Ethiopian Armenians In Their Own Words

Sevan Aslanian
Aug 6 2009

If you start asking around a little in Addis Ababa if anyone knows
any Armenians, Sevan’s name is often the first that is mentioned. The
first time I heard of her was from a Swedish missionary in Addis
Ababa, who got her hair cut at Sevan’s salon. Sevan Aslanian is about
forty years of age. She was born in Addis Ababa and grew up in the
Aratkilo area near the Armenian Church and school. She is named after
Armenia’s largest lake, and has always felt herself to be a part of
a large Armenian family. Sevan only has good things to say about her
childhood and upbringing. All of the Armenian children always played
with one another; they saw each other at school and at the club,
as well as in church every Sunday. It was a community were everybody
knew everybody else and where people took care of each other. Even
though the Ethio-Armenian group has kept to itself, Sevan still feels
herself to be an Ethiopian:

‘This is home for me, I feel Ethiopian as well as Armenian. I mean,
being here as an Armenian, we have lived here all our lives and we
have taken on a lot of the Ethiopian mentality, so I can say that I
feel both Ethiopian and Armenian.’

Sevan went to the Armenian school. When she finished Grade 6 there
were 15 students in her class, all Armenian. Today, Sevan is the
only one of them still in the country. After the Armenian school
followed studies at Sanford School, which is one of Ethiopia’s best
schools. She left the country in 1975 because of the situation at
that time, and studied a few years on Cyprus, later to return home
and complete her education at Sanford. When the Derg seized power,
Sevan’s parents decided to remain, partly because they didn’t want to
start a new life somewhere else, but also because Sevan’s siblings
had already married. They chose to remain when all the others left,
and this is something Sevan has never regretted even if the time under
the Derg wasn’t the easiest. Sevan and her siblings are the last in
the Aslanian family that remain in Ethiopia. She has a nine year old
daughter and three sisters and a brother.

Sevan has also trained in London to be a hairdresser. She is well
travelled and very good at languages. While Armenian and Amarinja
are her first languages, she is also fluent in English, Italian and
French. Her daughter is presently attending the French school, and
she speaks all the languages that Sevan does.

It’s hard not to like Sevan. She is very nice and easy to communicate
with, and she is never far from a laugh. Her voice only sounds sad
when she speaks of Ethio-Armenians’ future. She admits that there is
little that can be done. She herself wants to remain in Ethiopia,
which after all is her home. Sevan refers a number of times to
Armenians in Calcutta. Just like them, Ethio-Armenians are far too
few to be able to survive as a group. Who will take over after us,
she asks herself. What will happen with the church and the club? Her
daughter thinks she herself should make her own decisions when the
time comes, but hopes nevertheless to be able to complete her education
in Ethiopia and in the best of cases remain there like her mother.

Sevan has always felt herself to be a part of the Ethiopian
community. She realises that the larger community and the people
she meets on the street often see her as a ferenji, but, she says
laughing, as soon as she opens her mouth people are forced to admit
that she’s an Ethiopian. Even though life is hard in Ethiopia, she
nevertheless feels that it is easier than in Europe. There isn’t as
much stress, and more than anything Ethiopia is a community that Sevan
understands. There is no other community she would feel as integrated
in, and this applies to Armenia as well. The Ethio-Armenians have
perhaps lived separately, but all the same their participation has
contributed to the country’s present condition. She points out that
many of Ethiopia’s main industries were once founded by Armenians,
even if they are today owned by ethnic Ethiopians. Ethio-Armenians
are a part of the Ethiopian community. They early learned the language
and customs, even if they kept to themselves to the extent that they
retained their own language and culture.

‘What happens to Ethiopians also happens to us.’

According to Sevan what makes Ethio-Armenians unique is their
solidarity. They have always stuck together through the years. In the
Armenian community everybody knows everybody else. People take care
of each other, and that is why they have survived as a group. Sevan
has daily contact with her siblings. If someone doesn’t get in
touch within a few days, you immediately phone them to check that
everything is ok, even to check that nobody has left the country,
she jokes. Sevan hopes that she will be able to continue to live in
Ethiopia. She operates a hair salon which is very popular among Addis
Ababa’s expatriate population. Apart from hair, Sevan is enthusiastic
about music. For many years she had a band together with her brother.

Vahe Tilbian

The first time I saw Vahe was in the Armenian Church one Sunday. Since
most of the people in the congregation were over 50, I was surprised
to see a young man, and wondered who he was. After the Mass we met. He
spoke fluent English with me, the next moment to speak fluent Amharic
with someone else. That he also spoke fluent Armenian I then took
for granted, which was later confirmed.

