What was it like growing up Armenian in ...11th in Series

Sunday, March 24th, 2019

On March 24th, ACOM presented the 11th session in the series "What was it like growing up  Armenian in ....". The panelists for this session were; Darla Kashian (Milwaukee,WI), Marty Meketarian (Cleveland, OH) and Margarita Aroutiunian (Yerevan, Armenia)


Margarita was born in 1972 in Yerevan, Armenia. In 1993, she moved first to Novgorod, Russia, and then to Montreal, Canada. Her mother was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, and her father in Grozny, Russia. She has two sisters, both of whom live, with their families, in Yerevan. Both her mother and father, as well as her uncles and cousins, also live in Yerevan. She only has one other relative who emigrated, a cousin who lives in San Francisco. She went to Russian language schools in Yerevan. This was, of course, not unusual in that Armenians who wished to be mobile in the Soviet Union needed to learn Russian, and learn it well. She, of course, also studied Armenian. She attended university at the Yerevan State Pedagogical University (named after Valery Brusov). She earned a teaching degree, in Russian language and literature, from that university. 

Although they all knew Armenian, her family's language at home was Russian. Her mother spent more than four decades teaching Russian in Yerevan secondary schools.
While Yerevan was quite homogeneous (with Armenians making up more than 90% of the population in the late Soviet era), there were also numbers of Azeris, Jews, and Russians who called Yerevan home. It had a multicultural feel about it!
Margarita loves learning languages; the only way to understand another country, and another culture, is to understand the language of that society, even though Russian dominated Soviet discourse. There was space and great support from the state to learn other languages as well.
Margarita’s grandparents, on both sides, were spiritual without being actively religious. Of course, it was decidedly difficult to be actively religious in the Soviet Union. People socialized and congregated not after church, but around the dinner table at home.
Friendships and extended social circles were richly cherished in Soviet Armenia. It was a way to live apart from the stagnation of late Soviet political life.
The implosion of the Soviet Union, which culminated in 1991, drastically reshaped life in Armenia. Armenia prospered during the Soviet period and there were not extensive anti-Russian attitudes. Armenian economic life, and in fact aspects of cultural life, had flourished thanks to Soviet support. Anti-Russian or anti-Soviet attitudes were found mainly among those in the diaspora. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a disintegration of economic and political life in the newly independent Armenia. Prior to 1991, the situation in Armenia had already sharply deteriorated. In 1989 Azerbaijan imposed a blockade on Armenia that impoverished the country. There were shortages of everything. Azerbaijan was a crucial source - through rail and road transport - and supplier of goods to Armenia, and when the blockade was imposed, Armenians faced profound hardships.
There was a devastating energy crisis lasting into the early 1990s. There was limited electricity; indeed, many lived without power. There were water shortages, etc This hardship was felt over much of the former USSR.
There was a rationing of food; Armenian citizens were given ration tickets. They formed bread lines. People became desperate to secure food and heat. At the genocide complex of Tsitsernakaberd, trees were cut down for fuel. Her family had a vast collection of books; they were burned to keep them warm.
Margarita, and her husband, like to remind people of those hardships when they start complaining about, well, about practically everything. Those are "first-world" problems they often tell people. She tells them to remember the hardships that many people went through when people here, with some exceptions, have sufficient food, hot showers, and indeed working lights in the house. However terrible some of these experiences, she believes that they made her a stronger person.
The collapse of the Soviet Union also led to the massive emigration of Armenians to Russia, Ukraine, France, Canada, and the United States, among other places. Indeed Margarita emigrated to Russia, then to Canada, and finally to the US. Three emigrations! She knew little English when she arrived in Canada; within a year she was fluent. She also met her husband in Montreal; he was teaching history at McGill University.
Margarita's family, on both sides, lived for generations in the Caucasus (present day Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the extreme south of Russia). She had a great-grandfather who, as a musician, traveled in the Ottoman Empire, but other that, she knows few precise details of her ancestors before her grandparents.
Margarita always took the fact that she was born in Yerevan for granted. When she moved to Montreal, it was the first time she started thinking about being Armenian. There is a large Armenian community in Montreal; it has an active cultural life: an Armenian school, many churches, and so forth.
It was in Canada that she also felt, for the first time, what it really meant to be an immigrant to a new land. At first Armenian, Georgian, and Russian foods provided comfort. Speaking Russian and Armenian, with new friends and acquaintances offered security. Montreal is a fantastically multi-ethnic city and the Quebec and Canadian governments were very open and supportive of immigration. Even so, immigration is a hard adjustment.
She felt especially proud to be an Armenian only when she left the country. Even given the size of Montreal's Armenian community, as well as that of the Armenian community in Detroit - where she first lived in the US, it took time to feel at home. The Armenian community offered a sense of connection to Armenia itself. Even so, she is not a nationalist. One thing that immigration has taught her is the dangers of extreme nationalism.
Margarita feels that in order to preserve an Armenian heritage within families across generations, then children have to be taught about Armenia: its history and culture. Even so, many Armenians living in Canada and US have only the most tenuous ties to the Republic of Armenia. So in a sense, Armenian identity is only partially about present-day Armenia, indeed is a fluid and ever-changing concept.

