The Best of Two Worlds

Author: Sona Kocharyan


First it was her appearance - in our class Alina stood out, she did not look typically Caucasian, there was a different softness about her.

Then, the surname - it did not end in “-yan” like the rest of us, it wasn't an Armenian name. She was often asked who she was and,- her favorite answer was simply, “I am half-Armenian, half-Assyrian.” Alina was obviously proud of who she was, a child of mixed ethnicity. She had something that we didn't.

So did Karen. He was in another class, he was known as “the Russian,” and he indeed looked like one. And there is Anna, my colleague, who is always called when a translation from Georgian is needed-her mother is Georgian, and Georgian is her second native tongue".

Armenia is a largely homogeneous society and children of mixed ethnicity stick out - be it their appearance, their mindset, their traditions, or simply their favourite food. And they are aware of it, with some feeling lost in a constant state of uncertainty, others navigating comfortably their world -in-between. Yet, all of them represent the best of two, or more, worlds.

Siroon Minas, 26


My mother is from Nigeria, my father is from India. He is half-Armenian, half-English, but he has always considered himself Armenian. He was a doctor and went to Nigeria for work, where he met my mother. My brother and I were born there, we moved to Armenia when we were little. I am a plastic surgeon, I love my job very much.

It’s an honor for me to be Siroon, I represent two races; two in one, with all the advantages and disadvantages. The fact that two people from different continents united and I was born, is a privilege given to me by God.

As my father was born in India, somehow three cultures come together in us. We travelled to India and my mother learnt how to cook a few Indian dishes. So one day we had Indian, the other day Nigerian. It was very diverse.

Both my parents are Christians, and there have never been religious divergences.
Since our childhood, my mother would read to us a passage from the Bible at bedtime - we would pray and then close our eyes.
We still do it now.

Daniil Arutunov, 22

My mother is Armenian-Georgian, my father is Russian-Ukrainian. They were both soldiers and met in Gyumri, but I have no recollection of my dad. I was two-years-old when he died during the first Chechen war.

I was born in Yerevan. We lived in Gyumri for a while then we moved to Georgia. I have been to Russia several times and once in Ukraine, but I always come back to Armenia. My soul is in the Armenian mountains. I like extreme sports like mountain climbing and slacklining. I love climbing high mountains, this year I’ll ascend Mount Elbrus [the Caucasus’ range highest peak, in Russia]. I want to travel across the country by autostop.

Growing up I faced challenges and conflicts, people would only see my Slavic appearance, they didn’t think that I might have been from a different ethnic background. For them I was a Russian and that was it. As a result I tended to be defensive, I somehow developed my own coping mechanism. I became "more Armenian", so I could live among others, I could fit in. Later I understood that it did not give me anything back, I started to live like I really was and wanted to be.

Military life is not for me, I want to travel around the world.
I was baptized, but I consider myself atheist, not Christian. I believe more in myself and the universe. I consider myself more Armenian and Russian, I can’t say that I’m either Georgian or Ukrainian. I never felt that identity in me.

Anna Barseghyan, 28


My mother is a Georgian from Georgia, my father an Armenian from Armenia, they met in “a neutral zone” - in Russia, where they were both students.

My mother has been living in Armenia for 31 years and she speaks very good Armenian. Sometimes my father teases, saying, “You must have some Armenian roots, you just don’t know about that.”

I was born and raised in Yerevan. When someone asks me who I am, I answer, ‘I’m a journalist and I am Armenian, then I add that I’m also Georgian.’ Recently I lived in Tbilisi for a few months, and, when I was asked where I am from, I answered, “from Armenia,” though de facto I represented Georgia at that very moment. I think each of us feels differently at different times, especially if you grow up in a mixed cultural environment.

I have never had to hide my mixed ethnic background and never felt pressure from my surroundings on the representatives of different nations.

Both my parents are Christians, my father belongs to the Armenian Apostolic church while my mother is Georgian Orthodox. When I was a teenager I decided to get baptized in the Georgian church. My mother’s family had a big influence on my choice, my uncle is a priest. In general Georgia’s society is more religious than Armenia’s. I think, my father was not totally happy about it. I personally don’t see any difference between the two churches now, they are part of the same Christian faith, it is not important for me.

