Returned by faith: “What’s the use if you have closed the door?”

Armenian xenophobia is not big news for Rosa who has experienced Latvian and Russian nationalisms.
Armenian xenophobia is not big news for Rosa who has experienced Latvian and Russian nationalisms.

Rosa Arghamanyan and Arsen Shumovich  “swam” upstream the deluge of Armenian emigration; they have returned to their birthplace Yerevan with a decision to live here permanently (around 200,000 people have left Armenia in last 6 years).

They were brought to Armenia by national identity and faith. Both of them are the believers of “Word of Life”. The latter maintains the largest church building in Armenia (the opening took place on 25 December) and it’s a constant target for attacks by numerous media and the Apostolic church. One such example are the publication of “Iravunk” newspaper; the “Word of life”s slander and libel suit against the newspaper is currently pending at European Court of Human Rights (See more).

Both of them speak Armenian with great difficulty, but they stubbornly don’t take to Russian. “I learn from one to three Armenian words per day: when you love the language, it comes easily”, says Shumovich.

Rosa was three years old when her family left the country; the first acquaintance to the world was the revulsion towards her as a foreigner. They lived in Riga, Latvia for seven years. Even though her sister was born there and she herself attended school for three years, they were deported from the country as foreigners.

Although she used to know Latvian quite well, she has now forgotten it and doesn’t even have a wish to recount: “I don’t really love Baltic countries, the people are cold, it was kind of fascist. That racism is quite strong. I was small but I could feel that.”

The family moves to Moscow and although the parents later naturalize and become citizens of Russia (Rosa didn’t wish that and she received Armenian citizenship), but fascism and national discrimination become stronger and the coeval Russians impregnated by Nazism continue to bully the girl during her whole juvenal years.

“I would spend most of the day at school and as an Armenian I would get bullied there” Rosa remembers, “they would curse us, spit on us, it never came to beating, they weren’t so courageous but they would shout whatever they wanted at us. We would never answer because so to say ‘we had avian rights there’ (a Russian proverb that means ‘having bird’s rights’ that is, without a status).

I don’t want to repeat the curse words. All I can tell are the common words; they would say ‘chornie’ (the Blacks), ‘chernomazie’ (the Black-skinned), ‘khachiks’. They would say ‘khachiks’ to everyone, I would say, “I’m a girl, I’m not Khachik, neither is my dad’s name.” They would humiliate us as much as they could, so you didn’t feel like a human. They were so ignorant, they didn’t even know  Armenians are Christians and they would always mistake us for Muslims, for what they would also bully us. I would tell, I’m a Christian like you but that wouldn’t interest them.

Those were mostly the girls, the boys were more respectful, because I would give them my homework so they copied it. The boys were bullying the boys.”

Just when life got harder, the debts added up to the hostile environment and the father’s business stagnated, the religion of the oppressed gived a helping hand, when mother got acquainted to Armenian Evangelic Harbor Church of God operating in Moscow. The family got baptized.

Rosa retells that faith on one hand, the family upbringing on the other had empowered her so much that she was able to resist the oppression and not to break down even overcoming those experiences victoriously.

“Thanks God, Lord granted me wisdom to answer those people correctly. I have learned a lot by facing those persecutions. I have gained wisdom how to speak to people so that they respected you not withstanding your status, so you could raise your value, the value of your nation.”

Looking at the persecution of Armenians throughout the history I believe that Armenians are chosen by God, they are the first Christians. I was small but I knew that I was being persecuted not only as an Armenian but also as a Christian, because everything had a subtext. Why are they oppressing: there’s a hatred, isn’t it? And as a believer I learn to love my banners, bless my haters and it helps me a lot.

Let me tell you a story: I was an achiever student at school but my teacher of mechanical drawing was full of hatred towards me, that I’m Armenian, I would always get graded with C and was strongly against changing her attitude. How could I change her attitude, my elders would teach me that if people hate you, if they don’t love you, you should nonetheless continue loving them, that hatred will break one day, the human can’t hate for long, she needs love. I approached my teacher and told her if she wanted to grade me C, she could do it but I also wanted her to teach me privately. She was surprised, like “I grade you C and instead of leaving and talking behind my back you tell me to spend more time with you and teach you mechanical drawing privately.” I never needed mechanical drawing in my life but I wanted to show her that I’m Christian and that I have an answer towards hatred and that answer is love. I studied with her and she graded me A and we became closer.”

After leaving the school she felt she had a mission to return to homeland and to serve God by being useful for her compatriots.

25-year-old Rosa first graduated from the Journalism Department of Armenian-Slavonic University in Yerevan and then the Russian-American University in Moscow. She lives in her paternal house in Qanaqer and is currently unemployed. Her younger sister Maria also who is also a member of “Word of Life” returns with her.

Arsen and Armine always look joyfully at each other.
Arsen and Armine always look joyfully at each other.

