BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, may not be on the list of places that you’d like to visit, but it ought to be. I, for one, fell in love with the city.Sweden, by population and territory, is the largest country in Scandinavia, and maybe the friendliest. Before my visit to Sweden, the first thing that came to my mind was the deep cold, with long winter days. However, after finally visiting Stockholm, I have an entirely different perspective.
Stockholm, where I arrived by bus from Copenhagen, was my last stop in Europe before I flew to Armenia. I had communicated, by email, with a few people in Sweden who are involved with the Armenian community there.
Before I proceed with my report, I’d like to say a quick word about the relationship between Swedes and Armenians. In the annals of history, the first documented encounters of Swedes with Armenians trace back to the 10th century, when the Vikings established trade routes along the Volga and Dnipro rivers through Russia, towards the Black Sea. They traded goods from the Far East along the Silk Road, thus passing through Armenia towards the coast of the Black Sea.
However, there’s no mention of an Armenian presence in Sweden before the 18th century. In 1714, Swedish King Charles XII brought a trade delegation to Sweden from the Ottoman Empire, including some Armenian financiers and merchants. A deeper search reveals a reference to two other Armenians. One is Constantine d’Ohsson, who, as a young man, arrived in Sweden from Constantinople in 1797. He graduated from Uppsala University and became a highly successful Swedish diplomat. Another person of interest is Ohan Demirgian, who was a page at Charles XV’s court in Stockholm in the 1860s.
The main immigration of Armenians to Sweden began in the 1970s, in different waves. During the 70s and 80s, it was Armenians from Lebanon and Iran. And, more recently, in large numbers, are Armenians from Syria. Today, the number of Armenians in Sweden is estimated to be around 12,000.
Before arriving to Stockholm, I had connected with Vahagn Avedian, the spokesperson of the Union of the Armenian Associations in Sweden. I had briefly spoken to him through an email. Vahagn introduced me to Aram Yanekian, who kindly offered to pick me up from the bus station. It was the warmest welcome I could have expected. Aram, who serves as the chair of the Hye Taad, drove me to where I was staying, about 25 minutes away. He had just returned from Armenia where he, with 46 other Armenians from different countries, had ascended Mt. Ararat.
As we drove to my place, he shared the details of his journey to the top of the mountain. With much excitement, he detailed his trip. “We hit the road in the wee hours of early morning from Yerevan. The bus ride took 16 hours to cross the borders of Georgia, and then Turkey, to arrive to the city of Bayazit, where we spent the night prior to our hike.” He explained that the reason it took 16 hours was because, on the way there, they had stopped to visit the ruins of the ancient city of Ani. Then, they had a stop at the city of Kars. He shared with me his emotions of visiting the historic Armenian settlements and the ascent of Mt. Ararat. I felt a true closeness with him, as if I knew him from before. His cheery attitude was infectious.
The next day, for lunch, I met Vahagn. He, like Aram, was incredibly friendly. They both made me feel very much at home. Vahagn, as a young boy, was sent to stay with his uncle in Sweden after the Islamic Revolution. Two years later, in 1989, his parents joined him in Iran. Today, he lives in Uppsala with his wife and two boys. As we ate, Vahagn gave me a run down about the dissemination of Armenians and the available organizations in different cities. The Armenians are spread out in couple of major cities: Stockholm, Uppsala, Södertälje, Västerås, Örebro and Göterborg (Gothenburg).
In the 1980s and 90s, due to the Islamic Revolution, there was a surge of Armenians from Iran to Sweden. Most of those individuals settled in Uppsala, a city about an hour away to the north of Stockholm. Over the last 20 years, the number of Armenians in Uppsala has diminished. The decrease is due to a large number of Armenians, mostly from Iran, who have left Sweden to settle in the United States. Today, the population of Armenians in Uppsala is only 1,000.
On my last day in Stockholm, I took the train to visit Uppsala. Alenoosh, the President of the Raffi Cultural Center in Uppsala, had contacted me a day earlier and had invited me to visit there. I received another warm welcome. Alenoosh, her son, and two other friends, greeted me at the train station. They took me to a nearby Trattoria – an Italian restaurant – which was owned by two Armenian brothers, Alex and Hovo. In that very Italian setting, we had a very Italian dinner – pizza! Alex and Hovo also have a second restaurant on the other side of Uppsala, which, on September 21, will host the banquet arranged by the Raffi Center on the anniversary of the Armenian Independence Day from the Soviet Union.
