BY ALEEN ARSLANIAN
Michael and John Baghdassarian, 17-year-old twins from Glendale, have ventured into the world of micro-lending by launching a program in Debet, a village in Armenia’s Lori region.
During their time off from school, the Baghdassarian brothers have worked at Massis Kabob, the venerable eatery founded by their grandfather, Hacop. They met this reporter at the headquarters of the restaurant and discussed their journey of creating and implementing a microlending program in an Armenian village, and their intent to expand the program while simultaneously helping to promote the work of their loan recipients.
John and Michael have always felt a deep commitment to support, and participate in, programs that give back to Armenia. For several years, the two volunteered with the Armenian Educational Foundation. While in middle and junior high school, the twins took part in the foundation’s School Supply Project initiative, where they quickly became project managers. The aim of the project is to provide backpacks filled with school supplies to children in rural Armenian villages.
Now seniors at La Salle College Preparatory High School in Pasadena, the two continue to find ways to further the Armenian cause. On campus, John and Michael have opened two clubs—the Armenian Club and the Ski and Snowboard Club. “The Armenian club is the largest club at La Salle right now, with 81 non-Armenian members,” said Michael. They are also enrolled in several Advanced Preparatory courses and are members of the school’s baseball team.
At school, they run club meetings and share their knowledge of Armenian culture by organizing events on campus, where “only 10 or so Armenians” are enrolled, according to Michael. Last year, the twins organized a cultural day event, which included Armenian dancers, music, and food. “Even our principal, Jamal Adams, tried Armenian food, and he really loved it,” said John.
During the 44-day War, the twins “realized that a lot of people didn’t know about what was happening in Armenia and Artsakh.” They opened an Armenian club on campus with the aim to “help the La Salle community learn about our culture and the challenges that face our homeland,” according to Michael. “The best way to share and connect others to our community is through dance, music, food, and historical context provided by our guest speakers. Each time someone learns [about Armenians] and makes a connection, we gain a supporter,” he said while discussing the responsibility they felt to educate non-Armenians about their culture.
Successfully opening and running the clubs on campus were not so difficult for John and Michael, because there are clear steps to follow when creating clubs. “We have to get the [club] members, get cool sweaters, organize events. We check all those boxes,” Michael said. In contrast, while creating and implementing their microlending program—the first-of-its-kind in the Lori region—the twins encountered several hurdles.
In early 2021, John and Michael began brainstorming about different ways in which they could give back to Armenia. After landing on the idea of microloans, they began the process of thoroughly researching about the topic, other microlending programs, and how to best implement the idea in rural Armenia.
Through their research, the Baghdassarian’s realized that “there was nothing really like this done” before. Typically, when financial institutions or non-profit organizations offer loans, they do so with specific interest rates—an aspect the twins refused to implement. “Our goal wasn’t to make money, it was to help people,” said Michael.
John and Michael realized that the most effective way to bring their idea to fruition was to contact an organization on the ground in Armenia. Subsequently, the two got in touch with Children of Armenia Fund, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing education and building infrastructure in rural Armenian villages. Although the organization’s headquarters are in Yerevan, they have roots in the Lori region, where they opened the SMART Center four years ago.
Representatives at COAF were elated to hear John and Michael’s plans. When diasporan Armenians, especially youth, reach out to the organization, they typically do so with the intent to participate in their programs as volunteers. In John and Michael’s case, they were seeking guidance in refining and implementing their own, new program.
After about six months of corresponding with COAF Village Programs Manager Anahit Hakobyan via email, the twins made their way to Armenia. The organization helped the two in a multitude of ways, most importantly understanding the business sector in Armenia’s Lori region and locating the right candidates to receive the microloans.
According to John, they decided to implement their program in the Lori region, “because the COAF SMART Center is there” and they saw how the center “helps the community” in substantial ways. The SMART Center is an education hub that provides programs for underserved Armenian youth. Participants are given the opportunity to enhance their skills in education, athletics, music, languages, and entrepreneurship.
In comparison to the infrastructure of its surrounding villages, the SMART Center looks like a structure “from the future,” said Michael. “Having the advantage of learning in such an amazing place helps build a village, because it’s helping keep the youth there.” The twins discussed the many ways COAF has positively impacted the region, including the implementation of a trash collection system; a new bus, donated by the Japanese Embassy; as well as bringing Wi-Fi to several villages in the region. “The small things that we don’t even realize make such a big difference in these villages,” they noted.
John and Michael were in Armenia for a total of 30 days, and they wasted no time to get the ball rolling on their plans. “We had our first meeting a couple of hours after landing,” said Michael. They met with Hakobyan, who they had been corresponding with prior to arriving, at COAF’s Yerevan offices. The organization offered a list of potential candidates—“star students” who have participated in COAF’s educational programs—to receive the loans, as well as a list of suggested businesses for the candidates to launch with the loan money.
