Vardan Marashlyan:
REPATRIATION AND RETHINKING DIASPORA

Vardan Marashlyan:

“Repatriation is the best solution”

The Repat Armenia Foundation, a non-governmental and non-profit organization, was established in August 2012 to take the concept of repatriation to the next level, complete with a full time, dedicated professional staff based in Yerevan and a network of active supporters worldwide. Regional Post talked to Vartan Marashlyan, the co-founder/Executive Director of Repat Armenia Foundation about the importance of repatriation, the Diaspora’s attitude on the subject, as well as current developments and challenges faced by the foundation within its mission in creating a better Armenia.

Interview : Ani Smbati  /  Photo : Biayna Mahari

 

Mr. Marashlyan, you were born in Yerevan yet you lived in Moscow for over 25 years. In 2010, you made the decision to move to Armenia with your family. It has been seven years, do you consider yourself a repatriate?

— It’s interesting that all interviewers start with this question. I am a proud repatriate, but for me it is predominantly focused on the appreciation of the return home, rather than the feeling of belonging to a special caste in Armenia. I am fully integrated into local society, living with the nation’s challenges and achievements simultaneously 24/7, 365 days a year. In parallel I enjoy a full life with friends and family, as well as a job that makes me happy. In my mind, Yerevan and Armenia are already considered the only home for me. I feel myself a visitor, no matter which country or city I end up in around the world, including Moscow, where I grew up and still have both friends and family. It brings me joy to feel that I will not split that emotion with a country outside of Armenia, a sentiment shared by all my family. At the moment, my household consists of three repatriates and one local, the latter being my youngest child.
The decision to move back to Armenia in 2010 was a complex one, though I had a previous experience of living here for a 2.5 year period from 1998 to 2001. As long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to live in Armenia with every step taking me closer to that goal. Even though I was mentally ready, the decision still required quite a bit of work on my part. There were multiple facets to consider from family to professional development. My wife and I made a list of pros and cons that would affect our decision and had actively debating the possibility for a couple of weeks; it ended with her ripping up the page and me buying a one way ticket to Armenia.
Should this decision have been made in the present day – there would be much less hesitation, due to available resources and possibility of connecting with like-minded individuals.

How was the idea of Repat Armenia born?

— My repatriation example is only one of many. Along with eleven other individuals either in the process or already having established themselves in Armenia, the concept of making repatriation a possibility on a larger level was born. Between conception and establishment of the Foundation there was over a year of brainstorming and preparatory work. Whereas the initial idea was to create a platform for obtaining the most essential of information and current repatriate experiences from a single space, it soon evolved to the founding partners creating the foundation for a movement that would span through the upcoming 20 years and counting. What we put together needed to be dynamic, ever developing and shaping itself to the needs of those who would arrive in Armenia. It required a team, a permanently evolving network and individualized assistance on a daily basis, supporting in the process of repatriation.
Repat Armenia as we know it now was officially launched in August 2012, with a clear vision and mission – to focus on high impact repatriation to Armenia, in particular that which would bring new and trailblazing ideas, while facilitating multi-faceted engagement in a broader sense with the country. Our vision involves the mobilization of those with the ability to truly make an impact on multiple fronts, inspiring others to also test their full potential.

What are the major functions of Repat Armenia?

— I’m happy to go into more details this time around. The work done by Repat Armenia is ever evolving, but our core key functions are repatriation promotion, integration support, and instigating a pro-repatriation environment. Within the first concept falls the introduction of Armenia as a country versus simply a cause to work for, complete with its opportunities, challenges and individual impacts. We offer personal stories of experiences from all aspects of moving and living in Armenia, as well as engaging with Diaspora communities through “Imagine Armenia” forums. This is best achieved through the establishment of strong ties with organizations which share similar values to ours. Of course, efforts are often met with doubt, disbelief and an overall lack of relevant knowledge, something that was especially seen initially during our “Imagine Armenia” events in Moscow, New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Beirut and Tehran, among others, when we began our work nearly five years back. Today, the interest of the younger generations, the higher event attendance, the increased volume in inquiries, and other such indicators prove inspiring for us as well as those who may have never considered making their move to Armenia. The audience we have is keen to learn about local developments, to have their move demystified and to find new ways of personal engagement with their homeland. Repatriation is becoming a new fad among the youth. Let's not make it complicated, moving to Armenia is not as hard as it seems.
Providing integration support in integral to Repat Armenia, offering individualized consultations, networking opportunities, answers to those nagging questions, and a social support that comes in very handy when you face certain culture shocks, answers to those nagging questions, and a social support that comes in very handy when you face certain culture shocks. Soft landing is our specialty, while ensuring as many resources as possible are provided for all newcomers. This includes an online network group of nearly 5000 individuals, connecting people through cultural backgrounds, employment spheres, and other areas of specialization. Our main sphere of work lies in meeting with each repatriate separately, assessing needs, providing employment support in terms of resume writing, interview coaching, career advising, linking to professionals, trainings, freelance and available resources. Our team has established ties with most top employers and recruitment agencies in Armenia, ensuring the high quality of positions posted to our website, where in the past year over 700 were posted, all with a minimum of 200k+ monthly salary requirement. We also provide support to repat entrepreneurs, assisting in finding the right lawyers, accountants, and personnel, while also promoting their work through our Siramark.am B2C platform and local media, connecting with successful businessmen in the same sphere and bringing them moral support. All services provided are free of charge and with heartfelt encouragement. Furthermore, for those who wish to test the waters, pre-repatriation opportunities and pilot trip programs are presented.