Alenoosh explained that the center was very active during the 90s. They had a cultural group and Saturday Armenian language school with 50 kids. But, as the community shrunk, their activities have changed course. In order to bring the community together, and not lose contact with the families, Alenoosh and her board have made plans to generate many interesting events throughout the year to draw the participation of young and old alike. In month of May, for the celebration of Christ’s ascension, they arranged a picnic next to a lake. The Ascension Day in Armenian is called “Hampartsoum” and it is one of the most beloved Armenian traditional events. It is celebrated outdoors with special songs and games. In addition of the celebration of the Independence Day, they’re going to have wine tasting, group painting, and will celebrate Christmas and the New Year.
It was Vahagn who had asked Alenoosh to contact me. I truly enjoyed my visit to Uppsala and my time with them. Later, Alenoosh and her son took me back to the train station, where I took the 8:24 p.m. train back to Stockholm.
Södertäljes is about half an hour away from the center of Stockholm. Today, it has the most concentrated population of Armenians, about 4,000. In the recent years, it is estimated that approximately 3,000 Syrian Armenians have moved to Södertälje. Most are from Kamshli, a city in Syria, near the borders of Turkey and Iraq.
On Friday evening, around 7 p.m., Aram took me to the Armenian “Acoumb” – the Armenian Center of Södertälje – named Sardarbad, after the decisive Armenian victory where they repelled the Ottoman forces and could establish the First Republic of Armenia in 1918. The Sardarabad center is backed by the Dashnak political party, an international umbrella organization under which are the components of the Armenian Relief Society (HOM), the General Athletic Union (Homenetment), the Cultural foundation (Hamazkayin), and the Armenian Youth Federation.Three years ago, the community was able to purchase the building where the center is housed. In the foyer, young and old were gathered. Some were playing billiard and many other were busy playing backgammon and card games.
At the Armenian Center, I met with a few members of the board. The first person I talked to was Rosaline. She arrived from Beirut four years ago. She’s married and has a six-year-old daughter. As a board member, she oversees the cultural and educational component under Hamazkayin. The center has an Armenian traditional dance group, divided in two age groups – One is for children ages 6 to 12, and the other for individuals in their teens and up to their 30s. Combined, they have 60 dancers. The group has two dance instructors, Mariette, who is from Iran, and Sevag, who is from Syria. They’re preparing a concert to be staged in December. Rosaline also plans to expand the Armenian language classes, where the kids meet once a week on Fridays from 5 to 6:30 p.m. After the language class, the kids join the scout’s activities.
At the center, I also met Zvart, who’s a board member of the women’s committee of the Armenian Relief Society. The chapter’s name is Akhtamar, and it has 70 members who meet twice a month. The group is very active. HOM has an additional women’s committee at the Armenian Center of Stockholm who are active, but have only 50 members.
On Sunday, it was my good fortune to be present at a picnic event organized by the Armenian Scouts of Södertälje and their parents, to celebrate a back to school event. Again, Aram Yanekian, picked me up and drove me to the park by a lake where the event was held. I cannot stress enough how beautiful and serene of a scene the park was. It was at the edge of a forest bordered by a pasture and a peaceful silvery lake. There are a total of 84 Homenetmen Scouts in Södertälje. Fifty-four scouts and close to one hundred parents and other adults participated in the day’s festivities.
The daily forecast predicted rain showers, but the weather changed and became a comfortable overcast – the perfect weather for a picnic. As we arrived, the smell of grilled kebabs filled the air. A few volunteers were in charge of preparing the food. Around 2 p.m., the youngsters wrapped up their activities and games. Before enjoying the delectable food that I’m sure they could hardly wait for, the scouts lined up to perform the flag ceremony of the color guard and to recite their pledges. The kids ranged in age from six years old to sixteen, who were all neatly dressed in their uniforms. The ceremony aroused my emotions. It was heartwarming to see that our Armenian society is thriving on “Odar Aperoom” (on foreign shores).
After the picnic, Aram drove me to visit the Armenian Apostolic church of Södertälje, which is the only Armenian Church in all of Scandinavia. The church was purchased four years ago, with the help of some benefactors and fundraising by the whole community. The resident priest, who is from Etchmiadzin, leads a full liturgy service every Sunday. The church has a community room where, after the service, the congregation gathers to have coffee and refreshments. Aram, who had accompanied me to the church, said, “On special occasions, such as Easter, the church gets overflown with the Parish.”
The Armenian community of Stockholm uses the church for more than just services. One room at the church is dedicated to Sunday Bible school, where the kids are kept busy while parents attend the Sunday service. The church is also used by =the women’s committee once a month, when they prepare food to have a Saturday evening dinner at the church. Twice a year, they arrange banquets. The preparations are underway for a banquet on November 8 of this year. For that occasion, they have invited Harout Pamboukjian to sing. They’re expecting about 700 guests.
