By Mary Terzian
On Saturday April 28, 2007, the Kennedy Library of California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA), was teeming with professionals interested in the very successful seminar that made its debut in 2006 and promises to become an annual tradition. The purpose of these seminars, the brainchild of AGBU’s Hye Geen/Forum for Armenian Cultural and Social Studies (FACSS) and Armenian Social Work Caucus at CSULA, is to bring together researchers, educators and community groups, to explore psychological, sociological and cultural issues related to Armenian communities in the United States.
Nellie Yeretsian-Yacoubian, MPA, the principal orchestrator of the event, delivered the opening remarks, welcoming the attendees and promising an interesting session that would broaden our perspectives on Armenian life pertaining to assimilation, language, identity, philosophy and practice of religion. Dr. Karin A. Elliott-Brown, Professor, School of Social Work at CSULA, thanked the organizers on behalf of the School, particularly for the expertise provided and for the opportunity to learn about Armenians from these sessions. Sona Yacoubian, Chairperson of Hye Geen, introduced Dr. Lyudmila Harutyunyan, Dean of Sociology, Yerevan State University, who had especially flown in from Yerevan, to deliver her message.
Dr. Harutyunyan indicated that the time has come to create an Armenian Universe that integrates the Motherland and the Diaspora, with all its dispersed communities across the world. The 20th century was full of untoward events that undermined the positive Armenian self-image. Although it ended up with an independent Armenia, major problems remain unsolved. In particular, the two entities, Armenia and Diaspora remain segregated, each with higher expectations from the other. Our interrelation is progressively crawling towards a realistic perception of each other and towards a more organized cooperation and mutual support. She stressed that only by networking within the Armenian Universe we may stop the brain drain from Armenia and turn it into a brain gain, when the departed professionals return with higher qualifications to deal with the economic and political shortcomings of Armenia, and, particularly, with human rights issues.
Dr. Ellie Andreassian, Ed.D, moderator, expounded the challenges of Armenian life in the Diaspora and introduced the first panel of four presenters to deliver their findings, to be followed by a brief discussion period.
Arsineh Ararat, a Ph.D. candidate, talked about Connecting Armenians, Mental Health and the Genocide. She highlighted the commonalities in Middle Eastern cultures between Armenians, Jews, Lebanese, Syrians, and Iranians where the family is a strong unit, parents enjoy high respect, and focus on marriage, family and children takes central stage. Self-preservation through language and religion is a common thread.
Because of their unique alphabet Armenians have remained a separate community. They adapt easily but resist assimilation. After the genocide they have developed a psychic numbness, like the Jews, mixed with guilt feelings of survival, and a nebulous sense of identity. They are too proud to seek mental health assistance, therefore there is scant information on their day-to-day grips with social and mental health problems. A more exhaustive study is recommended at this stage to determine the extent to which genocide has affected their mental health and whether its effects are mitigated as time goes by.
Dr. Chiara Hayganush Megighian-Zenati introduced The Systemic Approach of Family Constellations in the Armenian Diaspora in the United States. She expounded on the merits of Family Constellation therapy which addresses the hidden psychological dynamics that prove destructive for an individual affected by the Genocide issue, i.e. depression, discrimination, religious clash, party opposition etc. In this kind of therapy the “patient” states the problem he/she would like to resolve. He/she chooses “representatives” from an available group, relevant to members of his own social circle having an involvement with the problem. The patient, as a spectator, watches the interactions of the “representatives” who, in turn, watch the changes they provoke in the patient with their thoughts and body language. The facilitator then asks for the representatives’ report and offers a resolution based on this morphogenetic approach. Dr. Megighian-Zenati believes that such Focus Therapy among dissenting parties may improve the prospect for peace and prosperity for Armenia, as has been proven between Germans and Jews, Islamic and Christian groups and other opposing parties. It is harder for the victim to reconcile with the perpetrator but in the end the problem is acknowledged by both sides and the hurdle for reconciliation removed.
Ms. Talin Sesetyan, M.A., researched Trends in Marriage among Armenian-Americans, based on a study of New York City and Northeastern New Jersey Armenian communities, from 1995 through 2005, in an attempt to understand the social, economic and cultural factors that affect an individual’s tendency to intermarry. The study of 1077 individuals from a total of eleven registers of Catholic, Protestant and Apostolic churches revealed a 34% average rate of intermarriage. There appears to be a relationship between an odar marriage, and age, gender, generation, place of birth, plus other outside factors like sex ratio and density of Armenians in a certain community. The study revealed that 46% of individuals born in the United States intermarry as compared to 24% foreign born. Assimilation has more of an impact on women than men. Age is a strong determinant of women’s likelihood to intermarry, the mean age for them hovering around 31, versus men’s 28. It turns out that men are a little less likely to intermarry.
