Children of Armenia Fund's (COAF) SMART Center will open in Lori marz on May 27, 2018. Mediamax has talked to COAF founder and chairman Garo Armen ahead of the opening.
The opening of SMART Center is a matter of a few days now. What do you feel ahead of that important event?
The concept of SMART was born about two years ago. Then it was the matter of how we perfect the idea, which had two components. One was the design of SMART and the other, very importantly, the content of SMART – what does it do, how does it do it, why does it do it? It has been a major effort that now is coming to a public tipping point on Sunday. We have unofficially opened SMART with some programs that are underway already and those will continue at an accelerated pace after the official opening.
The idea of SMART was born with two drivers. One was to make sure we can expand our efforts much more rapidly to the rest of Armenian rural landscape. That was the reason we conceived SMART in the first place. How do we go from 14 years worth of work in 44 villages to maybe all 900 villages in a very rapid fashion? That is why SMART was conceived, because it was a central hub that provided connection to the region – as many as 50 different communities, over a 100 000 people, and the idea was if we could repeat this 10-15 times over throughout rural Armenia rapidly, we would make rural Armenia into “paradise”.
After that we said, “How do we do it?” The “how” was a very important element. It came into question with both the expanded programs that we would offer at SMART, but also, very importantly, with doing everything in SMART in a way that would set such high standards, such high targets that we would lift our communities, our young people from thinking small to thinking very big.
In the last 100 years Armenians have been beaten down repeatedly because of man-made and natural disasters and those things have made us think small. Now it’s time to think big. The circumstances of the last few weeks are an additional catalyst to encourage it.
Do you see any special symbolism in the fact that the official opening of SMART will take place in what we call “New Armenia”?
I think it is either a God-made circumstance or some other greater energies in space that made it happen this way, but we’re delighted that there is hope in Armenia. Of course, with this new hope, new sense of optimism comes a great responsibility to make sure that we actually deliver on the promise. Now is time for us to take our responsibilities seriously as a nation and grow out of the romance.
When a positive change happens, there is romanticism associated with it. I think it’s a wonderful thing, we should enjoy the romanticism, but not too long. As all responsible citizens, I worry about the “how”, not the “what” in what we want to accomplish. I worry about that a lot, and although I am not in the position or power to make decisions, as a responsible Armenian, I am entitled to worry about the “how”, because if we don’t worry about it, who will, after all?
Youngsters were the driving force of the “Velvet revolution” in Armenia. Your foundation has been working for 14 years with children - were you surprised to see that the youngsters they have become are active and unafraid to stand for their rights?
It was inevitable. Through the work we have done, we have actually seen the benefits of empowerment. What COAF does at the end of the day is empower young, middle-aged, old people to be able to think free. I think that is a wonderful, positive attribute and we have already seen the benefits of that development.
When we started our work fourteen years ago, the students were always timid, they did not even have the courage to speak freely, express their ideas. I come to Armenia four, five times a year and I often go to our classrooms and speak with the children. In the beginning of our work, when I used to ask questions of the students, they would always look at the teacher to see if they had the permission to answer.
Those dynamics started changing 3-5 years ago. The students are self-confident, they challenge teachers, principals, school administrators.
Was I expecting a revolution three weeks ago? The answer is no. Am I surprised with the outcome? The answer is again no, I am not surprised. It was a matter of time. And it was a matter of time in terms of a tipping point between a generation that were not children of suppression and their critical mass being able to get over the hump.
The delight is that it happened peacefully, in an unprecedented civility. That is very, very impressive. I think this will be a case study for the world and it will probably set some examples.
You have touched on “how” the changes should be made. Armenian Diaspora was a key point in public debates throughout the revolution and new leaders of the country consistently mention the importance of engaging the Diaspora. Do you think this is a new opportunity for the Diaspora to contribute to that “how” and add value to the changes in Armenia?
This is a very important question. Just as there is a “New Armenia” being formed, I firmly believe there is a “New Diaspora” that will be formed.
When something is exaggerated to the point of not being tolerated – the suppressive regime, the corruption, the exclusionary processes, by which I mean that ordinary, talented, wonderful Armenians felt excluded from the process that was driven by a limited number of people, mainly for their own benefit – and the forces are ready to act to do something about that reality, a good thing happens, a new Armenia is created.
By the same token, there has been the same dynamics in the Diaspora. A small, narrow group of Diasporans have been the symbol of what Diaspora represents. Their methodologies have excluded the great majority of the Diaspora. As a result of that, the great majority has not had the opportunity to be involved or they have not felt the right to be involved, because they haven’t had the organizational or other means. That group had been dined and wined and provided medals and business opportunities. That needs to change. I’m optimistic that it is changing now.
There have been a few people, a few organizations that have been outside of this reality. What is likely to happen now is that those will gain a lot more momentum and many more that have not been part of the Armenian active Diaspora will now start participating.
I made a decision many years ago not to have any business activities in Armenia. Why? Because if I have a business venture in Armenia, then the government and the establishment have a leverage over me. I wanted to be devoid of all that so I can make my decision without any influence that will be monetarily based.
We will create a wonderful new unity between the new Armenia and the new Diaspora. I’m also optimistic that some of the old-guard Diasporan organizations and people will also get over the hump and join the new momentum, the new wave, the new energy. I’m hopeful that will happen.
Ara Tadevosyan talked to Garo Armen