Peer to Pier: Conversations with fellow travelers
Anahit Gharibyan, 58, is the manager of the Community Tree Planting program of Armenia Tree Project Charitable Foundation, a position she has held for 16 years. She was ATP’s first employee, hired in 1994. Under her supervision, about one million trees have been planted across Armenia. I was introduced to Anahit by friend and former colleague Judy Saryan — who authored www.ViewfromthePier.com’s first Guest Room column. As my email exchange with Anahit unfolded, I was on holiday in Cyprus, which is one of many locales around the world with an Armenian population. The Diaspora is one of many facets of Armenian heritage that Anahit touches upon in her inspiring account of her personal history and that of her country. Anahit’s story, and that of ATP, offer hopeful lessons of how goodness can be born of tragedy.
Anahit also offers insight on the inter-related traits of patience and persistence and how these characteristics, like trees, can be cultivated and serve as great sources of strength.
I learned a great deal about the Armenia of today and yesterday through Anahit’s experience. I think you’ll find the conversation fascinating and moving.
I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of un-important people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.
William Saroyan 1908–1981
Meg: You became a resident of your own country only as a young woman, after having grown up in neighboring Russia. Can you tell me what your transition was like, returning to the homeland you had left as a one-year-old, at 22 years of age — and a newlywed?
Anahit: My family moved to Russia to live in Rostov-on-Don when I was one year old. My father graduated from the Yerevan Institute of Zoo Technology and Veterinary Medicine and was sent to work in one of the villages near Rostov. At the time, the graduates of all Soviet institutes had to work obligatory for two to three years in some town or city in the USSR where they needed a qualified specialist. My father was lucky — he was appointed to a place close to the city where he was born. Later we moved to Rostov, as my brother and I had to go to school.
I uttered my first words in Russian, because we were surrounded by only Russians. My parents tried to not lose their language and spoke to each other in Armenian. My brother and I could understand them, but would only respond to questions in Russian. My grandfather and grandmother would tell us Armenian folk tales. My grandfather would sing the Armenian song, “Dle Yaman” while he was working — he was a tailor — and when he would end the song, he would burst into tears. We all understood that he missed Armenia and the song would make him very emotional.
When I got married to Henry and moved to Yerevan, I had a wonderful feeling that all people surrounding me are my relatives as they are all Armenian. I think it’s a similar feeling is had by every other Armenian living abroad among “odars” (non-Armenians) who comes to visit Armenia. I was happy to find myself in a very beautiful city with specific national architecture which differed very much from the industrial regular Russian cities that have no face or personality.
My transition period in Armenia was not that long and was pretty much complete by the time of the birth of my first daughter Zaruhi (Zara). Her first words were in Armenian.
Meg: Can you explain why your family moved to Russia?
Anahit: I spent my formative years in Russia because of my father’s family. My grandparents come from former Armenian village Nors in Nakhichevan which is situated at present Azerbaijan. Before 1921 Nakhichevan was part of Yerevan province. On March 16, 1921 the Soviet Russia and Turkey came to an agreement in Moscow, which defined that Nakhichevan was passed to the Soviet Azerbaijan “with the status of an autonomous territory”.
In 1918–1920, as a result of two Turkish invasions, part of the Armenians population in Nakhichevan — about 25, 000 people were assassinated by the Turkish occupants and bands of Mousafats, and part of them were forced to leave their homeland. My grandfather and grandmother were lucky to survive and flee to Nor Nakhichevan in Russia in 1918.
Nor Nakhichevan, literally New Nakhichevan was an Armenian settlement near Rostov on Don. It has an interesting history. In 1778 Catherine the Great invited Armenian merchants from Crimea to Russia and they established a settlement on the Don, which they named Nor Nakhichevan after one of the ancient areas of Armenia. As a result more than 12 thousand people moved to the Don region. In 1928 Nor Nakhichevan was combined with Rostov on Don.
My father, his sister and three brothers were born in Nor Nakhichevan. However, the place of birth in their passports was noted as Rostov on Don.
Meg: Can you give some background on how ATP came about?
Anahit: As a result of the Armenian Genocide that began in 1915 and the Turkish invasion of independent Armenia in 1918 — 1920 and, there was an Armenian Diaspora and Armenians moved to all corners of the world. It’s said that you can go to any country in the world and will find at least one Armenian.
The Diaspora helped to create Armenia Tree Project and contribute in so many ways to the development of Armenia. You see, even in tragedy, there can be goodness and my experiences with people from the Diaspora have been an inspiration to my work.
The early 1990’s were probably the most difficult years for Armenia since the Genocide. There were about 500,000 homeless people after the earthquake and 200,000 refugees who arrived from Azerbaijan. There was an economic blockade and an energy crisis.
Immediately after the devastating earthquake in 1988, the Armenian Assembly of America came to Armenia to help. The Assembly established the first Armenian-American organizational presence in Yerevan. ATP’s founder, Carolyn Mugar was among the first trustees of the Assembly to come for assessing the situation and to participate in the development of the process of assistance. At the time, she was powerfully struck by the tremendous needs that existed and wanted to do something to help fill those needs. On return trips to Armenia in the early 1990’s, during the bitter winters of the energy blockade, what she and her late husband, John O’Connor, saw was a country not only with huge deforestation, where people were cutting trees and park benches for heat, but also the tremendous need for food and jobs. She and John observed the devastated human, economic and environmental conditions and searched for a way to change the situation.
Based broadly on the Jewish National Fund’s tree planting in Israel, the idea developed into the establishment of Armenia Tree Project (ATP) in late 1993/1994. Diasporans funded the project by donating money to plant trees in honor or memory of someone.
Carolyn’s vision was ahead of its time. She wanted to connect the Diaspora with Armenia by giving them an opportunity to put down roots in the homeland while at the same time reaching out to the people in Armenia. By planting trees, particularly fruit trees, ATP would provide food and jobs for the future of a beleaguered nation.
The first employees of the Armenian Assembly of America (AAA) office in Yerevan were people who knew English at that time. One of my friends was among the first Yerevan office staff members. She was the person to tell me that new projects were opening up at AAA. ATP was functioning under the umbrella of AAA. I was lucky to be interviewed by Carolyn and was hired in November 1993 to work at ATP.