Preserving the Armenian identity in the Diaspora and helping Artsakh in the homeland is Istanbul-Armenian doctor’s concern

It has already been three years since Austria-based Istanbul-Armenian doctor Ara Oughourlian started visiting Stepanakert and performing free vascular surgeries with Artsakh’s surgeons and training young surgeons. During his visit to Stepanakert last month, Artsakh’s surgeons performed complex vascular surgeries for the first time ever.

Helping Artsakh is not Ara Oughourlian’s only matter of concern. Since he attaches importance to preservation of the Armenian identity in the Diaspora, in 2017, he established an Armenian community and school in the Austrian city of Salzburg. Hayern Aysor talked about these topics in an interview with Ara Oughourlian.

Hayern Aysor: You have been visiting Artsakh and performing surgeries for the past two years. This is a major mission. When did you make this decision? What made you make it?

Ara Oughourlian: About three years ago, my longtime friend Gevorg Yaghjyan from Yerevan State Medical University asked me to help young vascular surgeon Davit Khachatryan from Stepanakert undergo training in Austria. I met surgeon Davit Khachatryan and learned about the medical issues in Artsakh. I also came up with the idea of visiting Stepanakert and performing surgeries with him.

Hayern Aysor: This year, under your direct supervision, Arstakh’s surgeons performed rather complex vascular surgeries for the first time ever. So, you not only perform surgeries, but also train specialists.

Ara Oughourlian: When a group of Austrian surgeons and I paid our first visit to Artsakh to perform vascular surgeries in December 2016, we could not imagine how surprised we would be. Although I had visited Artsakh three times before that, I had no clue about the healthcare sector. Frankly, I was a little afraid that I might feel ashamed in front of my Austrian colleagues, if the hospital and quality of medicine in Stepanakert were very modest compared to the level in Europe. However, I am very happy and proud to say that my foreign colleagues and I were very amazed by the cleanliness of the hospital, as well as the doctors’ skills, professionalism and diligence. There have been days when we were compelled to perform surgeries for 16 hours, but the doctors and nurses and the vascular surgery equipment specialists didn’t show any signs of discontent or fatigue. My Austrian colleagues were very affected by this, and I, of course, felt proud that I was able to present my people well.

Since vascular and intravenous surgeries are costly, it is clear that Artsakh has not performed such surgeries due to lack of funding. Consequently, Artsakh’s surgeons also have not had the opportunity to grow in this field.

As I said, our young colleagues and the medical staff in Arstakh amazed me with their diligence, dedication and other virtues. This is why I decided to set a goal to train my young colleagues so that they can perform vascular surgeries on their own in the future. As they say in Austria, it is better to teach someone how to fish than donate fish to that person for a long period of time.

Hayern Aysor: You visit Artsakh on a regular basis. In your opinion, what is the level of the healthcare sector in Artsakh? Which fields does Artsakh need to focus on?

Ara Oughourlian: Frankly, I am mainly aware of the problems with cardiovascular diseases and diseases that are connected to the lower extremities in Artsakh. If we take into consideration the fact that 40-42% of the deaths in Artsakh are caused by vascular obstructions, modern vascular surgeries are impossible without investments. The government has to allocate more funds for the growth of this field. In my opinion, the most important thing is that Artsakh needs to lead a serious and massive struggle against smoking under state sponsorship since smoking is one of the main reasons for cardiovascular diseases

Hayern Aysor: When you visit Artsakh, do you have time to interact with the people of Artsakh? What do you have to say about the people of Artsakh? Which trait do you like the most?

Ara Oughourlian: Unfortunately, due to my work schedule during my last visit, I only had time to interact with my colleagues in Artsakh and had neither the time or occasion to interact with the citizens of Artsakh. The people with whom my Austrian colleagues and I have been teleconferencing with have made us feel so compassionate that my colleagues have expressed willingness to visit Artsakh again. The Japanese representative of the medical equipment-producing company that works with us, was excited to tell us that he will work hard to make sure the company allocates funds from the charity budget for Artsakh’s vascular surgeons.

