the melkonia n controversy



the melkonia n controversy
In order to shed light on the controversy surrounding AGBU's decisionx#oclose the Melb~lianEducational Institute of Cyprus, a group of former students of the Melkonian Institute sent investigative
reporter Michael Krikoriun to Cyprus, commissioning him to' write an impartial and in-depth report
ubout AGB.U's controversial decision. Kribrian was a reporter with t h e ' h s Angel& Tintes from 1995
to 2004, with mu years in beween at the Fresm Bee, when he was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for
his coverage of the ,assassination of Armenian Prime Minister Sarkissian and six other government
lenders. Below we present his article.
"For over seven decades students have been drawn to
Me1konian by its stimulating environment and the excellence of its academic traditions. Now it is working to widen
the choice of courses, introduce new approaches to learning and teaching, and give more peopIe from around the
world the opportunity to live and study in the congeha1
climate of Cyprus."
From the Melkon~anwebsite on
That website needs to be updated.
Krikor and G q b e d Melkonian founded an orphanage in
Cyprus aft& the Genocide and provided refuge for countless wandering souls. In 1926,"'thoughKnkor had died,
th6Melkonian Educational Institute was founded. In his
wilt; Garabed MeIkoniail &ed the AGBU as the executor and benefici~.
of his estate.
Irt the following decades, it became a shining symbol of
h e undeniable spiritand resilience of the Armenian people.
Youth fro? mop than 40 counlries would attend the boardin 'school and immerse +emseSves in being Armenian.
Thy hail from Beirut or &scow or Buenos Anes. They
might be frdm3'Safiaor Marseilles or Baghdad. M a y k
home was Chicago or Athens or dawn the street from the
walIed city of Nicosia. But, here at the Melkonian brothers' legacy, they discovered a new home. Young strangers
found they had one thing in cornrqon, one strong vein that
tied them together: q e y ,were Armenian,_And
they became 'friends.
"1 Ca;d friends fr'6m'&ll-overthe world," said Arto
Aivazia~iTprincipdoftheNmg Armenian Rimary School
on Armenia Street in Nicosia, who graduated from
Me1konian.h lI%7wYbhd.frien&from South America,
Ethiopia, Europe, North America. Of course, you may
not have any friends ,jr>yauihometown."
So why is the Melkonian, also known as MEI, closing?
The Central Board of the AGBU, in a March 16,2004
After 78 years of serving as a beacon of education and
heritage to young Armenians scattered like seeds around
the world, the Melkonian Educational Institute in Cyprus
is scheduled to close in June 2005.
The shuttering [sic] of the beloved school in Nicosia is
aching the hearts of alumni, disappointing Greek Cypriots
and causing the Armenian Genera1 Benevolent Union
once a revered organization immune to criticism - to
face charges of incompetence, mismanagement, greedand
even, in fie words of one former AGBU offieid, @&on.
Aftei two weeks in Cyprus, Lebanon and NFW
York where the AGBU is headquartered-this report involves
the school's legacy, the AGBU's mission, the cultural assimilation of the Armenian Diaspora and, of come, it
involves money.
shtemtnt titled "Melkaniaa Educational Institute," says
"I cannot comment one way m another ztb~utthe the dificult decision was ,"bas,dk g d y on the Board's
Melkonian closing," siid Berge S e w a n , the presidknt mnrlncinn t h ~*.~nn
I n n w ~ r ' m ~the.
t s challenga~nf its
tury, we cannot discuss closing schools, we can only discuss opening schools. But the main reason they are closing
the school is because of the money. It's all abour thc
That is a sentiment echoed all over Nicosia. Money.
Money. Money. From current students, to alumni, to ME1
board members, to local AGBU board members, to Cy priot ooffials.
"It's a shame the Melkonian has to close because of
money matters," said Leontios Leantjou*an d u c d o n plahner for the Cyprus Ministry of Education and Culture. "1
think it's unfair to the Armenian students. Mayb it's exnensive to run. but I don't think rnonev should make a
hifference to a group of people. The ~ d k o n j a nis history
here in Nicosia."
The value of the land that Melkonian sits on and [he
buildings, which include the boarding school and the two
hlstoric sckaolroom builhngs, is said to be worth up tc
$80 million. The school's annual budget is about $2.5
million. The projected income is roughly $1.2 rni1lio1-1.
according the AGBU. Do the math.
But the AGBU denies money was a major consideratia~
in the decision to lock up. "The value of the Iand was not
a factor in the decision to close the school," said Carol
Aslanian, the Central Board member who, with Presidenr
Setrakian and Chairman of the Board Louise Manoogian
Sirnone, make up the triumvirate involved in the MXX.