The following day, the two headed to Debet, a village about two hours away from Yerevan, where they would be spending a majority of their time while visiting the Lori region. They spent the day meeting locals and touring the village, where it was 20 degrees cooler, and more scenic, than Yerevan.
During the first two weeks of their trip, John and Michael traveled back and forth between Debet and Yerevan while they further refined their plans. They reviewed applications, decided what type of loans to disperse, and how the loans would be structured. “We didn’t know everything,” said the twins, while discussing how they were met with several hurdles.
The first few days in the village, the Baghdassarian’s had “nothing to work off of” except the list of candidates and businesses provided by COAF. “The first couple of days we were so flooded with problems, with the village, that it was starting to look like, ‘How are we actually going to do this?’” said Michael. They emphasized that they “really had to put in a lot of work” to figure out the remaining details of their plan. “A lot of roadblocks, but in the end we got through,” added John.
While in Debet, the twins had to quickly get acquainted with the village and its residents in order to finalize their plans. “We really had to work on learning the village…What are we going to do, honey? Are we going to do cheese? Are we going to help this guy do fishing? Renovating a store? So, a lot of research went into just seeing what exactly we were going to do,” said Michael.
COAF was instrumental in helping John and Michael understand more about Debet and its surrounding villages. Representatives of the organization, specifically, Anahit Hakobyan, COAF Business Projects Manager Shushan Danielyan, Project Manager Luiza Sevuni, and the SMART Center’s Agritech program instructor Suren Harutyunyan, were key to this process. They introduced the twins to villagers, helped them navigate through the Lori region, and offered vital advice about the community of Debet.
Meeting Luiza was especially inspiring, because although “she didn’t know a lot about the cheese business” before taking over a factory five years ago, she’s made significant progress, explained Michael. Since taking over operations, Luiza has implemented sanitation and health regulations, which are critical in creating products and successfully running a cheese factory. “Seeing how far they’ve come with it inspired us,” added Michael. “In five years, where can we be with this project?”
During their first few days visiting the Lori region, John and Michael volunteered to help Luiza at a newly renovated cheese factory that reopened in Dsegh village—the birthplace of poet Hovhannes Tumanyan. While helping at the factory, John recorded footage, which he used to create a promotional video in an effort to educate the community about the progress being made.
Volunteering at the cheese factory not only invigorated the Baghdassarian’s, it also gave them hands-on experience and showed them the potential of the village—if you put in the effort, the people of Armenia will do the rest, successfully. Their time with Luiza revealed how quickly a single individual could bring positive change by investing in communities in rural Armenia.
While visiting Dsegh and its surrounding villages, John and Michael realized how challenging it can be to transport goods from one village to another, especially under harsh weather conditions. “Dzoragyugh—we went on a really rainy day, which showed how difficult it is to get there,” said Michael. “It’s just a huge dirt, winding road. There’s not really any guard railing. You can’t even see anything; it was raining so hard.”
The Baghdassarian’s described how, after the rain subsided, “Dzoragyugh was beautiful, and you could actually see Dsegh on the other side of the canyon.” Prior to visiting the Lori region, John and Michael were oblivious to the fact that some of the villages in rural Armenia are as beautiful as, if not more than, Hawaii. John explained how, during their 8th grade trip to Armenia, they visited all “the touristy places,” but didn’t have the opportunity to visit areas more than 30 minutes outside of Yerevan.
“When we drove two hours away, it really looked like a different country. I would say, out of all the places we’ve been, it is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been,” said Michael, while describing how lush and green the scenery was. “Debet, Odzun, Dsegh, Dzoragyugh, we saw them in their greenest states,” added John.
In Odzun, the Baghdassarian’s were met with “green mountains” and “thousands of colorful flowers, knee high,” according to the twins. “You go up all the way and then you can see Dsegh on the other side and Debet in the middle of the canyon,” said Michael. While visiting these villages, John said that he recorded nine hours of footage to “make [promotional] videos.” He was in awe of “how biodiverse” the region is and wanted to share what he experienced in an effort to promote tourism.
Although they enjoyed visiting other villages in the Lori region, their favorite was Debet, “because that’s where we spent the most time,” said Michael. They had the opportunity to explore the village while deciding whether they were going to give loans to launch businesses in the cheese or beekeeping industries. After careful consideration, they chose to disperse loans for beekeeping.
There were two major factors to consider in their decision-making process: their funding budget, as well as the fact that it would take five years to build a cheese factory. The program is entirely funded by the twins, who are using “earned wages over the past three years of working at Massis Kabob” to kickstart their program. The Baghdassarian’s realized that, with beekeeping, they would “get the max outcome”—a larger profit for their candidates in a shorter period of time.
