History &
& Alphabet
Youth &
Feasts &
The Armenian Youth... or The Truth?

By John Semerdjian - Copyright © 2003. All rights reserved.


or many years now the leaders and representatives of our Armenian institutions in the diaspora have been noticing a constant decline in the participation of the younger generation in many Armenian social, cultural, religious and political events. They accuse today's youth of being lazy, irresponsible, spoiled, distant and lacking interest in most things "Armenian".

In response to these allegations, in June 2003 'Hye Etch' conducted an e-mail survey asking Armenians living in the diaspora, especially the younger generation, to express their thoughts and try to help one another find solutions.

As expected, the answers were varied and unique to each respondent. However, the underlying problems and issues concerning the Armenian youth and their community were very similar regardless of the respondents' geographic location.

The information received was processed and excerpts were taken from some of the respondents' answers to be used as quotations. Whilst writing of this article, I modelled some of my comments on the Armenian community in Sydney (Australia). However, as you will see, the issues and problems discussed below are common to all Armenian communities in the diaspora.

For the record, I would like to point out that these issues and problems concerning youth and institutions can be found in many ethnic communities living in the diaspora and are not restricted only to Armenians. Also, some of the findings may not apply to all individuals or groups.  

The Aim

The main aim of this survey is to give people the opportunity to freely express their concerns without the fear of recrimination or retaliation, and at the same time help them start thinking outside the square. It is intended to put an end to suppressed, so-called "taboo" subjects and open up a clear line of communication between the "young" and "old" (modern and traditional).

Most important of all, this survey is targeted towards our leaders and institutions that make the above-mentioned accusations and do not invest enough time and resources to tackle these problems head on. Hopefully they will read this survey, and for a change, listen to what the people are saying and actually do something to address and resolve the community's concerns.

The Survey

During the preparation of the survey, many questions were raised. "Are these accusations true?" "Are our leaders and institutions ignoring the needs of today's youth?" "What can be done to fix these problems?" "What do people suggest?" etc.

In view of the complexity of these issues, an open-ended survey was prepared to give people the opportunity to express their thoughts freely and not constrain their answers to preset and preconceived multiple answers (A, B, C, or D type of answers).

A list of important subjects (categories) were prepared and the participants were asked to answer two simple, but critical questions regarding each subject. The questions were:

  • Please read each entry and tell us briefly what are your thoughts, experiences (good or bad) associated with that subject.

  • What do you suggest that can be done to improve or amend the shortfalls (mistakes).
The survey was then e-mailed to individuals and various Armenian institutions and youth groups. They were kindly asked to pass the message onto their friends and members and encourage them to partake in the survey.

Note: For the purpose of the survey, the words "youth" or "young generation" are considered to be individuals between the ages of 14 and 35.

The Results (The Categories)

The following are the results of the survey listed in the same order of subject matter (categories) as in the original survey. Please read each category in its descending order to fully understand its importance and relevance to the overall subject at hand. I believe these categories are interconnected and play an important role in moulding our Armenian youth and can help us understand the reasons for their behaviour.

A- Armenian vs. Foreign Educational Institutions.

For every Armenian parent there comes a time when they have to make a conscious decision whether to send their children to a full time Armenian school or to a foreign (native) school. Their final decision will depend on many variables, such as availability, distance, affordability, standards of education, importance of their children's Armenian education, social and religious affiliation etc.

Without a doubt, their final decision will have a direct impact on their children's Armenian upbringing. According to research carried out in the US, individuals who attend "full time" Armenian schools have a greater chance of retaining the Armenian language and history and passing it on to the future generation, compared to those who have attended foreign or even Saturday/Sunday Armenian schools.

In fact, it seems that Saturday/Sunday Armenian schools have very little impact on a child's proper education in the Armenian language. Some may argue that it is better than nothing, which is true, but unfortunately the results fall short of there intended goals. The reasons for their failure can be contributed to several factors:

  • Most of these part time schools are run on shoestring budgets with unqualified volunteers, who other than being literate in the Armenian language, know very little about how to teach and act with young minds. 

  • Lack of proper education material and resources such as books, posters, audio and video material etc.