When asked aboutthe $80d l i o n figw, Aslanianresponded,
"I have no idea what rhe land is worth. I have never seen a
dmument about how much the [andis worth," She kept referring to the Mnrch 16 statement rather than express her own
views. 'My m n a l thoughts are ~flecmiin that statemen&"
she said during a cell phone interview as she dmve,fmmNew
York to New England. '73I had personal h u g h t s that were
have signed the March 16 datewnt."
h' 16 dmument states: "MTs continuing deficit
levels have been taken into considerarion, but have not been
the prinrary issue of wncem throughout the evaluation pre
cess." There is no mention of the potential valueof r
k MEl's
buildings and I
d in the statement.
So, in Iight of the ACrBU's adamant denial that profit h m
h.,.e land
..-did..not play a role,....a puzzling
. .qu~tion
. ais$s:Why
. ,.
ol r n G r*wa; ~ - ~ C ~ u g ~ a r p ~ ~ ~&&&
t ; ~ ~ u w 3
r ; M W Arri-miKworrde
Seuakim would only say the decision was not an easy one
In an dght-pagd dcmmmh the Central Board goes on
and htwould give a lengthy interview about the school in to state that mission: "To w
e and promote the k i n e thenearfuture.
nian identity and heritage through educational, cultural
But others invoived with both the boarding school and and humanitmian p y m . "
the AGBU were chomping at ?hebit to discuss the issue,
h this documat, subtlued "AGBU's Commitment to
F U awCIPY-+Q--*&,
tllilliomweven$25 ndlioa,it sewnsalmost absurdorfmlish
nottooonsiderhval~teofhe property in any W a n t o
'Ihbs omission or denial of the land vdue as a factor in the
Shavasb Mjjalian, the 0pplMiher of Nimia 's Financial
Education: Placing MEI in Context," mmg the reasons Times newspaper and one of the leaders of the Melkonian
for the closing were the declining mmllment and the "in- JW."What pi- many of us off,"said BoMjalian."is, do
tegration of-new generations into the larger mainslream b y think we're stupid? Are !ky stupid?Ofcrwrse it's about
setting of their counsies; the attraction to I d public and mmy. W h y don't they just admit it andwe can mwe on. It's
private non-Amrenian institutiom; and the belid of many the lying. Like hey think they are not about mumy. myoung parents that a better future for their childm will be t a b k ~ t i c w a r e a s m u c h a b ~ m n e y s E x x o n o r
secured by m U m e n t in non-Ammian schools."
AGBU consultant Gordon Andenan a g w . 'Take ~AU~crrq>aboutMelkonimmsenringrfK~m,
it's all h&W In the mantime Armenian children all around
hme, for example," he said at'his office at MEi. "Ar- the world, in R&a, in R o d and BuIgaria, in m,
menians in Frame speak French, but not so much Arm- Iran,in Iraq, in Q p s rn now left without proper Armeninn
nian. There's a group of AmKnims that want to maintain rrhratinn.Wecm~thegmdof~CentralBdmem
their culture and heritage but, on the whole, we find par- b."
ents want the kid
hto whatever culture they
are living in."
Andason, mc .forImr viw p
of me Amcricsn M a n u k Y ~ ' W s d a l m t ~ d 0 l l a r s d t f i i s w i l l b e t h e
University of Bulgarh, is the A m $pintman on MEI. be 'nningof tfK end of the AGBU," said Y
r a Wic
One of them is Haigashen Oummh. Born in Adana in
1920, Ouuwnian came to the Mellconian Educational Institute in 1933 and graduated in 1938. He claims he is the
oldest living Mekonian g r a d e 'There is no reason to
close Melkonian," he said at his h o m in Larnaca, Cypus.
"hrLelkontanis very imprtant for our youth. MeIkonian
is not only imporhnt for Cyprus,but for all Armenians in
the Diaspora."
