Armenia’s diaspora is renowned for maintaining strong ties to the Motherland. But members of at least one diaspora group who have returned to Armenia – Iranian-Armenians – say they are encountering difficulty in gaining acceptance in Yerevan.
Iran, which borders Armenia to the south, is home to an estimated 70,000-90,000 ethnic Armenians, descendants of those who migrated in the 17th century to then-Persia to work as craftsmen and artists. The two countries share close historic, diplomatic and economic ties. Armenia, in fact, was once part of the Persian Empire.
Even so, these days many Armenians see Iran, a Muslim society, and their own country as a world apart.
In a series of interviews with EurasiaNet.org, ethnic Armenians from Iran who have returned to Yerevan claimed that they routinely experience discrimination in Armenia. The prices they pay as “Persians” [the name often used in Armenia for Iranians] for hospital care, food staples and various retail goods can be several times more expensive as the fees charged to locals, they claimed.
Forty-three-year-old homemaker Armine Darsbidian, who moved to Armenia in 2000 from Tehran and holds an Armenian passport, recounts how parents at her son’s Yerevan high school called on her as a “rich Persian” to donate more money to supplement the school’s budget. “Why Persian? My family lived in Iran for a century, but we always tried to avoid Iranians. We never invited any of them to our house,” fumed Darsbidian.
Darsbidian also claimed that she was charged double for an ultrasound at a Yerevan hospital, where staff claimed that they had the right to charge separate, higher fees for foreigners. The practice was abolished in 2008. A hospital manager told EurasiaNet.org that Darsbidian might have been charged in error.
Another Iranian-Armenian agreed that such circumstances often occur. “Yes, there is not such a very warm attitude, but it is because we are very different with our traditions,” said Murad Khechoian, a member of the Union of Armenians in Iran. “We live in a different atmosphere, so it can be that this will only go on until locals get used to us.”
Iranian-Armenian repatriation is not a new phenomenon. In 1946-48, a repatriation program saw 20,000 Iranian-Armenians return to Armenia; roughly another 20,000 came back during the 1970s.
The Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, created in 2008 to strengthen ties between Armenia and diaspora Armenians, maintains that intolerance toward Iranian-Armenians or other diaspora Armenians groups is not an issue. Ministry representatives cite a state-funded program, Ari Tun (“Come Home”), which brings 900 diaspora Armenian youngsters to stay with local families each year as proof that ties are growing stronger with Armenia’s far-flung diaspora groups.
“There is discontent [among diaspora Armenians], but it’s not common,” said Artur Dumanian, head of the Ministry’s Department of Armenian Communities of the Near East and Middle East. “Armenians have always had that trait of grouping people according to the region they are from. … The same goes for diaspora Armenians.”
The ministry has no data about how many Iranian-Armenians have settled in Armenia since the country regained independence in 1991. Police estimate the general number of diaspora Armenians living in Armenia at several thousand, but no exact figure has been reported.
Armine Stepanian, an ethnographer at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography who studied the relationship between diaspora members and local Armenians during the Soviet era, asserted that Armenia’s population is much more tolerant now than it was in the 1970s. “Armenia Armenians were much more intolerant after that massive inflow [in the 1970s]: there were cultural clashes and differences in the types of societies” to which Iranian-Armenians and Soviet Armenians were accustomed,” elaborated Stepanian. “The flow is not large-scale now, hence the reaction is not that strong.”
Nonetheless, the old “inferiority complex” among locals that diaspora Armenians are “better educated and wealthier” still lingers, she added.
Linguistic differences can prove another potential stumbling block for diaspora Armenians. One Yerevan employment agency manager noted that companies routinely ask for applicants who are fluent in both Armenian and Russian. “So, in that case, locals will have an advantage since diaspora Armenians mostly don’t know Russian,” said Mihran Minasian.
Nairi Zohrapian, a student at Yerevan State University’s Faculty of Eastern Studies, says she has started mixing Russian words and phrases into her Armenian to seem more like her Yerevan friends. But it does not always make a difference. A professor once pointed her out to classmates as a representative of Muslim countries such as Iran, she said. “I was so hurt that I took out my cross and showed it to him, and told him that I was baptized as an infant; that even though I was born in Iran, I am an Armenian, I am a Christian,” recounted Zohrapian.
Many Iranian Armenians say that, with time, they have learned to take their image as “foreigners” in stride, but caution that much work remains to be done to encourage acceptance of diaspora Armenians resident in Armenia.
To illustrate this point, philologist Martin Gabrielian cites a joke about a magic gold fish that promises to fulfill the wishes of a native-born Armenian, an Iranian-Armenian and an Armenian from the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh. All three ethnic Armenians end up wishing for their counterparts to leave Armenia, Gabrielian said.
“If people are making jokes on this issue, then there is a problem,” he concluded.
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.