Boarding School left in Lebanon is the Armenian Evangelical Boarding School in Aynjar, Այնճար a small Armenian enclave inhabited almost exclusively by the decedents of the Armenian Genocide survivors from the heroic town of Musa Dagh Մուսա Լեռ.
There were many Armenian Schools closed in Lebanon during the past decade or so due mainly to the out-migration of Armenians from Lebanon and Middle Eastern countries. I lived in Beirut Lebanon during the nineteen fifties when it was the hub, the role model, for the preservation of the Armenian identity in the Diaspora(s). (I still cannot come to terms with the idea that the St. Hagop Armenian School in the Ashrafieh district of Beirut where we lived, was closed a few years ago. Ashrafieh was a beautiful district of Beirut built on a hill, and St Hagop Church/School and ARF Azadamard club Ազատամարտ Ակումբ was the hub of the Armenian activities in that district).
It was in the Middle Eastern countries that many of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide, Մեծ Եղեռն, settled after 1915. They were mostly from the Cilician part of Armenia, and despite all the socioeconomic difficulties and challenges that they had to overcome, the credit goes to the surviving generation (our greatest post Genocide generation), for establishing orphanages, churches, schools, social, cultural, sport and other community organizations to help preserve the Armenian identity.
Over one hundred years have passed since the establishment of the Middle Eastern Armenian Communities in the Middle East. The successive generations have done their best to help keep the Armenian identity, but the out-migration of the Armenian Community members (mostly to Europe, North America, and Australia), has reduced these communities to a shadow of their thriving past as the bastions of the preservation of the Armenian identity.
Apart from the dwindling numbers, the Armenian Community Schools has changed dramatically from being an Armenian School that thought mainly an Armenian Curriculum plus Arabic as a second language, to an Armenian Community School that implements mainly the Arabic Curriculum, plus teaches Armenian as a second language. The transformation was a natural evolution and a necessary one as well, but the adaptation to the new reality has been slow and there are still many challenges to overcome.
The same is true for all Armenian Community Schools in Diaspora(s). In Canada, there are Armenian Community Schools in Montreal and in Toronto that are modeled on the Middle Eastern Armenian School system and face similar challenges. The solutions have to be found locally and according to the unique circumstances of each community. Any effort to develop an Armenian curriculum to “fit all” will not be practical.
I was part of the generation that started the ARS Armenian school in Toronto. My children were among the first to attend the school. My daughter was among the first graduating class (Grade 8) and my son was among the second graduating class. My grandchildren that are living in Toronto are also attending the same ARS School. (Currently up till grade 12).
This year I was invited to two focus group meetings by the School Board and became aware of the new challenges that the Board is trying to overcome. It was very gratifying to see many alumni members, including my daughter, involved in the improvement process as parents and board members.
Part of the success could come by using the limited time that is allocated to the Armenian curriculum (about seven classes per week in primary school and only three classes per week in High School) from teaching “a bit”, language, history, culture, religion, etc, to teach mainly the Armenian Language as a communication tool and concentrating more on the conversational aspect of it.
Introduction of the Armenian culture, history, and religion, (in that priority order) could be gradually introduced starting maybe at grade four or five. Furthermore, since the majority of the students come from English-speaking homes, it might be also possible to “use” the students as “teachers” to pass on to their English-speaking parents whatever they have learned and have fun too. This will be their Armenian “homework” and not the other way around. Don’t Parents love to pride themselves on whatever they learn from their children?.
Zohrab Bebo Sarkissian.
Zohrab Bebo Sarkissian.