Vahe Tilbian is 25 years old. He was born in Addis Ababa at the
Black Lion Hospital. He is one of the few young Ethio-Armenians
left. Just like Sevan he went to the Armenian school. The number
of Armenian pupils at the school had dropped through the years,
and when he left he was the only completely Armenian person in the
class, the other three being half Armenian and half Ethiopian. All
four in the class still live in Addis Ababa, and he meets with them
socially. Altogether there were about 20 Armenian pupils at the
school when Vahe was there. He remembers that they socialised both
at and after school. Though the number of individuals was small,
the solidarity was the same as before. Parents drove children to
and from school and various activities. Vahe remembers his childhood
as being good. He grew up in an area north of the Piassa, where he
still lives with his parents. After the Armenian Community School,
Vahe continued his studies at Sanford School.

Considering Vahe’s age, most Armenians had already left the country
when he grew up. Vahe is an example of those who grew up during
Ethiopia’s total isolation from the outside world. Despite this
Vahe has never felt himself to be different. Even though the group
was much smaller, the solidarity was the same, as was the Armenian
identity. Often very small minorities are absorbed into the community
of the majority.

‘No, honestly speaking, it’s as if it’s part of my identity so to speak
to be of Armenian origin, being here, having so many Armenian friends,
and in school so many half-Armenian half-Ethiopian friends. We are
all mixed, always being together. Then I went to Sandford School and
made a lot of Ethiopian friends there. I personally don’t feel I’m
any different from other Ethiopians, because we all live here.’

Vahe admits that he has lived a rather sheltered life. This he thanks
his parents for; and he doesn’t think he would be the person he is if
it hadn’t been for them. Vahe thinks that life was simpler earlier for
Armenians in Ethiopia; they must have had more freedom. Even though
he has led a sheltered life, he has never felt unsure or afraid in
Ethiopia. As he expresses it, he had the opportunity to study abroad,
and did so for five years in Canada, where he also took his BA. When
he socialised with people during his visit abroad there was never any
doubt where he came from. He has met many Armenians from the diaspora
and then his origins have never been questioned. He thinks only that
there are some local differences between all Armenians in the diaspora,
and he feels that they all share the same culture and have the same
values. He sees himself as having more in common with the people in
the diaspora then with those in Armenia, which he has also visited.

Most of his friends are Ethiopians or Ethio-Italians. He thinks he
understands the Ethiopian mentality, which for many outsiders can
be difficult to grasp. But he can easily identify with expatriates,
for he has himself been one. At the same time as understanding all of
the questions expatriates come up with, he can understand the answers
they receive from Ethiopians. To understand a mentality that lies
at the basis of a culture you have to be a part of that culture. He
sees himself as being a part of an Armenian community that is a part
of Ethiopia. The Armenians are one of three such communities that are
left, the other two being the Greek and the Italian. His contacts with
the others have mainly been with Ethio-Italians, perhaps because he is
interested in music and the opportunities for playing were just at the
Italian club, which in Addis Ababa is called the Juventus Club. The
difference between these and other ethnic groups according to Vahe is
that they have always lived in Ethiopia. Other groups have come and
gone, but the Armenians together with the Greeks and Italians have
always been there. When I asked which language is his mother tongue he
replies that both Armenian and Amharic are his first languages. Apart
from very good English Vahe also speaks French and rather good Italian.

The times outside of Ethiopia that he has felt himself to be
different in relation to his surroundings was just because he comes
from Ethiopia. Vahe is, like most Ethio-Armenians in Ethiopia, an
Ethiopian citizen, which makes it more difficult for him to obtain a
visa to various countries. When many of his classmates in Canada went
for trips during the spring break to Mexico or the United States, he
couldn’t accompany them. The visa-granting process for someone with an
Ethiopian passport can take several weeks, and by that time the school
break was most often already over. The most prejudice Vahe has met
regarding his origins has been when he has been outside of Ethiopia.

‘You know, they look at your passport and they go … They look at
your face and then again at the passport and they ask: Are you sure? [
Yes that’s my passport; look at me, my face is in there.]’

He has just come home and plans to stay in Ethiopia, despite several
of his friends’ considering it to be a bad decision, and that there
are many more opportunities outside Ethiopia. Vahe chose to return;
it is in Ethiopia that he has his home and his family. The family in
particular is important for Vahe – he could never leave one of his
family behind.

Ethiopia is no easy country to live in, and as he is unemployed Vahe
lives off his parents. He wants a job but is unfortunately too well
educated for many of the jobs he has been offered. He would rather
wait than have to take some underpaid job just to pass the time. To
work for the government isn’t enticing, and the work it provides is
often very poorly paid.

Vahe is unsure of his future. He hopes to be able to keep his
identity as an Ethio-Armenian, but is at the same time aware that
it is difficult. He would like to marry, but there are no potential
marriage partners left among the Ethio-Armenians. The people who
remain in the country are all related in some way so that marriage is
impossible. He hopes to be able to get married some day, preferably
to an Armenian, but it will be what it will be. Just like many other
Armenians he places his future ‘in God’s hands.’ What is interesting
about Vahe is that he feels himself to be an Ethio-Armenian first,
even if he should meet an Armenian from Armenia or from the larger
diaspora he would never class them as Ethio-Armenians. He only shares
the Ethio-Armenian identity with those who grew up in Ethiopia.

