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Lebanon: The Revival of A Vital Armenian Community
by Harut Sassounian
When I left Lebanon in 1969 as a high school student, I could not have imagined that I would return 37 years later to bring major financial assistance on behalf of the United Armenian Fund to thousands of needy Armenian students.
The Armenian community of Lebanon, which was known as "the heart of the Armenian Diaspora," has been going through very rough times during the past couple of decades due to domestic strife and foreign attacks. Caught in the throes of incessant turmoil, Lebanon experienced massive unemployment, leading to large-scale emigration, which in turn considerably weakened this once vibrant country and community. Last July's devastating Israeli attack on Lebanon further aggravated the economic crisis. Most families, which were already in deep poverty, went flat broke. They could no longer afford to send their children to Armenian schools.
Consequently, the schools could not pay the salaries of teachers and staff members.
More than a dozen Armenian schools were forced to close down in recent years.
Thousands of Armenian children started attending tuition-free Lebanese public schools. The community's well-being was substantially degraded.
One sunny morning earlier this month, the Armenian community of Lebanon woke up to the stunning news that the United Armenian Fund, through a generous grant from The Lincy Foundation, was providing $4.5 million in order to cover the full or partial tuition of more than 5,000 Armenian students, the back salaries of more than 500 teachers and staff for the past academic year, as well as funds for the urgent needs of the schools.
I was repeatedly told during my trip to Lebanon that the unsolicited and unexpected $4.5 million contribution was a godsent gift to thousands of needy families and their community's schools. This major donation to all 28 Lebanese Armenian schools, affiliated with 7 different organizations, including the Prelacy, Catholics, Evangelicals, AGBU, Tekeyan, AEBU, and Hamazkayin, brought a renewed sense of hope and unity to this very diverse community.
More important than the amount of the contribution was the community members' realization that they were not facing these obstacles alone and that their far-away compatriots cared deeply about their welfare and well-being.
I visited each of the 28 Armenian schools throughout Lebanon and met with their administrators and sponsoring organizations to deliver the much-needed financial contribution. Without exception, they all expressed their heart-felt gratitude not only for this donation, but more importantly, for being remembered by fellow Armenians from across the oceans. School officials told me that my uplifting remarks to the students brought renewed hope and encouraged them to persevere in the face of overwhelming odds. I told the students that most of their difficulties were behind them and that they would grow up to become once again a part of the prosperous community they used to be. For decades, Lebanon provided highly skilled teachers, writers, clergymen, artists, intellectuals and leaders for other Armenian communities throughout the Diaspora. Back in 1964, when there were no Armenian schools in the United States, a small group of Lebanese Armenians had the foresight and came up with the seed money to establish the first Armenian school in the United States -- the Ferrahian Armenian High School in Encino, California. It is poetic justice that more than 30 years later, when the Armenian schools in Lebanon experienced financial difficulty, reciprocal assistance is provided to them from California!
My week-long visit to all Armenian schools and community organizations showed that despite three decades of downward spiral, the Lebanese Armenian community remains vibrant and has many talented and dedicated individuals in just about every walk of life. They are ready to serve their community and country with total devotion and distinction. They were not looking for handouts. They were struggling to take care of themselves, but had simply reached their wit's end. Hopefully, many other donors both within and outside Lebanon would emulate The Lincy Foundation's wonderful gesture and help support Armenian institutions throughout the Diaspora.
This one-time generous grant, while it did not cover all of the Armenian community's many needs, goes a long way in reassuring the Lebanese Armenians that they are not abandoned to their fate and that the Armenian nation is like an extended family: the pain and joy of each one is the pain and joy of all. I am confident that Lebanon will rise like a Phoenix from the ashes and take care of not only its own needs, but also reach out to those in other Armenian communities throughout the Diaspora and Armenia!