Sunday, November 27, 2016

Empty Spaces 

Dozens of unfinished apartment buildings dot the barren landscape. It looks like a post-apocalyptic nightmare. There are no doors or windows. You can see right through the ghostly structures and the only thing to be heard is the wind whistling through the empty spaces.

The district of Sheram, on the outskirts of Gyumri seems to be frozen in time. Construction of the buildings began after the 1988 Spitak earthquake by Soviet authorities, however was halted after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The cluster of half-constructed buildings stand as a monument of an empire no longer in existence, of a plan unfinished.

Driving up to the neighborhood, the buildings appear completely void of human existence. It is only when you see a clothesline suspended on the side of a decrepit building in the distance that you realize that people actually "live" here. 

In fact, 18 families have taken up residence in two of the buildings in the district. It is unthinkable. 

As we drive up to one of the buildings, we see a woman outside in the frigid temperature filling a pail with water from a crudely-fashioned faucet near the entrance. Two little boys in tracksuits and slippers run around nearby. An elderly man on a balcony watches us intently, smoking a cigarette.

We get out of our car as two women approach us. They are Anahid Karapetyan and Armine Mkrtchyan. They want to know how we ended up in a place everyone else seems to have forgotten. We fumble around to find the words to string together to make some sense. We want to know how they ended up here. But it really doesn't matter. They are here.

And here there is no running water, no sewage system, no natural gas, and no hope. The people of Sheram live in squalor, in buildings not fit for human existence, forgotten and abandoned. The basements of the buildings are flooded with water and human sewage. The interior walls are covered in a thin coat of ice. They scavenge the fields for anything they can burn for heat including plastic bags. Anahid says the only thing they don't burn are people, anything and everything else is thrown into their wood burners. You can imagine what our homes smell and look like she tells me and adds that in the hot summer months their buildings are a "nest of cholera."

But we are used to these stories, aren't we? We've heard about the thousands of people who lived in domiks in Gyumri years after the earthquake. We've heard and read and seen poverty in the towns and villages of the country. We've seen the faces of children living in those conditions. Why should this story be any different?  It isn't. That is where the tragedy lies.

Armine's daughter Ani is 11 years old. She stands near her mother and fidgets with her jacket. Her 13-year-old sister Anna watches us quietly with a blank expression. They have no coats on, no hats, or scarves or gloves in the sub-zero temperature. Their lips are chapped and their cheeks are dry and red; they look so much older. Ani tells me she wants to be a hairdresser when she grows up; Anna is indifferent when I ask her what she wants to be. She shrugs her shoulders and says she doesn't know. I ask their mother how they get to school. Armine looks down and then off into the distance and tells me that her children don't go to school.

And that's when it happens. The moment you lose your composure and countenance. When you realize that your griping earlier in the day for not finding a decent cup of hot coffee is utterly ridiculous and stupid and privileged. "What do you mean they don't go to school?" I ask emphatically. And now it's Armine who shrugs her shoulders and explains that they have to walk all the way out to the highway, almost a kilometer away, and then take two buses to get to school. "It's not possible," she says. The two girls look at me forlornly. 

I drop the subject.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Peaceful Transition of Power

Dear America,

For those of us on the other side of the pond, your outrage and desolation, your disbelief and bewilderment at the result of your presidential election is mystifying.

Let me explain. I'm Lebanese by birth, Canadian by nationality and Armenian by ethnicity. I grew up at the tail end of the 60s in a predominantly white neighborhood (in my school there was an Arab, a Jew and me, a dark-haired Armenian whose parents were immigrants, desperately poor and uneducated), formed a consciousness during the 70s, somehow navigated the 80s (with awful perms and inexcusable shoulder pads), saw huge ruptures in empires in the 90s and moved to a post-Soviet country in the 2000s. I've been around.

Half of your country voted for a man with no political experience, lots of money and a divisive voice he felt he had the right to throw around indiscriminately. His populist rhetoric appealed to the lowest common denominator, but it clearly resonated with millions of people. That is a reality you need to face and accept.

On the other hand, the Democratic Party threw its weight behind a candidate that represented different things to different people. Her election would have been historic because for the first time, you would have had a woman as president - one with a strong, albeit controversial, political legacy. But she also seemed to represent so much of what has worn you down - the prestige, privilege, money and influence of the 1 percent, the godforsaken Establishment that preferred to bail out overpaid entitled bank executives on Wall Street rather than address the deep national divide, the festering racism and bigotry, the lack of social protection...

