Armenians strike a balance between their ethnic identity and assimilation in Greece

The Armenian school in the Athens district of Neos Cosmos, the Armenian Youth Association of Greece, the mayor of the Athens suburb Nea Smyrni, Vangelis Khachaturian, and a lively Armenian-language press illustrate just some of the ways Greece’s 60,000-strong Armenian community – most of whose ancestors came here after the genocide of 1915 in Ottoman Turkey – have struck a balance between assimilation to life in Greece and preserving their own identity. Every Friday evening the 27-member Agop Papazian Choir, part of the Hamazkain Cultural and Educational Association, meets for its weekly rehearsal (men and women also rehearse separately once more during the week). They are all Armenians or Greeks of Armenian origin. Conductor Rouzana Krikorian has come here from the Armenian capital Yerevan for the rehearsal of a piece by Armenian composer Komitas, whom she says has «highlighted the richness of Armenian tradition, and the passion and pain of its people.» The choir members are aged from 20 to 70. «We like singing together, being together and keeping Armenian songs alive,» say the younger ones. Musician Haig Yazdjian was born in Syria to Armenian parents but has been living in Greece for years. He and his Greek-Armenian wife, whom he met in Athens, are active members of the community. Asked whether he felt more Armenian, Greek or Syrian he replied: «I think that’s a strange question since we have been here for many years. We have kept our identity but we are incorporated (into Greek society). There are also the children. Apart from our roots and our past, we also want to pass on our identity.» Music, he said, has to do with everything. «Even with the genocide and the struggle for recognition,» he said. Ararat to the Armenian is what Olympus is to the Greeks – their sacred mountain. According to tradition, it was where Noah’s Ark came to rest after the flood; Armenians claim descent from Noah. Once within Armenia’s borders, it now stands in Turkish territory. Schools and memory The Armenian community would be nothing without its schools. The Levon and Sofia Agopian School in Neos Cosmos has a kindergarten, primary school and the only Armenian junior high in Greece. Every day 183 children come from all over Attica. «Some of the children travel three hours a day to and from school. It is a great sacrifice for both them and their parents, although they pay just a symbolic amount in fees,» says the school’s headmaster, Mihran Kourtoglian, who was born in Beirut and teaches Armenian language and history. «We follow the Education Ministry syllabus; Armenian is taught as a foreign language. The children are bilingual. We might speak Greek but we make every effort not to forget our own language and culture.» He regrets that children in upper grades have fewer hours a week of Armenian tuition. «Due to the advanced age of the grandparents, Armenian won’t be spoken at home for much longer,» he says. None of the pupils seem torn between two cultures. «Ararat or Olympus?» we ask the headmaster. «For me Ararat is a symbol. As long as that mountain is there, the flame will not go out,» he said. «My homeland is my books, my principles, history, Greece, Armenia, my philosophy.» Alexandre, a primary school pupil, agrees. «The Greek war of independence was a fact. So was the Armenian genocide,» he says. Ohanes Sarkis Agabatian, a member of the teachers committee, explained. «April 24 is a school holiday, as are the two independence days, May 27 and September 21. We also observe the Greek national days,» he said. The conversation turned to Hrant Dink, an Armenian journalist in Turkey who was recently murdered in Istanbul. «The story of a death foretold. It would have happened sooner or later. One-and-a-half million (killed in the genocide). And one more,» he added. «Until we close our eyes, we will struggle.» The number of Armenians in Greece almost tripled following Armenian independence in 1991. The Galstian family came in 1993. The father, Gagik, now 53, sought ways to continue his art here by selling paintings. He was given the job of redecorating the interior of the Orthodox Armenian cathedral. In Armenia he had done various jobs – painting, stage scenery, sculpture, directing and acting. He was soon able to bring his wife and son over and began working as a stage designer in the theater. He has also sculpted the statue of the teacher Simon Zavarian, which stands in Nikaia. His wife Juletta, who worked at the university in Armenia, would like to see her son Edgar, 29, study medicine, but he is in his final year at Athens Law School’s economics department and a member of the Armenian Youth Association. «The only problem in Greece is the bureaucracy, but I have noticed that the situation is improving. I haven’t been back to Armenia, although it is always on my mind. At the first opportunity I’m going to get on a plane and go,» he said. Asked whether he would prefer to marry a Greek or an Armenian, he replied: «My first thought is to say an Armenian, but I can’t be sure. It depends. You can’t specify things like that. You have to find a happy medium.» He told us some of his childhood memories from Armenia. «We lived in a 14-story block with 54 apartments. It was like a village, with room to play, and very little crime. These days parents are afraid to let their children out. Everywhere there are houses, sidewalks and concrete. It’s the same whether in Yerevan or Athens.»

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