Razmik Panossian Brings Vision to Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

BELMONT, Mass. — Late last year, Dr. Razmik Panossian, the new head of the Armenian Communities Department of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Portugal, made waves by issuing a detailed five-year plan for the organization. The statement was noteworthy for many reasons, including emphasis on aiding the Armenian Diaspora in keeping Western Armenian alive through very specific actions.

During an interview before his scheduled lecture at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) on February 13, he spoke about the inception of the plan a year ago, its evolution and the initial stages of its execution.

His plan is clearly striking a chord with the community, as NAASR was packed on a night with very inclement weather.

The Armenian Communities division of the foundation has a budget of $3.5 million annually.

“When I stated this job, one of the first things was my boss said we need a plan. He gave me some strategic guidelines but I said we need a real guideline here,” he said.

The four main elements in his plan are language and culture, supporting youth and civil society in Armenia, Turkish-Armenian relations and preserving Armenian literary heritage.

“Western Armenian is going to disappear unless this generation does something about it,” he said at the NAASR talk.

PANOSSIAN, from page 1

In order to draw up his mission, he decided that “instead of sitting in Lisbon,” where the foundation is based, he should talk to “community leaders, see what needs are in the diaspora.”

Therefore, he went on a tour of France, England, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Canada, the US, Armenia and Turkey, met with Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II and Catholicos of the Great See of Cilicia Aram I, as well as with teachers and other community leaders.

“Some common themes emerged,” he said, Top among the concerns, he said, was the danger facing Western Armenian. “I did not know about the urgency.”

Connected to that is the issue with schools, he said. “When I went to Lebanon, I realized how difficult the situation of the Armenian schools is and it emerged as an important point,” he said.

“Good textbooks are one element, but not the solution,” he explained.

One issue facing the schools, both in the Middle Eastern Diasporas as well as in the West, is the lack of good Armenian teachers. With fewer students in Armenian schools, fewer people will go into teaching Armenian, he noted.

Training Armenian teachers in the Middle East and the West and rewarding top students are going to be priorities for the foundation. This segment of the plan will receive about $1 million in funding.

Teachers need to be trained, he said, through scholarships, in fact creating a “cadre of intellectuals and teachers.”

“The cornerstone of the work of the foundation is to support the work of schools in the diaspora,” he explained. “We have usually sent a little money to a lot of schools. Realistically, what is $5,000 to a school with a budget of half a million? Now we are going to give to fewer schools but larger amounts for specific projects,” Panossian said.

Schools in Lebanon are due to receive special attention because of the attrition of students there. According to him, from a high of 25,000, the number of students in Armenian schools there has shrunk down to 8,000. He had commissioned a study there and intends to speak to all the responsible authorities there to implement steps to increase the number of pupils. Thus, the schools will receive bigger funds than previous years, but need to abide by the conditions and requirements of the foundation.

In general, Panossian said, the demographic trend in the Middle East indicates the rapid shrinking of Armenian and Christian populations. Only two and a half major Armenian centers remain in the east, he said: “Aleppo has disappeared. Lebanon remains and Istanbul is the half. We still expect [the region] to be the source of Western Armenian. The Armenian Diaspora in the US, in Los Angeles, are places where they may be able to produce Armenian-speaking intellectuals. Montreal [has already] created a generation of Armenian speakers.”

Those are cases of diasporan successes that he wants to study and replicate in the east, where in earlier times, keeping the mother tongue was effortless.

One practical problem facing the diaporas in the east and west, with regard to learning Western Armenian is that immersion in it is becoming harder and harder. “If you want to learn a language, where do you go to immerse yourself in it,” he asked. Another part of his agenda is to create a list of books that need to be available in Armenian, whether they were originally written in Armenian or not. He added that all aspects of the culture needs to be online so that major Armenian publications that do not have websites should be able to have access to one.

Panossian complained that Armenian seems to have acquired a second-class status with many young Armenian speakers. “It is the language of modern life versus the language of talking to your grandparents,” he said. Therefore, he explained, finding a way to bring Armenian into the language of computers and hand-held devices is one of the goals.

Armenia, Syria and Turkey

“The bulk of the work in the Armenia is first to support civil society, organizations, youth organizations,” among other goals.

On an academic level, he said, plans are underway to give scholarships to students there to go abroad to take part in scientific conferences, as well as working with the Ministry of Diaspora.

And, he noted, it is not only Western Armenian that is disappearing. “It is taking only one generation in Russia” to lose Armenian. In fact, he explained, Russia, home to one million Armenian expatriates, does not have a “single Armenian day school.”

Syria is facing altogether different issues. “When the civil war is over, we will contribute to the rebuilding.” The foundation is already helping Syrian-Armenian compatriots, by giving the largest single chunk of money last fiscal year — $800,000 — to that country, through the AGBU and the See of Antelias.

The foundation, he said, does not have an office in Syria, instead choosing to send money there through other organizations in order not to duplicate labor. “We are open to work with anyone willing to work with us,” he said.

A presence in Turkey is “relatively new for us,” Panossian said. “We ought to encourage dialogue and [understanding of our] shared history.”

His fear, he said, is “waking up on April 25, 2015” and asking, “do we have an answer?”

Instead, he wants the foundation to focus on the future as part of “Armenians at 2115,” to study what changes are taking place in Turkey. “There is an excellent opportunity for us Armenians to engage in. We cannot be naïve, but [instead] very nuanced.”

Part of that shared history, he explained, is the singular contribution of Armenians to the Ottoman Empire. “Very few historians are interested in these issues. We need to create dialog” through education, culture, civil societies, he said.

Calouste Gulbenkian, Panossian said, was always deeply involved and interested in the Armenian community. In fact, he said, one of the little-known facts about him is that he bought the town of Anjar in Lebanon for use by Armenians only.

Panossian was appointed to the post at Gulbenkian on January 24, 2013. He is the author of the critically-acclaimed book, The Armenians: From Kings and Priests to Merchants and Commissars (Columbia University Press, 2006) and various other academic publications on Armenian identity, politics and diaspora. He was the director of policy, programs, and planning at the Montreal-based International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development (2004-10), and has worked for UNDP in New York as an international consultant (2011-12). He obtained his PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2000, where he also taught.

Since 2000, the Armenian Communities Department of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation has given away $55 million in grants and scholarships.