I was born in Belgium to Armenian parents from Aleppo, Syria. My entire life I’ve lived in a small Flemish town with my parents and two older brothers. Belgium didn’t have a big Armenian community when I was growing up. The only Armenians I came in contact with were my parents’ small circle of Armenian friends (Eastern and Western). All my relatives live abroad in Syria, Lebanon, France, Canada, the United States...you know, the Armenian way. Our yearly visits to Montréal and Aleppo were the only times we encountered big Western Armenian communities.
Because we weren’t surrounded by many Armenians and we weren’t getting Armenian language classes, my parents made it a point to only speak Armenian at home. Any time my mom would hear us kids speak Flemish she would yell “Hayeren khosetsek!” (Speak Armenian!) from the other side of the house. So even though I still have a hard time reading and can only write my name in Armenian, I do speak it fluently.
My brothers and I attended a school where we were probably the only kids with a different ethnicity. It was very normal and weird at the same time. No one ever made me feel like I was different on purpose, yet there would be moments where it was obvious to me that I was. And it was no one’s fault, it’s just something you experience when you’re not a native of the country.
Although I felt different from my peers at times, I never felt embarrassed for being Armenian. I comfortably spoke Armenian with my parents in front of my friends. I was never embarrassed for my parents’ broken Flemish. I would take mana’ish and Lebanese bread with string cheese to school. Friends would think my Lebanese bread were pancakes, which would annoy the crap out of me. I did, however, appreciate that they were curious and always willing to taste whatever I brought with me.
Belgium has much more Eastern Armenian speakers than Western Armenian speakers. As a kid I never understood why. So much about me was already different from my peers and now I also feel different from my own people? How does that make sense? I had a really hard time understanding Eastern Armenian and it made me feel insecure. My parents tried to put me in Eastern Armenian language classes, but the idea alone made me feel uncomfortable. They tried to put me in Armenian dance classes, but the teacher and dancers were all Eastern Armenians, so I got discouraged again. I felt even worse when Eastern Armenian speakers didn’t understand me. I almost felt ashamed, like I wasn’t Armenian enough. That’s why I always chose to surround myself with native Belgians.
Over the years, through listening to my parent’s Eastern Armenian friends I started understanding the dialect more. I still have some difficulties, especially when Russian words enter the conversation, but I’ve definitely become more comfortable.
It wasn’t until my first trip to Armenia in 2018 that I saw so many Western and Eastern Armenian speakers in one place. I realized how much I missed being around other Armenians. It encouraged me to put my insecurities aside and interact more with Eastern Armenian speakers. That’s how I ended up joining Birthright Armenia. I’m at a point now where I speak to Eastern and Western Armenians on a daily basis.
It’s funny how I sometimes felt like I didn’t speak Armenian well enough because I mix in a lot of Flemish and English words. Yet I’ve gotten so many compliments this past month in Armenia on how fluently I speak. Even Western Armenian speakers, who have attended Armenian schools, hadn’t noticed I never got Armenian language classes. My fluency in Western Armenian is even the reason I got to volunteer for Repat Armenia as they specifically needed a fluent Western Armenian speaker for a project.
Even though I’m receiving these compliments, I believe they’re meant for my parents. They are the ones who pushed us to speak Armenian and raised us to be hayaser Belgian-Armenians. And for that I’m very grateful.