“I left Russia, my comfortable life and my parents and came back because I know I have something to take from here and give here to have an input in the life of Armenian people as an Armenian”, says Rosa, “I studied family counseling in Russia so I could help families be strong here, so they didn’t separate, that the parents could understand their children. God’s Word says: “Faith is dead without deeds.” What’s the use if you believe but you have closed the door and you do nothing?”

28-year-old Arsen Shumovich’s surname is a remnant from his Belorussian grandfather. He was 5-year-old when his parents got divorced and his sister remained with his mother and he left for Lviv, Ukraine with his father. The latter got married and he was brought up by his Ukrainian stepmother. He graduated from the Sociology Department of Polytechnic Institute in Lviv. Unlike Roza, Arsen never felt national discrimination, quite the contrary, he considered himself Ukrainian and was an ardent fan of Ukrainian football.

His mother is a believer of Church of Word of Life and although during his visits to Armenia he related to Christianity but he gave into faith when his friend repented:

“One day I saw him and he asked me where I was going. I answered him that I was going home and he said he was going to church.

It was a shock for me; this guy who I didn’t expect anything from anymore, I was sure that he would have never been able to become a normal person, he had changed. It was a good sign for me.

As if God told me, “Look, even if  he changes, what are you waiting for?”

In 2006 Arsen comes to Yerevan, gets baptized in the Church of Word of Life, then in 2010 he again returns to attend the Biblical classes of “Word of Life” and makes a decision to stay in Armenia. Two years earlier he got married to his fellow-believer Armine and now they rent a house together:

“I could have never imagined that I could live here and get married  with my Ukrainian mentality. My wife is Armenian. And I’m so far from Armenianness!”

26-year-old Armine sang in church since she was 8.
26-year-old Armine sang in church since she was 8.

“I had a normal job, friends and even a girlfriend in Lviv. But a situation came up in my life where I couldn’t decide where to go, why God had granted me with life, what was my calling. My mom suggested me to go to Yerevan, study for one year, perhaps God would open up something for me. When I decided to go, I wasn’t thinking that I would stay. Then I noticed that not only Armenians were warmer and more intimate, but also people from our church were more goal-oriented. I started my service here (he is a voluntary sound operator at church) and made a decision to stay.”

Three weeks after he had found a job at an internet provider company, the office closed down. Then he started working at a restaurant as a server, and then as a member of guard staff at international organizations.

“People were telling me there’s no job here, why have you left Ukraine and have come here, why do you need that, put yourself together, everyone is leaving and you are coming back. But there was some calmness inside me, the hope that I would find job… I believe that if one has goals if he is diligent especially if he believes in God then everything will be OK. And I would find job and get a better salary than in Ukraine.”

Arsen notices some cultural differences that don’t disturb him:

“Ukrainian men respect women more, they are not that patriarchal as it is here. First it’s unacceptable for me when an Armenian man can start speaking with a stranger in singular, he thinks if he speaks in plural then he’s weak, also they speak with a special intonation, in a higher voice to demonstrate the power.”

Neither Rosa nor Arsen are bothered with the agitation against the Church of Word of Life. Rosa says that she’s a journalist and she knows quite well how people’s opinions are manipulated by media and how it’s being also done in Russia:

“There can also be an environment where people say, oh you’re one of the sectarians, I say yes, I’m from the sectarians, but I’m not one of the sectarians you imagine, I’m a Christian.”

“Indeed it affects us as youngsters, that we are not accepted in some areas, sidelong glances and such, but deep inside you know who you are, what calling you have, it can’t disturb you much.”

For Arsen discrimination is a new thing, he never noticed religious intolerance in Ukraine.

People are more tolerant there, the country is more diverse, there are at least four traditional Churches, the Catholic Church, the Greek-Catholic, that is also widespread in Western Ukraine, Russian Orthodox and Ukrainian Autocephalous Church (Orthodox autonomous church) and various churches of Evangelical family. Therefore the issue of religion doesn’t bother anyone there.

Arsen notices that in Yerevan people look at him strangely as a believer, men ask him how come he doesn’t cheat on his wife or why he doesn’t drink (believers of Word of Life don’t use alcohol).

“I tell them, my wife is enough for me, I don’t need anybody else and I don’t really consider cheating right. I don’t drink; it’s not written anywhere, nobody says don’t drink, that’s simply my decision. I used to drink a lot in past and now I don’t regret for a drop that I don’t drink; I can have fun at parties by simply drinking juice. I know a lot of men that are not believers, they don’t drink and nobody forces them to drink and they don’t ask questions of faith to him. When you explain it that way they seem to start understanding.”

And for Rosa who has experienced Latvian and Russian nationalisms Armenian intolerance is not news and  in here opinionhere it’s expressed more mildly, it doesn’t affect life.

“Sometimes an anxiety rises in me, what was done to me in Russia for being an Armenian, now is committed to me as a sectarian,” she says, “and for a second I imagine, my dear, if you go to Russia and they persecute you as an Armenian, I wonder what will you feel?”

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