Yerevan – I remember the day my girlfriend, a repatriate from Lebanon, who has been living in Armenia for the past 15 years, finally realized her lifelong dream of singing on the stage of the Opera House here in Yerevan.
Afterward at dinner with a group of repatriates from around the world, one of our friends stood up and made a toast, which resonates with me today. He said that her performance that evening had “solidified, justified, and qualified” our decision to move to the homeland and all the sacrifices that doing so entailed, including leaving behind friends, families, and communities. The realization of her dream was something that belonged to all of us and confirmed that not only had we successfully integrated but that we had arrived.
Achieving a simple existence, a normal lifestyle in Armenia can be trying. Attaining milestones comes with a lot of frustration and pain.
A few weeks ago my son graduated from high school. It was his Verchin Zang (final bell), an event that is considered a turning point in the lives of young people and is celebrated with much fanfare right across the land. My high school graduation was downright uneventful compared to the rituals that families in Armenia partake in when their children graduate from high school.
When we moved to Armenia, my son was only nine years old. Not only had we moved him away from the only home and life that he had known, but we had dragged him to a country still unsure of its place in the world. While we always struggled to put a positive spin on even the most unjust circumstances, it was sometimes impossible to protect him from the glaring problems that our country still continues to face.
Apart from having to learn Eastern Armenian, he, along with his sister, had to learn to adapt to a completely unfamiliar culture, where everything was alien to them. Coupled with this challenge, my son was also dyslexic – a learning disability that specialists here do not have a good understanding of, never mind any kind of practical solutions for.
One of the best decisions we made was the school we chose to send our children to. Anania Shirakatsi Jemaran is a semi-private educational institution located in one of the suburbs of Yerevan, with an ambitious principal and an even more ambitious curriculum.
When we presented our son’s unique situation to them, they were unsure how to handle his education. We were one of the first repatriate families from North America to show up at the doorsteps of Anania Shirakatsi and it was obvious that at that time the principal was striving to understand how to handle the unique challenges repat students presented, including one rambunctious nine year old with dyslexia.
We worked very closely with the school’s administration, speech therapist, the school psychologist, the vice principals, and his teachers. While it wasn’t always easy, we struggled to protect his rights, to ensure he received the proper care and attention, and most importantly, to ensure that he never be stigmatized by either the administration or his classmates.
We needn’t have worried. Not only did the school go above and beyond our expectations, they consulted with the Ministry of Education, read the literature we provided for them (including a book we had ordered from Tel Aviv translated into Russian by a Russian-Jewish specialist in dyslexia who had moved to Israel from Russia), and they even specially tailored his curriculum.
The children in his class welcomed him, accepted him, and to this day are his closest companions and fiercest protectors.
At his Verchin Zang, the one teacher who had taken it upon herself to make sure that my son accomplished his goals, who consulted with me almost daily about his progress, who fought tooth and nail to make sure he was able to remember his algebra, geometry, and physics couldn’t contain her tears as he made his way to the stage of the school auditorium. She had become his surrogate mother, his guardian angel, his comrade-in-arms through every frustrating, impossibly difficult homework assignment.
This is a woman who embodies the meaning of being a teacher, for whom teaching is a calling and not simply a job. We have fallen in love with her just as she has loved and nurtured our child. We have accepted her into our family and will be forever grateful to her for her undying commitment and dedication.
Verchin Zang, therefore, was not simply a high school graduation for our family but a colossal milestone.
While dyslexia is a condition that my son will always have to grapple with, our move to Armenia did not compound his problems, as I had feared, but somehow, in some strange way, alleviated them. We had always reassured him that his dyslexia was a gift that made his brain work in special ways, which we didn’t always understand. With their approach and through their commitment, Anania Shirakatsi Jemaran validated what we had been telling him all along.
Milestones have been many this year. In the midst of preparations for Verchin Zang, I was in the middle of an election campaign as a candidate for Yerevan City Council. While I didn’t get elected, just being able to run for public office in the homeland was an incredible opportunity and privilege.
Taking part in an election, however flawed they may be in Armenia, was a learning experience that afforded me the opportunity to understand many things, some of which I would have preferred not to have known.
It also made me realize how much work there is that needs to be done, however difficult the journey is ahead, however many pitfalls still await. As one wise friend told me, if all the problems in our country were solved, there would be no need to struggle.
So we struggle on. After all, achieving milestones is no easy task.