In Debet, John and Michael spent a large fraction of their time engaging with the villagers to better understand the “mindset and culture” of the village and its people. They were aware of the fact that “people are different everywhere,” explained John, and they wanted to really get to know the community of Debet. “We spent hours, every day, talking to the locals and researching beekeeping,” said Michael.
They “went house to house and saw a lot of people’s petags [beehives],” while simultaneously gathering information, according to John. Their visits with the locals were critical, because each person shared what they could about their beekeeping journey. “Almost everyone in the village has around three to eight petags,” they noted. Knowing almost nothing about beekeeping, the two had to quickly absorb all of this new information and apply it to their project.
“Locals played a really important role in our project, because if we hadn’t talked to the taxi drivers, the people in the village, even the security guards, then we wouldn’t have known anything about the smaller things that really matter,” said Michael, while discussing how their taxi driver to Dilijan shared information about villagers in Dzoragyugh.
Through these interactions, the twins acquired information about Debet and its residents that they otherwise wouldn’t have had access to. “We connected with the people,” said Michael. “We really wanted to find the right candidates and, speaking with the locals, we realized it’s not about the experience [they have], because there could be someone that’s been doing it for 40 years, but just doesn’t have the love for it. It’s mostly about the passion they have for it,” he added.
After careful consideration, the twins landed on a total of six loan recipients: sisters, Sateny and Ani Petrosyan; Karlen Stepanyan, a veteran of the 44-Day War; two outstanding students who participated in COAF’s beekeeping program; and Razmik Harutyunyan, the father of Suren—the SMART Center’s Agritech program instructor, who, through the Baghdassarian’s new loan program, has become a sort of mentor to Sateny, Ani and Karlen. “We had multiple meetings with them, so we’re sure we landed on the right people,” Michael said.
Sateny, 21, and Ani, 20, sisters from Debet, were recommended by COAF as highlight students from programs they participated in at the SMART Center. According to John and Michael, Sateny, who teaches English in Vanadzor, learned the language in less than five years. She is a college graduate who briefly attending a university in Texas. Ani is currently enrolled in a beekeeping course, taught by Suren, at the SMART Center.
John highlighted the fact that their efforts in Debet are multi-layered. They wanted to launch a program to help the village while also engaging with the youth. “We wanted to see if we could get the younger generation more involved in their village,” he said. Oftentimes, the youth in rural Armenian villages leave home for better opportunities—to receive a higher education or find better paying jobs. John hopes that Sateny and Ani’s success will “inspire other youth in the village to do the same.”
Sateny and Ani’s family had three beehives of their own prior to receiving the loan from the Baghdassarian’s. They acquired those three by way of trade, after their father, a stoneworker, completed a job for another villager. According to John and Michael, he always hoped that his daughters would get involved in such things. “It’s really rugged work—but, beekeeping they like, and they’re really interested in,” the girls’ father told the twins. “Sateny and Ani’s dad was a really open-minded person,” said Michael. “He loved the village and loved that this would help his daughters stay inside the village and help it grow.”
John and Michael have created an Instagram page, called “Shees Bees,” for Sateny and Ani and help the sisters promote their products, with the hopes of one day bringing their work to the U.S. The girls are in constant communication with the Baghdassarian’s, updating them on their work on a monthly basis.
Karlen Stepanyan, 48, knew a bit about beekeeping prior to receiving a loan from John and Michael. “He had started beekeeping [in Debet] before the 44-Day War,” Michael said, as he explained how Karlen lost his beehives while fighting in the war. He fought and was captured as a prisoner of war and was held for 33 days before he was released by Azerbaijan. Karlen lost hearing in his right ear while serving his country. “At first, when we met him, we didn’t know [his story],” Michael said. “We thought he was a guy who just lost his petags [beehives].”
The twins already have plans to help Karlen brand his honey. He reports to John and Michael via email and through COAF, according to the Baghdassarian’s, who communicate with him regularly.
The final loan recipient, Razmik Harutyunyan, like his son, Suren, has more beekeeping experience. He will use his loan to purchase more beehives, and plans on building more hives for the community during the off season. Suren, who continues to play a key role in John and Michael’s project, is “helping his dad, as well as Sateny, Ani, and Karlen” with any beekeeping assistance they may need, according to John.
As an Agritech program instructor, Suren has more general knowledge and experience in beekeeping. He is actively “helping them avoid the mistakes that you can commonly make. Some things that they may not see, if Suren is there, he can spot it,” said Michael. Through the new loan program, he’s become somewhat of “a mentor” to the other recipients, as well as to the twins.
John and Michael met Suren by chance when they first arrived in Debet. Soon, the twins were communicating with Suren on a daily basis. “He was teaching us about how business is run and what people are like in the village,” said Michael, as he described how Suren not only knew all the locals but had critical knowledge about the region’s microclimates.
