Margarita Parsamyan chats with her roommate, Ofelya Baghdasaryan, while waiting for their fellow Armenian OU students, Tamara Kocharyan and Kristina Aleksanyan. As they prepare tea for their guests, the jarring sound of an airplane flying over their apartment in Traditions East paralyzes them.
In their minds, the airplane is going down, it’s ready to attack and their apartment is not theirs anymore: It’s Armenia in war.
They take a deep breath when Kocharyan and Aleksanyan finally walk into the silent room, smiling. Although tears well up in their eyes, the warmness of each other’s hugs and the sound of their home language keeps them strong. This is home for them, too.
Vocal performance senior Parsamyan, biochemistry senior Baghdasaryan, international businesses and management information systems sophomore Kocharyan and international studies sophomore Aleksanyan are Armenian students at OU, caught between two worlds — a life of studying and exams in Norman, Oklahoma, and a brutal war tearing apart their home country.
Armenia and Azerbaijan broke out in a new on-going war for the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh on Sep. 27. OU students from Armenia woke up to the news of martial law – the imposition of direct military control on a civilian government during a temporary emergency – implemented by their home country in response to Azerbaijan’s missile attacks on the disputed territory.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has its roots centuries back, with the fall of the Ottoman Empire and during the Armenian genocide – when Armenians were “slaughtered” and expelled from Turkey. Considered to be a “decades-long conflict”, Armenians and Azerbaijanis started a “bloody war” in 1988 that left the region in hands of ethnic Armenians when a “Russian-brokered” ceasefire was signed in 1994.
The Daily spoke to several OU Armenian students and an Azerbaijani student about impacts of the Armenian-Azerbaijani war — a war whose reach travels across borders, continents, oceans – all the way to their new lives in the U.S.
‘That day was a nightmare.’
“I woke up Sunday morning (to a) message from my mom saying that a war has started (in Armenia). My initial reaction was that it might be one of Azerbaijan's disturbances of the ceasefire, (but) I realized this (was) more serious,” Aleksanyan said. “(I knew) this (was not) something that (was) going to end quickly or that I have experienced before in my life.”
Baghdasaryan was on the phone with her parents, trying to believe the news she was hearing. She said while she was on the phone, her dad was standing in front of the window telling her how the tanks from her town – Sisian, near Nagorno-Karabakh – were moving toward the Azerbaijan border.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., Baghdarsaryan woke up her roommate Parsamyan and told her there is war in Armenia.
“That day was a nightmare. We couldn’t sleep properly because we were checking the news every single second,” Parsamyan said. “Next morning, when we finally woke up, we (realized) Armenia is doing the military mobilization (while) other people are on the streets going as volunteers to the border. That never happened before for us.”
Since Sep. 27, Armenians and Azerbaijanis have been mobilized into military service. Armenia started conscripting men to send them to the front line, and while some do it voluntarily, others don’t.
Mobilization for training started Sep. 21, and general mobilization on Sep. 28 — right after the first clash between both countries. Kocharyan said she is worried about her friends on the front lines.
“My best friend is in the front line right now, and I couldn't get in touch with him (before he left),” Kocharyan said. “I (now) wake up every hour to check the names of the people who died to make sure that I don't know any of them.”
After Kocharyan talked about her fears with The Daily, one of her high school friends from Armenia died in the war on Sep. 28.
“He was an ambulance driver in the army. He was transporting soldiers from the front line when the ambulance car was bombed,” Kocharyan said during a follow-up interview. “My second friend died (Oct. 13). We went camping together for the last three summers, and I still don’t know how he died. It’s just difficult.”
While Baghdasaryan said many of her relatives are already on the front line, Aleksanyan said she was getting ready to talk to her dad before he left to join the fight.
“I am supposed to call him around 10 p.m. When they wake up in the morning, I have to tell him that I love him and how proud I am of him,” Aleksanyan said. “It might be the case I don't ever speak to him again. Knowing that (I am) abroad makes it really difficult.”
These students also shared their experiences with mental health since the conflict started. They agreed that every time a 19-year-old soldier passes away, it causes “a breakdown.”
But they don't lose hope.
Kocharyan said she thanks her friends and the community at OU and back home for helping her “keep going,” and Aleksanyan considers the Armenian community and therapies at the Counseling Center to be “a big support” at OU.
A student from Azerbaijan also spoke to The Daily about the repercussions on her life caused by the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict since it started in September. She asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons.
“At first I could not believe it. I thought it was just another ‘border clash,’ which happens regularly between these two countries. But it escalated very quickly,” the Azerbaijani student said . “I know I am surprised about the war, but people should not be surprised if Azerbaijan finds war the only solution, and since it has a legal right to use military force to protect its territorial integrity, considering Armenian forces are the forces of occupation on international law.”
The student said she fears her family could be “the next victim” since “residential neighborhoods are targeted by Armenian forces.” While she is safe at OU, her mind is continuously affected by the violence of the war.
“Of course we are safe and ‘unaffected’ by the war here. But our thoughts are affected by it,” she said. “It is truly hard to sleep peacefully at night knowing innocent people and kids in large cities of Azerbaijan, which have nothing to do with conflict, are getting bombed and killed in the middle of the night, in their sleep.”