On Sunday morning, before heading to Södertälje for the picnic, I took the Metro to Akalla, a suburb of Stockholm, where some Armenians live. The Armenian community of Akalla gathers at a Swedish church, where a priest from Etchmiadzin leads Sunday services, as well as the celebration of some ecclesiastical traditions, such as the blessing of the grapes. On that day, there were close to 70 people in attendance at the church. The liturgy included full-fledged sacraments, according to Armenian rites. I couldn’t stay to the end of the worship, because Aram was supposed to pick me up from another Metro station and to drive me to the picnic.
A quick word about Persians in Sweden: Akalla has a population of around 9,000 people, of which 60 percent are immigrants – mostly Iranians. In the whole of Sweden, there’s an estimated 100,000 Iranians. Most are concentrated in city of Göterborg (Gothenburg).
On Saturday evening, Hovsep Hamamjian, the Director of the Armenian Society of Stockholm, picked me up and took me to their center, which is also backed by the Dashnak political party. The Azadamard social home of Stockholm, very recently, moved to this new rented quarters. They had done a fantastic job of refurbishing the place, which felt like it was squeaky clean. Their activities are same as the Sardarabad center; however, they have fewer members. While I was there, I met a few board members who were working on stuffing envelopes with invitations for an upcoming banquet, on September 28, to celebrate the opening of the center. I also met Nayiri, who is one of the scout’s group leaders. She said the center has 40 scouts and 10 leaders. The center also has a little cafe where one can buy all sorts of refreshments, coffee, and sandwiches. I chose a soujouk (spicy sausage) sandwich with tomatoes. It was very delicious.
Örebro is about two hours west of Stockholm. The Ararat Armenian Association was founded in Örebro in 2003. As with any other cultural center, the aim is to preserve Armenian traditions and language. The Association often organizes speakers at the University of Örebro, to bring awareness to the Armenian Genocide. A monument dedicated to the Armenian Genocide victims was unveiled in the city on May 29, 2015.
The Union of Armenian Associations in Sweden was founded in 1993 in Uppsala. Later, due to practical reasons the seat of the UAAS was moved to the capital of Sweden, Stockholm. As the name suggests, the UAAS consists of its member associations spread throughout Sweden, currently numbering 12 with around 1,200 individual members. The primarily task of the organization is to coordinate the activities of its member associations and act as a representative and spokesperson for the Armenian community in Sweden. It also acts as a bridge between the Swedish society and Armenians through the Armenian Embassy
Aram told me that, this year, he and a few other Armenians of Södertälje accompanied their mayor, Boel Godner, to Armenia in commemoration of the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. The purpose was to connect her closely to Armenian culture. Every year, on April 24, about 1,000 Armenians gather at King’s Garden in Stockholm. As with any political rally, many dignitaries give speeches for the occasion. Afterwards, the whole group proceeds to the Turkish embassy carrying loudspeakers, Armenian and Swedish flags. At the end of the day, some community members visit the grave of Alma Johansson (1880 – 1974), to give their respect to a woman who, like many other missionaries during the Armenian Genocide, saved thousands of orphans and women. She began her life as a missionary in Armenia, first in Mush, from 1901 to 1915 and afterwards continued working with Armenian refugees in Greece.
The Armenian Embassy was established about seven years ago in Stockholm. Alexandre Arzumanyan is the new Ambassador, who was moved, a few months ago – in March – from Denmark to Sweden. There’s no longer an embassy in Denmark. However the embassy in Stockholm covers all four Scandinavian countries.
The Armenian community in Stockholm also has a history in politics. Esabelle Dingizian, who was born in Iraq to Armenian parents, was three years old when her family moved to Sweden. She’s been active in politics since her 30s. She was first elected into office was in 1998, as a member of the Botkyrka Municipality council. In 2014, Dingizian was elected as the Third Deputy Speaker of the Swedish Parliament. Murad Artin, who was also born in Iraq, has been active in the Örenbro Municipality. He’s been in politics since 1998. He’s been a member of the Swedish Parliament – representing the Left Party. Artin Karapet is also politically involved, as he is currently a member of the Swedish parliament, representing the Moderate Party.
Sweden, and its Armenian community, surpassed all my expectations. Stockholm is surrounded with many lakes and exceptional sceneries and the people are very kind. The old town, which dates back 400 years, is so well preserved. What a pleasant experience it was to stroll in its cobblestone narrow streets and stop at restaurants to have a bite. It’s a city that calls you back