Should I stay at home or go to America?

Photographer: Sona Mnacakanyan

Topic: Youth Future

It's hard to plan the future when you live in a country with so many reasons to leave. It is widely believed that there is no future in Armenia. In 2021, 73,000 more citizens left than arrived

That is the biggest outflow in a decade.

I first thought about leaving when I was 17—my desire to get out was driven by a larger wish to live independently, separately from my parents. When I started university, I wanted to move abroad to get a better education. Most recently, after the 2020 Karabakh War, the fear of witnessing a war added one more reason to go. 

But emigrating legally involves time-consuming bureaucratic processes and soul-crushing waiting—and does not always end in an approval. 

I try to suppress anxiety by living in the present. But even when I am not actively planning my exodus, I get pulled into my friends’ discussions about their plans to emigrate and the same feeling of anticipation returns.

Application form

Expectations: I imagine myself at a university where I am surrounded by people who are passionate about their profession, and where they infect each other with their commitment and new ideas.

I would like to study cinema as a practical art, without long and pointless lectures. I would also like to study in a program that covered my food and lodging, so I can focus on my courses.

Good films can provide answers to many questions. I hope that after I graduate, I will remain linked to Armenia and will be able to use my skills and experience to speak about the country’s problems. 

Why our program: I only apply to programs that truly interest me, so the admissions process is usually more competitive. Other programs may be easier to get into but I do not want to go just anywhere because leaving means giving up life with my relatives and everything else I know. The sacrifice should be worth it. 

What are you doing now: Now I'm taking programming classes because working in the film industry is nearly impossible—or at the very least, very exhausting here.  

I thought I was going to be that starving artist, but that leads to making films for money and completely ruins my idea of the kinds of films I want to make. I have witnessed the quagmire artists in my country end up in. 

Once I dreamed I was driving without knowing my final destination, like the heroes of Danis Hopper’s Easy Rider film I still dream that dream sometimes.In this photo, I am in Argentina drinking Mate that Cortázar made for me. 

In my experience it is frustrating to apply to study abroad. When you are going through the process, you are busy preparing the documents. But once you submit them, all you can do is wait and that is when the anxiety begins. Your attention focuses on how difficult it will be to leave your life, to say goodbye to everything you know. These feelings come even though you still don’t know if you have been accepted to the program.  Once you receive the rejection letter, it seems like you lost all this time for nothing and—possibly after a short break—you will have to start all over again.

On the left: a place where I used to play as a child. On the right: the documents a friend submitted when he tried to immigrate to Austria. After two years of bureaucratic processes, he was denied without ever learning the exact reason. All they ever said was that some documents were missing․ 

5 years ago we started showing films in our studio. I called ourselves cinephiles as fans of the French new wave. We were enthusiastic about the screenings and dreamed about opening the first art-house cinema in our country. For four years, we discussed and attended small festivals and meetings.

Last year, I started to think that the screenings were not enough anymore and that we should think about taking the first step to open the cinema. The idea was to rent a garage and hold the screenings there, promote it as a cinema where we would sell tickets and show films. It would be the biggest thing we had ever done. 

In our country, if you want to be a part of something, you have to create it, because almost nothing happens if it is not initiated by individuals.

But ever since I started thinking about leaving the country, I am unable to start anything new. And so, as a result, I have spent the past two years stuck in a state of constant waiting. 

In any case, you continue to live and you make new plans, get involved in new things. But if you are not in the process of leaving, the image of those who are leaving is always present next to you, or your relatives are leaving and you are involved in the process. 


There is a feeling that in the old days it was better when people actually left, because the internet makes the separation easier although the end result is the same. 

How to create an Armenian diaspora anywhere.

A month ago I was in the village of Udjan, in southeast Armenia, as a guest of one of the local families. We sat around, drinking homemade wine and speaking about life in the village. My host told me the story of a villager who many years before managed to emigrate to the Netherlands. He was the first one to choose Amsterdam, it is not a popular choice in Armenia. Shortly after he arrived, he felt quite alone because he only spoke Armenian. He called his friend, a fellow villager, to join him in Amsterdam. Once they were together, they called a third and then a fourth, and a fifth…eventually, they created a “little Udjan” in Amsterdam.

After the last war, I heard new thoughts about emigration, mostly from men:

“In the past, there was a desire to travel with the intention of returning home. We would build a house here, get a visa, travel and come back. But the most recent war was very close, our friends were called and, in the end, every man knew someone who died. 

The fear that you will never be able to leave this country, that they won't let you go, has increased, as you are a reservist. And maybe if we don't leave the country now, one day we won't be able to. It will be too late and maybe we will have to participate in the next war.”

These people are criticized by society for not being patriotic enough. The instinctive fear of death is seen as a weakness in countries at war. 

Those who have plans for the future here are patriotic idealists for those who want to leave. The ones who leave are seen as traitors without a fatherland.

For six months, my mother couldn’t decide if she wanted to buy a dresser because she thought that the country would implode soon and she didn’t want to worry about moving it to another country in the future. 

She told me the story of a man who never bought a new refrigerator for 20 years and always repaired a very old one, not because of a lack of money but because he didn't want to invest in something as fragile as the future in our country.

Eventually, she bought the dresser and a piece of land where she plans to build a house. I don't know if mom overcame her fears or went crazy.

The taxi driver who brought me to Ujan told me that all of his relatives and his family live abroad, and they call him from various parts of the world but he decided to never leave his country as he wishes to die here. This sounded strange to me. When I recalled his words, my only thought was that it is better to wish to live before the wish to die. I also remembered how Armenia is called a big cemetery and how many Armenians who live abroad wish to be buried in Armenia. 

This photo story is a part of a project developed by Kulbroan and Chai Khana with support from the New Democracy Fund.

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