BY MARIA TITIZIAN
Every city has a particular smell. It penetrates through your pores and settles underneath your skin so you can’t escape it. The smell changes, it occasionally mutates becoming pungent and overwhelming. It changes with absence or with the seasons. If you live in a city long enough you become immune to it although you too have begun to smell like it. You may even unconsciously be revolted by it, so much so that you want to flee without understanding why you need to.
Yerevan has a distinct smell, it always did for me. It has changed however. At first it was a combination of diesel, dust and age. It smelled old and not a pleasant old like Rome or Athens or Barcelona. It was a dirty, damp old like a forgotten box of old clothes left in the corner of a damp basement. Walking down Abovyan Street you would get a hint of it with every unexpected soft breeze. It was far from pleasant but it was the smell of your new life and you embraced it. It even had charm. Thankfully it still does although it has changed.
Not for others, not for those who were conceived and born into it and grew up surrounded by it. They want to escape it, and I understand although I don’t accept it because those who want to leave are the ones who must stay, yet they can’t, not anymore.
Bright, intelligent young Armenians, those who have proven themselves capable and competent, who have been able to cleanse the dusty chambers of the past from their existence, are leaving and it’s not a trickle anymore.
One young man held out his phone and said, “Do you know how many numbers I have in my phone of friends who are no longer here?” Another young man said, “There is nothing left here for me anymore.”
I saw a friend a few days ago, a young woman I admire and love. For me, she represents that generation of educated, ambitious, and highly competent people. She had just returned to Yerevan two days earlier from abroad where she graduated from an Ivy League university. As we embraced after a long absence I looked into her eyes and immediately saw it and I knew. I knew she could no longer stay although she had only just returned.
She now joins the ranks of all those young people who have traveled abroad to further their education, to receive degrees from some of the most prestigious universities in the world and have returned only to feel a void they can’t seem to fill. What I saw in her big beautiful dark Armenian eyes was more than sadness or a void – it was wretchedness and a melancholy that emanated from deep within her soul.
She knew that I knew she was lost. I said, “You’ve only been back a few days. You need time to re-acclimate. We need people with your skills, knowledge…” She said, “Maria jan, who needs someone like me.” I told her I did and we made plans to meet in a few days. But there was so much more I wanted to tell her. I wanted her to know that it is because of people like her that I hang on to hope and believe that we are better than what we have become. It is because of people like her that I see and believe in the impossible.
How can she and others like her contribute to the process of nation-building when they feel the nation can’t sustain them or perhaps doesn’t even want them? Why is the smell of this city no longer pleasant or full of charm? Is it because the world “out there” holds so much more potential and promise?
All of us understand the limitations of Armenia yet we often fail to see the endless possibilities. I acknowledge that it’s easy for me to say these things, I have a Canadian passport in my pocket and I can get up and leave whenever I want. I am constantly reminded of this by those who don’t have that luxury.
But I have seen and experienced transformations that transcend imagination and dreams. The arch of my life has been forever altered because I moved here with my family against what many considered insurmountable odds. I have seen ordinary people set and accomplish goals and realize dreams in an atmosphere that isn’t always conducive to change.
Providing gifted young Armenians the ability to go abroad and advance their education is a noble endeavor, it gives them the opportunity to learn among the best, to acquire a skill set unavailable to them here and allows them to see how the world outside of Armenia functions. However, it will be detrimental to this country’s future if these young people lose their way back to Armenia because that will mean that the best are lost to us. If they cannot find jobs equivalent to their education and experience, if they cannot apply their knowledge, and contribute to the empowerment and betterment of Armenia then their achievements will be honored and valued elsewhere.
If we collectively tried, I am confident that we could imagine or conceive of a program where these people could redefine themselves in Armenia. A Global Armenian Youth Fund could be created to assist these young Armenians who are armed with knowledge, education and experience to play an integral role and impact the process of our country’s development. One such strategy could be to ensure job placement for them upon their return or supplements to their salaries if they work within targeted ministries to help raise the prevailing mediocrity or I would argue, incompetency. I used to believe that such programs had to be sponsored by the state to ensure viability and sustainability. However, more and more I am beginning to believe in the power of people and grassroots organizations, both local and Diaspora, in their ability and commitment to ensure long lasting, practical and feasible programs in the absence or ability of the state to do so.
I don’t have all the answers and I don’t have the right to tell someone to come back to a place they might believe holds no promise for them. I do believe in the power of hope and faith but these things alone are not a plan. We need to collectively pool our resources and formulate a program to ensure that the brain drain stops; we need to see these young people re-integrate and bring their talents and vision to everything from state structures to the private sector to education and development.