  • Forceful obligation of children by their parents to attend these Saturday/Sunday schools on their days off, when all their other friends are having fun with their families.
This last point has the potential to backfire and discourage children from learning. They start to protest and make conscious efforts not to learn and practice the Armenian language. These feelings are echoed in the words of a respondent who said: "I found Saturday Armenian school a pain when I was a youngster"

So, what about full time Armenian schools? Are they getting the big share of the pie or are they losing out to foreign schools? Well, unfortunately the latter is the case. In Sydney (Australia) there are three full time Armenian schools. Approximately 10% of the Armenian children living in Sydney attending these schools. This is an alarming figure. Basically nine out of ten children will not receive proper Armenian schooling and there is a good chance that they will grow up without being able to read, write and in extreme cases speak the Armenian language. Thereby gradually losing their true Armenian identity.  

Because of this low attendance, these privately run Armenian schools, which are owned by or sympathies with a religious or a social organisation, are always in dire financial situation. Lack of proper finance is at the top of their complaints list. They claim the Armenian community dose not give them enough support.

Before we can point the finger of blame, we must look at the reasons why this is happening.

  • The Armenian community in Sydney is concentrated in certain geographical locations. Just like Armenians in the US and other countries. Which makes it logical to establish an Armenian school within or close to these areas. Unfortunately, none of the three Sydney schools are, and in spite of transportation supplied, it is not enough to facilitate all areas. Thus forcing some parents to send their children to local foreign schools.

  • Because of financial strains most Armenian parents choose to send their children to foreign public schools, which are government run and either free or highly subsidised. A respondent agrees with this observation by saying, "I think the decline in students [in Armenian private schools] is due to the tuition cost".

  • Standard of education and service is another important issue. Parents want their children to have the best possible education they can afford. A respondent said, "We need to give our children the competitive edge to be successful in this world. Language, technical skills etc."  So, if Armenian schools continue following the old methods and philosophies of teaching, can't afford up to date facilities and don't have professionally trained teachers and staff to listen to the needs of today's young minds, then they will find it very difficult to attract these kind of people.

  • Good communication and getting priorities in order are rare within some Armenian schools. They seem to concentrate on their own image and survival more than on the needs of the parents and their children.

  • Lack of interest on the part of the Armenian parent to give their children Armenian schooling is another important factor. Most parents see no economical value in their children's Armenian education. They simply dismiss the Armenian language, history etc. as being irrelevant to their every day lifestyle and concentrate on the native language and culture.

  • Another important point is the subtle social, political and religious tension, which exists within the Armenian community. Each of the above mentioned privately run Armenian schools belong to or lean towards a certain religious and/or social organisation, making them somewhat biased towards fellow Armenians of a different persuasions.

  • Many ill-informed parents give in to their children's demands to be transferred to foreign schools. Thinking that their children will be better off mixing with the native population and practising and learning the native language and culture.
In order to survive and stay competitive our school officials and governing bodies need to adopt more radical and innovative ideas. A possible solution to prevent this "exodus" from Armenian schools, as mentioned above, is that they consider opening their doors to the general public. This would help achieve a more controlled environment conducive to creating a balance of both Armenian and native cultural values and prepare our children for the real world they live in. Some may argue that this will cause many problems. However, if planned and executed properly, this most certainly can become a very important asset to the future of our children.

All said and done, I am not implying that Armenian schools are inferior to foreign schools and that parents should stay away from them. On the contrary, some have a very good record, but unfortunately do not know how to market themselves properly. There are many foreign (native) schools that have the same problems, if not worse. The main point is however that our Armenian schools must remain competitive not only within the Armenian culture, but also within the local culture.

Ultimately, lack of proper Armenian schooling will have a negative effect on a child's attitude towards his or her Armenian heritage. It is our responsibility to sow the proper seeds in our children so that we can harvest the benefits as they grow up to become young members of the Armenian community.

B- Importance of Our Language (Literacy and Practice).

"Language is our link to the past and future. It provides us with the tools to understand the nuances of the Armenian psyche along with a better understanding of self". These are the insightful words of a respondent on this subject. And how true they are! A person's mother language is a big part of his or her heritage and without it they will gradually lose their identity and eventually disappear.

Most of the respondents on this subject believe that preserving the Armenian language is very important. Listed below are excerpts from the comments made by some of the respondents. As expressed in their own unique way, I believe these comments reflect the true value people attach to their language. 