‘I am also a minority in the international community.’
While experiencing the emotional impact of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, OU’s Armenian and Azerbaijani students also needed to keep focused on their midterms. Parsamyan said she tried to speak about the conflict in each of her classes, but she did not always receive a positive response from her classmates.
“(During my) first class, (I) decided to talk about the war at home. Everyone was shocked listening to me, but when I asked if anyone (had) a question, nothing happened,” Parsamyan said. “This (was) not going to discourage me. These communities should know that besides (the) pandemic and besides the (U.S.) elections, there is so much going on in this world that is not being covered in the media. If I'm the one telling them, they should listen to me.”
During the same week, professors showed their support for the Armenian students by allowing them to reschedule some of their midterms, understanding when these students couldn’t attend to their classes, and explaining the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict to the class. The International Students Services office also reached out to the students to offer mental health support and financial aid resources if needed.
“My honors professor (Julia Ehrhardt) is teaching American Literary culture this semester. She organized an Armenian Awareness picnic for students to hear about Armenian history,” Baghdasaryan said. “I was so happy after class. She has been the biggest support.”
Parsamyan, Baghdasaryan, Kocharyan and Aleksanyan are organizing an international fundraising event for the on-going humanitarian crisis in Armenia. The collected funds will be sent to Armenian nonprofits to rebuild houses that were bombed during the conflict and provide victims with food and clothes.
“We’re finding OU organizations (that) are willing to pay speakers to come and talk about the (Armenian and Azerbaijani conflict),” Kocharyan said. “We’ve contacted the OU Model UN club, the International Business Association, the International Advisory Committee and the Undergraduate Student Congress. We’re waiting for their response(s).”
On the other hand, the student from Azerbaijan claims she has not felt supported by the OU community while experiencing the emotional impact of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.
“I am also part of (the International Advisory Committee), and no one from that organization has reached out to me so far despite knowing where I am from and how I am going through tough times,” she said. “They have posted biased, one-sided stories of the conflict, putting me in a very uncomfortable and awkward position.”
The student is demanding an apology from IAC due to the “one-sided” stories posted on their social media since she considers it was an “unfair move” toward her. She believes the IAC’s goal is “to unite international students to celebrate diversity, not to blame a side while leaving their (part) of the story out.”
She said she was disappointed at the lack of support from the international community. Her hardest moment was realizing she is “not only (a) minority on campus, (but) also a minority in the international family.”
Although she is aware “there are (more) Armenian students at OU and their voices could be louder” than hers, she said the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict has caused “a lot of national and cultural conflict between (both countries).”
“I have heard a lot of Armenians saying to never trust Azerbaijanis, and I have seen and heard many Azerbaijanis saying the same,” she said. “Unfortunately, it is very rare for Armenians to meet Azerbaijanis, and when they do they doubt every single behavior.”
The Azerbaijani student said losing friendships at OU because they applied “double standards” was one of her hardest moments since the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict started.
“I remember meeting an Armenian girl last year. I hugged her to show how friendship and peace are more important than our countries’ propaganda against each other. I told her how we are similar more than anyone, I asked her (to) stay in touch,” she said. “However, when the border clash between Armenia and Azerbaijan happened (in) July, she made a post about it (blaming) Azerbaijan’s political and education system and (making) assumptions on me and my friendly behavior. I was shocked she did not (say she) hate(d) me.”
‘We’re far away from home.’
Baghdasaryan and Parsamyan – who will graduate in May 2021 – said the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan shifted their personal purpose for their futures. Baghdasaryan now believes “there are more important things to worry about” in order to “to pay (Armenia) for all these lives taken away,” she said. Meanwhile, Parsamyan said she is shifting from “such an individualistic mindset.”
“I only thought about my goals. My classes or my mental health were the most important things, but then I realized we don't really think about what we can do for the good of the community,” Parsamyan said. “There is a big individualistic culture here trying to change ourselves.”
Although the four of the Armenian students are following different professional paths, their love for their home country unites them.
Parsamyan dreams of opening a “big” musical conservatory back in Armenia since she had to leave her home country in order to become a professional singer; Aleksanyan wants to be a “good diplomat” who could represent the Armenian’s interests within the international community, and Kocharyan hopes to inaugurate an IT center for Armenians seeking a better education.
“We’re far away from home, and the only best way we can support (Armenia) is raising awareness in the international community,” Baghdasaryan said. “We’re the eyes and the ears of our country for those who can’t. We are more connected to Armenia from now on.”
The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict has gone around for almost 30 years now. Parsamyan, Baghdarsaryan, Kocharyan and Aleksanyan look forward to finally bringing peace into Armenia — just as the student from Azerbaijan wishes the same for her country too.
The Azerbaijani student said it is important to remember although their two nations are at war, the conflict is political — not necessarily personal.
“Of course we each have different political beliefs and stances regarding this issue, and I totally understand their frustration and will to defend their homeland, however, we should express our beliefs respectfully in relation to each other,” the Azerbaijani student said. “We should remember that this is a political war, it is very racist and nationalistic to generalize and hate on the whole nation and their people, culture and history. It does not fix the problem but lets the hate grow deeper and deeper.”