Additional comments from Husband STEVE USITALO
He sees little religious faith in Armenia. There is much skepticism of the Catholicos. Indeed, there is much criticism of the Armenian Church. Why?

Steven has been to Armenia many times. What he finds most interesting when thinking of Armenia in the US is the passionate attachment of some in the diaspora for a country, Armenia, they have no real connection to. He knows the history of both Armenia and its diaspora, even so to hear people who have never been to Armenia, and have no relatives there, speak about Armenia as their homeland is a bit surprising. Not bad, just surprising.
He was born in Finland (and lived there and in fact did one of his degrees there), and Finland has provided a magnificent life for its people under arduous conditions. Even so, he does not yearn to return even to a land where he was born.
Also, he wonders, does being Armenian require that the person know the language? After all, by way of comparison, many - most Jews - the other great diaspora people - do not know Hebrew. And Yiddish is largely a language of the past.


Was born in 1963 in Southeastern Wisconsin and grew up in South Milwaukee. She went to Marquette University then moved to New York city. There, she worked two years for the Armenian Diocese. From NYC, she moved to Miami and lived on Miami Beach for nearly 3 years. In an effort to be closer to her parents and her siblings, she moved to Minneapolis in 1995. She has four older brothers, Phil and Scott in Minneapolis, Russell in Milwaukee and Terry in Tucson, Arizona. A younger sister, Jackie is in California and is a stand-up comedian.

Her grandparents came from Turkey. Her grandmother came from Chomaklu and grandfather from Tomatza. They moved to South Milwaukee, WI. Neither one was willing to discuss anything related to the genocide unless one said something insignificant. Then, you got a lecture about gratitude.

Darla’s grandfather was one of the 100 survivors from his town. He died in 1969 – he was in his 60’s. He was illiterate in Armenia. He came to the US in the late 1920’s. He had two jobs: during the day, he worked in a slaughterhouse, scraping pig carcasses. At night, he worked in a charcoal factory. He was a determined hard worker.

She was 18 or 19 when someone asked: What is an Armenian? Having grown up in South Milwaukee where there were at least 250 Armenian families, it was unusual to meet people who had never met an Armenian.
South Milwaukee was the world headquarters for Bucyrus-Erie, a company that manufactured mining equipment, so in the 1900’s, when Darla’s grandparents came to South Milwaukee, there were plenty of unskilled jobs for everyone.
The Armenian Church in South Milwaukee was considered the big church, with more than 250 families. Darla’s family participated in church life, from Armenian school, Church choir and weekly services. With that said, she suggested her family wasn’t necessarily religious, but culturally Armenian.
In the 1970’s, on Sundays, she always went to church at 8.30 in the morning and spent all day there. On Saturdays, she went to Armenian school. There was a population of 25,000 – everyone knew someone who was Armenian. Father was not a natural English speaker.
She attended a breakfast fundraiser for the Center for Victims of Torture. The speaker, a Ugandan torture survivor, reminded her of her grandmother, who would physically steady herself before talking about the genocide. It was the first realization that survivors were in fact torture survivors.

Darla’s partner and she now have 2 kids who are raised Jewish. She feels everyone’s job as parents is to make their children proficient in being part of the community. As far as Jews vs. Armenians, Darla converted to Judaism by choice. She feels the whole issue of Israel is complicated for the Armenians.

Armenians in diaspora were challenged due to a lack of religious education in the 1960’s until the early 1980’s. She describes herself so “culturally Armenian” and can ago anywhere in the world to an Armenian Church and know what is going on. She feels she does have a place everywhere, anywhere in the world.

MARTY (Max) MEKETARIAN What Was It Like 3/24/19

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