Mher Karakashian: “Armenians of the Diaspora are not facing the issue of the loss of Western Armenian, but the issue of Armenian-speaking Armenian”

From October 18 to 19, Brussels hosted the 4th Congress of European-Armenians, which was devoted to four major topics (the fight for recognition of the Armenian Genocide and restitution, the right of the people of Artsakh to free self-determination, the preservation of the Armenian identity and Armenia-EU relations).

During the session devoted to preservation of the Armenian identity, Armenian Education Officer of Sourp Hagop Armenian School of Montreal Mher Karakashian made a concrete proposal to create an online Armenian school. Hayern Aysor talked about this and other issues during an interview with Mher Karakashian.

Hayern Aysor: Mr. Karakashian, what issues were discussed and what conclusions were drawn during the session devoted to preservation of the Armenian identity?

Mher Karakashian: The roundtable discussion entitled “Preservation of the Armenian Identity as the Main Impulse for Survival” featured speeches by former director of the Levon and Sofia Hagopian Armenian School of the Armenian Blue Cross of Greece Mihran Kurdoglian (“The Weight of a Community Organization in Preservation of Identity and in the Struggle for Claims”) and representative of the Teaching Department of Hrant Dink Armenian School in Paris Garabed Dakessian (“The State of the Use of Western Armenian in Europe and the Need for Preservation of the Language”).

My speech was entitled “The Current Challenges of Armenian Education: From Home to School, Classic Media and the Internet”. I must also mention that the moderator of the roundtable was Chairman of the Central Committee of Hamazkayin Armenian Educational and Cultural Society Meguerditch Meguerditchian, who presented the issues related to preservation of the Armenian identity by providing a brief, precise and to-the-point historical background.

Unfortunately, the already regular erosion of the Diaspora and not, as we often say, the slow erosion, is on the agenda. The loss of identity within Armenian communities of the Diaspora, the lack of Armenian-speaking Armenians and the lack of knowledge of Armenian of the young generation and other problems with preservation of the Armenian identity are alarming and pose a direct threat to the existence of the Diaspora.

Although one of the topics of the roundtable was devoted to the loss and risk of Western Armenian, as a conclusion, and this is my individual approach, the participants expressed the idea that Armenians are not facing the issue of the loss of Western Armenian, but the issue of Armenian-speaking Armenians in general. Unfortunately, the instrumentation of the Armenians is not enough.

Hayern Aysor: Mr. Karakashian, I would like to ask you to tell us what your speech was mainly focused on.

Mher Karakashian: A hundred years after the Genocide, we entered the 21st century. There were specific models for preservation of the Armenian identity in the Middle East, including the home, the school, the church, clubs, Armenian centers, as well as Armenian districts, Armenian-speaking and Armenian-populated settlements in Lebanon and Syria like Anjar where the Armenians have done a tremendous job and continue to work effectively. However, today, we Armenians are in a new reality. Even the model that was adapted in the West to a certain extent, is no longer sufficient and is not very accessible.

The developments for the preservation of the Armenian identity and language within the Armenian communities in the Middle East and in the West were totally contradictory to each other. Whereas everything was clear in terms of preservation of the Armenian identity in the Middle East, the reality in the West is clear (it seems as though we Armenians are facing ��?a desert’ in terms of Armenianness and the national image).

The challenges facing the Armenian communities established in post-Soviet countries following the collapse of the USSR was added to all this.

I presented all the documents related to the issue in figures during the 6th Armenia-Diaspora Pan-Armenian Conference.

The figures perhaps say it all in this case. I will bring up a couple of examples.

Based on the statistics of the Ministry of Diaspora of the Republic of Armenia, there are nearly 200 Armenian one-day schools in Russia. If each of the schools has 50 pupils in the best case scenario (making up 10,000), it is a bad picture for the population of 2-2.5 million Armenians. You can’t do anything with such figures.

According to the data provided by Armenian presses in the U.S. West Coast, there are up to 6,000 pupils attending Armenian schools when there are 50,000 Armenian pupils attending foreign educational institutions. There are nearly 1.5 million Armenian Americans, and there are only 26 Armenian daily schools on both coasts of the United States.

Based on different statistics, there are 400-500,000 Armenians living in France, 7 Armenian daily schools, of which 5 are pre-schools, 1 is a middle school and only one is a secondary school (Hamazkayin College in Marseille). There are nearly 60,000 Armenian pupils, and only 1,500 attend Armenian schools.

This is troubling, and here is where we need to ask ourselves what we must do in the future, how we need to preserve the Armenian identity and how we should advocate preservation of the Armenian identity. It will be impossible to provide services to Armenian pupils with such figures. If Armenian children don’t attend Armenian schools and prefer to attend foreign schools, the Armenian Diaspora will start eroding automatically, and this is natural. No matter how much effort families make, the foreign environment, the dominating culture and the respective languages will have their impact. A young Armenian growing up in such an environment might have a sense of belonging and an identity, but the next generations won’t be able to preserve the identity. Erosion will speed up quite a lot in the course of 50 years.

Hayern Aysor: Mr. Karakashian, you expressed the idea of an online school as a way out of the situation.