It appears that repatriation is not a prioritized issue in Armenia. Does the government support your efforts in any way?

— Here is where I will mention our third and final key function: to instigate the inclusion repatriation part of Armenia’s development agenda. For us, this is the most challenging part of the job, yet that which motivates us the most. From the government level, down to the ordinary citizen, repatriation is still not a concept they can relate to, often seeing it as part of a forced move due to failures or war, becoming an added weight for society. There have been many positive changes of late, however, and the skilled repatriate who adds to the country’s social wealth or makes a major impact is looked upon with admiration and a genuine wish to support.
Repat Armenia strives to influence government policies to develop a pro-repatriation environment in Armenia. We are constantly suggesting the ways to make repatriation a part of the political agenda in Armenia and the Diaspora. The new government headed by Karen Karapetyan has recently appealed to the Armenians of the Diaspora urging them to consider professional repatriation and engagement, seeing as to how this move helps bring in some much-needed fresh ideas, approaches, and global connections, based on a proven impact of successful endeavors in a number of important sectors. Considered a rather large milestone, this was the first such address on such a high level, coming in parallel with an increased number of repatriates recruited for public service.
There are regular discussions currently between related public institutions and Repat Armenia concerning changes to existing procedures affecting the repatriation process. The simplification of the procedure in moving personal belongings has already been added to the new government to-do list, one of the many ideas proposed. Concrete recommendations are being developed by Repat Armenia concerning a wider range of issues related to State-Diaspora policies. But this is a conversation for when we have more time.

What are the most common concerns in the Diaspora about repatriating to Armenia?

— The diaspora often forms their impression based on local and international media in their opinions of what life in Armenia is like, alongside personal stories from those living here. Furthermore, the hunger, destitution and multiple shocks experienced by those who fled in the ‘90s, together with negative experiences and sometimes heavy losses seen by diasporans and those who have tried to repatriate, amplified by what is known about the original repatriation waves during the 1940s, all add fuel to the fire and create a picture that may be far from what the average repatriate will experience in Armenia today.
Unfair competition, corruption, business monopolies, ongoing migration, limited career opportunities and low salaries, as well as an underdeveloped political system with a lack of checks and balances are all major concerns expressed by diasporans as per our interactions during global events; this includes the Q&A sessions, later social media conversations, as well as in-person discussions on the matter.
Integration into local society might also pose a problem for those born and raised in regions vastly differing in mentality and culture. These concerns are all valid, of course, but not to the extent that it has taken root in diasporan minds. While certain sectors do require evolution, the past decade has seen repatriates taking a pioneering role and bringing revolutionarily innovative developments to the field. This progress has been duly noted in the 2014 survey commissioned by Repat Armenia, engaging 300 of its members in order to understand top reasons for repatriation and concerns along the way. From the information gleaned through this task, it became clear that the integration environment has vastly improved, as well the comforts and commodities that make a place worth living in.
Repat Armenia’s observations have found that over 70% of those deemed repatriates have been here or plan to stay for the long term, well integrated and with strong feelings of ownership; most thus take an active role in social and economic development programs, fighting for their rights and demanding change on a positive trajectory. Over 95% would stand their ground and keep to their repatriation decision, even in the event of war.

What are the main reasons why Diaspora Armenians are looking to repatriate?

— To answer your question, I consider my conversations with the many diaspora Armenians spanning the past several years. While it might seem emotionally influenced, those who repatriate are looking for a home where they feel a sense of belonging and personal happiness. Providing a safe space for their children to grow while keeping their Armenian identity is first and foremost in every young family’s mind. Personal development is also highly valued, along with a chance to explore one’s culture more easily in the most authentic manner possible. For those with a mind for innovative business, Armenia generally offers a blue ocean and many uncharted waters, particularly when intended for export. In certain sectors there are major opportunities for those with specific skill sets, particularly in IT, project management, and marketing. Armenia is especially attractive for freelancers of all nationalities, lately landing itself on top digital nomad lists. Furthermore, the last decade has brought in a number of social initiatives, developed by mixing repatriate with local and bringing in diasporan support. Co-working spaces are especially rife with social initiative ideas and the brains behind them.
At the end of the day, low service costs, easy access to essentials, a friendly populace, and the ability to strike a great balance between your personal and professional lives are especially attractive for many. With the millennials more open to change and steady movement globally, Armenia offers many benefits that attract a good number of both those of Armenian descent and those who fall in love with the country. The smaller size of the country allows for you to grow as a person, instead of getting lost among many others like you as seen in larger cities. Those who have moved have cited everything from the existence of clear seasons to the sheer number of cultural events as reasons to immigrate, while the short proximity reduces stress caused by heavy traffic, instead encouraging a healthier lifestyle through walking.
While it might be a touch more challenging to achieve certain successes in Armenia, it is by far more rewarding when you reach those peaks, particularly when there is a positive impact on society as a whole.

