My Way Home

Armenian by Birth
Nairi Zadikian - Connecting the Dots
Nairi Zadikian - Connecting the Dots
Moved from Brazil in 2018

I never thought it would be so satisfying to look back and connect some of the facts of my life, realizing that I do have a life story, however short it may be. I remember spending long, fantastic evenings in my grandmother's warm apartment, listening to her remarkable immigration stories about overcoming challenges and hiding my smile when she mispronounced certain Portuguese words. Born in Greece, repatriated to Armenia in late 40’s and then immigrated to Brazil with the whole family, my grandmother had felt on her skin the importance of being able to communicate with those around her; in particular, this applied to our language. Having experienced not only financial but also adaptation difficulties after moving from Armenia to Brazil, she used to say that the only inheritance she could leave her grandchildren was the Armenian language.

Every day was nearly the same routine. I walked from Armenian school to her home, immediately taking in the scent of manti as I reached the corridor. I remember exactly the way she made me stop in front of the TV after washing my hands, before finally acquiring the right to enter the kitchen and have lunch. On TV, there was a small ornament that contained the inscription of a poem that I could never forget. “Հայտէ, կարդայ մեծ մամային, տեսնամ եթե գիտէս” (“Hurry, read to your grandmother, let me see if you can) – she used to say. As much as that poem did not make any sense to a 10-year-old child, I responded to my grandmother, thinking ‘But who would be able to forget her mother? It would never happen!’ -  “Ու տես որդիս, ուր էլ լինես, այս լուսնի տակ ուր էլ գնաս, թե մորդ անգամ մտքից հանես, քո Մայր լեզուն չմոռանա՜ս” which means “And see, my son, wherever you are, or go under this moon, even if you forget your mother, do not forget your mother tongue.”

In my childhood memories, my grandmother, father, and aunts always spoke in Armenian with me, emphasizing the importance of keeping my ancestors’ culture alive. Although my mother knew little Armenian, she always made sure to help my father in taking me, my two sisters, and brother to Armenian school, preparing us for all dance, music and poetry performances, as well as encouraging us to participate in all Armenian groups.

Two months after my grandmother’s passing, she who had been my very first and most significant reference of “armenianness” in those years, I was accepted to the Engineering College, and at that time was still wondering which path I should take in life. Although the local Armenian community played a major role in my daily life, I always felt the necessity to strive for something more. I had to broaden my horizons and look for something – though I still didn’t know what or where that could be.

One day, I was sitting in my AutoCAD class at the university laboratory, when a professor with round-shaped glasses popped in and greeted me in Armenian. I had no idea who he was, but a few months later, it turned out he was teaching two out of the seven credits I had registered for. It didn't take long for me to realize that our meeting at the lab was fate bringing me together with a tremendous academic supporter. He helped me find a common point between engineering and my (or our) Armenian background. At the end of my third year of college, I had already decided on the subject of my undergraduate thesis:  the efficiency of innovative structural techniques for buildings in temperate climates, such as Armenia. I had made up my mind; I wanted to work as a civil engineer in the country my grandmother taught me how important it was to remember throughout my life. 

I landed in Yerevan with all my savings in my pocket, 11 months after finishing university and receiving my undergraduate diploma. I started volunteering in Gyumri, where it was honestly hard to deal with the local mentality. Breaking the taboos of a society with an old engineering culture and very poor technology, which ignored many environmental and safety standards, seemed like it would be a long-term process. Finishing my work as a Birthright Armenia volunteer and flying back home would not have been enough to have had the impact I wanted. Life was not a bed of roses, but I always remembered what I had told my family, when talking to them about my decision of trying to live in the Motherland: “Complaining about the lack of opportunity, getting frustrated because of difficulties, missing home and my friends would be egoism, when compared to the ideal that makes me want to move to Armenia. My love for Armenia is bigger than that, my love for Armenia is bigger than me.” Besides that, I remembered of middle sister’s words: “You’ll be happier in Armenia,” she said, “That makes it easier to let you go. You’re physically here, but your heart belongs to Armenia. Fly high.”

Several months later, when I was about to conclude my volunteer program, I received a memorable call from an unknown number. I would have never believed that that call would be a game changer in my stay in Armenia. An Armenian human resources company’s co-founder was calling to remind me about an application I had submitted to a job vacancy almost a year before. In a couple of days, I was visiting her company’s office to talk over the opportunity, which required someone with good skills in English and Armenian to work as an environment, health, and safety engineer in a local roadway construction company. I could never have imagined that knowing both languages, which my grandmother had put so much effort in having me learn, would help me get hired for such a fantastic job where I could develop my professional skills and meet my personal goals of contributing to my ancestors' country.

I had been hired for the most challenging job I had ever had and was working at the construction site, improving safety and environmental culture, dealing with international clients and standards, as well as participating in various meetings. My assumptions were confirmed: there was a lot of hard work to be done. During the final interview with the director of the company, after discussing the reality of engineering in Armenia, he had asked, “But are you really sure you have enough emotional strength to deal with this chaos?” At that moment, all the people, experiences, and difficulties that shaped me exactly the way I am today flashed before me like a short film.

Even though I saw what the director meant, I was convinced that leaving the place I was born and raised, being away from my family, and dealing with new professional challenges and a new environment not only were worth it, but also were one of the crucial points in my life’s story. My previous life experiences had produced a strong feeling that, although I had never lived in Armenia and hadn’t a clue what I would find there, Armenia was my historical homeland. I had learned to love it before ever setting foot there, and had hoped that I would someday contribute to its development. Even from afar, Armenia had given me familial, civil, and human values, which gave me enough strength of character to thrive in this difficult stage of my personal and professional life. Although I could not before see how I might thank Armenia for the values it had given me, I realized upon reflecting back and connecting all the dots that it had given me the chance to do it so professionally. Life had given me the chance to lead development through the science I love most: civil engineering.

P.S.: I'm pretty sure my grandmother helped me get the job from above. After all, today I work on the same street as the house where she and my grandfather created their family 60 years ago, in Arabkir, and where my father was born. At that time, they were a repatriated couple from Greece and Lebanon who, due to the difficulties of the regime, were forced to move to Brazil with their four children in 1974. I feel like something about our family’s history was unfinished. Now, I’m proud to say I’ve been given a chance to continue it, in our free and independent Armenia.

Nairi Zadikian

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