NICOSIA (Cyprus Mail)–The great-grand nephew of the two founders of the Melkonian Educational Institute (MEI) traveled to Cyprus in early November to join the fight to save the 78-year old school.
MEI is under threat of closure in June 2005–after the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU)–which administers Armenian schools all over the world–decided to close the financially unprofitable institute.
The move has prompted outrage amongst the Armenian community in Cyprus and abroad. The property of MEI has an estimated value of 40 million euros.
Swiss-based businessman Jack Melkonian has decided to join the legal battle to save the school and questions the motives of the AGBU.
"I am very concerned about what is happening because this was a donation made by our family. It was a long time ago–three generations back–but nevertheless as a family we are concerned–because there have been a lot of rumors. I have come here to see what is happening with my own eyes," he told the Cyprus Mail in an interview on Monday.
Melkonian–who was last in Cyprus three years ago to mark the school’s 75th anniversary–said he was shocked when he realized the institute was being neglected. His great-grand uncle Garabed–who passed away in Cyprus in 1934–had granted the money that helped build the school.
Melkonian said his family still possessed a copy of the original deed–which clearly states that the funds generated from the initial donation will be used to ensure the institute’s perpetuity.
"There is no mention in that deed about the school’s closure. In fact–my great-grand uncle only wanted the school to be up and operating. The amount donated at that time was very large?so if it had been set up as a trust–the interest should have covered the expenses of the school," he said.
"[The deed] also states clearly that if for any reason the AGBU cannot care for the school or if the AGBU ceased to exist–the fund should be transferred to another institution that could take care of the school–which–in my opinion–is a clear indication of uncle’s desire to keep the school running. These are the issues that are of particular concern to us."
Melkonian said he has approached the AGBU on several occasions and had written to each member of its board. He was told that the AGBU had a document that nulls the wishes of Garabed Melkonian–a document–according to Melkonian–that no one else seems to have. He had requested a copy of the document before traveling to New York at the invitation of the AGBU–but had received nothing.
"The AGBU boils down to a financial institution run by–what I call–civil servants–because they are there to serve the Armenian community and not to play the money on the stock exchange," he said.
"I have nothing against the AGBU as an organization–it is wonderful. We have great esteem for it–but are more concerned about the people who are running the AGBU at the moment and who are responsible for this decision.
"Even if the money has been exhausted–the school and the land are still here and there are a number of members of the Armenian community that are willing to support the school to set up a new fund. There is also an income from the business center on the land. The revenue of that center is almost half the running costs of the school.
"That money seems to flow to the States and we don’t really know what they are doing with it. They are claiming the maintenance of the school costs them 1.2 million euros–of which half should be covered. There is still 4.5 million from what was donated originally–so we think there is a need to close this school for financial reasons," he added.
Melkonian also noted that he is concerned about the way the parents and children of the school have been intimated by the people retained by the AGBU to ensure MEI’s closure.
"We had a meeting there on Sunday–which is not a school day–and they prohibited the children from attending," he said. "All this is extremely disturbing."
He said he has asked the AGBU to find an alternative to its closure–such as remodeling it in an effort to attract students from Moscow–where around one million Armenia’s live without access to an Armenian education. He said that some parents in Moscow have expressed an interest in enrolling their children at MEI.
"Some homework is necessary on the part of the AGBU but–I understand–that in New York they are not equipped for it. They are not even equipped to make sure that this place is being kept tidily. I was very shocked. I saw the house where my great uncle lived completely neglected with garbage in the garden," Melkonian said.
"I finally came to the conclusion that in New York–what matters is the balance sheet and we don’t know what that says. They will never show it to anybody. There is no transparency within that organization. I also feel there is a lot of nepotism and people are being appointed to the board who are there because they are related to one or the others–so I am questioning not only what is happening here but–in general–the way this is being done in New York and I think a lot of Armenia’s feel the same way."
Melkonian said the AGBU seemed to have forgotten that although it is supposed to be a financial organization–it is also supposed to have a human’side and questioned how such a far-reaching decision as the closure of the MEI could have been taken by a mere handful of people.
"There are other Armenian schools but none like this one," he said.
"The Melkonian is a monument to 20th century Armenian history. It took 78 years to build it up and it’s being destroyed within one year–which is a great mistake. With a little work– the school can be saved."