Sometimes I find myself defending Georgians in Armenia or Armenians in Georgia, like when I hear offensive comments towards them. I think it is my duty to defend these two nations because they are united in me.
Nana is my twin sister

 Irina Hovhannisyan, 43

My father is Armenian, my mother is Russian. She comes from a Molokan family, my grandmother was Molokan. It is a Christian group which split from Russia’s Orthodox Church in the 16th century. Some of the Molokans settled in Armenia, in Chambarak [a town close to the border with Azerbaijan]. Chambarak is my hometown, the place where I was born and where have lived all my life. Sometimes I’m asked why I decided to stay here instead of moving to Yerevan. I know, this is one of the poorest regions of Armenia, but I can’t imagine myself leaving. I try to make life better here. My town is where I feel myself the most, it is the reason I am who I am. I work on advocacy for people with disabilities as well as in an arts and craft social enterprise.

After the Nagorno Karabakh war, life was hard, many left, either Chambarak or Armenia altogether. Those who remained didn’t have anywhere else to go or were women married to Armenians. My mother was one of them. She chose us, her family.

Sometimes I’m asked what I would change if I have a chance to be born a second time. I certainly wouldn’t change the family. I would like to be born in the same family.

I am a mother of two children and I am happy.
There are no conflicts in our family, we choose to compromise. For example we know that my mother has strong opinions on Russian politics, so we try to avoid the topic.
On the other hand, she is quite balanced with regards to sensitive issues connected to Armenians, like the Armenian genocide which she has read extensively about.

Kyle Khandikian, 24


My father is an Armenian from Lebanon, my mother is from Central America, from El Salvador. They met in the United States where they moved to in the 1980s. I was born and lived all my life in Los Angeles. 

I attended an Armenian school for 15 years, and until I went to university, most people around me were Armenian. This had a profound influence on the perception of who I am. Yet, the first time I went to Armenia I felt like a foreigner, just like I felt the four times I traveled to El Salvador. I was 16, I felt surprised, and frustrated. Like many other Armenians from the diaspora, I had my own idea about Armenia. In 2015, I moved to Yerevan and volunteered for a year with “PINK Armenia” to organize events in the LGBT community. But soon I realized that one year is not enough to get to know, and understand, the country. So I stayed and started to work at the same organization.

People often ask me why I left Los Angeles for Yerevan. I reply - because I am Armenian. That is the simplest answer. Weirdly, my Armenian family could not understand my decision - they raised me as an Armenian but tried to convince me not to move, saying there was no future for me here, no work, no money. This is nonsense. I ask them what is the point of staying in the States, what is the meaning of being Armenian just in the diaspora? Only my grandmother tried to put herself in my shoes and supported me, though she misses me a lot and she’d rather have me close to her in the US.

The first thing that I learnt about myself as a child is that I was Armenian. This consciousness about my identity comes from my grandparents, my father’s parents, as growing up I spent most of my time with them, while my parents were at work.
Despite the fact that my mother did not know Armenian and we did not speak Armenian at home, we went on attending an Armenian school. My grandparents (mother’s parents) would pick me up from school most days. It is thanks to them that today I speak Armenian.
My mum and dad separated when I was still a child, my brother and I lived with my mother.

Zorana Ivkovich, 21


My mother is Armenian, my father is Serbian. Yugoslavia still existed when my mother decided to visit it as a student and there she met my father. Soon afterwards my father went to Armenia for work. The rest is history, here I am. They married in Armenia, then moved to Moscow where I was born. Throughout my childhood we constantly moved - from Moscow to Belgrade, then to Yerevan, then back to Serbia. It was interesting, but it came at a cost, especially in terms of education and language. When I was a teenager my mother's parents needed care so I moved to Armenia with her. Here I enrolled at the university to study business administration. Once I graduate, I will go back to Serbia to study information technology.