Ouzwnian,who became a member of the Centcal Board
of the AGBU and loltes the group's vice president, laid
much of the blame on the leadeahip of the b v o l e n t
o r p h i o n . 'Wnforhnately AGBU does not r e p m n t
the image that it carried in the past,'' said Ouzounian, who
uit the organization in 1995. "It has 'last its favorable
?xa&among the p p l e and has lxm re-ofgmircd as a
foundation in the hands of only a h w panahties who
do whatever they pleasa It is mfmmak that an [email protected] e w a s h i r e d a s ~ ~ a n t ~ c h e c k ~ t h e @~ ~o ~n fo f f i c e r f n m ~ ~ c o f ~ y p r u s " ~ h e v n y
zation such as this, aRer 100y m of
mst,is now falling apart and losing its
bili among l&c
of all the AGBU schds,, so hey asked =to secretAGBU&to~owabout~ddoola#rwtfie
our people. How can they cIase the Mefkolllan
come to Cyprus to give an evaluation of the &ooLn said
The Wkoaian Institute ish i behind a w a l e d area Anderson. 'This is something that's been on the AGBU AGBUballabwrtmoney.Theywilldninkwicetobamdwer
at the gates of Nicosia, about he kilometers from the @sbxe 1975. They t a k d a b u t dosingit down she Wrkkamddolht~totk
A formerMelkmh board m&
who quit kame of
colorful old walled city. One enters the campus t h e 1975, wih the war going on in Lebanon,"
an imposing black wrought-iron gate, which p w b in
of !he clrnuresay that all the talk abut
Armenian. Greek aid English bbMelkonianEducational M%konian not fulfilfiag its '"rrassion"is, in the words of ' I t ' s & i i n i t d y a l l a b o u t ~ ~ , saidYem
Institute." On tht
is a bronze plaque that xleads: "Ar- one alumnus, "bu&hiLR
andapmofa M&mm @me. 4MaYbeit was becotnmenian General k % A e n t Union." The sign, like the
&mast everyone inkmiewe. said the number-one rea- ingaheadacdaefglkCentratB&butitallmrmsdown
school it&, i s faded.
son for the closure of the much-loved W n g school all
Beyond the gate is r a m - l o n g planrer wild with boiled d o n to one w d -Money,
w e e d s a t d b r i t t l e , ~ t ~ b u s h e s . N e a ~ a g h e t t o -"OII paper &ey talk a b u t the lees of the mission," said evtq?hhgg"
of the critilooking basketball cow complete with asphatt cracks and George Zeitomrsh, an.economistwho L the head of AGBU consultant A d a w n is well acism.
the prop
tworusted and bent net-lessrim is a -ard
surrounded national accountants for the
ofCyprusaradan erty is worth 40 million Cyprus polmds (well more than
by statues of h w s Armenians - G e n d Antrani& AGBU member. "But,
at dse AGBU smelled $80 million) and the money is going back to h e United
Gomidas, Hagop MeghaW Alex Manmgh.
Ofcourse, in the dead of August, the schao1, is empty, Zeitountsian shakes his head. '4heland Mekonian sits Stam," Anderson said ?But it is not really a finmdal
save for the last group of s u m s h a d kids. Seatedon a on is very valuable, but to make b h d money out of the hue. Finances were never a part of the decision."
A n d m is adamant in saying no deal has been struck
bench talking to four children was -is
Tapacian, a a0. k i t a g e of the Armenians is inason;" he says, his voice
a dthe land. Not yet."I havebben
year-old from Bucharest, Romania who gmhatd in
rising. '7believe the AGBU haa lost its -on.
Not the ~ ~ b u t I ~ v e a t t a l k e d t o a n y omyet,"hesaid.
He,like 84-year~ldOumunian, is hcartsi*.
f d so Melkonk*
"It is a very valuable piece of land. This k a high-rent
bad that Melkonian is cIosing," said Tapach, who came
Dr.Vahakn Atamyan sat in his s d air-conditi0w.d
ro the boardin whwl when he was 13, '2 have almost offipe about 400 nwm fwm the s c h d and agreed with arta But, any mosey the AGBU may make, any
go back hm serving the Armenians,But, 'IIgo on
half of my l i f e L . All my mmorics. It's vely sad, qw r h e ~ m o r r d s t . " I l s e A ~ U ~ ~ a l o t o f g d i n twould
) lrecad
again as saying no discussions have been done
cdly for the younger kids. What are they going to do? l a a l ( l ) y ~ a n , M ~ ~ o n ~ b a d t h i a g c a nturn
h e l with M o p s abouf p w h s b g the l a d . Like I said,
'that upside down. h y z m was abodmember o MEJ
In the dark days afterW d d War I,there was no short- for 14 years before Re was rather coldly informed in a I've gotten calls asking if it is for sale and 1tell them no.
But when and if it is, I will let hem know."
age of young Armenians with n o w h e to go. With &uI Wby
~ Carol hhh of the AGBVS
Central B w d
sands orphaned by genocide and war, m w n abut the that he was being d h m k d "And sadly, with the closing
(Part Il next week)
Middle East, two phdanthropic brothers had a vision. of the Melkonian, tbey have done thaa In the 21st cen'