Imagine Armenia Boston Conference Offers Ways to Get Involved in Armenia


Vartan Marashlyan speaking at MIT

Noubar Afeyan

Raffi Kassarjian

By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — If you ever wondered how you could get involved in Armenia, whether only for a relatively casual short-term dalliance, or for a full-fledged love affair, perhaps even to the extent of repatriation, the Imagine Armenia conference in Boston would have provided the equivalent of one-stop shopping. A variety of organizations working in Armenia sent speakers, and many of these were successful repatriates. More than 250 Boston-area Armenians took advantage of this forum held on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on May 20 to network and learn about opportunities. The Armenian Business Network helped Repat Armenia organize this event, while the MIT Armenian Society secured its locale.

Repat Armenia is a non-governmental non-profit organization which, as its name indicates, works to encourage repatriation of Armenians from around the world to the Republic of Armenia. It was established in Yerevan in 2012 and has permanent staff there.

Jack Antounian of the Boston-based Armenian Business Network (ABN) welcomed the audience members and declared that ABN and Repat Armenia share the same core values, working to make Armenia and Armenians succeed, and perpetuate the values of their forefathers. Antounian declared ABN “promotes intellectual philanthropy,” and helps the Armenian community and nation grow. With over 11,000 members worldwide, it provides a platform and facilitates networking, knowledge-sharing, and support services for fellow Armenians.

Boston-area entrepreneur and Armenian philanthropist Noubar Afeyan gave the keynote speech on why it is important to get engaged in Armenia, using slides to illustrate his points. He felt Armenians in the diaspora had an obligation “to try to reconstitute Armenians as a single nation.” If successful, this would have consequences broader than just for Armenians. Afeyan said that it would in a sense act as a deterrent for contemporary forces considering the perpetration of genocide against others, by showing that despite the destruction, victims are able to recover as a people or nation. Going to Armenia even for a summer internship is thus in a sense connected to the Armenian Genocide as a small step toward attempting to “reverse” it.

Afeyan pointed out that if Armenians did not take concrete steps to aid Armenia, why should non-Armenian organizations or individuals care and do the same. Reconnection by individual Armenians will help advance Armenia or Armenians. Diasporan Armenians seem to think of Armenia as just another diasporan place for Armenians but, Afeyan said, they should consider it as something different. In addition, Armenians should demand from Armenia the high standards that they demand in Western life.

Afeyan took the opportunity to answer criticisms from those who questioned why he supported projects like the Aurora Initiative when money could have directly been used in Armenia. He stated that money can be raised for both purposes, and secondly felt that it was necessary for Armenians to think of themselves as global citizens helping others, and not just receiving help. This is a shift in mentality he says is important.

He also deflected criticism that helping Armenia means not being able to help or invest in the Armenian diaspora, by responding that the former turns diasporan Armenians more Armenian, and thus strengthens the diaspora.

Afeyan concluded by speaking about projects that he is involved in, including Armenia2020 and the IDeA Foundation, which deals with social impact development, the United World Colleges Dilijan College, and the Aurora Foundation and 100 Lives.  Armenians as genocide survivors can give back to the world through the 100 Lives initiative, which commemorates those who helped Armenians during their time of crisis, and rewards those today who are helping others in crisis in the same way. A brief inspirational video on this was then screened.

Repat Armenia cofounder and executive director Vartan Marashlyan then took over as master of ceremonies, and asked Raffi Kassarjian to speak about Repat Armenia as part of a presentation titled “Getting Engaged with Armenia: How and Why?” Kassarjian explained that, like Afeyan, he wanted people to no longer think of Armenia as a poor and needy country. The organization’s goal is to encourage Armenians to make a difference in Armenia, whether they wish to repatriate or get involved long-distance. Kassarjian declared that the new prime minister, Karen Karapetyan, appears very different from his predecessors, and is action-oriented. Despite corruption and other problems, there are greater opportunities for diasporan Armenians now for engagement. His concluding statement was that those who have time to complain about Armenia have time to do something about it.

Avetik Chalabyan, a member of the Repat Armenia board, then spoke. A native Armenian who received an American MBA and worked in Russia, over the past 16 years he has been living in Armenia and Artsakh. He exclaimed that despite one thousand years of invasion and foreign rule, the Armenians remained a people. With independence, he said, an opportunity has come to reconstitute the nation. People can make a conscious choice to be Armenian, even if they are not Armenian by blood.