Dr. Matthew Jendian, Ph.D., presented a more philosophical approach – To Be or Not To Be Armenian - the perennial dilemma of a displaced compatriot. His answer? It depends on whom you ask. His researches revealed that ethnic identity fluctuates over time but it does not appear to flow directly from biological make up. It is rather impacted by various factors like religious affiliation and other multidimensional elements; i.e. cultural such as language, religion, traditions, attitudes; structural like family circle, friends and professional affiliations; marital, obviously depending on the level of commitment provided by the other party to being Armenian; and self-identification to the extent one considers himself/herself being Armenian. There is also the dissimilation issue meaning to what extent one feels more or less Armenian or American.
Assimilation and ethnic retention are not mutually exclusive and the variations in rates depend on the local density of Armenian communities, length of settlements, presence of religious or Armenian institutions and other similar contributing factors.
His studies reveal that identification assimilation increases from the first to the fourth generation but ethnic association remains constant from the second to the fourth generation. Identification is not static but dynamic, influenced by socio-economic impacts. It is also situational. It fluctuates with closer ties with Motherland and with participation in Armenian life. He also found out that new forms of ethnic identity emerge with subsequent generations, no less important than older forms, representing an expression of the changing times.
A lively discussion followed, moderated by Dr. Andreassian; are there family conflicts on ethnic identity? – Yes, it is a fertile ground of dissent but unexplored at this stage; would results be different if a research were undertaken in Glendale or Los Angeles? – Much depends on the pool of eligibles for this study; comparison of the Turkish and German experience with Genocide – Armenians are more challenged by the Turkish denial but it does not mean the Holocaust acceptance has alleviated Jewish grief; and the number one cause for assimilation – structural relationships, meaning the circle of friends you surround yourself with. In this case Armenian institutions play a vital role.
After a short break for lunch, a brief video presentation on the discovery of Tigranakert buried under rubble in Artsakh was interesting, illuminating, and heartwarming. Ms. Sona Zeitlian, well-known author of The Armenians in Egypt, took over Session II, introducing the presenters and their topics for discussion.
Dr. Lisa Arslanian, Psy.D. clarified Common Cultural Misconceptions Around Psychological Disorders. Armenians view psychological disorders as signs of madness and are highly judgmental - “Khent e, inch e?” - as if human nature were either absolutely perfect or in utter disorder, with no gray areas in between. They are not used to seeking help from professionals for fear of being categorized as mentally unbalanced. However, psychological evolution provides the tools to relieve emotional pain, depression, anxiety, and other ailments that cause withdrawal. Origins of pain may be genetic, environmental, situational, or stress. Armenians have been powerless for a long time, being victims to oppression, genocide, and harsh circumstances for survival. They can now take the power back by developing strategies to acknowledge their vulnerability, without punching the vulnerable.
Armineh Lulejian, candidate for Ed. D. undertook a Health Survey of Armenian Elderly Living in Los Angeles. There is scant information on this vulnerable group outside of Armenia. If available, data is combined with white Americans. The study of 51 females and 29 males was limited to patients who attended a clinic. Interviews indicated that the majority emigrated from countries with little emphasis on preventive health care. Average residence in the United States was 13 years. Average age of the sample population was 72 years. Disease prevalence consisted of heart problems, hypertension, high cholesterol, and arthritis. It was difficult to assess depression and food intake due to cultural differences. Lack of English knowledge for communication was a negative factor. Most subjects were of low economic status. About two thirds had no alcohol intake and were non-smokers, and on the average they had less than half-hour exercise per day. The study suggested that the Armenian elderly have poor health. Support in the community is scant.
Dr. Sara Karakainen-Terian, Ph.D., presented Faith versus Culture in the Armenian Community - a Qualitative Sociological Study in the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America. Her study suggests that Armenians attend church for faith and culture. They range from the not -so-religious to the torchbearer. While the not-so-religious rationalize non-attendance by dissatisfaction with the language, length of service, lack of relevance or the clergy, and the spiritually hungry go to other churches for religious fulfillment, attending the Armenian church for cultural reasons only, the torchbearers frequent church regularly, worry about youth and are concerned with the future of the church. There is a contention between the modernists who opt for shorter services, accessible language, and more relevance to moral and ethical issues, while the traditionalist torchbearers insist on using the classical language to keep identity and culture pristine. Language emerges to be the main indicator of culture.
Professor Osheen Keshishian, M. Ed., referred to the Armenian Experience in America, in his regular jovial style. He pointed out that we, Armenians, know nothing much about ourselves, and the fact that the seminar is conducted in English says a lot about us.