I suspect you're going to say, but hang on a minute, she won the popular vote and the Electoral College is inherently flawed and that's why we find ourselves at this impasse.

Yes, she won the popular vote but she didn't win people's hearts - she just promised more of the same. The Electoral College I will admit is a mystery to me but it's what your forefathers came up with, either accept the results or begin a serious national discussion on how to fix it, improve it or completely do away with it.

What you fail to see in your current state of distress is that you live in a country that everyone wants to come to. Despite the proclamations of some that they would leave if the blonde guy got into the Oval Office, despite the fact that Canada's Immigration and Citizenship website crashed in the hours following the results and despite the fact that many, myself included, made fun of the situation (although it is clearly not funny), most of you don't realize how blessed you are. While you live in a country that has flaws and hasn't always kept its promise of the American Dream, it's where millions of immigrants have flocked to and although they struggled, they have contributed to the rich fabric of civic life.

To return to those of us on this side of the pond...we have not see one single presidential election in Armenia that didn't disintegrate into protests, clashes, riots, and tragically deaths. Every election cycle in this country and most in this region and elsewhere in the world, causes such instability and social discord that it takes us four years to overcome them until we need to brace ourselves for the next cycle. We don't have the luxury of 240 years of democracy, of strong institutions that can weather political upheavals and unanticipated election results and yet we continue to struggle.

While you protest in cities across the country, claiming that Trump is not your president, you fail to see the beauty of a system that allows the peaceful transition of power, something most of the world can only hope for and dream about. The gift of your democracy can be found in that transition.

Every nation needs time to grieve its losses, experience sorrow and fear for the future. Just ask us, we know the score and though our democracy is in its infancy and still terribly fragile, we wake up every day and press ahead. We're even used to being told how to do it. Now, it's time for you to get on with the task of rehabilitating your divided nation.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Armenian Woman: From Progressive Emancipation to Conservatism

Many years ago, I was asked to speak by our local Armenian Relief Society (ARS) chapter on the occasion of Mother’s Day in Toronto. I was a young mother myself at the time, raising two young children, and working excruciatingly long hours. Had it not been for my mother, I’m not sure how I would have survived that period in my life. Naturally, my speech was dedicated to her and to all Armenian mothers.

I don’t remember exactly what I said that day except that I considered my mother to be the anchor of my life, the one person on the planet who loved me unconditionally and always, always had my back. I recall looking out in the audience and seeing my Mom sitting beside my daughter, her eyes full of tears ready to tumble down her cheeks, and hoping that I would be to my children what she was and continues to be for me—a source of unfaltering guidance, wisdom, and faith.

Back then terms such as women’s rights, equal access to resources, stereotyping of women, rigid gender roles, domestic violence, or discrimination were not part of my consciousness when I thought about women or mothers—Armenian or otherwise. Those were issues that, I believed, had been resolved for my generation by the women’s movement of the 60s.

As I have gotten older, my perception of the Armenian woman has changed; moving to Armenia shifted the ground beneath my feet. Today, more than ever, I am confounded by the “Armenian woman.” Who is she? What does she represent? What is her opinion? Why is she absent in leadership positions within institutional diasporic structures and in decision-making bodies in all three branches of government in the homeland? Where is her political activism? What is her role in the nation-building process?

Today, we live in an era of global mobility with a capacity to transfer knowledge, technology, experiences, and skills. The Armenian Diaspora, I would argue, is sophisticated and well organized, with a bank of highly trained professionals and experts in a variety of disciplines, and more economically powerful than Armenia itself.

Highly skilled diasporans living in foreign lands can serve as living bridges of knowledge and experience, and can help initiate a national discourse on issues affecting the nation. Effective diasporic organizations, networks, or movements can help shift the brain drain from the homeland to a brain circulation.

From alleviating to elevating

While diasporic women’s organizations came to Armenia immediately after independence and carried out projects and implemented plans, their imperative, in general, was not to elevate the role of women per say, but rather to provide services that would alleviate a woman’s burden. A noble and worthy venture indeed, but this did not serve to germinate the seeds for social mobilization that would have demanded and perhaps secured resolutions to some of the crippling problems faced by women in the homeland.

While they gave of their time and energy, they did not demand a more instrumental role in the rebuilding of institutions and the creation of networks that would have helped generate an atmosphere for constructive change. Why did they alleviate instead of elevate?

