You may have heard of the term diaspora – representatives of a certain ethnic group living outside of their native country. You may have also met at least one Armenian in your home country. This is because the Armenian diaspora is one of the largest and most widely spread in the world, and that’s due to historical circumstances. In today’s blog, I will talk about the Armenian diaspora with some details on geographic distribution, the cultural and social impact of the diaspora, and the current relationship between Armenia and its diaspora members.
Armenians have been subject to various invasions, occupations, and wars throughout history. The Armenian Genocide of 1915, which had up to 1.5 million Armenians of the Ottoman Empire killed, resulted in the largest displacement of the Armenian population. Many Armenian fled to countries like the USA, France, Iran, Georgia, and elsewhere. According to today’s estimates, 5 to 8 million Armenians live outside Armenia while only 3 million Armenians live in Armenia itself.
Let’s dive into this topic and learn a bit more about the Armenian diaspora. After you read this post, don’t forget to ping me on Twitter or Instagram with #ArmeniaTravelTips. Does your country have a large diaspora?
The Armenian diaspora is all over the world, but the population in some countries is larger than in others. This has its historical explanation. For example, France was one of the countries that hosted most genocide survivors. Therefore, we have a concentration of Armenians in France now. But not only France. Let’s have a look at the geographic distribution of the Armenian diaspora.
Russia is home to the largest Armenian diaspora in the world. According to some estimates, there are 2.5 million Armenians living in Russia today. The main areas of residence for Armenians are Moscow and St. Petersburg. They have established thriving communities here with their own churches, schools, and organizations. Armenians are prominent also in the business sectors with some Russian Armenians being some of the wealthiest people in the country.
The United States
The United States is home to the second-largest Armenian diaspora in the world. According to the Embassy of Armenia to the United States, the exact number of Armenians in the USA is unknown. It may be somewhere between 500,000 to 2,000,000. This is because the US census historically did not have Armenian in the list of ethnicities to choose from. So, most Armenians marked themselves as “white”.
Most of the Armenians are concentrated in California, particularly in the cities of Los Angeles and Glendale. Armenians in Los Angeles have strong communities and have a decisive voice during the elections.
Regarding the most concentrated Armenian diaspora, France is in third place with an estimated population of around 600,000 in all of France and as many as 200,000 Armenians living in the French capital alone. As an Armenian, I feel a close connection with France and the French people. This is because in 1915s France was one of the first countries to open its arms and welcome Armenian refugees fleeing the genocide of the Ottomans. A lot of Armenians found refuge in France and their descendants still continue living in that country.
Lebanon is home to the oldest Armenian diaspora communities in the world. Even before the genocide Armenians and Arabs lived peacefully and thrived together in Lebanon for centuries. Statistics say there are 156,000 Armenians in Lebanon these days. Their number was higher prior to the Lebanese Civil War though. The socioeconomic problems of the country have led to a lot of Armenians of Lebanon leaving the country in the past couple of decades. While many moved to Western countries like France, Canada, and the USA, some chose to repatriate to Armenia, which has been a major win for us.
Syria is home to an estimated 100,000 Armenians. Historically, the Armenian community in Syria was rather active and had contributed significantly to Syrian culture and society. After the Syrian war, many Armenians had to flee the country though. To this day the Armenian presence in Syria is prominent, and the cultural ties between the countries are strong.
There are other countries with significant Armenian populations like Georgia, Iran, Argentina, Canada, and Australia. The above-mentioned 5 countries are just the ones with seemingly the largest diaspora communities. I personally have family members all around the world, just like most other Armenians. Without going too far up in the family tree, just looking at my second cousins, I have some relatives in the US, Australia, Russia, Georgia, etc.
Cultural and social impact of Diasporans
The Armenian diaspora is an example of how a small community can make a meaningful contribution to the world. Armenians have contributed to the culture and society of their host countries in numerous ways.
For example, the Armenian diaspora has contributed to the economies of their host countries by building vibrant businesses in areas like technology, finance, and hospitality. Eduardo Ernekian, for example, is a rich Armenian (1.9 billion USD) who lives in South America. He owns the company “Corporation America” which operates in the field of travel, agriculture, and energy. Noubar Afeyan, an American-Canadian entrepreneur of Armenian descent with an estimated fortune of 1.5 billion USD, is another prominent name here. His team of scientists developed and deployed the Moderna vaccine as one of the first “weapons” against the pandemic.
But business is not the only area where Armenians advance. Politics and activism are other significant areas in which the Armenian diaspora has influenced their host countries. For example, in the US the Armenian communities represent an important constituency, which often votes on specific issues such as the recognition of the Armenian Genocide or support of democratic rights of the people of Nagorno Karabakh.
Famous Armenians in the diaspora
Armenians have excelled in many areas from literature to music, from science to politics. Below are a few names you may have heard of. Also, I have dedicated two separate posts to what Armenians invented and famous Armenian female celebrities, so check them out.
Let’s have a look at some famous Armenians of the diaspora.
