“Where are you from?”
I try to avoid talking in taxis, I’ll even ignore phone calls so they can’t hear my accent when I speak. However, it’s been difficult the past two years when I take a cab with my two boys who talk and ask questions incessantly (they’re 4.5 and 3).
I usually have two answers:
1- I’m from here (which leaves them confused).
2- I’m originally from Canada, but I’ve been here for the past 18 years.
Honestly, I’ve grown quite tired of being asked the same questions: Why did you come here? Who did you come with? Wasn’t Canada better? Why do you still have an accent? Cue, long breath and my usual monotone answers: I came with my parents and brother, because we wanted to live in our “homeland;” Canada is better in many ways, but I prefer it here; I don’t know why I still have an accent, even though if you pay attention, grammatically I speak fluent Eastern-Armenian.
Moving to Armenia was the greatest gift my parents ever gave me. I was granted a life with experiences and skills that I would not have received had we stayed in Toronto. I went through my awkward teenage years here, I got an education here, I made amazing friends here, I started my career here, I fell in love here, I had my two boys here. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Yet, I am still not a citizen of the Republic of Armenia. It’s a long story. The dual citizenship law came into force only six years after we moved. The requirements changed several times, which hindered our application process. And then, I got lazy… I had my special 10-year Armenian passport since I was 18. The passport given to Diasporan Armenians as a type of 10-year visa which grants you all the rights and privileges of any Armenian citizen, except voting and being elected to office. I was fine with that. Then my special 10-year Armenian passport reached its expiration date. At this point, I was already married and a mother of two. My husband is an Armenian citizen (originally from Iran) and my boys are dual citizens – Armenian and Canadian. I thought it was finally my turn. I looked into the application process. It seemed I had everything except one thing – proof that I am an Armenian. Huh. I felt like the -ian in my last name would be enough. However, it turned out that a baptism certificate from an Armenian church would be enough (as per the requirements of the law). Luckily there’s an Armenian church in Toronto where I was baptized. Now all I had to do was find it!
I couldn’t find it. The passport expiration clock was ticking. I would soon be in the country illegally. Things were getting ironic. So I went to the Passport and Visa Agency, known as Ovir.
I remember our Ovir visits during our first years in Armenia. They are not pleasant memories. An old dinky Soviet building, dark hallways, forlorn faces, long lines and the proverbial “acquaintance” that would make the experience more tolerable. They now have a new building. It was nice. The young women at the visa application department… even nicer. She advised me to get a one-year residency card which I can get for free because my husband is an Armenian citizen. Score, free stuff. This would buy me time to find that baptism certificate. I even had a delightful conversation with the visa application officer about the apartment building where I live; turns out she and her husband had looked at a unit there and we discussed pros and cons. And with smiles and friendly goodbyes I was on my way.
We still couldn’t find my baptism certificate. Once my residency card expiration date was up, back to Ovir I went. I explained the situation once again. The same Ovir officer and I decide to extend the residency card again for a year until I find that certificate. We’re now officially friends.
A couple of months go by and my mother finally finds my baptism certificate. I get all my papers together. I photocopy every single piece of document I can think of. I even bring documents that aren’t required. I felt like I was preparing to go to war. I wasn’t going to let them find any flaw in my paperwork. I was going to make sure I wouldn’t be running in and out of xerox and notary translation offices and then running back, as is the custom. I was prepared.
The day finally arrives. I go and there’s a long line. I ask who is the last in line (because, Armenia). I fix my place in the line and make sure who and how many people are ahead of me and I perch on a spot near the door to make sure everyone knows. I mean business. During the long wait I start to examine everyone in the hallway waiting to go in and apply for citizenship.
We Armenians are quite the spectacle. I witnessed every kind of ‘Armenian’ you can find, from a young Russian-Armenian woman with a gold tooth to a large middle-aged man with a long beard and a wavy ponytail. Every type of Armenian, influenced by different cultures and family history, standing beside each other trying to figure out their citizenship status. People were asking each other questions about the application process, others were giving advice. It was surreal from the experience I had 12 years before.
I waited in line for two hours. Standing. It was finally my turn. I geared up and went into the trenches. I laid out all the documents. I even told the officer the story of the lost baptism certificate. She picked it up and said, “We can’t accept this.” Excuse me? I try not to lose my cool, and ask why.
“There’s no official stamp.”
“There’s an embossed stamp on the bottom.”
“No, it has to be ink.”
“What does that even mean? Are you trying to tell me because of some ink the Republic of Armenia will not believe I’m an Armenian? Have you read my name? Do you not hear me speak?”
“Sorry. You have to send this to the Armenian Embassy in Canada and have them approve and stamp it.”
Blank stare. My brain kind of stopped here. This meant I had to get this piece of paper to the Embassy of Armenia in Ottawa, Canada, where we know no one (I’m from Toronto), then have that piece of paper sent back to me.
Once again the new and improved Ovir service tried to come to the rescue. She asked for my old Armenian passport, which I didn’t have. No worries, she looked it up on her computer. She said my nationality is stated as Armenian in that old special Armenian passport. She runs out. Comes back later and tells me she spoke to the head of their department. They checked everything. My residency card also states my nationality as Armenian in their database. This may be enough for them to believe that I am Armenian.
They make me run up to the department that gave me the special ten-year Armenian passport and one-year residency card so they can provide whatever proof I had given them that I was Armenian. I told them I never gave any such document. It’s impossible they said. So I go up the second floor to the visa department. They smiled. They remembered me. However, they said the special Armenian passport was given to me based on the -ian in my last name. That is all. I go back down. They say that’s impossible and send me back up to see the deputy head of the visa department. She calls in my friend. They go through their archives. They say I never handed in any document proving my nationality. “I know!” I say. They send me back down. The head of the citizenship department looks at me with pity and says in her Russian accent, “I’m sorry dear, I don’t have the right to accept this baptism certificate. You have to send it to the Embassy of Armenia in Canada. Don’t you have relatives there?”