  • "Extremely important, if we do not practice it or pick up too many American words and make them Armenian, our language will become a dead language, like Latin."

  • "Our language is very important to us. It is known that Armenian is the language of prayer; if one may say that French is the language of love. If we do not know our language and practice it daily, how will we pray?"

  • "Not enough people take this issue seriously. I never learnt well enough, I admit it, I am lacking in this area, but I did try, however I had poor educators, none of them knew exactly how to TEACH, that is a shortfall that should be addressed. Literacy is nowhere near high enough within our circle."

  • "I think that any bilingual person has advantages over others and, as my family did not teach me the language, I feel left out of a lot. My father and all of the Armenian side of my family speak Armenian when we are together and it truly bothers me that I was never taught. I think that it has alienated me to some degree and prevented me from participating in the Armenian community."

  • "Most Armenian parents talk in other languages [than Armenian] to their kids and that is the worst they can do to them."

  • "When I try and use the proper Armenian word in a sentence, I usually get laughed at for doing so, mostly because people don't understand the word, and don't want to look stupid for not knowing the meaning of the word."

  • "There is plenty of opportunity to speak English everywhere else, so speaking some Armenian at home is a small sacrifice."

  • "I regret not to easily find something to read in Armenian, to keep my knowledge (short stories, non-politics newspaper, cultural papers etc.)"
Yet there are a few misled individuals who out of ignorance measure the value of a language in economical terms. This is one of the responses I received:
  • "Of no economic or practical use except for mingling or reading newspapers."
If we make a list of most important assets of a nation, language will be at the top of the list. Without a doubt, for us Armenians our language is the biggest asset we have. It's the tool that identifies us as a nation and helps us to communicate and pass on our knowledge to future generations.

In 405 AD, over a century after the official acceptance of Christianity in Armenia, St. Mesrob Mashdots invented the Armenian alphabet. This was no coincidence. As a well educated priest trying to spread the Holy Word, he was constantly frustrated with the lack of a national written language. So with the support of the state and the Church, he collected the different Armenian spoken dialects of the time and combined them into 36 characters (sounds), thus creating the Armenian alphabet (two letters were added later to make it 38). As expected, the Bible was the first book to be published in the new Armenian alphabet, which to this day is considered to be the best translation of its kind.

Since the invention of the Armenian alphabet, Armenians have a common medium that bonds them as one. It is our written language and belief in God that helped us to survive against foreign occupations and it is our duty as descendants of this great nation to keep the torch lit and hand it to future generations.

Practising and being literate in one's mother language should not be and cannot be measured in economical or practical terms. People who do so are ignorant, ill-educated and are ashamed to admit their own weaknesses. There is nothing wrong with not knowing something because of circumstances beyond one's control. However it is unforgivable to consciously ignore, mock or alienate others in order to hide one's own deficiencies.

In order for a language to survive, people need to use it, communicate with it, write and read it. Our children and the young generation should be educated about the advantages of knowing their mother language instead of it being forced upon them. We need to teach them to keep a healthy balance between Armenian and other native languages. After all, we live in the diaspora and it would be naive and irresponsible of us not to teach our children (without compromising our own language and culture) how to live and compete with the native population.

C- The Role of the Armenian Parent.

"The apple dose not fall far from the tree" – Every one of us must have heard this proverb at least once in our lifetime. We all know that children are the reflection of their parents. The amount of discipline and care exercised by parents during their upbringing is very much visible in their offspring's behaviour.

Undoubtedly, parents play a very important role in raising their children and it is their responsibility to make sure that children are taught the riches of our culture and heritage as part of their upbringing. This is what a respondent said about this subject, "They [parents] are the single biggest factor in how we turn out, hence they are paramount in importance of shaping tomorrow's people, unfortunately not enough of them take the time to instil the cultural heritage that we have so much of."

Another respondent said, "I have to say that parents have let us down the most. We don't know our language well enough to feel confident and comfortable speaking, reading or writing in it."

These comments may sound a bit harsh, but they are true. Some parents today neglect their children's Armenian cultural needs. They are too soft in their attitudes towards the Armenian culture. Their children grow up missing out on many of their own cultural riches. Children are encouraged to communicate in the native language within the home with the view that such practises will benefit them and will help them be on par with the native population.