Chalabyan declared that there are great business opportunities in Armenia in fields like internet technologies, which is rapidly growing in Armenia and now finds a shortage of qualified employees; tourism, because so many historic events took place in Armenia; and organic agriculture, which is globally a growing field in the 21st century, in fields like wine production. Modern technologies are able to take better use of Armenia’s great climate, soil and sun. He continued to speak on other advantages of doing business in Armenia, including the high level of education there, and pointed out that though the majority of Armenia is still comparatively poor, individual Armenians can have a great impact on developments if they choose to get involved.

Marashlyan spoke further on Repat Armenia. He explained that it helps provide information, connections, and advice to those interested in doing work in or moving to Armenia. Approximately 300,000 people visit its website, in Russian and English, every year. Marashlyan provided detailed information on many of the programs and activities of the organization.

A first group of panelists on business, education, social initiatives and professional repatriation was invited to take the stage. Each panelist is actively involved in Armenia with various organizations. Avetik Chalabyan served as moderator, asking questions to kindle the discussion about their work.

He started with those involved in social programs. Raffi Dudaklian, executive director of the Tufenkian Foundation, talked about the civil empowerment that his foundation works toward. Human rights lawyer Ani Sarkissian of ONEArmenia spoke about her organization’s work to raise the standard of living in Armenia by implementing projects in various economic sectors, and working with various established organizations as well as by fundraising. Jeanmarie Papelian, executive director of the Armenian Tree Project stated that her organization uses trees to help improve the standard of living of people in Armenia. Zack Armen of the Children of Armenia Fund stated that his organization takes a holistic approach in helping children, including infrastructure improvement. In addition to donor funds, people lend their time and creativity to the work.

Raffi Kassarjian, who in addition to his role with RepatArmenia, is executive director and general manager of Monitis, an Armenia-based technology firm, and Magda Markosyan of MAROG Creative Agency spoke on their business initiatives. Kassarjian declared that being an economic catalyst was a very helpful role for Armenia. Often successful businesses in Armenia lead to repatriation.

Markosyan said that as pioneers, she and her partner had to train Armenians and so created the International School of Marketing. It is an expanding field in Armenia, with international companies also looking for assistance in marketing their products and services.

Finally, Aleksander Khachaturyan, advisor to the Armenian prime minister on legal and commercial business matters and Executive Director of the Center for Strategic Initiatives, spoke about how the government is involved in entrepreneurship. He used to be a managing partner in a law firm before taking on his current position. Khachaturyan and his center are working on 27 projects in fields ranging from agriculture to high tech strategy. He stressed the importance of hands-on execution of projects in Armenia as opposed to long-distance involvement.

The audience then directed questions to the panelists.

The final panel of the afternoon, called “Because You Can,” was composed primarily of young professionals who shared their experiences of working in Armenia. Marashlyan served as moderator. The speakers included Linda Yepoyan, Executive Director of Birthright Armenia and a board member of the Armenian Volunteer Corps, Tatev Babayan, public relations manager of Repat Armenia, who used to live in Boston, Teny Avakian, the Chief Program Officer for Teach for Armenia Educational Foundation, who was originally from Lexington, Mass., and Arina Zohrabian, also originally from Lexington, and now the Director of Admissions of the American University of Armenia (AUA). In addition, recent college graduate Terez Sarkisyan of the research thinktank DEPOP Institute for Governance and a Birthright Armenia volunteer; Araz Chiloyan, a volunteer for Birthright at the Homeland Development Initiative Foundation and the Armenian Youth Federation Western Region Youth Corps Program, who used to live in Watertown, Mass. and will continue her studies at AUA; and recent college graduate Aimee Keushguerian, who moved to Armenia in 2016 to work for a winery-consulting firm Semina Consulting and manages a new wine company, Keush Wines, were panelists.  After introducing themselves, the speakers fielded questions from the audience.

A similar event, though on a smaller scale, was held in New York on May 22 at the headquarters of the Armenian General Benevolent Union, for which the Tekeyan Cultural Association of Greater New York and the Children of Armenia Fund served as promotional partners.