I smile, because I’m too nice for my own good. I take a deep breath and leave. Ovir had already closed by now and I was running late to pick up my kids from kindergarten. My head was pounding.
That evening I tell my husband, “So apparently I can’t prove I’m Armenian.” He’s baffled by this. What if I wasn’t baptized, or baptized in a non-Armenian church? What if I’m an atheist? What does it even mean to prove you’re Armenian?
My parents come over for coffee later. I tell them my Ovir story. They are livid.
I spent that night thinking about what to do next. Should I go through all that trouble and expense to get that blue ink stamp on my baptism certificate? Or maybe I should just give up and apply for another special ten-year Armenian passport for the rest of my life. This thought seemed ridiculous to me.
It had now become a matter of principle.
My parents sacrificed so much for my brother and I to stay Armenian in multicultural Toronto. They sent us to a private Armenian school an hour away from our home, made sure we went to the Armenian Church during major holidays, sent us to Armenian scouts club, etc. I didn’t have a single non-Armenian friend growing up. They sacrificed a well-provided-for life in Canada and moved to a post-Soviet, post-war, post-dark-and-cold-years Armenia so we could stay Armenian. And we did. We went to a local school, I went to a local university, I got married to another old-timer repat (29 years and counting) and gave birth to two boys; two boys who will be serving in the Armenian Armed Forces as soon as they turn 18.
But my baptism certificate from the Armenian Apostolic Church in Toronto, Canada from 1989 doesn’t have an official blue ink stamp from the Republic of Armenia certifying that this church is indeed Armenian.
I’m not saying I’m special or deserve special treatment. I most certainly am not. Others have sacrificed and given more to their communities and country than I have. However, I am left with this feeling of never belonging. I wasn’t supposed to be too Canadian growing up in Toronto – never forget you’re Armenian and a descendant of genocide survivors! When we moved to Yerevan, I was a Diasporan Armenian with a funny name and funny accent. Throughout the years, everytime we went back to Toronto to visit family, I wasn’t really one of them any more. I was more of a Hayastantsi, a local Armenian to them. I gradually started feeling like I didn’t belong as well because I had changed so much. Back in Yerevan, I was still the Diasporan girl with the funny name.
However, I assimilated myself here. I got accepted into Yerevan State University like every other local Armenian – by writing difficult and illogical entrance exams for which we had to prepare for a whole year (unlike non-citizens who get in without any entrance exams, but with a higher tuition. This is because I had the special ten-year Armenian passport). I later got accepted to the American University of Armenia by writing a TOEFL exam to test my English, because I graduated from an Armenian language public school and state university, despite the fact that even now, English is more native to me than Armenian. My friends are all locals. My boys speak Eastern Armenian and only understand Western Armenian and English.
So where does this leave me? Once again I’m lost in the sea of Armenian cultural identity. Are you Diasporan Armenian or a Hayastantsi? Are you Canadian-Armenian or Canadian with Armenian heritage? Is your name Tveen or Dvin? Where do you belong?
It’s true, I could have applied for citizenship based on the fact that I’m married to an Armenian citizen (thanks kyank). However, that would mean I wouldn’t be applying as an Armenian, but as an odar, a foreigner and would have to write a test on my knowledge of the Armenian Constitution. Not that I couldn’t. It was just a matter of principle for me at this point.
A blue ink stamp, not an embossed one.
After all these emotional ups and downs, an acquaintance of ours tells me I can receive citizenship as an Armenian based on the fact that my children are Armenian citizens. I go back to Ovir, this time with my husband, maybe some male presence will help (because, Armenia). They all remember me. They’re adamant about the baptism certificate. They won’t accept it without a blue ink stamp. In turn I made it clear I would not apply as an odar as a matter of principle. They finally decide that because my husband and my children are Armenian citizens, I can apply through the simplified process (per the requirements for people who are of Armenian ethnicity). In short, it turns out I can apply as an Armenian, but I will have to take a test on the Armenian Constitution just for bureaucratic show.
“Can you read Armenian?” someone asks. My husband starts to laugh.
I end up giving the test that day completely unprepared. Luckily, it was quite easy thanks to the knowledge I had accumulated from living here so long. Afterwards I’m told I could have proven my “Armenianness” based on one of my parents’ baptism certificate if it has the blue ink stamp. My mother did have the blue ink stamp (she went through a difficult process as well to get her citizenship a few years earlier by obtaining a new version of her baptism certificate from Beirut). I didn’t know if I should yell or just let it go at this point. They had accepted me. They believed I was Armenian enough.
Hopefully, in six months time I will be at Ovir one more time, but this time to pick up my not-so-special-anymore, but special-in-a-different-way forever Armenian passport.
I’m not the only one with this kind of story. There are many. Some are adamant and go through all the dizzying hoops and after many years finally obtain citizenship. Others give up and just go for the special ten-year Armenian passport. Why are we making this complicated? Should we not be creating a system which would make obtainment of Armenian citizenship for all Armenians easy? Are we not calling for repatriation? Are we not a country with a demographic problem? Are we not seeking an economic revolution which would entail investment, opportunities, and a reason to come back? A reason to stay?
My roots may not be from Yerevan, or even this part of Armenia. My ancestry is a mix of Kessab, Urfa, Marash and Musa Dagh. My roots may be from Western Armenia, but I have rooted my adult life here. Here, in this small landlocked country which is yearning to breathe and grow. I want to be part of that breath and growth. I want my children to be that breath and growth.
So Armenia, hokis, I ain’t going anywhere.