The Armenian Youth...
or The Truth?
By John Semerdjian
- Copyright © 2003. All rights reserved.
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 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.
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:
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.
Please read each entry and tell us briefly
what are your thoughts, experiences (good or bad) associated with that
What do you suggest that can be done
to improve or amend the shortfalls (mistakes).
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
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:
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"
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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:
"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
"I regret not to easily find something
to read in Armenian, to keep my knowledge (short stories, non-politics
newspaper, cultural papers etc.)"
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.
"Of no economic or practical use
except for mingling or reading newspapers."
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
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
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:
But many Church leaders and some members
of the community say otherwise. This is what another respondent 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
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."
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
"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 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
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.
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
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
Use the media (Newsletters, Armenian
TV, radio, Internet etc.) to educate the community.
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