Garbis Korajian

When I had decided which subject I would write about the first
difficulty was to find sources about Armenians in Ethiopia’s
history. Most searches only led me to a text on ABGU’s homepage,
which didn’t give particularly much reliable information. Then,
via the Addis Tribune’s website, I finally found an article about
the Armenian genocide written by an Armenian who had grown up in
Ethiopia. Garbis Korajian became via e-mail my first real contact with
Ethio-Armenians. When I told him about my chosen subject he became
very enthusiastic, and I have a great deal to thank him for. It is
primarily Garbis who has introduced me to people and taken me under
his wing in meeting Ethiopia’s Armenians.

Garbis was born in Addis Ababa in 1954 and grew up, just like many
other Armenians, in the area around Aratkilo. He can trace his Armenian
roots very far back in Ethiopia; the first Krajian came there already
in 1852. Garbis’ mother, Zarig Hakagmazian, later Korajian, was a
daughter of one of the orphans from Jerusalem adopted by Ethiopia.

Garbis grew up in a large family with six brothers. They all
lived in a large compound that had been donated to his paternal
grandfather Abraham Korajian by the Emperor himself, as thanks for
his faithful service to the Empire for 40 years. The whole Korajian
family, including paternal uncles and their families, lived in this
compound. Like most other Ethio-Armenians, Garbis went to the Armenian
school. The Korajian family mixed very early with ethnic Ethiopians,
and in distinction to many other Ethio-Armenians Garbis socialised
just as much with them as with Armenians.

‘… however intermarriage with Ethiopians was not widespread,
although within a range for example, if I look at my own family,
two of my uncles were married to Ethiopians. And their children
are offspring to an Armenian and Ethiopian heritage. And they also
attended Armenian school and went to the Armenian church and club,
so they felt comfortable being Armenian as well as Ethiopian.’

Garbis was one of the Ethio-Armenians who chose to leave the country
when the Derg seized power. He was 20 when he left in June of 1975. The
new regime made it impossible for him as a young student to remain. The
nationalisation hit the Korajian family hard, as they had invested
large sums in properties. They also owned three plantations which
were confiscated. Of everything they had worked for all that was
left was a house to live in. Garbis was the only one in the family
who left the country, though two of his brothers later followed him,
as did some of his cousins. By applying as a refugee at the Canadian
Embassy in Nairobi Garbis could come to Canada.

In Canada Garbis started afresh. A new life in a new country without
capital or possessions. It would take until 1987 for him to return
to Ethiopia for the first time. The country he returned to was not
the same. Most of his friends were no longer there, and most of what
had been built up by three generations of Armenians was no longer
there. Armenians were no longer welcome in the country, despite their
long presence and everything they had done for Ethiopia through the
years. What saved most Armenians from death was the fact that they
had never been involved in politics, though many of them, including
Garbis’ paternal aunt and her brother, were imprisoned.

‘… so there was this uneasy feeling of persecution, and a feeling of
not belonging to a country where you had been for a hundred years and
developed an empire of families and estates. They stripped us of that,
and finally we figured that there was no future for us in Ethiopia.’

Garbis feels that even if most Ethio-Armenians chose to leave the
country, those who remained did all they could to keep the diaspora
alive. Despite everything the Ethio-Armenians went through, the
church, club and school still remained, even if the school had to be
moved. Ethio-Armenians can thank their group’s fiery spirits for their
success in surviving as a group. Garmis often names the Nalbandian
family, who did much to see to it that the infrastructure would
remain intact – that Ethio-Armenians, despite their small number,
would be able to live on as a local ethnic and cultural community.

Since 1976 Garbis has lived in Canada. He has two children and
is married to an Armenian from Egypt. He has often returned to
Ethiopia. Garbis’ mother still lives in Ethiopia, but his love of
the country also draws him back. As he says himself, he wants to
be included in the restoration of the country. He plans to stay as
long as he feels that he has something to contribute. Garbis sees
a future in Ethiopia. His brother too has returned to look over his
chances in the country. Garbis believes in Ethiopia; his family still
lives in Canada, but he hopes one day to be able to bring them over
as well. Everything depends on the future, which Garbis feels looks
bright. Garbis thinks that the community that remains is strong;
the group has survived a long time and is, according to him, far from
dead. There exists a will in the group, and those who remain will not
leave the country. Rather, more will return. According to Garbis, the
Ethio-identity lives on outside Ethiopia. He gives an example: when
an older man died his son came back to take over his father’s business.

‘I would say for now, still there is a torch that is burning, which
is the club and the church and the school.’

Garbis is highly enthusiastic about Ethiopia and sees it as his country
even though he has lived the greatest part of his life in exile. He
will always have a connection to Ethiopia, and has made a codicil
to his will that he wants to be buried in the Armenian graveyard in
Addis Ababa. Garbis will forever be an Ethiopian of Armenian descent.