During the past decade, a number of diaspora organizations and influential tycoons have cut their funding, citing an overall lack of trust. When you were in the process of launching Repat Armenia five years ago, was this a concern you faced?

— During the initial stages of development, even with all 12 founders putting in all their efforts, there were moments of real fear that we might not be able to gather the required support. The founders, including myself, have all been actively engaged for many years in innovative projects across Armenia and the Diaspora, something which greatly assisted in building trustworthy partnerships. It was a completely different and entirely specific concept we brought to the table, a major risk to take. It was an ambitious project to tackle, and the trust of those around us in our diverse backgrounds and ability to make this work has increased the support base to over 30 donors to date and an increasing number of partner organizations. Crowdfunding for specific projects have also been successful due to trust gained from the public in general.
Repat Armenia is committed to building an ecosystem supporting high-impact repatriation, providing change-makers and professionals with the opportunity to find success in their homeland. We have shown an openness and flexibility in working with similarly-minded groups and organizations, building up trust and a strong base for support. This has also been essential in the implementation and/or design of such initiatives as Syrian-Armenian Relief, Support Our Defenders, Yerevan Half Marathon,Citizen Observer, as well as the Siramark and Marar projects, working hand in hand with partner organizations.
Our work has been recognized and appreciated by international organizations, who have in turn partnered with us on their own diaspora involvement, refugee integration, and migration-related projects.


Let's talk numbers. How many Armenians from the diaspora have moved to Armenia in the last 5 years due to the efforts of Repat Armenia? How many have visited Armenia in the context of different programs and initiatives to get engaged in Armenia?

— This is a great question and one that we are often faced with. Unfortunately, concrete statistics are unavailable due to the fact that each individual arrives in a different manner, without an official repatriate status. Many do not even visit or write to us about their repatriation. We can only track those who have a direct connection with us. On the country level, however, as we understand through indirect indicators, there are over a thousand voluntary repatriates moving to Armenia every year. During the past five years, we also had an influx of over 18,000 Syrian Armenians, as well as a few thousand from Ukraine and Iraq. The Repat Armenia office in general sees over five hundred visitors per year, in all stages of repatriation, while over a thousand inquiries are received through email or social media. Hundreds have been assisted in their soft landing and search for employment, as well as in setting up businesses. Our main numbers are from the United States, Russia, Lebanon, Iran and Canada. We understand that compared to high numbers of outward migration, these are a drop in the bucket, but nonetheless each individual’s success brings joy to our personnel, particularly when one has an impact on Armenia’s development.

As head of the foundation, what is your biggest dream to realize through Repat Armenia?

— Ambitions are aplenty at Repat Armenia. And when you dream, you should dream big. I expect to see 100,000 Armenians actively engaging with Armenia annually within a 10 year period, excluding tourists. I would like to see a minimum of 10,000 repatriates arriving at Zvartnots airport each year. I imagine organized charter flights touching down on a regular basis bringing new immigrants, much like that which exists currently in Israel.
This will be a challenge and in order to reach this goal, there should be active efforts made in three particular directions:
First is changing the narrative of the diaspora. This can be achieved by stressing the importance of Armenia as a country as opposed to a cause, the core of one’s identity, with active engagement in pursuit of one’s own goals working hand in hand with viable national state-building. Each young adult should be given the opportunity to come to Armenia through at least one initiative during their lifetime.
Second is bringing the concept of professional repatriation and engagement into the government’s agenda with a commitment to utilize multiple resources at their disposal while developing the necessary infrastructure and establishing wide-scale reforms throughout the country. It is at this point understood that repatriation is a vital contributor to socio-economic development and national security.
Third, is the development of the proper means to foster the sheer amount of visitors. With a united platform between like-minded organizations and their combined efforts, we should be able to encourage and substantially increase capacities, optimize capabilities, and help in the development of public-private programs among other such initiatives.

Do people need good reasons to repatriate?

— Repatriation is a personal choice; each of us had our own good reasons for moving to Armenia. But one thing that I can tell with certainty is that if you have found your reason to make the move, we are here to provide you with the right connections, necessary information, and would love to share our personal experiences. As for those who are still searching for their reason, we hope they will get engage more with Armenia and take part in its development.
Pick your own reason to experience this step. It will enrich your life regardless of how long you end up staying. Do it because you can.