Charles Aznavour – music
Charles Aznavour is known as a French singer and actor. However, he was born to Armenian immigrants in Paris. In the course of his career, he became one of the favorites of the French and Armenian people. At some point, he even worked as the Minister of Education in France. Aznavour was known for his ability to touch hearts through his music. Being a prominent figure in the culture scene, he has always been a significant voice calling for peace and acceptance of minorities. Throughout his life, he also contributed a fortune to the development of Armenia.
System of a Down – music
You may have heard the name System of a Down but don’t know that the band members are of Armenian descent. Their music draws from a wide range of influences, including metal, punk, and folk. The singer of the band Serj Tankian often creates a platform to raise awareness about political issues affecting Armenia. They’ve been some of the most outspoken voices fighting for Armenian causes globally, effectively using their platform and recognition worldwide.
William Saroyan – literature
William Saroyan was an Armenian playwright who lived and worked in the USA in the 20th century. He wrote about the lives of those that had to migrate to the USA due to historical circumstances. Saroyan was a Pulitzer Prize winner and a well-recognized writer in the field. His play ‘The time of your life’ opened on Broadway in 1939 and was the first drama to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.
Andre Agassi – sports
The name Andre Agassi is connected with tennis. If you are a fan of sports, you should have heard about him. He won the champion’s title eight times. Agassi’s father was Armenian and his mother was American. Despite being born and raised in the USA, Agassi has always been proud of his Armenian heritage and raised awareness of Armenian culture and history.
Segei Parajanov – cinematography
Born in Tbilisi, Georgia, Sergei Parajanov was an Armenian film director and artist that worked during the Soviet era. Parajanov’s work was often criticized at that time, for being too extravagant. The communists even imprisoned him for several years for alleged homosexuality (as if it mattered) and for being too outspoken. However, today he is rightfully recognized as one of the greatest minds in film history. His film “The Color of Pomegranates” is considered one of the key masterpieces in the film industry. His art continues inspiring artists all the way to these days. Lady Gaga herself found inspiration in this movie when styling the music video for her 911 song in the theme of this film.
Relationship between Armenia and the Armenian diaspora
If you ask any Armenian living abroad “What is your motherland”, most of them will say “Armenia”. This is because the Republic of Armenia is the homeland for many Armenians irrespective of where they live. So, it’s not surprising that some 5 years ago the Armenian government established the Office of the High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs. If you ask me, this is a step in the right direction, but a lot more needs to happen to truly connect the Diaspora and Armenia properly.
The agency supports strong diaspora ties with the homeland through programs and events. A good example is “iGorts”, an unprecedented program that invites Diaspora Armenian professionals to work in Armenia’s state institutions. Since its launch in July 2020, the program has hosted dozens of Armenian professionals to work in different sectors of Armenia’s administration. Some of the participants even decided to settle in Armenia once the program was over, which was the ultimate win for our country.
The list of organizations helping Armenia and the diaspora across the world is endless. I have a whole post about internships in Armenia where I talk about some of these organizations. So, check it out if you want to learn more.
The most prominent such organization is probably the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU). AGBU has a worldwide network of offices and helps Armenians of the diaspora to have an impact on education, science, and other areas, both in Armenia and worldwide. Armenian youth of the diaspora can volunteer and complete internship programs in Armenia through this organization, and apply for scholarships, grants, and others.
In the past years, we’ve seen a major activation among the Armenian diaspora, especially young professionals. If you ask me, I think many, just like myself, got inspired by the 2018 revolution, gaining hope for a future more democratic and prosperous Armenia. Then, the 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh mobilized many of us, sparking a desire to do something useful for our homeland.
While I started writing this blog and committed myself to spending as much time as I can in Armenia, many took bold steps to change their lives completely and moved to Armenia. These young diasporans have established businesses and NGOs in Armenia, and today they’re actively contributing to the development of our country, diversification, and democratization of the society. And I absolutely love it!
My favorite examples are Patil Tutunjian and the Ogni NGO. Patil is a Syrian-Armenian blogger and entrepreneur from Canada. She founded the Tatik Streetwear brand (they ship worldwide btw) back in 2020, featuring the artwork of modern Armenian designers and artists on everyday clothing items. Recently she moved to Armenia and, just like myself, she’s raising awareness of all the fun stuff you can do in Armenia. Check out her youtube channel here.
Oqni is an amazing NGO founded by Hayk and Haikouhi, two diaspora Armenians, who took up a mission of empowering amputees in Armenia and worldwide, by designing and 3D-printing tailored kick-ass prosthetic covers for them. They also work on bionic solutions and technologies that utilize machine learning for improving the experience of amputees wearing prosthetics. The best part – they do this in Armenia! I absolutely love the work they do, so I encourage you to check them out and support this NGO if you can.
Fate or historical circumstances created the Armenian diaspora. Armenians are in almost any corner of the world, from Syria to Russia, to the United States and Australia. Wherever they settle, they create strong communities that both support themselves and have a positive impact on the local society. Almost anyone knows names like Charles Aznavour, Andre Agassi, Cher, and Serj Tankian if they have basic knowledge of music or sports. Let me know what is the Armenian diaspora community like in your city/country. Ping me on Twitter or Instagram with #ArmeniaTravelTips. Looking forward to hearing more from you!
Featured image credit: Photo by Yerevanci on Wikimedia Commons (CC)
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