BY SYLVIE TERTZAKIAN, Guest Columnist
“Please sit down,” ordered the Russian stewardess to the passengers on the Aeroflot flight bound to Yerevan, Armenia. Most of the passengers were Diaspora Armenians on their way to Armenia, to visit relatives or visit the country. The order was followed by a head count of the passengers. My husband, Garo and I looked at each other with apprehension. Why the count? After all, the Cold War was still on! When the flight took off from Paris’ Charles De Gaul Airport, the rattling noise of the bottles in the kitchen of the plane had unsettled our nerves. The navy blue uniform clad flight crew offered hot tea to the passengers, based on the head count. The steaming tea was poured from kettles, directly into the passengers’ cups. Any disturbance at a high altitude would have resulted in lawsuits, had it been an American airline. One bathroom, at the back of the airline served the needs of the passengers. Lack of paper towels was made up by a single cotton towel, which was for communal use. Hand sanitizers did not exist at that time.
The time was mid April, 1987. Garo and I, together with our two children, both under the age of ten, were bound to Armenia on a medical mission. The year before, Garo had received an invitation from the Committee for Cultural Relations with Armenians Abroad (today’s Ministry of the Diaspora). The official invitation was for the purpose of “medical exchange,” followed by seven pages of a wish list, if Garo would accept their invitation. The list included urology equipment, down to the basic surgical masks and booties. “Goodness, they have nothing,” was Garo’s reaction. The next few months, he set on the mission to fulfill their wish list, by becoming a scavenger of the area hospitals. Our home garage served as the warehouse for all the medical material he had collected. The kids helped Garo pack the boxes, and the day we left for Yerevan, we had seventeen large boxes of medical equipment and supplies. Sidon Travel with the cooperation of Air France, transported the boxes all the way to Yerevan at no charge to us.
Once our Aeroflot flight landed at the Yerevan airport, a delegation from the Committee was waiting to welcome us. What a feeling! We were in our ancestors’ land. Garo paced up and down the driveway of the old airport, all the time gazing at Ararat in disbelief. Was that the mountain we had recited poetry about, had sung songs, had dreamt of one day seeing it? Once, the initial shock was over, we were escorted to Hotel Armenia (today’s Marriott) on Lenin Square, in the authoritarian presence of Lenin’s statue (now gone). The next ten days, Garo performed and taught sixty transurethral prostate surgeries, at the time, a novelty for the Armenian urologists. A list of high ranking officials and others were on a waiting list to be operated on, by the Armenian doctor from U.S.A.One of the patients, related to an official, who was waiting for his turn, begged me to ask Garo to use American catheters. “What happened to the cold war?” I thought. He taught doctors of all ages the techniques of Urology of the late 1980s. He taught them not to smoke in the operating rooms, which lacked the basic set ups of any American hospital. He taught them basic hygiene, and respect for patients and their needs. In ten short days, without touring the country, he accomplished his mission. Every day, there were lines of people in front of our hotel, waiting to ask Garo for medical advice. The gatekeepers at the hotel would not allow the locals get in touch with the hotel guests. A phone call from the reception desk to a guest’s room, sounded like it came from thousands of miles away. Those ten days in Yerevan’s hospitals, glued us to the country, to the people, and instilled in our kids the spirit of volunteerism for a country, that is rich in history, in its churches and culture, and yet, it needed the wealth and expertise of the Diaspora, to bring it up to par with the modern world.
Fast forward 23 years. The Yerevan airport is brand new, with the help of wealthy diasporans. Air France, British Airways and other airlines fly to Yerevan. Locals fly to their desired destinations. Some of the hospitals compete with hospitals in the West. Urologists from Armenia participate in international conferences. Patients from the region visit Armenia for medical procedures. The locals, while sipping a cup of Armenian or Italian coffee at the Marriott Café, chat on their cell phones. What a difference a couple of decades make in people’s history. Regimes and political systems come and go. Today, Armenia is a sovereign state with a fast developing infrastructure. One doctor’s dedication and professional input to his homeland , is a small example of what Armenia-Diaspora relations can achieve for a small country and a small nation scattered all over the world.