Moving to Germany the middle of last year was a shock to me.
Living abroad wasn’t the shock. I haven’t lived in the United States since 2012. I’ve lived in places that aren’t considered the easiest places for expats, namely India and Armenia, so I thought moving to Leipzig would be painless. I was very wrong.
I’m not going to rehash all the points foreigners make about the difficulties of living in Germany. I’m just pointing out that they all remain true, even for a “globe-trotting pro” like me. That’s why when I arrived, I reached out to a community that I could connect to.
No, not Americans. Americans don’t have communal events; they have pub quizzes and board game nights (which are great, but not the same thing). I reached out to the Armenian community. After living in Armenia for three years, I had grown accustomed to the warm greetings, close families and hearty food.
History 101: Let me give a brief background for those of you saying “Armenia? Does he mean Romania?”
Armenians are one of the oldest surviving ethnicities in the world. The Armenian language is unique; all related languages have died out. Armenia was the first Christian country, in 301 AD.
Armenians are survivors. After being conquered and persecuted for hundreds of years and becoming the victims of the first modern genocide, they created their own independent nation out of the fall of the Soviet Union.
They have been in Leipzig a lot longer than most realize. Armenians have always valued education, and have been attending the University of Leipzig for a long time. The Armenisch-Akademischer Verein (Armenian Academic Association) was founded in Leipzig in 1860 and was one of the first Vereins established in Germany. It is also potentially the first immigrant-based organization in Germany. A few famous Armenians attended the University of Leipzig, including Karekin I, the Catholicos of Cilicia (a Catholicos is the Armenian version of the Pope).
To learn more, I met with Anahit Babayan, the head of the Armenian community in Leipzig. Anahit was born in Armenia, grew up in Lebanon and came to Leipzig as part of a Master’s exchange program and again for her Ph.D. She works in the “Mind-Body-Emotion” Group of the Neurology Department at the Max Planck Institute For Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.
Interview with Anahit Babayan, head of the Armenian community in Leipzig
Gabriel: Could you tell me about how the Armenian community came to be in Leipzig?
Anahit: There have been Armenians in Leipzig for a long time. Looking at the current community, some of them came here during the Soviet Union. They came and perhaps got married. But Armenians primarily came after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the beginning of the 1990s, many families moved here and are still in Leipzig today. There are now about 300 of us in Leipzig.
Gabriel: Was there much of a sense of cohesion within the community at this time? For instance, did the Armenians hold events together?
Anahit: During all this time, there were always some events. The students organized some at the University. But there were no regular events. I came to Leipzig in 2006, and since at least 2005, students at the University were becoming much more active. For instance, not every year but periodically we held a memorial on 24 April for the Armenian Genocide. June 2010 was a turning point. That was when an informal “Initiator Group” was established to organize community life and hold not only parties but cultural events.
Gabriel: And you’re the leader of this community, right?
Anahit: Well, in 2010, I was one of the 6 that made the Initiator Group. As part of the group, we would select a head person (Vorstand). Every 2-3 years we would have an election where we picked the next head. Last year, I was selected as the leader. For me it’s not about being the head, but about taking the lead on organizing and getting work done.
Now I have this title, but even before this I did the same things. It’s about taking the first steps. It’s about doing the work. I typically don’t even mention that I am the Vorstand.
What is more important is the work that we are doing to spread awareness about our community and culture.
Gabriel: What is your hope for the Armenian community? What do you hope your work does for the Armenians living in Leipzig?
Anahit: I accept that in Germany, people should be integrated. I know some people that haven’t, and they are isolated. But one must not assimilate and lose their culture. I am not German. I will never become German, even when I get a German passport. I am Armenian. Armenianness is a different identity. And it’s important that Armenians keep their identity. They should also be integrated.
They should learn the German rules, but they should also know Armenian culture and traditions. For instance, we started Armenian language classes for children, so they could learn to speak, read and write Armenian. Now we’re teaching them to sing and dance.
These are lessons that will stay with them.
Change doesn’t need to be extreme. For example, it was very strange for Armenian girls to ride bikes. But riding bikes is healthy, practical and nice. So, I ride a bike. I believe that I can take the good things from the German life and get rid of some things that I found not good in the Armenian lifestyle. You take the positives from both cultures.
Gabriel: You’ve been in Germany for a long time. Have you faced racism or felt that Armenians have been treated as outsiders?
Anahit: In my experience, there has never been anything against Armenians. It doesn’t exist. I have only experienced this myself two times. Both times occurred when I was walking on the street speaking a different language, once English and the other time Armenian. In both incidents, a man bumped into me. But not a soft bump that you’d except in a typical accident. They were strong bumps that stunned me for a moment. Both times the sidewalk had plenty of space. This is why I believe that they purposefully bumped into me.
And the only reason I can say why they would purposefully bump into me was because I was speaking a foreign language on the street. It’s only these two times in my 11 years that I have experienced something, that’s why I say it doesn’t exist here. Normally when I introduce myself to people as Armenian, they tend to be curious and want to learn more.
Gabriel: It’s surprising to hear that the men bumped you. In the United States, it’s much more likely for someone to say something discriminatory rather than to do something physical.
You were here in 2016 when the Bundestag recognized the Armenian Genocide. What was that like?
Anahit: Before the resolution, no one was interested in talking to us. The Armenian genocide was not talked about in Germany, as there was always pressure from Turkey. After this resolution, everything became open.
The community here has started working on a big project. Unfortunately, I can’t say what because we still want to keep the details secret. I can say that we have gotten a lot of support from the city, cultural ministers and even political parties. We hope to reveal the big secret during the Armenian genocide commemoration in April.
Upcoming Armenian events
Gabriel: That’s great to hear. How can people, both Armenians and non-Armenians, learn more about the Armenian community here?
Anahit: We have a few events coming up that I’m very excited about. The first is a piano concert by a member of our community called Siehst du den Klang? (Do you see the sound?). It’s on 18 March at the Gohliser Schlösschen in Leipzig.
The next event will be a memorial of the Armenian genocide on 23 April at the Nikolaikirche. This event is part of the regular Friedensgebet series on Monday nights at the church.
The final event that is already planned is a concert on 27 May, also [taking place] at the Nikolaikirche. It will feature a singer, an organ player and a Duduk player. A Duduk is an ancient Armenian instrument that looks like a flute but sounds more like an English horn.
That’s everything we have planned so far. We aim to organize an event every month. The Armenian community may be small, but we’re active.
By Gabriel Armas-Cardona
Gabriel Armas-Cardona is a human rights lawyer. Because of his work, he’s traveled a fair bit. Born in Oakland, California, he has lived in New York, New Delhi, Yerevan and now lives in Leipzig. His professional focus in on the right to health and combating discrimination. He’s passionate about human rights and regularly tweets about it @GArmasCardona. He started a YouTube channel, Insight Human Rights, to help ordinary people better understand what human rights are all about (the channel is sadly on pause as he settles into a new routine in Germany).
Cover shot: Wedding photo of Gabriel at the Temple of Garni, Armenia. (Photo courtesy of Gabriel Armas-Cardona)