Five Armenian Stories (Ambassador Heffern’s Town Hall Remarks)

I want to tell everyone a few stories of wonderful things that have happened here in the last few weeks. It is because of partners and events like these that I love this job and believe we can do something useful in Armenia.

1. Armenian Geological Museum

The first story is about the Armenian Geological Museum. I had not thought about the Geological Museum for one second of my time here in Armenia. Then, one day out of the blue, we get a call from an Armenian American Diaspora family, named Dildilyan. Mr. Ara Dildilyan was a geologist, a scientist who visited Soviet Republic of Armenia in the 70s, loved the country and decided that he would pass on his entire collections of stones and minerals to this museum in Yerevan. When he passed away in 1986 his family wanted to carry out his instructions.  But his only instruction was “Send my stuff to Armenia.” So they prepared boxes and boxes of really exquisite minerals and stones, put them on a boat and on the box they wrote “Soviet Republic of Armenia 1986” and said goodbye to their father’s treasures.

For 25 years not a word, 25 years not a word. All of a sudden, a woman named Gayane from the Geological Museum last year called the family and said, “I have your father stones and minerals.” In 2011, 25 years after the gentleman passed away! She said “we have added a wing to our museum and dedicated it to Ara Dildilyan.  We’re going to hold an opening ceremony and  we’d like you to come.”  So the family calls Libby and me and we join them at this opening ceremony.  What an incredibly moving, wonderful experience it was to see this family here with their father’s treasures on display, wonderfully displayed in the Yerevan Geological Museum.

So the lesson Libby and I took from that was that while Armenia is a complicated place, things are often complicated here, but sometimes there is a happy ending. So we’re going to keep looking for those opportunities and seeking more happy endings.

2.  Hip Surgeons

Next story is about hip surgeons. We received a call from a woman in California, reporting that her husband and a couple of his buddies were in Yerevan “replacing hips.”  Libby and I weren’t quite sure what to make of this, but it sounded like a good thing, so we invited them to our house for a cup of tea. And we discovered that these three bone surgeons from San Diego, Philip, Steven and Anna, had spent the week replacing the hips of 27 Armenians, from the regions, not wealthy people from Yerevan, all for free.  A U.S. company, the Stryker Corp, donated all of the equipment and all of the supplies – the hips, the mechanical hips for these people – and an NGO had gone around to these villages seeing which needy people had serious hip problems, and identifying the 27 beneficiaries of these projects.  No conditions, no connections, just free hip replacements by American orthopedic surgeons.

So again some lessons here. The relationship between the U.S. and Armenian people is really quite amazing.  Every day we are amazed by what we see here. The Diaspora, civil society, NGOs and private companies are all making real contributions to our bilateral relationship and to life here in Armenia.

3. Sasnashen Plane Crash

Now I’ve got a story about some airmen – guys who fly planes. It was 1958, height of the Cold War.  A C-130 American military plane probably from a base in Turkey was shot down over a village called “Sasnashen.” All 17 crew members were killed. The people in this village, who witnessed this, had the distinct sense that the pilot of this plane had made every effort to avoid the village as it was coming down. They obviously appreciated that fact and wanted to remember what these airmen did. Now fast forward to the 1990s.

A couple of decades later, that is, in 1990s independent Armenia, the villagers began to hold annual memorial ceremonies for these 17 airmen at a simple stone memorial where the plane went down.  Last year, though, something really special happened.  The DCM, Charge d‘Affairs at the time, went to the memorial service with some generals from our European Command.  One villager, I think his name was Artak, came up to the General and the Charge.  He reported that the day of the accident his father found this ring, a high school ring from one of the crew members.  I would like you, he said, to give the ring back to the family.  They might want to have this memory of their loved one killed so many years ago.

So that ring was sent back to the family, to the siblings of the airman who was killed.  His name was Robert Oshinsky. So this year Libby and I went to the memorial this year, along with several family members of Airman Oshinsky.  Again it was a very moving, it was a wonderful ceremony and experience to see these family members come to Sasnashen, Armenia, see the scene where their brother went down, meet the gentleman who presented them with the ring and see as well the stone memorial there.  In addition, there is now a living memorial to Airman Robert Oshinsky and the crew.

The village of Sasnashen has become a real partner of this Embassy and our Office of Defense Cooperation has done a lot of work there.  The U.S. Military constructed a fantastic kindergarten to help the people of Sasnashen, as a living memorial to these airman and as a sign of friendship between the people of Armenia and the United States.

4. Berd Honey and Berry Festival

This one is Libby’s favorite, it’s about honey. That’s not me.  That’s the stuff that she eats in her yogurt: honey.  The place is the town of Berd, in Tavush Marz. First, there is this gentleman, named Hayk Chobanyan, a well-educated, IT specialist, computer specialist, with a good job in one of the ministries.  But Hayk decides that he wants to do more for his community.  He wants to help the people of Berd improve their lives. So in his spare time he sets up a foundation, “The Berd Spiritual Revitalization Foundation.”  He raised a little bit of money, didn’t ask anybody for help just raised money to get this foundation going.

In August, Hayk and this foundation sponsored a fantastic, hugely successful honey and berry festival in Berd.  Libby and I were there (check our video blog on our webpage) and now this festival will be an annual event. And Hayk is also doing tourism projects and food processing projects.  It’s possible that USAID might be able to help him with his tourism and food processing projects.

So here is another great story where an Armenian helps his community.  We can help by showing up, that’s the easy part — showing up – and showing some support and maybe even providing some modest resources.

5. Eye Care Project

The “Eye Care Project” is a long-time partner of USAID and a lot of people here in Yerevan. What a wonderful mission this Eye Care center has! The mission of the center is to provide high quality eye care and to make that quality eye care accessible to deserving Armenian people. So we’ve been working with this center, USAID and several ophthalmologists from the Diaspora have been helping this eye care center.

And there is one really specific thing that we’ve been able to help them with. The Eye Care Project is now, we now actually call it “A Center of Excellence” on surgery for a very specific disease that premature babies often get. We provided some resources through USAID and a couple of Diaspora ophthalmologists provided the technical expertise.  Now this eye care center will be the only center in the entire region, outside of Moscow, that this surgery can be done to save the eyesight of premature babies.

When Karen, Libby and I went to the launching of this “Center of Excellence,” we met a Dr. Lee.  He is a member of a Diaspora, but not the Armenian Diaspora.  Dr. Lee said this was the 3rd time he has been to Armenia to perform these surgeries and do this training.  He said he has never experienced in his entire career what he has experienced through this “Eye Care Project.” He said not only was he able to help a lot of people – he has done that before.  What impressed him the most was the skill and dedication of the Armenian ophthalmologists whom he trained.  That skill and dedication convinced him that this project would be self-sustaining long after USAID and the Diaspora doctors were gone.  That is what impressed him, the skill and dedication of his Armenian colleagues.

So again the lesson is to find the right partner, to work with Armenia’s talented and committed people.  I am confident that we will continue to find those partners, to create opportunities and that we we’ll still have successes here, even when some other things here don’t go exactly right.