As far as Stepanakert is concerned, I would not be exaggerating, if I said that it is like any European city with its cleanliness and discipline, and this also amazed me and my Austrian colleagues.

Hayern Aysor: Do you remember your first visit to Artsakh? What were your impressions? Where do you especially like to go every time you visit Artsakh?

Ara Oughorlouian: I first visited Artsakh in 2001. I paid a visit to the History Museum and was very impressed. In the years that followed, I have visited Artsakh several times and have had opportunities to visit Gandzasar Monastery, Vank village, Amaras and other places. I get excited about Artsakh every time I bring new friends with me.

Hayern Aysor: You are also one of the active members of the Armenian community of Austria and undertook the initiative of opening an Armenian school in Salzburg. Why did you open the school?

Ara Oughourlian: In 1998, my wife and I moved from Vienna to Salzburg. At the time, there were only a couple of Armenians from the Middle East. During the massive emigration from Armenia in the 1990s, families started moving from Armenia to Salzburg as well. When I started interacting with them, I regretted to notice the fact that even children born in Armenia could not read or write in Armenian, and schoolchildren would speak in both German and Armenian. During the Genocide, Armenian mothers and grandmothers, who were hungry, thirsty and overlooked death, would draw the letters of the Armenian alphabet on the sands in the deserts of Syria to teach their weak and ill children the mother language, but children living in peace in Austria couldn’t read or write in Armenian. This made me feel awful, but I could not do anything alone.

As they say, there is a time and place for everything. Years later, my supportive, patriotic and young friends and I established an Armenian community in Salzburg and the nearby areas, and in May 2017, the community was legally certified by the state organizations of the State of Salzburg. Our main goal is to preserve the Armenian identity, and that is impossible without schools. We are lucky to have devoted teachers whose unconditional efforts helped the school grow right from the very first day of its establishment when there were only two classrooms. Currently, our Armenian Sunday school has 26 students between the ages of 6 and 20.

Our first school year is already over. I am more than happy to see our children read and write in Armenian. Our community is a small community. We do not have any government support, and we only take care of our needs through our members’ membership fees. The only support that we have been provided with is the Armenian-language books donated by the Ministry of Diaspora of the Republic of Armenia, and for that I would like to express our sincere gratitude to the Ministry and the Armenian government.

Hayern Aysor: And my last question. Could you tell us about your roots? Where are your ancestors from? When did you settle in Austria?

Ara Oughourlian: I was born in Istanbul where one can feel the air of Armenians. My parents were from Constantinople, but they were the children of migrants. My grandmother from my mother’s side was from Van, and my grandmother from my father’s side — from Ordo, which was an Armenian-populated city adjacent to Trabizon. My great-grandfather from my father’s side was from Kesaria, and my great-grandmother — from Dardanelles. After surviving the horrors of the early 20th century, they settled in Istanbul.

I take great pride in my ancestors and am grateful to them. I inherited my love for the homeland from my parents since my father, Garbis Oughourlian was the first entrepreneur in Turkey to organize visits of the first tourists from Turkey to Armenia and has visited Armenia two or three times a year starting from 1971.

When I was 19, my father sent me to Vienna to study. After I graduated from the Medical University of Vienna, I acquired skills in treating internal diseases, and later, I started specializing in the vascular Doppler recorder and intravascular surgeries. After serving at the hospital of the University of Vienna, I moved to Salzburg in 1998.

In closing, I would like to add that I will visit Armenia in August and, of course, I will visit Artsakh, but this time, with my family. I did not have such a plan, but my wife and daughters automatically expressed the desire to visit Armenia following the latest events that took place in Armenia and the establishment of a democratic regime in the country, and I paid heed to their desire with joy.

Interview by Lusine Abrahamyan

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