It must be noted that institutions in the homeland weren’t always welcoming. They wanted assistance from diasporic organizations with no strings attached. This attitude did not lend itself to developing cooperation and an exchange of new ideas. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia was poised to ease through the transition period and move toward institutionalizing democratic values and principles in the country, taking into consideration the high rates of literacy, a well-trained work force in the technology industry, and a vibrant, well-developed diaspora.

The opposite occurred. Fire-sale privatization after independence led to huge transfers of public wealth to private hands, widening the seemingly insurmountable divide between the rich and the poor. This concentration of wealth accumulation led to the current policy of neo-liberalism where everything is up for sale to the highest bidder. Women were left out of the game, the rules of which were imposed by the ruling elite, mostly men, and their access to resources was severely restricted.

Gender equality in Armenia is not considered to be a critical issue and its Soviet legacy has served as an impediment to the advancement of women, primarily in the political sphere. During the Soviet era, gender parity was ideological and imposed. With independence, women were relegated back to their traditional, culturally defined roles, which have marginalized their involvement in all aspects of governance and conflict resolution.

While Armenian women in the diaspora were individually breaking new ground and progressing in their respective careers and disciplines, collectively they continued to remain outside of leadership positions in diasporic organizations. If we accept the premise that these women could have served as bridges of knowledge, experience, and expertise to their sisters in the homeland, then the absence of a woman’s movement on the ground in Armenia is evidence that this did not happen. The deficit of women’s presence in decision-making bodies in the diaspora is therefore reflected in the lack of any stirrings of a developing movement in the homeland.

Another factor that impeded Armenian women in the diaspora from galvanizing to secure a role in decision-making bodies for themselves was the nature and essence of the diaspora itself. Living and working in foreign lands, and being influenced by the societies in which they existed, did not lend itself to conditions upon which to build a movement that would have assured their leadership position in diasporic structures.

At first glance, one might be inclined to believe that a key factor is that diasporic women’s groups did not evolve out of social reform movements like they had at other time periods and in different countries. They evolved to support the nation, the homeland, and its people. Their purpose was not about affecting social and political change for women; it was about survival, plain and simple. It is unfair therefore to have expected diasporic women’s organizations to help mobilize a meaningful women’s movement in the homeland after independence in 1991.

However, the existence of women’s organizations like the ARS, which is celebrating its centennial this year, in and of themselves, was an expression of emancipation when they were created. After all, it took the Armenian woman, who had been and would be instrumental in the survival of the nation, out of the home and gave her a purpose outside of tending to the immediate needs of her family.

If the existence of organizations like the ARS was progressive, even revolutionary, 100 years ago, why then are women absent in leadership positions today?

Over the years, the dynamic in the diaspora shifted and became more and more insular, hence the current dominant conservative paradigm. The “hayabahbanum” (defending/preserving Armenianness) ideology placed constrictions on the Armenian woman and mother. Her predominant role was to educate her children in the Armenian language, to struggle against the forceful winds of assimilation, and ensure the perpetuity of the nation.

After all, gender equality in the diaspora was never a critical or pressing issue either. There was always an abundance of collective national tragedies that required attention from both men and women. So women went from progressive emancipation to a conservatism model that emphasized stability and continuity.

A movement needs activists who believe that devoting their time and energy will help instigate societal change. They motivate others to take action but don’t do so in a vacuum. They help their members develop skills, give them the necessary tools to carry out programs, and they have a well-defined strategy with a clear objective. How were diasporan women supposed to consolidate their energy and develop programs to realize their objectives when they were as diverse as the countries in which they lived?

With the amount of information at our disposal and with the number of professional Armenian women in the diaspora, we can be more innovative and creative in trying to find ways to share experiences and transfer the knowledge that we have to a hopefully willing population in the homeland. We cannot remain victims to our own forbearance. A well-known sociologist once wrote, “Women are not passive targets of policies or the victims of distorted development—they are shapers and makers of social change.”

As the Armenian Relief Society celebrates a century of dedication, devotion, and steadfast commitment to the nation’s needs, perhaps we should use this moment in our collective history to initiate a national discourse about a new and progressive role for Armenian women in the diaspora and in the homeland.

By consolidating our energies, developing new models for development, advocating for greater participation, and utilizing our talent, we can and must become the shapers and makers of social change.