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Ararat & Me – One Armenian’s Return to the Homeland

If it weren’t for a genocide, I wouldn’t be writing this.  It’s taken me twenty-six years, but I’m finally back in the country my great grandparents fled in 1915 after the Armenian Genocide took the lives of all of their parents — right in front of their eyes.

You see, I’m half Armenian (the surname is the giveaway) and half German, but American-born.  And if I hadn’t been lucky enough to enter this world in a Manhattan maternity ward, I sincerely doubt I’d have been able to have the business success I’ve enjoyed.  I didn’t do anything to deserve the privilege of a birth in the USA (my forefathers earned that) and I see microfinance as a way to export the best of capitalism to give many of the world’s poor a chance to create their own futures.


Pushing a country forward, while it’s constantly pulled back into the past

And that’s why I’m back here in Armenia as a Kiva Fellow.  Like many of the dogged Armenian activists, startup founders, journalists, and nonprofit workers I’ve met here, I don’t want to dwell on Armenia’s past — I want to help shape its future.

In what has become a yearly tradition, the U.S. House of Representatives is working on another genocide resolution that [probably] won’t pass (Canada now has Armenian Genocide commemoration and an Olympic gold medal record to lord over us).  But in the USA, the gesture of one more country officially recognizing a historical fact isn’t terribly relevant to the Armenians living today.

Giving the poor access to capital: Help Armenians help themselves

The way predatory credit card companies stuff plastic into the hands of every wide-eyed college student in the USA, it’s hard to imagine a world where credit is difficult to access.  Yet here in Armenia, it’s primarily a cash economy.  Microfinance has been rather trendy here of late, so there’s an abundance of Microfinance Institutions (read: financial institutions that will make loans and may also provide financial services — savings or insurance, for instance — to the poor).  Kiva has just begun evaluating partnerships here, but if you’re really anxious to start lending, Nor Horizon is presently the only MFI lending through Kiva (more on the way).

The Armenian diaspora has long played a significant role in the Armenian economy, for better and worse.  Helping the country on the path of self-sufficiency is the mantra I’ve been hearing from most citizens here in Yerevan.  With development goals designed to survive long after the funding has stopped, we can give this country the chance it deserves to thrive independent of aid.  Financial education plays an important role here, as the loans aren’t intended to exacerbate the cycle of poverty; granted, we Americans aren’t the best advocates for prudent financial planning, but people here still seem to be interested in what I’ve have to say as a Kiva Fellow.

Washington D.C. is not a state in Armenia
(though it’s only taxed like one in the USA)

As we work towards that end, microfinance appears to be an important part of the process.  From here in Yerevan, passing a resolution in Washington D.C. feels much less relevant than a pile of fresh lavash baked by a Kiva borrower and his father, funded by Kiva lenders.  Incidentally, it’s also less tasty.  As Turkey strives to become a Western democracy, their government will inevitably abolish undemocratic laws (like the one banning “insulting the Turkish nation”) and the truth will prevail – we’ll all be better off for it, for every country has history its not proud of, but only the truly free ones can talk about it.

I, for one, will hold no grudge; I’m half-German after all and my Jewish friends oblige me.  I’ll be waiting with the surj, looking forward to pleasantly debating (as I do with my Greek friend) which people really invented it.

In the meantime, I’ll let you know when Kim Kardashian makes her first Kiva loan, don’t worry.

By Alexis Ohanian, KF10 Armenia. He co-founded reddit, start a company called breadpig, and loves lavash.

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