Thursday, July 10, 2008

Interview on living in Armenia

First published in September 8, 2007 Armenian Reporter

repatriation: Raffi Kojian welcomes you to Armenia

In Yerevan on July 16, repatriate Raffi Kojian talked with our Washington editor Emil Sanamyan about adjusting to life in Armenia and developing its tourism potential.

Raffi is best known as the creator and webmaster of the award-winning, a wiki (a collaborative website that anyone can edit) on all things Armenian and – one of the first online Armenian resources, which includes a frequently updated Repatriate Blog and link to Raffi’s photo-journal about Armenia.

Born in Ethiopia, Raffi moved with his family to the United States when he was a child. He grew up in Orange County, California. After a couple of stays in Armenia, he moved there in 1999. He traveled around the country extensively.

In 2001, together with Brady Kiesling, Raffi published the first edition of Rediscovering Armenia, one of the first Armenia-specific tourism guides. The second, expanded and updated edition was published in 2005 – though it is always available online for free.

In the summer of 2001, Raffi was hired to open Armenia’s first tourist information office at 3 Nalbandian Street in Yerevan. He has since also worked as diaspora liaison for the U.S. Agency for International Development for two years and later for a USAID contractor facilitating Armenia tourism development.

Reporter: When did you move to Armenia?

Kojian: My first attempt was between 1995 and 1996. I had two jobs during that period. And at the end there was no further work and [residence] visas at the time were closely tied to employment. So, I decided to head back for a few years and regroup.

I worked at a Los Angeles–area software company for three years before I again moved here in 1999. I did some volunteer work in the summer and then stuck around, did some traveling, and worked on my web sites.

Reporter: Did you have an idea of what you would be doing here for work when you moved?

Kojian: Not at all. I did not have any preconception of what I would do here, besides travel and seeing the country. And see if anything would come up in terms of work. I was open to coming for two months, for six months or two years, I had no idea of what was going to happen.

Reporter: What was the scale of repatriation at the time?

Kojian: It was very, very small. I knew may be half a dozen repatriates, of whom two to three were in my age group and of similar backgrounds. I met them pretty soon after arriving and became friends with them. And slowly other people who have been talking about moving here started trickling in.

The Armenian Volunteer Corps started, and a bunch of volunteers, especially from the first group, ended up staying. And now all the time I hear of people moving here or I meet people that have been here a year and that I never even heard of.

Reporter: How many repatriates are there in Armenia now?

Kojian: From U.S. and the West in general there are certainly hundreds of them. Now I have no idea who is a tourist and who is staying. Some say it is thousands, but that seems too high to me.

[From the editor: There are thousands more that have repatriated from the Middle East and many more who were originally from Armenia and have come back after living in Russia and elsewhere.]

Reporter: Would you say that Armenia is still an attractive place to move to?

Kojian: In many respects, yes. Now it has become a lot more comfortable. There are a lot more Westerners around, so people who feel more comfortable speaking English or people who need their peanut butter or whatever, a lot of stuff is now just readily available, clothes, everything. Before, most people would not even consider shopping in Armenia, it was an entirely different world.

But on the other hand, it has become a lot more expensive. Back in the 1990s you could have lived here incredibly well for $4,000 a year. Now, prices have gone up on rent, food, entertainment, everything – so you would probably end up spending three to four times that amount.

At the same time, the work situation has improved dramatically. It is not like there are tons of jobs with Western salaries that are just waiting to be had, but there are a lot of opportunities for comfortable living here and being employed by either foreign or Diaspora-funded organizations or even some local businesses.

Reporter: In terms of cultural barriers you experienced, coming from the West and a Western Armenian background, have they been difficult to overcome?

Kojian: It is hard to explain now that I have been here for so long. A lot of the details of when I just got here have become a bit hazy. Certainly, it was a big transition from speaking Western Armenian to Eastern Armenian. Even though it may have only taken a month to get a good grip on things, because I did speak good Western Armenian. But to this day, even after all these years and working primarily with the locals, I am still more comfortable in Western Armenian.

But really, after only about a month, I felt quite comfortable in this city and the country. I talk to a lot of different Diasporans, repatriates, and tourists, and hear their experiences, their stories. People have very different experiences here. But to this day I almost always feel like I get treated especially well as a repatriate, as a diasporan, as someone who speaks their language and chose to be here.

Some people claim the opposite. It is true that as an outsider in an economically depressed country you could be a target. But I rarely if ever feel as one.

Culturally, certainly we grew up with an entirely different pop culture. Our sense of relations with the older generation is much more casual, as it is with strangers. On the other hand, we are not as immediately friendly with strangers as it is here. Immediately it is “Raffi jan” and physical contact happening.