At the other end of the spectrum, some parents believe in and practise the age-old philosophy of, "Spare the rod, spoil the child" A respondent writes, "I think that my strict upbringing made me responsible and accountable for my actions, which, I think makes me a better person. Most American families, especially these days, let their children walk all over them."

Some people agree that a child raised under strict traditional Armenian values will grow up to be a responsible member of the community. They will obey and respect their elders and most likely uphold and pass on our ancestral traditions to the future generation.

But do we really want or can we afford to have such "uptight" minds in this age? Today we live in a fast changing, modern world. We can not constrain our children's minds and thoughts to a strict traditional upbringing. That's one of the original sources that fuel the problem at hand. Our youth are rebelling against such narrow, single mindedness. Parents need to start thinking outside the square and try a more up to date approach to this issue. One such parent writes, "I think understanding our youth is the best approach, and being a friend to your youth rather then an authority figure is even better…"

We all know that there are no set rules on how to raise one's child. Parents don't have a "How to raise your child" manual that automatically updates itself to keep up with the times. They work hard to put food on the table and make sure their children are taken care of. Being an Armenian parent living in the diaspora trying to raise your children as Armenians and as good citizens of the country you live in is no easy task. Local governments may not accept some of our traditional ways of raising and disciplining our children, which makes it even more difficult, but this dose not mean that we have to neglect our Armenian cultural values and traits.

When raising their children, parents should keep a healthy balance between our Armenian culture and the native culture. We are first Armenians and then Australians, Americans, French, Brazilians, Lebanese etc. Our children have many opportunities to learn and practice native languages and culture, but in most cases they have only their immediate family to help them learn and preserve their true Armenian identity.

D- The Armenian Church.

For those who don't know, the majority of the Armenians belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church. The remaining Armenians follow other denominations. In this section I will concentrate on the Armenian Apostolic Church. The other denominations may have similar issues, but I don't have enough information to make any comments.

It's a known fact that Church and culture are synonymous when it comes to Armenians. The Armenian Church has played and still plays an important role in the preservation of our culture and heritage. Throughout the centuries the Armenian Apostolic Church has been the eternal flame of this faithful nation. The flame which has guided this nation through dark and treacherous roads and ensured their survival to this date.

No one can deny the fact that without the Armenian Church most of our cultural heritage would have been lost or forgotten. So why is it then that today's Armenian youth and their families are gradually distancing themselves from this spiritual flame? What has changed to make them act in this manner?

To shed some light on this matter lets have a look at what some of the respondents said:

  • "The Armenian Church has served the Armenian people as an alternate government or a government in exile, an educational institution and a place for social gathering. It has been overburdened in this role and is tired. The clergy and leadership of the Armenian Church need to listen to the needs of the young Armenian family. Welcome them, nurture them, counsel them and bring them into the fold."

  • "Today's youth see that the church (and the family) has not provided the basic foundation and security a person needs to survive the terrible conflicts in the world today."

  • "It is time for change... Sadly for the youth of today, religion is no more than a component of the overall suite of traditions that we grew up with and were exposed to since childhood. Going to Church (eg. a Wedding, Christening or for Christmas) is one of the many Armenian traditional experiences as is eating fish at Easter or cooking Dolma [stuffed zucchini].

    It's something we do because we've been doing it since childhood and our parents taught us to do it.

    Unfortunately, I dare say our Church offers no or little spiritual experience and does not encourage or teach the value of faith and commitment. If we are honest, we would all agree however this is the problem... nobody dares discuss it - why? Is it a taboo subject because it challenges significant fundamentals in our history? Or does it open a can of worms for our local spiritual leaders and representatives? 

    I still haven't seen any evidence of local Church representative efforts to understand why this happened and what can be done. By trying to understand why, I mean tackling the problem head on because a lot more needs doing above making an appearance at schools once a week.

    Open and honest conversation and discussion facilitated by young, inspirational, approachable and open-minded Church representatives that can associate and communicate with our youth. What attitude do the youth have about religion? How about the basics... 'Do you believe in God or what does God mean to you?' Understanding the mindset of the youth can help build a program to bring them back in. 

    Guessing and drawing conclusions doesn't work - We need to talk to them!

