Melkonian pupils in spontaneous protest against school closure

Cyprus Mail, Cyprus
March 17 2004

Melkonian pupils in spontaneous protest against school closure
By Jean Christou

OVER 200 pupils from the Melkonian Educational Institute (MEI) walked
out of their classes yesterday after hearing the news that their
school was to be closed down in June next year.

During the spontaneous demonstration, the students chanted `Melkonian
Not For Sale’ at the main gate and in front of the founders’
mausoleum. They held placards condemning the sale and suggested this
was a `second genocide’.

The news that the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU),
headquartered in New York, has decided to close the 78-year old
school has prompted a rush of support from Armenians living abroad.

The 3,000-strong Armenian community in Cyprus are planning to stage a
mass demonstration against the closure of the school on March 24,
according to Shavasb Bohdjalian, who heads the school’s alumni.

`You cannot imagine the reaction, apart from Cyprus,’ he told the
Cyprus Mail yesterday. `There is a lot of anger and the assemblies in
Europe and the US are trying to get the AGBU to reverse its decision.
We are getting a lot of support.’

In an official announcement, the New York-based AGBU said that after
`extensive deliberations and thorough assessment’, the Central Board
had resolved unanimously to discontinue MEI in June 2005. This
decision is based largely on the Board’s conclusion that MEI `no
longer meets the challenges of its mission in the present context of
the Armenian world.’
The AGBU administers 22 Armenian schools worldwide, including the
Melkonian, which was founded in 1926 and is today the only secondary
school in Cyprus for the Armenian community. It also serves dozens of
other Armenian pupils that board there from neighbouring countries.
The alumni have sought legal advice from law firms in Cyprus and
abroad and intend to incorporate international expertise to
strengthen their defence as they move to contest the decision and
block the AGBU’s plans to sell the school.

The loss-making Melkonian school is sitting on a £40 million plot in
the capital’s commercial district. Reports have been rife that it is
up for grabs by developers.

The AGBU initially denied this, and said in November that the school
was not for sale. However, the alumni are not convinced and believe
the foundation’s only aim is to `take the money and run’.

Since the controversy began, the Armenian community has managed to
have the Melkonian declared a listed building and has persuaded the
Forestry Department to file an application to declare the wooded area
in the grounds as a protected forest.

Yesterday, the AGBU issued an eight-page statement detailing the
reasons for its decision to close the school.

`MEI’s continuing deficit levels have been taken into consideration
but have not been the primary issue of concern… AGBU has focused its
attention on MEI’s recent educational performance and its current
inability to fulfil a role similar to that which it fulfilled
throughout the late 1960s,’ it said. `If MEI’s current structure
provided exceptional opportunities to its students as it had done in
the past, substantial subsidization under those circumstances would
be warranted.

Unfortunately this is not the case in spite of the diligent efforts
of committed school board members, the principal and the teaching
Commenting on the statement, Bohdjalian said the AGBU was trying to
justify its decision `and blame everyone except themselves’.