While I think I speak excellent Armenian, to this day it is interesting that I have so many misunderstandings when I speak to people. And I can only chalk it up to my theory that seeing someone from abroad, people here assume what I am about to say even without opening my mouth. So, it doesn’t matter what I am saying, because they think they already understood.

And I could say something crystal clear and complete opposite would be understood. Or they would understand me, but still do something completely different and tell me that it is better and I should like it. And while I would appreciate the effort, it would just not be what I wanted.

This is just one example of very strange phenomena I deal with all the time. So, there are a lot of cultural differences. And while I am comfortable with everyone here no matter wherever they are from, to this day I find it easier to spend a great deal of time with people who either grew up or spent a lot of time in the West, with whom you have similar backgrounds and don’t have to worry about offending sensibilities if you make a joke that would not be made in a mixed company here, but is no big deal in the West.

Reporter: If someone reading this is considering moving to Armenia, what would you suggest that person weigh in terms of upsides and downsides?

Kojian: For me, I always felt comfortable here from the first minute. Even in the 1990s, when conditions really were tough. Certainly less tough for me, because I could afford to spend $200 a month, including $80 a month on a hot water tank which was something inconceivable for locals at the time. Even back then I felt extremely comfortable in Armenia.

Different people react differently. And I really suggest that people come for a month and find a little something to do, like volunteering, to get a taste of what it is like to interact here in a semi-work environment and at the same time explore the city, make some friends and get out of the city to see everything that Armenia has to offer.

At the end of that month, I think you will get the idea of whether you like it. In two months you will have a much, much better idea.

Living here is certainly not for everybody. But for a good number of people, I think it is a better option than wherever they are living and whatever they are doing. It is just a matter of giving it a shot and being open-minded about a lot of things when you come.

And for a lot of people it is about convincing their family that you are sane and that they are the ones who need to re-evaluate their priorities and their outlook on life. And that moving to Armenia is just a good option for many people.

Reporter: You said the employment situation has improved. What would you recommend people look into job-wise?

Kojian: If you are comfortable here, the ideal thing is to come and open your own business. It is still the best option. There are a lot of opportunities here business-wise, although it is hard dealing with government red tape, headaches, and people coming by for money. And you just have to find two or three really good people to work with that are going to deal with most of these things, so that you don’t go crazy and could focus on the business. A good number of Armenian Americans have done it successfully.

Certain professions are just hard to transfer here. Certainly, you could be a medical doctor here too, but you are just not going to get paid nearly as much as in U.S. It is a lot easier, if you are in international development, for example.

Reporter: Some Armenians in America would ask how it could make sense to move to Armenia, if so many natives of this country are still moving to U.S. or elsewhere abroad?

Kojian: Well, I would point out that this flow, if it has not stopped or reversed, it has come close to stopping. I don’t think there is much of net outflow to the U.S. anymore. And even to Russia, while there is a migratory work pattern that is quite big and established.

Certainly, being from the West, we had certain opportunities in education and otherwise that were not available here. And I would definitely not fault anyone who would go to the West to take advantage of those opportunities.

The amounts of money that we are used to spending in the West are only just becoming something that people here can fathom. We have our freedom to travel, international business know-how and skills that give us a tremendous advantage here as well.

So, you can’t compare the Diasporans’ situation with that of the locals and say that just because some natives of Armenia are still leaving, it is not right for us to move here.

Reporter: What are you involved in now?

Kojian: Right now I am involved in the “Janapar” project to build a hiking trail in Karabakh that would go from top to bottom [of Karabakh]. It would be up to two weeks long of hiking. Each night you could stay at a village, where you could camp or stay at a home, where you can have a meal and a bed.

A lot of accommodations are going to be very basic, because many of these villages are fairly poor. But of course the idea is to help them out financially while experiencing their lives, their homes, and some of the greatest sites and countryside there is.

I hope it will catch on both with Diasporans as well as Europeans, since they are geographically closer to Armenia.

Reporter: Tourism has been catching on in Karabakh already, hasn’t it?

Kojian: It has, but majority of the five thousand or more that go there on an annual basis typically visit a couple of sites around Stepanakert and may be Gandzasar staying just for a couple of days and do not nearly spend enough time there.

This project would get them out into the countryside, directly into people’s homes and it would be a totally different experience. A lot of people like this kind of adventure
tourism, it is very popular around the world. It is all about it catching on here.

Reporter: Some people might still be apprehensive about going to Karabakh because of perceived security concerns.

Kojian: Yes, we are going to address those as much as possible. The trail itself is as far from the Line of Contact with Azerbaijan as possible, both for security reasons and because these are the foothills in the very west of Karabakh that make for the most beautiful hiking and the most historic architecture and villages largely untouched by war and destruction.

Over the years, I have personally spent many months in Karabakh and have not experienced any danger. So, hopefully everybody going there would feel comfortable.


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