FITCHBURG — Fitchburg and Lancaster recently hosted an international group from Armenia, as part of the Open World grant program which focuses on advancing women’s leadership at the local government level.
Five young women working in city and town government spent a week in Washington, DC, and then a week in the Cambridge and Boston area, where they were hosted by the Cambridge-Yerevan Sister City Association (CYSCA).
“We wanted our delegates, most of whom work in small communities in Armenia, to experience town and small city government,” explains CYSCA President Roxanne Etmekjian. “We thought Lancaster and Fitchburg, where our organization has members, would be a great way for these extraordinary women officials a chance to see more of Massachusetts.”
The visit began at Lancaster Town Hall with Rep. Natalie Higgins, Rep. Meg Kilcoyne, and Town Select Board member Alix Turner, whose first question to the delegation was “what is your biggest challenge as an elected official?”
Meri Harutyunyan, Deputy Head of Development and Investment, Programs Department for Yerevan Municipality said, “If we met in September, and you asked what our challenges were, we would say climate change, gender roles, needs of youth.”
But everyone said their answer changed after September. That is when 100,000 Armenians living in Artsakh were forced to evacuate after a 10 month blockade, and then violence from the Azeri army. Armenians have been living in Artsakh (known as “Nagorno Karabagh” since 1918) for thousands of years.
“Now, we have lots of Armenians from Artsakh,” said Harutyunyan. “Armenia has had a painful page, of territorial loss, and loss of soldiers.” This is the second war that has devastated the country; two years earlier, Azerbaijan soldiers invaded the border, and took the town of Shushi.
“Many people were forcefully displaced. The government tried to help them to buy a house. But the prices on houses started going up. And students traveling to Yerevan to study – they could not afford a place.”
“Right now, everyone is working on a volunteer basis to provide shelter and food,” said Shushanik Danielyan, member of Yeghegis City Council. “The government started the process to give a one-time stipend to get settled, and then for six months.”
In Armenia, many women are in government, but out of 12 ministries in the country, only two are led by women. “But the majority of deputy ministers are women,” added Harutyunyan, Deputy Head of Development and Investment Programs Department for Yerevan Municipality.
In Armenia, there is passive voter registration. “Everyone automatically is registered when they turn 18.” But the turnout is still low – 28% for a recent city council election.
Political parties dominate the scene – and in 2016 the country passed a law requiring 30% of all candidates (in a political party on the ballot) would be women. However, there are “many pressures on women” not to serve when elected. “Women get elected but then party pressure, family pressure, so women drop out. And when a woman drops out, a man moves up,” said Shushanik Danielyan, a member of the Yeghegis City Council.
Arusyak Avetisyan, who was the youngest attendee and had recently been elected as a member of the Vardenis Local Council said, “There are a few times when my opinion was not heard at council meetings.” She started a Facebook page, and said “members are pretty active following me on Facebook.” After one meeting, “the leader said, “come talk at the meeting, don’t post on Facebook.”
Younger members of the delegation reported that older government candidates would ask them to post on Facebook “because people know us.”
“You have to educate the women to run,” one commented, “But you also have to educate the men.”
The Delegation visited seniors at the Senior Center, took a tour of downtown Fitchburg, and were impressed by the professional studios at FATV. Apart from Yerevan, there is no community television in smaller towns.
At City Hall, they met with Mayor DiNatale, City Councilor Amy Green, Fitchburg City Councilor Claire Freda, Fitchburg, and FATV’s George Mirijanian over a lunch from Espresso’s (the first time the Armenian delegation had tried U.S. pizza). Mirijanian presented the delegation with a copy of “Around the World In Fitchburg” which has a chapter on the Armenian emigrants to Fitchburg.
Councilor Amy Green asked whether women were oppressed in Armenia. Hartyunyan explained, “the main challenge we face is gender discrimination.” However, all agreed that in Armenia the biggest threat is security – Azerbaijani troops are stationed on the borders.
Mayor DiNatale asked about their visit with members of Congress in Washington, DC. Lilit Hajatyan, member of Artik Local Council said, “When we were having meetings in DC, they were talking about Israel and Ukraine, and I said, ‘Why do you only speak about those countries – in Artsakh it’s genocide too, they are killing children.
They said, “we are not talking loudly about that, but we are working on it. They are asking Azerbaijan not to do that, but they are also sending money to buy arms.”
Shushanik Danielyan explained, “we have churches that have been there [in Artsakh] for thousands of years, and they are destroying them. They are eliminating national treasures – songs, and carpets and the arts.”
Lilit added, “They are trying to persuade the world that Lake Sevan is in Azerbaijan, and they are lying and the world is listening.”
As many delegates come from rural areas (70% of Armenians live outside of Yerevan), everyone enjoyed their visit to Hollis Hills Farm at the end of the day. Owner Jim Lattanzi spoke to the group about how the Farm is a tourist destination, with weekend music events, a partnership with Fitchburg Library for a warm-weather reading program, restaurant and food items for sale, as well as apple and fruit picking.
“Everything is farm to table in Armenia,” said Lilit Antonyan, political assistant in the US Embassy in Armenia. “These are all great ideas!”
The day concluded with the group enjoying a visit with the goats and cows and Lattanzi observed, “What a pleasure to host this Armenian women’s delegation at our family farm. To share our experiences as farmers, share our business model and discuss opportunities we have pursued as we provide good food for our community was exciting. No matter the language barrier, food brings people together and we enjoyed our time with them.”
Sally Cragin serves as a City Councilor-At-Large in Fitchburg.