Melkonian: Students lead condemnation of closure plan

Students lead condemnation of Melkonian closure plan

Cyprus Weekly
Friday, March 19, 2004

DONE NOW” as shocked students, many of them openly weeping, refused to
go back to their classrooms at the Melkonian Educational Institute in
Nicosia on Tuesday.

Instead, they poured out into the schoolyard and surrounded the marble
monument over the twin graves of the Melkonian Brothers, shouting
“unfair” and “cruel” whilst another placard came into view which
simply said: 1915-2004.

The spontaneous protest, extensively covered by local and worldwide TV
channels, came minutes after teachers and students were called into
the school auditorium to be told by the Headmistress, Ani Lachinian,
that the AGBU Central Board had decided to close down the school in
June next year. The shock news came almost 80 years from the day when
the first group of orphans of the Armenian Genocide, graduated from
what was to become the most important centre of “Hayabahbanoum” in
Europe and the Middle East.

The students drew themselves together to sing the Cyprus and Armenian
national anthems and the Melkonian school song to the sound of drums
which members of the school band had brought out. A third grade child
of mixed parents was numbed. She said: “I can’t describe what I
feel. I want to throw up”. Soon, other placards in Armenian, English
and Greek appeared saying: “Stealing the future of students is a
crime”, “Ataturk would laugh at us”, “This is a second genocide”.

Another placard read: “In Gordon We Trusted But Now We Are Busted”
(referring to the AGBU envoy Gordon Anderson). TV reporters on the
scene said Anderson refused to comment and indicated that a statement
would be released by a Cypriot advertising and public relations
company. A parents meeting on Wednesday developed into heated
discussion as angry reaction messages arrived from neighbouring
countries. The meeting was followed by a candlelight vigil by students
at the memorial of the founder brothers.

“We wanted to do this outside the main gate but we couldn’t,” said a
student from abroad. This was confirmed by Headmistress Lachinian who
said: “They were told not to demonstrate outside the school’s
boundaries. If they do they automatically become sanctionable. As
boarders they can only go outside with permission.” Both the parents’
union and the alumni, however, interpreted this as a threat of
expulsion, and warned students accordingly.

Cypriot Armenians said they planned to stage a demonstration on March
24 against the closure of the school, while the Melkonian alumni hope
to take legal action both on the island and in the USA.

“It is not just a matter of the sale of the land and the flight of
some 80 million dollars to the US in violation of a 1926 will by the
founders,” a spokesman of the alumni said. “It’s also abuse of the
rights of Armenian children who are being deprived of their human
right to a fair education based on their cultural heritage,” adding
that the AGBU Central Board had refused to discuss ways to save the
school because their main aim was “to take the money and run”.

“The ultimate objective is to lay their hands on the land and take the
funds out of Cyprus,” Shavasb Bohdjalian, head of the alumni, told
local journalists.

Since the controversy began, the Armenian community has managed to
have the Melkonian declared a listed historical building and has
persuaded the Forestry Department to file an application to declare
the wooded area in the grounds as a protected forest. Legal action is
now being considered, Bohdjalian said. If there is a case, it is
likely to be fought in the Cyprus and American courts, he said.

In a paid advertisement that appeared in local papers 10 days ago,
Gordon Anderson, the American representative of the AGBU, said that
“several options are being considered” to accommodate the 200 or so
students at other schools so that they can gain an education “that
will have an Armenian component”, though he would not elaborate. In
its 15 March announcement the AGBU said that “after extensive
deliberations and thorough assessment” the Central Board had resolved
“unanimously” to discontinue the school in June 2005.

“The Melkonian Educational Institute, as a significant and historical
institution within AGBU, has been a concern of the Central Board over
many years. This decision is based largely on the Board’s conclusion
that MEI no longer meets the challenge of its mission in the present
context of the Armenian world,” the AGBU said. It added that the
Central Board fully recognised and honoured the continued legacy of
the Melkonian Brothers, and “is determined to perpetuate their memory
through new educational programmes to be implemented within and
outside Cyprus, in line with the spirit of their donation to AGBU”.

However, the alumni said the AGBU’s talk of co-operating with other
institutions, research centres, and even universities was a public
relations gimmick.

The move by the AGBU, which said only three months ago that the 78
year old school was not for sale, has incensed the 3,000 strong
Armenian community on the island as well as Armenians in Lebanon,
Syria, Greece, Bulgaria and other countries who send their children to
the school.

Masis der Parthogh, vice-chairman of the alumni, pointed out that the
Melkonian had been a haven for decades for Armenian children in times
of war and upheaval throughout the Middle East.

“We and the parents’ association were plannning to help bring children
from war-torn Iraq. This plan obviously has been killed.”

In an extensive report to the Armenian Mirror-Spectator, one-time Vice
President of the AGBU Haygachen Ouzounian said, inter alia: “It will
be the most tragic move made by the AGBU, and will cause the most harm
to our nation. Those determining the current policy of the Central
Board will be subject to severe indictment by our people in the court
of history”, he said.

Ouzounian, one of the early graduates of the Melkonian, blamed the
Central Board for the decrease in the number of boarding students. The
school, he said, could accommodate up to 350 boarders but this was the
thwarted by the Central Board, who hiked the fees to such that
Armenians from East Europe, the Middle East and Armenia could not

Last month, Armenian Representative Bedros Kalaydjian headed a
three-member delegation to New York in an effort to persuade the
Central Board to stay the execution of any plans to either close down
or sell the Melkonian.

“The Central Board came up with a number of arguments but failed short
of any commitments. In fact we felt that we are being clearly
ignored”, he said. He added the Cyprus government had promised full