The Armenian of Belgium: An Uninterrupted Presence Since the 4th Century

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The Armenian of Belgium: An Uninterrupted Presence Since the 4th Century

David Zenian

From as early as the 4th century, Armenian priests, merchants and intellectuals have dropped anchor in Belgium, well before some other west European countries where larger Armenian communities are established today.

Ancient Belgian religious writings refer to a certain Saint Servais as the first Armenian bishop to visit the town of Tongres, east of Brussels.

Other Armenian priests like one identified by Belgian hagiographers as Macaire made the Saint Bavon Abbey in Gand his home in the year 1011 before moving on to preach the gospel across Europe.

Armenian merchants first appeared on the Belgian scene in 1340, and in 1345 were authorized to sell carpets outside a cathedral in Bruges west of Antwerp and by 1478 had established a hospice in that city.

Also in Bruges, Armenian merchants had their own trading centers, importing cotton goods, spices, perfumes and other materials from the Orient and exporting European goods to markets in the East.

Their presence continued well into the 15th century, or until Bruges lost its importance as a trading port.

Other Armenians, like Archbishop Thomas Nouridjanian of Persia, spent the last days of his life between Holland and Belgium and died in Antwerp in 1708.

While the Armenian presence in Belgium was not broken throughout the centuries, the size of the community did not start growing until the end of the First World War and the forced mass exodus of Armenians from Turkey following the 1915 Genocide.

Edouard Emirzian’s father was one of them.

“What we see today is thanks to that generation. They laid the foundations of not only our institutions, but also its fabric and character,” says Edouard Emirzian, the “unofficial biographer” of the Armenian community.

“The governing body of the Armenian community has always stayed out of Armenian politics. When we say Le Comité des Arméniens de Belgique, we understand a unique organization which is not under the influence of this Armenian political party or the other.

“Those who serve on this Committee leave their political baggage outside when they come in,” Emirzian said.

Today the Committee of Belgian Armenians, which is officially recognized by the Belgian government, represents the 3,000-5,000 Armenians living in the country.

They include the first generation refugees from Turkey, large groups that came from Iran in 1970, from Lebanon during and immediately after the 1975-76 civil war, an unknown number of recent arrivals from Armenia and a 1,500-strong contingent repatriated from two Kurdish villages in eastern Turkey 15 years ago.

Each wave of new arrivals has helped revitalize the community despite its small size.

“It’s always been a qualitative presence rather than a quantitative one,” says Tigrane Vrouyr, a 78-year-old retired carpet merchant and first generation Belgian-Armenian.

His father, the late Norayr Vrouyr, a graduate of a German school in Constantinople, came to Belgium in 1903. He made his fortune selling rugs, but his intellectual impact was in linguistic research and the publication of several comparative studies on the roots of the Armenian language.

“I remember taking Armenian lessons from Tante (Aunt) Meline Kovanjian ... the only Armenian teacher in the whole of Brussels. We all took lessons from her.

“We had no church, and Sunday services were conducted in my father’s store once or twice a year by a priest who traveled from Paris. We always had the problem of finding 50 chairs for those attending the service,” Vrouyr said.

But the community was organized.

Thanks to a generation of “elder statesmen” like Hatchig Hatchikoff and Arpag Mekhitarian, now both in their mid-80’s, the foundations of what has become one of the most cohesive and harmonious Armenian communities of Western Europe were laid.

They established The Committee of the Armenian Community of Belgium along with clearly defined rules to oversee the affairs of all Armenians living in Belgium.

That was in the late 1920’s when Armenians were already a force to be reckoned with in the world of business in Belgium.

Davros, Arax, Marouf and Enfi were the only cigarette brands made in Belgium. Behind each of these names were Armenian families, mostly immigrants from Turkey, who had settled in Belgium at the turn of the century. “The Missirians, Tchamkertians, Matossians and the Enfiadjians held a monopoly over the tobacco industry. As more refugees poured into Belgium from Turkey after 1915, these families became the major employers,” says Tigran Vrouyr.

“Our elders had the insight to put this community on strong foundations,” past President of The Committee and community leader Edouard Jakhian said. An attorney-at-law since 1958, Jakhian was born in Brussels in 1935 from immigrant parents.

“My father used to sell stockings out on the streets. During the winter months, he used to wrap newspapers around his chest under his jacket to keep warm,” said Jakhian.

Under Jakhian, who from 1988-1990 was the President of the Brussels Bar Council (Battonier de l’Ordre des Avocats) and alongside his law practice currently serves on a special Senate commission which supervises the hiring of judges (Collège de Recrutement des Magistrats), the Armenian community projects gained momentum.

The Armenian Church was built with limited “outside” help. The Church along with the establishment of an Armenian center for social services in the early 1980’s has played an indispensable role in helping new immigrants.

The Centre Sociale, which has an annual budget of 65,000 dollars, is under the day-to-day direction of Ms. Hasmig Kouyoumjian, who not only holds degrees in hospital administration and public health, but also has many years of experience in social work.

Ms. Kouyoumjian, fluent in French, Armenian, English and Turkish, supervises a small team of teachers headed by veteran educator Hripsimé Karakashian, whose teaching career started at the AGBU Melkonian Educational Institute in Cyprus in 1947 and was followed in 1953 by a 30-year-stint as Principal of the Tebrotsassere School outside Paris. Ms. Karakashian came to Brussels as an Armenian teacher in 1983.

The Centre Sociale, the jewel of community endeavors, is chaired by Vartkess Knadjian, an Ethiopian-born Armenian who settled in Belgium in 1976. Partly financed by the Belgian government, the Center is not only a safe haven for 80 Armenian immigrant children whose parents were repatriated from a Kurdish village in southeastern Turkey, but also a launching pad for all new immigrants.

“All the immigrants somehow start from here,” Ms. Kouyoumjian says.

The Belgian Armenians have also allocated two floors of their main Community Center, another building located in a prestigious section of Brussels, to the Armenian Embassy — not only free of rent, but with a financial contribution towards its upkeep.

While today’s Armenians are no longer involved in the tobacco industry and most of the early immigrants are assimilated into the Belgian landscape, their love for diamonds has remained as solid as it was at the turn of the century. A member of the Barsamian family was the President of the prestigious Diamond Club of Belgium in 1920 at a time when Tcherkezian, Ipekjian and Hampartsoumian were top names in the business.

Following in their footsteps today are the Artinians, Osganians and the Arslanians along with 30-40 smaller dealers, experts and traders who have continued their “substantial niche” in Antwerp’s One Square Mile Diamond district.