I was baptized in the Echmiadzin cathedral [the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church], but I feel closer to the Serbian Orthodox church as my father would celebrate all the religious holidays. I still do it now that I am in Armenia. While in Serbia we also observe some Armenian festivities. Once we celebrated Vardavar [a festival where people drench each other with water], our neighbors looked at us as if ‘what are these people doing?’ We explained what it is, and it became a tradition among our friends there too.

Our family is curious, both my parents feel that they are real patriots.
And I consider myself more a Serb than an Armenian. Yet I do not fully belong to the Serbian spirit.
When in Serbia, I was part of the Armenian community, although the Serbian culture has had more impact on me.

Alexandra Banna, 21


My father is an Arab Lebanese and my mother is an Armenian from Istanbul. They both grew up in Hajn, a district in Beirut with a sizeable Armenian community. My father had many Armenian friends, he learnt the language when he was 13, he speaks better Armenian than us.

I was born in Beirut. I attended an Armenian school, I was a girl-scout, and I took classes of traditional Armenian dances. My mother is a devoted patriot; I feel we always had some kind of Armenian propaganda at home. Growing up everyone around me was Armenian. I started to interact with non-Armenians when I was 17, yet my Arabic was so bad that I had to get additional classes to get up to speed.

Sometimes your parents’ different ethnic backgrounds outflow and turn into to a family conflict. On those occasions each defends his or her nation and instead of having a constructive debate, often the tones are tense and the children fall under pressure, somehow cornered. You lose yourself when you have to make a choice where to go: left or right, mum or dad.

Life in Lebanon is different. You need money, a good car, and fashionable clothes to have friends. At some point I understood that I had become like any other - superficial - so after finishing school I decided to leave and move to Armenia. I am currently studying political science and international affairs at the American University of Armenia. My plan is to return to Beirut.

When I say I’m from Lebanon, people often mix it with Syria. They also think that I’m a Muslim Armenian Arab, who lives in Armenia. It takes time and effort to explain that there are also Christian Arabs, that there are many people like me in Lebanon.

Anahit Avagyan, 25

My father is Armenian and my mother is Indian from Delhi, though her roots are from Punjab. They met in Saint Petersburg [then Leningrad], my two sisters were born there. Later they moved to Armenia, I was born in Yerevan.

We speak Armenian at home but we also speak Hindi. My mother was never against raising us as Armenians, it was her who always told us that we were Armenians. Yet while she learnt the language quickly, and reads Armenian literature and history, she has never fully assimilated. Culturally and lifestyle-wise she remains Indian. My connection with India is only cultural and growing up I learnt about the country’s literature and philosophy.

I am a guide, I travel a lot, including to India, where I have been many times.

It’s impossible not to love India’s diversity. I’m ready to go to India, not least for the sweets and the nuts. Yet, I cannot see myself living there, it is too different. India is one of those countries where I definitely cannot live.

My mother’s family is Hindu, since we were kids we have been part of many ceremonies, I even participated in a seven-day wedding ceremony.
This cultural mix enriches our soul, it widens our horizons, and it enables us to understand and respect different people. It opens our minds.

Raffi Elliott 27

My mother is an Armenian from Aleppo and my father is a Canadian with Irish roots. They met in Canada as students. My mother vowed to marry an Armenian, but my father promised her that the Armenian culture would stay in the family and that their child would grow up as an Armenian.

In fact, I personify four different cultures, as I was born in Montreal, Quebec, which is Canada’s French-speaking region. Montreal, alongside Glendale in California, is the only city in northern America where even fourth-generation Armenian children speak Armenian.

My mother grew up in Syria, and although she didn't receive an Armenian education she speaks Armenian. I went to an Armenian school. Once married, my father kept his promise to my mother: he learnt Armenian and it was him who would help me with my homework.

In 2011 I got a job offer in Armenia. While considering whether to move or not, I wondered if I would find myself at ease, at home. Yes, is the answer. I feel more myself here than anywhere else. I set up my own startup and I have a business. My father understood and supported my decision, and he also explained it to my relatives who wouldn’t understand why I would leave Canada for Armenia.

Armenian school, Armenian cultural clubs, Armenian friends … I feel myself more an Armenian than anything else.
Here I met my wife, now we have a child.

Editor Monica Ellena