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A Look at the Vibrant Iranian Armenian Community
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A Look at the Vibrant Iranian Armenian Community

As Christmas was being celebrated on December 25 in most parts of Christendom, Iran’s Christian minority were just getting prepared to stage their own celebration a couple of days later. As with other Orthodox Christians, Iranian Armenians celebrate Christmas on January 6 - one day earlier than Russian and Greek Orthodox.
Iranian Armenian communities, despite large-scale immigration to foreign lands over the years are still a vibrant minority with a strong presence. This is seen from the several bilingual shop signs in Persian and Armenian across some Armenian neighborhoods in Tehran and other cities.
Capital Tehran is home to the biggest Armenian community in Iran. There are some famous neighborhoods known for their old Armenian heritage epitomized in churches and cathedrals and ethnic stores. ‘Majidieh’, ‘Narmak’, ‘Behjat Abad’ and ‘Zarkesh’ are some of the neighborhoods enriched by the continued tradition of Armenian Iranians.    
But in recent years, Christmas celebrations seem to have lost its former fervor and glamour in the largely Armenian neighborhoods like Majidieh. This has probably to do with the immigration trend among Armenians which has been going on for some years now. However, the number one destination for these people is not their historic homeland Armenia but Glendale, in Los Angeles County, California.

 Migration
‘’Migration of one of the most ancient ethnic and religious minorities has been a hot topic in Armenian communities and their media but what is perplexing is how the issue has been overlooked by the mainstream media,’’ says Robert Safarian, a cinema critic and chief editor of a bi-monthly Armenian-Persian magazine. ‘’The larger society is not interested in hearing problems of the smaller society,’’ he told the Persian newspaper Shargh.
Safarian proposes to make a documentary to explore the reasons for the Armenian migration, but so far “he has failed to convince the authorities what good this initiative could bring.”
According to the United States 2000 Census, Glendale is home to 65,343 Armenians, making up 34.1% of the total population, increasing from 1990 when there were 31,402 Armenian-Americans in the city. It is home to one of the largest Armenian communities outside of Armenia.
‘’I studied in Kooshesh high school - which has now been closed - and almost all of my classmates are in Glendale; when you see everyone leaving and you are left alone, immigration becomes hard to resist,’’ says Safarian.

 Mystic Appeal
Armenia is no longer the Promised Land, due to its economic woes and high unemployment. People are leaving the country in vast numbers for Russia. According to Safarian, Armenia has maintained its mystic appeal only for the intellectuals and the educated. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the independence of Armenia, many Armenians returned to their homeland but after a few years they left Armenia again. Now many Armenians living in Tehran and even America, own a house in Irvine, (US) too.    
Alvandian is an old shopkeeper in Majidieh whose nostalgia for Armenia is tinged with melancholia. While showing the 14 passport stamps of his trips to Armenia, he says he visited Armenia for the first time 25 years ago. ‘’During the Soviet era it was very difficult to visit Armenia but now every time I visit I see there are no jobs there,’’ he says. ‘’It is possible for me to go to America but I am only happy the moment it is announced on the airplane that we have crossed into Iranian airspace.’’
Although Alvandian’s family members - his parents and one brother and a sister- have left for the US and Australia, he is still highly skeptical about leaving Iran. ‘’It may be good for the elderly who need care but the youth are a bit delusional about what lies in store for them in the West and the difficulties they may face. ‘’
Carlo is a young man who runs a restaurant on the south side of Majidieh. His is keen to go back to Armenia but is hesitant due to low job prospects. ‘’If there were jobs available I wouldn’t hesitate, since I speak the language and it’s a beautiful country, but the ‘mafia’ there does not allow others to start a business.’’
Carlo has studied in a special school for Armenians but half of his friends have left the country and he keeps in touch with them through social media networks.
To get a better picture of the diminishing number of Iranian Armenians, Carlo recalls the enormous crowds that used to queue in front of Ararat Stadium – the stadium belonging to Armenians around Vanak Square in Tehran – before games started. But now those long lines are no longer there.

 Status    
The exact number of Iranian Armenians is not clear since government statistics usually combine Assyrians and other Christians in the census. Based on these figures, the total number of Christians in Iran in 1966 was 149,000 which diminished to 109,000 in 2006.
Karen Khanlari, the representative of Armenians of Tehran in the Majlis says Armenians in Iran are now 60,000 to 70,000 strong. He believes the reason for the decline in Armenian population “rather has to do with economic hardship brought by Western sanctions against Iran, heightened in recent years.”  Other reasons are: immigration becoming much easier in recent years through incentives provided by certain organizations for minorities in various countries.

 Reasons to Stay    
People like Safarian who have chosen to stay in Iran have their own reasons too. Almost all of his family members live abroad. ‘’My mother died in Glendale and one of my sons is also there,’’ he says,’’but to immigrate to a new land one should be young enough; besides I am quite happy here.’’
Varand Isayans, a 19 year-old Armenian has no plans to leave.  Speaking Farsi with an Armenian accent, he says in no other country can one make money through business like in Iran. “Those who left Iran were either not wealthy or didn’t know how to use their business acumen,’’ he says. ‘’I know somebody who barely worked in Iran but now has to work more than 12 hours a day in America to survive.’’
A long-time resident of one of the Armenian neighborhoods says Armenians have been living in Iran for several centuries since the Persian Empire was established. ‘’We are of the same stock as Iranians. We were the first to embrace Christianity and have always had good relations with Iranians.’’ He also refers to the contributions of Armenians like starting the printing press in Iran. ‘’We consider Iran our homeland and we will never forget the help of our compatriots during tough times,’’ he adds.

 

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