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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 12 March 2016
DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 12 MARCH 2016 21 FEATURE Hellenes of Armenia roads moment; many have migrated to Greece since the USSR was disbanded. A vibrant and economically sustainable community can only truly come from the capital. "I am proud of the work we do to help preserve our culture. Armenia is a small country with a long history," said Mr Khitarov, from Vanadzor, whose daughter Anna is also content to stay in Armenia to help promote Pontian history. WHERE TO FIND THE GREEK VILLAGES The stronghold and spiritual hub is in the picturesque northern region. A drive in the area highlighted how rural and unspoilt the nature of Armenia is. Under Russian communism it was easy to live off the land. Unfortunately, the end of the Soviet era brought with it the stark reality that Armenia, and in particular the region that contains the Greek villages, has many economic challenges ahead. Numerous villages are found along the border with Georgia, especially the Lori Marz province. Alaverdi is possibly the largest, and a place where you can bump into Greek speakers on the street, which is also the case in Vanadzor, Gyumri, Stepanavan, Hankavan and Noyemberyan. Each one usually has a Greek Community Centre or office where you can locate Greek speakers. At least another 300 (no, these are not the Spartans) can be found in what is called the Republic of Nagorno Karabakh. This is a disputed area that wants to unite with Armenia, but was held back by neighbouring Azerbaijan, a country which sits next to the Caspian Sea. The people of the villages generally work in agriculture, horticulture, craftmaking and industry. The massive melting factory at Alaverdi , which can be seen from miles away, employs dozens of Hellenes and is traditionally run by them. I was told the majority of old Greek settlements were located next to mines. Greek churches were built, though they are no longer active. Greeks nowadays attend the local Orthodox services. In Yerevan, many Greek speakers are involved with sciences and education as they seemingly access opportunities afforded by tertiary studies. HELLENIC HOSPITAL I had heard of the Greek Medical Foundation Hippocrates from Australia many, many years ago, and it was a surreal moment to finally visit. It is a mediumsized facility set against the backdrop of small settlement near Alaverdi, next to a mountain. The facility has numerous practitioners and around 10 treatment rooms including those for rehabilitation. Formally opened in 2001, it was funded by Hellenicare under the leadership of Greek American, the late Andrew Athens. Costas Vertzayas, then the Oceania president, had told me about the facility when SAE was helping bring this project to life. The director of the Greek Medical Fund is Dr Simon Zhakharov, who originates from Alaverdi. "The aim of the fund is not only to serve the Greek population of the region but in general people who are in need," he says. Simon proved to be a charismatic person, telling me about his life that included a stint working in the mines of Alaverdi before enrolling in medical school. Without doubt the medical facility is a wonderful achievement, but life as a medical practitioner still has its struggles. "We make very little mon- ey; it is hard in Armenia," he confessed. "Probably the equivalent of US$200 per month. Economically, life is hard for us here. When the facility runs out of equipment or machines become old, we struggle to replace them sometimes." I was taken for a short drive to what appeared to be a mechanic yard to see their ambulance. An impressive vehicle, I thought, until I looked down ... all four wheels were missing! "Sadly, we do not have the funds to replace them. Any help we can get from Australia or abroad will help get the ambulance back on the road!" THE FUTURE Marina told me that "all of the Greek people speak Armenian, usually Russian for those born before 1991", while some were able to converse with me in English. Being able to speak more than one language certainly helps the new generation to connect with the outside world, though attention needs to be placed on the Pontian dialect, an extension of the Ionian dialect of Greek. More and more Greek youth are learning Modern Greek and this may come at the expense of the ancient language, though Pontian remains a spoken language in the villages. I was invited to dine at the wonderful Milos Taverna in Yerevan with Marina and Anna Khitarova, a young person who is a pointer to the future of Greek speakers. Anna, who is in HR and in her 20s, is keen to make her contribution to the Greek history of Armenia. Conscious of her Pontian heritage, she has connected with the Pontian international organisations. Her English and Greek are fluent which will of course open more doors for her abroad. "I was 11 when I first went to Greece,” she tells me. “I remember very well how I felt when I stepped out of the plane and felt the Greek air. That was something very special and it is hard to explain in words. I felt that finally I came home. I have the same feeling every time I visit Greece, feelings that become stronger with each visit." Anna and her friends have formed the Greek Youth of Armenia. Each of the nine Greek communities in the country has a youth group. "I am very proud to represent Pontian Youth of Armenia (region of former USSR countries). In late 2015 I attended the second Global Pontian Youth Forum in Thessaloniki with 500 international representatives. It was very emotional and impressive to see others that live in totally different parts of the world speak a different language but in reality we are the same; the same history and feelings," adding that all the young people have a love for Greece as well as Armenia; in her words, they are brother nations. While tragedy and sadness have helped unite these ancient peoples, there is a certain warmth and shared history in Armenia that will help protect Pontian culture. The Hellenes of Armenia may have dwindled, but they and their culture are safe among friends. *Billy Cotsis is the author of the Many faces of Hellenic Culture. Get in touch with Dr Marina Mkhitaryan (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you wish to contribute to the Hellenicare facility, including replacing the wheels of the ambulance!
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