Having only recently learned the basics about beekeeping and wanting their loan recipients to successfully complete the microloan program, John and Michael recognized the advantages of having someone like Suren involved in the process. “He was the guy we wanted,” said Michael when explaining how much more knowledge Suren had about the process and products than any other person involved.
The twins owe much of the success of their program to their “open-minded candidates.” “Sateny, Ani, and Karlen, who were beginners, we asked them, ‘If we found someone that was able to help you, would you be open-minded?’” Michael said. And they were. Not only were they open to accepting help, but Suren was also more than willing to offer his time and advice. According to the twins, “there weren’t that many closed-minded people” in the village.
John and Michael emphasized that engaging with the locals was key to successfully launching their new program. “We want to stress that it was only from talking to people and locals that we were even able to get this far,” said Michael. John added that, in order to effectively bring change to a community you must interact and work with the locals, who can share vital information about “how business is run.”
“We spent a lot of time in the village. It was a lot of work. From early in the morning, and then we’d get back at around five or six [in the evening]. The project didn’t end until three or four days before we left. We didn’t want to leave until we knew all that had to be done was done,” said Michael.
The Baghdassarian’s signed the final contract, which they worked with COAF to create, one day before leaving Armenia. “We wanted to start them as early as possible so that they can make a living—start making money—as quickly as possible,” explained Michael. They both emphasized that their intent is to “really try to do what’s best” for their loan recipients.
“We want to put a lot of time into these recipients, because we want to show them, ‘Look, we’re really into this,’” said Michael, with John adding that they “want to give everyone 110 percent” in everything they do through their program.
John and Michael want to put all their efforts to ensuring the success of their current loan recipients before expanding the program. The loans, which were “specifically tailored to benefit each of them” will recirculate, explained Michael.
“After they [the recipients] pay it back, we’re going to find new candidates,” said Michael, adding that, by reinvesting the money back into the project, they hope to expand their program and make it permanent. They realized that, working in sync with the locals of Debet, they were able to enhance the lives of, and empower, community members in the village.
“If we could expand, that would be awesome. To hit more villages and regions would be nice,” said Michael. The two hope that the work they’ve undertaken will “make it easier for anyone else who wants to replicate” what they’ve done. “High school students, college students, anyone that’s up to the challenge,” said John.
The Baghdassarian’s hope that the success of their program will inspire other Armenians in the diaspora to engage with rural Armenia. “We started with nothing. It was just an idea,” said Michael, while explaining how, if you put in the legwork, it is possible to positively impact your homeland as a diasporan. He highlighted the fact that their project proves that you don’t need a big budget to make a big difference.
The twins also spoke about wanting to empower and inspire the youth in Debet. Seeing Sateny and Ani succeed in their new venture “can inspire the younger generation,” said John. They’d like to think that their program may “inspire the people here [in Los Angeles] and within the village to try something new,” added Michael.
Currently, the recipients of the Baghdassarians’ microloans report to the two on a monthly basis, at minimum. They decided to stay in constant communication with the participants of their program so that, “if a problem or roadblock comes up,” John and Michael can offer them the appropriate resources or advice.
“We feel like we came a long way—looking at where we started, to where we are now, and we’re proud of our work,” said Michael, while adding that building relationships was a “key part” of their project.
They highlighted the importance of genuinely engaging with the locals, which was “the best part” for Michael. “We’ve made a lot of good connections,” added John.
“When I first heard about this project, I was fascinated, and I think this style of program would work very well in my village and other villages in Armenia. Creating a community that allows people of all ages to work with one another is a very unique experience that I loved being a part of,” said Sateny Petrosyan about the work undertaken by the Baghdassarian’s.
“This experience as a whole has not only inspired me, but also my friends and family,” said Ani Petrosyan.
“COAF attaches great importance to providing a bridge for Armenian youth in the Diaspora who feel a deep commitment to making an impact in their homeland. I remember meeting John and Michael in Los Angeles prior to their summer volunteer trip and witnessing their excitement while listening to all the amazing ideas they had for jumpstarting rural economic development initiatives through microloans. Both brothers turned out to be exceptionally hard-working and devoted volunteers during their month of working with COAF. John and Michael demonstrated a genuine interest in getting to know locals and grasping the socio-economic conditions in the Lori region. To make a truly lasting impact, the brothers suggested that the repayment of the microloans remain with COAF to be used for future loans for other businesses across the region. John and Michael are shining examples of the future role of the Diaspora in Armenia’s advancement,” stated COAF Senior Director of Development, Haig Boyadjian.
To learn more about John and Michael Baghdassarian’s project or contribute to their program, email firstname.lastname@example.org.