Atken Armenian

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Excerpt from 11/1/2005 issue of AGBU Magazine article:
FROM THERE TO HERE: COMING “HOME” TO YEREVAN
by Suren Musayelyan

The right choice . . .

“Living in Canada was like staying in a seven-star hotel for me. But a hotel can never replace your home,” says 61-year-old Atken Armenian, who, with his wife Hasmig left “seven star” comfort in 1992 to live in Yerevan, in the days when it had lots of stars, but not much else.

For the past 13 years Armenian has been Dean and Extension Program Registrar at the American University of Armenia.

Atken, who was born in Cairo, Egypt, and received his education in the West moved to Canada in 1965 to work as an oil engineer—his first specialty—in Edmonton, Alberta. Later, he received his second education as a teacher at Edmonton University.

He visited Armenia first, briefly, in 1965 and then for a year in 1975 as he was gathering material for his doctoral thesis in foreign language teaching. But he says he found it hard to put up with the communist regime and stay in Soviet Armenia then.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was the event that influenced his decision to repatriate.

“My parents did not send me to an Armenian school and our family was never in Armenian surroundings while we lived in the West,” says Armenian. “I had a vague idea of what Armenia and its history were. But gradually my interest towards my Armenian descent brought me back to Armenia.”

He remembers that the difficulties in post-independent Armenia did not put him off, but, to the contrary, gave him an additional impetus to stay and help his historical motherland to overcome the period of hardships. A main hardship for the Armenians was being separated from their son and daughter who were in their early 20s then. The separation was particularly hard for Hasmig.

“But gradually she saw the benefit of living in Armenia, where you don’t have to explain all the time who you are, and now she doesn’t regret my decision either,” says Atken.

In Yerevan the Armenians live in a house half a kilometer away from the crossroads of Baghramian and Proshian streets, a house that once belonged to Hasmig’s grandmother and uncles who repatriated to Armenia from Egypt in 1947, but, in ironic good timing for Atken and Hasmig, decided to emigrate to Canada in 1992.

“It gives me spiritual satisfaction as well to know that we now live in the house that once belonged to my wife’s family,” says Atken.

Their 38-year-old daughter Ani and 34-year-old son Van both live in Montreal where they have their own families. Ani has two children and is married to a Canadian. But Van married a girl from Hayastan when he came to visit his mum and dad last summer. Atken and Hasmig make frequent visits to Canada to see the children and grandchildren.

“Now when I go back to Canada and spend a couple of weeks there, I feel as if I am short of oxygen and need to return to Armenia,” says Atken, who has a Canadian passport but feels himself to be a Hayastantsi.

“The Canadian passport gives us convenience in crossing the borders, and family connection is very important to us,” Armenian admits. And while the Armenians have swum against the migration tide, Atken is far from criticizing other Armenians who either leave the country for good or are reluctant to repatriate.

“You should walk in their shoes to know what it feels likes,” he says. “But for me it was the right choice that I never regretted, nor will ever regret.”

Looking back at what Yerevan was in the early ‘90s and what it is now, Atken notices a lot of change—both positive and negative.

“Living standards in Yerevan are much higher now than they were some 10 or 15 years ago, which, unfortunately, I cannot say about the regions,” he says. “And, unfortunately, there is not the enthusiasm that I could feel in the early ‘90s. It hurts to see people who once were ready to sacrifice their lives to win their country’s freedom and independence now betray the very ideas they were fighting for.”

Atken sees the future of his family closely connected with Armenia. But he thinks that to become a prosperous country Armenia needs to combat many vices, such as bribery, protectionism, corruption that he says often discourage Armenians living in Armenia and abroad.

“I think it natural for Armenians to live in Armenia,” says Atken. “My family now knows well that their granddad lives in Armenia and that they have a home here where they are always welcome.”