    What percentage of our youth actually understands any dialogue when they attend Church? Our Church conducts the weekly mass in Ancient Armenian [Krapar]. Let's again be honest.... Our youth are challenged with modern Western Armenian!

    What about touch points? Sydney and Melbourne are big cities. There's a significant geographical gap between our community in the west and Chatswood. The first Armenian Church (Chatswood) was purchased in the mid-50s. Over 50 years later it is now 2003 and we still have one Church in Sydney surrounded by four naked blocks of land purchased for reasons that escape me and anybody I ask. How about a little communication and community opinion!"

  • "I don't understand the majority of the sermon; it has never been explained to me (I suppose that my parents are to be blamed for that). If religion is what identifies us as being Armenian then the Armenian church in Australia better do something to fix the problem soon, otherwise they are going to end up with a church full of old people."
But many Church leaders and some members of the community say otherwise. This is what another respondent said:
  • "The Armenian church is different to your average church, it is a cultural organisation firstly, then a religious institution, without it, there would be no Armenians left today and I see the future as being much the same. Continued support regardless of religious beliefs is necessary to keep the strength of our church and our own identity, IT IS OURS."
It is obvious from the comments made above that the representatives of the Armenian Church should have a good look at their ways of dealing with the needs of today's Armenian youth and families. Just conducting religious ceremonies and preaching faith doesn't seem to be enough any more. People want to be heard, they want to be understood and appreciated. They want to have their say and not be ignored. The days of so called "Blind Faith" are gone, today's young families want to have the true religious experience when they frequent Church. They want to understand the sermons and have things explained to them in their own language.

It would be very naive and irresponsible of us to ask the Armenian Church to relinquish the Classical Armenian (Krapar) language for modern Armenian or even another language. The only reason we still have "Krapar" today is because of the Church. Most of us may not understand it, but it is a very important part of our culture and we can not simply abolish it because of our own personal ignorance. Having said that, the Church should address this issue head on and try to educate the community, not just by teaching the language, but also the meaning and the purpose of the feasts and ceremonies practised by the Armenian Church, where most of our cultural riches are found. Some of the ways to achieve this are:

  • Offer basic free 'Classical Armenian language' courses to the public.
  • Teach basic Classical Armenian (Krapar) in Armenian schools.
  • Publish prayer books and CDs with subtitles and translations.
  • Prepare educational booklets, videos and DVDs explaining the real meaning of Armenian feasts, ceremonies and the symbolism of the Mass (eg. Armenian weddings, Christenings, house blessing etc.)
  • Use the media (Newsletters, Armenian TV, radio, Internet etc.) to educate the community.
If finance is an issue (which it normally is), I am sure the Church can easily find willing, "well-off" individuals to sponsor such projects. By doing so people will not be able to use the feeble excuse of not understanding the liturgy or the ceremonies when they go to Church.

Today, the Armenian Church (especially in Armenia) is free from its centuries of oppression. With the independence of Armenia in 1991 and the establishment of a secular government, the Armenian Church no longer shoulders the same degree of political pressures and responsibilities. In view of this, it is time for the Church to return to its religious roots (piety, spirituality, charity, openness etc.) and accommodate the spiritual needs of the community. Church representatives should treat community members with respect and offer their unconditional support and help to those who request it. They should consult the community's opinion regarding major Church projects and respond to peoples inquiries with honesty and openness. After all, it is the community that financially supports and funds such projects and therefore should at least have their say…

It is extremely important that the Church be run by open-minded, competent, honest, approachable and humble individuals who will treat all members of the community equally (not just so called "rich paying members" of the Church). They need to let go of their attitudes of superiority and actually "work" for the good of the Church. They should know that their comments and treatment of people will have a direct impact on the Church and the support it will receive from the community.

. Church representatives should adopt a hands-on-approach towards the needs of today's young families. They should approach them in person and discuss their concerns and try their best to resolve any grievances. They are there to serve the community and not just make symbolic appearances during official Church events.

If Armenian Church leaders want to attract the young generation then they should start doing something about it soon. Those thoughts of the old school are no longer relevant. The Church should have a serious look at today's Armenian communities' needs in the diaspora and try to find solutions without compromising our religious and cultural integrity.

The Armenian Youth… or The Truth? -- Continue Page 2 >
Updated 30 October, 2003 ..
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