The accomplishments of Armenians remain obscure for lack of historians. The Armenian presence in the United States has been recorded as far back as in 1556, when a George, the Armenian, introduced tobacco in Virginia. In 1618, two years before the landing of Mayflower, a John Martin, alias Hovhannes Mardigian, was settled already. From 1835 through 1850 about one hundred Armenians studied in prestigious institutions of learning, including the Union Theological seminary. Beginning from 1895 the Armenian immigration waves progressively increased as and when turmoil in the Middle East erupted, reaching their highest levels with the disintegration of the USSR. In 1908 Armenians owned already sixty percent of the acreage in Fresno while they constituted only five percent of the population.
The Armenian experience in the United States has been an arduous journey. After going through discrimination, social injustices and harassment, they were finally accepted as citizens. Presently the Armenian community in the United States rates among the most affluent and the most educated. Research indicates forty-five percent of them are university graduates. They gave seven generals to the United States Army and made distinguished contributions to the arts, medicine, literature, journalism and such. Writer William Saroyan and Governor George Deukmejian are the best examples of prominent Armenians.
At present the need for maintaining the ethnic identity is high on the agenda as retention of the Armenian language is dwindling. Some psychological and social issues need to be addressed as well. The ensuing question and answer period to and from the presenters revealed a need for grants to conduct further research.
Finally, Dr. Jack Der-Sarkissian, M.D., a family practitioner in “Little Armenia” (a neighborhood in Los Angeles, not a new country), highly interested in education, spearheaded the Round Table Discussion about the pros and cons of instituting charter schools for Armenian students.
At present close to ninety-five percent of ethnically Armenian children do not attend private Armenian schools, because of the prohibitive cost. The average annual expenses per student are about $7,000, including tuition and relative outlays. One solution would be the establishment of a very large trust fund - a somewhat elusive prospect.
Another is the voucher system of attending a school of parents’ choice, a perennial project on the Government agenda without imminent outcome. An alternative solution is the establishment of charter schools, where school administration enjoys a certain autonomy, receives an education grant, and is held accountable for student performance based on results rather than on strict compliance to requirements imposed on public schools.
Dr. Nadya Sarafian, Ed. D., retired Principal of AGBU Alex and Marie Manoogian private school in Detroit which was accredited as a charter in 1995 due to her efforts, expounded on the benefits of converting from private to charter status. The positives were that charter schools are not limited by district, they are allocated funds like public schools, religion is taught without objections, and non-Armenians are expected to follow the mandated courses. The beneficial result was that school registration readily increased, and Armenian culture was introduced to the odars, making it all a positive experience.
Dr. Minas Kojayan, Ph. D., Chairman of the Armenian Department in the AGBU Manoogian-Demirjian School in Canoga Park, author, columnist and teacher, argued that the juxtaposition of Armenian and odar students would undermine efforts for the preservation of the Armenian identity. By keeping Armenian students away from the polluted environment of public schools, in their most critical formative years, much would be contributed to the longevity of the Armenian identity. To prove his point, Dr. Kojayan argued that the presence of one odar among an Armenian group compels the group to speak in English. He believes in the traditional segregation of Armenians from the masses, to preserve the purity of the Armenian character.
Medea Kalognomos, who holds a Masters in Pupil Personnel Services and a retired teacher and guidance counselor of the Glendale Unified School District, acknowledged that while she realizes the impetus behind this discussion is to preserve the Armenian identity, the same results can be achieved within the Public School system. Her concern is that with charter schools the Armenian community will create enclaves that will cause more problems. In Public Schools Armenian children learn to respect other ethnicities, interchange mutual information, get acquainted with civic duties, learn about the system of Government at different levels and how they operate. Approval for the institution of specialized courses, like Armenian, can be obtained where a high concentration of Armenian students justifies such courses, like Hollywood or Glendale. Armenian parents need to be more involved with Public Schools when called upon, but interest remains low. Public Schools are flexible to the demands of the students. She added that Academic Performance Index (API) scores indicate, in general, a lower rate of 700 in Charter schools, versus 800 in Public Schools.
Questions and answers were limited because of the demands of time. It appeared, however, that the $7,000 average cost per annum of a student in an Armenian school demands heavy sacrifice from parents, even though ninety-eight percent of their graduating students head to universities.
Nayiri Nahabedian, MSW, who continued to provide support and guidance behind the scene despite her heavy involvements elsewhere, concluded the event, thanking presenters, attendees, the Armenian Caucus of Social Work at CSULA and the participating Hye Geen and FARCS members who brought their valuable contributions to the success of the conference.
Overall, the goal to explore psychological, social and cultural aspects in local Armenian communities, in order to assess problem areas and intervene before they become acute crises, was accomplished. The conference provided a platform for professionals related with the Armenian community to share their knowledge and, if necessary, establish a network. It also lived up to the level of excellence that the public has come to expect from Hye Geen’s social activities.
See you in 2008.
) is a freelance writer residing in Los Angeles, California. She is the author of The Immigrants’ Daughter, an award-winning memoir, depicting the universal problems of a child growing up in an immigrant family, in Egypt.