Mher Karakashian: Yes, and I don’t want to just show the ��?symptoms’. As I stated during the 6th Armenia-Diaspora Pan-Armenian Conference, what we Armenians need today is a professional, seriously studied and organized Armenian online school, the courses of which will be open to all Armenian students, starting from children in kindergarten and ending with high school students.

This is not a simple proposal, but a serious step. The greatest advantage is that it recognizes no boundaries.

Having the AGBU Armenian Virtual University as a prototype, we can create an online school. Although it won’t have walls, classrooms or desks, there will be a coordinated learning process in virtual reality.

It is quite a large project. Consequently, I recommend that the State, the Church, as well as cultural and educational institutions combine their efforts. We all need to focus our efforts and, if necessary, set up a committee that will first and foremost conduct studies and research based on the existing figures.

It is clear that the idea can also raise questions. For instance, if we create it, will everyone want to participate? This s a question that we can’t give a specific answer to, and we probably won’t be able to gather everyone. However, if we don’t create it, the issue related to the lack of Armenian schools will remain unsolved. If we create it, over time, it can gain momentum. The more people join this school, we will only win. Armenian pupils living in Berlin, Calcutta and Sydney will be able to receive a full Armenian education, if we manage to lay the right foundations.

Another frequently asked question is whether the online school can convey the air and spirit of a real school. I will answer that question with a simple example. There was a time when the transition from theater to cinema caused uproar. Many were skeptical and didn’t think a ��?cold’ film could convey the air and spirit of theater. Time showed that films can touch hearts and convey emotions to people.

The same goes for schools. If you can create a classroom in which all the lessons are interchangeable, the issue of physical presence will not be a hindrance.

Hayern Aysor: Mr. Karakashian, how realistic is your program and what do you need to implement it?

Mher Karakashian: If we ask ourselves if it can be turned into a reality or not, if it can convey the air and spirit or not, we will only search for explanations and not take any action. If we don’t do anything, we will have the picture that we have today. There are few educational institutions that can’t meet our needs. After all this, it would be ridiculous to talk beautifully about preservation of the Armenian identity day and night.

If we are going to create Armenian schools as an alternative to such an idea, then we must establish hundreds of schools within each community. Can we and is this possible? It would not only be impossible and would require a lot of expenses and serious financial investments, it would also require a lot of resources that we don’t have.

Instead of this, an online school will create wide opportunities and will give the answers to all questions. Information technologies are also at our disposal, and they are advancing and opening new perspectives day after day. If we take advantage of all this to our benefit, keep up with the times and update our content, measures and methods of accessibility, I think we will have the answers to all questions.

Hayern Aysor: And my last question: Mr. Karakashian, where should preservation of the Armenian identity start from? I am referring to your experience as a teacher and to you as a person living in the Diaspora.

Mher Karakashian: First and foremost, preservation of the Armenian identity starts from the home, the family and the extended family  (parents, grandparents, relatives, friends, the environment, the Armenian atmosphere at home and the materials that convey the feeling of being a part of the nation), and this leads to the issue of language. I am one of those Armenians who are still strongly clung to the language and believe that the Armenian language is the axis of preservation of the Armenian identity. In the classical sense, language is what creates linguistic thinking, and linguistic thinking leads to the state of mind. However, today, we are in another reality and have to think about other measures. If the parents of a young Armenian of the 4th or 5th generation in the Diaspora don’t speak in Armenian, there is no Armenian school and the grandparents have no presence in the young person’s life, the identity of that young person can’t be hinged on language. Consequently, you have to think about the remaining components and try to fill the “gap” with culture, Armenian songs and dances, national cuisine and add Armenian “activism”. With these components, you will slowly start advocating that which is referred to as the national image.

For instance, in Europe and especially in the United States, there are many young Armenians dealing with the Armenian Cause, yet don’t speak in Armenian for this or that reason. However, they do a marvelous job. In many cases, they are even more patriotic and love the nation more than Armenian-speaking Armenians and do everything they can to make sure everyone learns about the Armenian Cause and help make our dreams come true.

All this reminds us that no matter how much we state the issue of substantiating preservation of the Armenian identity with the idea of language, we still have to be open to seeking other approaches so that we can help Armenians preserve ��?Armenianness’.

In this sense, the independence of Armenia and Artsakh and the presence of our two republics played a huge role in our lives and will continue to play a role. Consequently, the direct relationship between Armenia and Artsakh can make a lot of changes. One visit to the homeland can change a lot in an Armenian who is at least a little Armenian.

As time goes by, the Armenians are getting closer and closer to their dawning. Many are reiterating these beautiful words. I also believe that the Armenians will flourish sooner or later. Even the world will face the wave of the Armenians. It is in that process in which we will see the reawakening of the Armenians in many communities of detached Armenians and in the souls of the generations of Armenians.

However, we shouldn’t be guided by this perspective. We need to take concrete steps.

In this sense, we have to seek solutions to keep up with the pace of our era. Whereas the resources that we had until now helped us enter the 21st century, from now on, we need to find new ways that will be more effective. Our greatest ally can be the Internet in that regard. In the case of the Diaspora, we can turn it into a weapon and a unique signal for preservation of the Armenian identity.

The only thing left for us to do is to make a promise, make a decision to leap over the rest and take action.

Interview by Lusine Abrahamyan

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