BY FLORENCE AVAKIANST. NERSESS SEMINARY—“Jerusalem is our home, and we would like to live and work there,” said Nicole Kassabian, 17 years old, and Vania Koutoujian, 18. These two teenagers were on the trip of their lives, having made the eleven hour plane ride to New York from Jerusalem to participate in the St. Nersess Seminary Summer Studies Program.
This extraordinary project was the brainchild of the Rev. Fr. Mardiros Chevian, Dean of St. Vartan Cathedral who conceived and planned it six years ago, with generous funding from generous donors. A major benefactor for the past several years has been Russell Kashian of Wisconsin, whose own children have participated in the St. Nersess programs.
Also supporting the program this year were David Melian of New York, Karyn and Keith Bilezerian of Massachusetts, Kristen and Glen Dabaghian of New Jersey, and Pam Young of New York, all of whom have benefited from the St. Nersess programs in their youth.
For the past six years, two outstanding students from the St. Tarkmanchats School have been privileged to come to New York each year, and gain special insight about their faith at St. Nersess Seminary, as well as rub shoulders with Armenian youth from America, resulting in lasting friendships.
“I receive great satisfaction from seeing the interaction between the Armenian youth of Jerusalem and America, the relationships that are formed, and the great possibilities for the future that can come from these relationships,” said Father Mardiros. “This project benefits the youth of the Holy Land and America as they learn from each other, and appreciate each other as brothers and sisters.”
“Our time at St. Nersess has been amazing. Our faith was strengthened with all the new information we learned,” gushed Vania, with Nicole concurring. “The Bible studies, discussions, worship services and fellowship with the young people of our age added up to an unforgettable experience. The fact that we have the same culture as our new Armenian friends in America is something very special. We learned from each other’s cultures. This bond will last forever,” added Nicole.
While they were in New York, the two students visited the Diocese of the Armenian Church and St. Vartan Cathedral and had a special meeting with the Diocesan Primate, Archbishop Khajag Barsamian. And like all eager visitors, they saw all the famous tourist sites in this renowned international city. “This trip has been “inspiring, adventurous, and eye-opening,” they both agreed enthusiastically.
Both students were born in Jerusalem, with Vania’s father also born in Jerusalem, and mother hailing from Jordan. Nicole’s father was born in Lebanon, and mother in Kessab, Syria. Nicole with her family has lived within the safe confines of the Armenian Patriarchate, whereas Vania and her family reside a few miles away in an Arab section which she said is also very safe.
They are especially emotional when they relate their experience at Jerusalem’s St. Tarkmanchats School from where they graduated this year. “We were brought up as brothers and sisters, with everyone living close to each other, and knowing each other,” commented Nicole, with Vania adding, “Our teachers have been like our parents. There is absolutely no discipline problem. Everyone receives personal attention. There has always been a wonderful nurturing atmosphere.”
They especially praise the principal of St. Tarkmanchats, Father Norayr Kazazian, and point out that under his tutelage, the school has advanced greatly, with new books, new teachers, and several renovations, including a new playground. The school which encompasses the grades one through twelve, has approximately 110 students, and is 82 years old. Four languages are taught and learned – Armenian, English, Hebrew and Arabic. The education is modeled on the British system, and all subjects are taught in English.
If there is a downside to the life at St. Tarkmanchats, it’s that these two young ladies will be leaving the school, now that they are graduating. “It’s very sad,” commented Nicole, “because we’re not going to see the same people. Our life and routine was so carefully planned for us. Now we are experiencing some confusion and insecurity.”
And what of the future? Nicole who loves painting, and works in a Jerusalem ceramic shop, plans to attend a university in Belgium, and study biology. She hopes to work in a laboratory in Jerusalem and make her home there.
Vania who is also talented in arts and crafts and works in the same ceramic shop making pottery, will be attending Hebrew University where she will study psychology or English literature, with the goal of teaching at the St. Tarkmanchats School.
Coming from an Armenian background has been especially meaningful for both young people. “I have never woken up and wanted to be other than Armenian,” said Nicole. “Being Armenian is different because we’re a minority.” For Vania, to be Armenian “is an honor. It comes with a responsibility. We have to make our heritage survive and grow.”