The Armenian Evangelical School in Anjar

Armenian International Magazine AIM Vol. 11, No. 1, January 2000, pp. 52-53

The Armenian Evangelical School in Anjar

Providing a brighter future

Hratch Tchilingirian

Ara (not his real name) was four years old when a social worker brought him to the Armenian Evangelical boarding school in Anjar, the Armenian village in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The school was already in session and the principal insisted that Ara should come at the beginning of the following year. But the social worker could not take Ara back. “You wouldn’t send him away if I told you where this child comes from,” pleaded the desperate social worker. Ara was very quiet and looked disturbed, says Rev. Nersess Balabanian, 40, who is in charge of the school. “The child’s father is a drug addict, his mother is a prostitute and he lives in a tiny room with two other little siblings,” explains Balabanian, “we couldn’t possibly return this child to that place.” They took him in.

“Within a week, this child was transformed. He was running around, playing, screaming, laughing,” continues Balabanian. “He opened up again. He was such a positive kid, there was nothing wrong with him except the environment he came from.” In fact, the school did not even need to solicit the services of a psychologist. “The school environment ‘healed’ him,” says Balabanian with a satisfied smile.

That was two years ago. Ara, now six, is one of 120 boarding students at the school, 80 percent of whom come from troubled families, the majority of them in Beirut. But the school’s student body is mixed. Unlike orphanages or other “special” schools, this school also caters to some 200 local Anjar students. 

The Evangelical church in Anjar was established in 1939 when some 5,000 Armenians fled Musa Dagh to escape Turkish atrocities and were relocated in the area by the French army. The school started in 1940.

In 1947, the “Angel of Anjar” Sister Hedwig Aenishansslin of the German-Swiss Hilfsbund (Helping Bond) Missionary organization came to Anjar from Greece to help Armenian orphans. The Armenian-speaking Sister Hedwig and two other sisters were part of the Armenian mission, which was established in 1896 by Pastor Ernst Lohmann of Frankfurt in the wake of the 19th century Armenian massacres in the Ottoman Empire.

“We are here as the representatives of the Christian Hilfsbund in the Orient, a joint German-Swiss Mission,” explains Gottfried Spangenberg, the current director of the mission in Anjar, who has been there for 15 years.

For over a century, the little known Hilfsbund has served the Armenian people in various parts of the world. Spangenberg explains that “Pastor Lohmann had heard about the Armenian massacres in an American magazine. He published articles about the situation of the Armenians in German church magazines. There was a very quick response to his appeal and through the help of various other smaller organizations, they were able to take care of Armenian orphans and widows affected by the Ottoman massacres.”

The Hilfsbund mission set up schools and vocational classes. After the 1915 Genocide, the German-Swiss missionaries cared for 500 to 700 orphans. Later, they ran a hospital and a boarding school in Marash, Turkey. However, in 1932 the Turks expelled the missionaries. Between the two world wars, they had started relief work for Armenians in Greece, Varna and Plovdiv, Bulgaria. After World War II, they moved their relief work to Anjar.

“Currently, our work is primarily in Lebanon and Syria,” says Spangenberg, adding that the organization is in the process of reassessing its mission. “We are in a transition to hand over our operations to the Armenian community,” he explains. “This handover is spread over a 10-year period, so that the transfer is smooth and without major problems.” Starting in 2001, the annual financial grants of Hilfsbund to the school will decrease by 10 percent until it is phased out by the end of 2011. Meanwhile, all real estate and other properties have been officially transferred to the Armenian Evangelical community of Lebanon.

Since the 1988 earthquake in Armenia, Hilfsbund has also sent material help to Armenia. “For the last six years, we have two people in Armenia helping the Zadik orphanage in Yerevan,” says Spangenberg.

In the 1970s, the running of the school and the dormitory was divided between the Armenian Evangelical community in Anjar and the German-Swiss Mission. The Armenians assumed responsibility for the school. By 2011, the entire institution will be the Evangelical Church’s responsibility.

The boarding school in Anjar is one of only two schools in the Diaspora that provide residential care and education to “orphans” and children from troubled families. The other is the Birds Nest in Jibel, Lebanon, run by the Catholicosate of Cilicia. (The other two residential facilities are regular boarding schools: the Melkonian School in Nicosia, Cyprus and the Armenian College in Calcutta, India.)

“We have children from divorced or broken families, children from very poor families, and some orphans,” says Balabanian. “There are also some unwanted children. When one parent remarries, the new spouse doesn’t want the children. We have victims of abuse, and even a few rare cases of sexually abused children,” he adds.

Most of the children are brought to the school by social workers serving in the Jinishian and Karageozian social service centers in Beirut. But not all the boarders are disadvantaged children.

“We have students who come from very well-off families, whose parents pay full tuition and boarding expenses,” says the Aleppo-born Balabanian who studied music and theology in Dallas, Texas. “Parents, for example from Syria, come and see our school and decide to send their child, because we are nearer and cheaper than the Melkonian School in Cyprus.”

They also have a few students from southern Syria, near the Israeli boarder. “An Armenian shepherd, married to an Arab woman, has six children,” explains Balabanian. “There is nothing Armenian around or near where they live. Their paternal grandmother was Armenian, but the kids did not speak any Armenian, they spoke Arabic. Currently we have four of the children studying at our school. One of them will graduate this year,” he says.

Then there is an 18-year-old student from Bulgaria, whose mother was the principal of the Armenian school in Plovdiv. During the Gulf war, a few students came from Iraq and Kuwait, as well.

“Last year, we even had an application from New York, a 16-year-old girl,” says Balabanian. “Her grades were not impressive, plus, we thought a teenage girl raised in America would have difficulty living in the context and environment of our school  in  Anjar.”

 Visitors to the school and especially the dormitories are impressed by the immaculately clean living quarters of the children and the serene natural surroundings. The children have homemade meals three times a day. One day last fall, 300 dolmas were being prepared for lunch.

The annual tuition for kindergarten is about $500 and as much as $1000 for high school. “Even if every parent pays tuition, which they don’t — only one third do — we still need to do fundraising,” says Balabanian. “Only one third of our budget is generated through tuition paid by the parents. We have to raise the rest ourselves.”

As the Diaspora’s focus has shifted to Armenia, the school has been receiving very little from their “traditional” donors in the US. “We received about $10,000 from the AMAA,” says Balabanian with concern.

The school’s non-teaching staff of 30 all come from Anjar, as do most of the 30 teachers, explains Rev. Raffi Messerlian, 31. Messerlian, born in Beirut, studied at Haigazian University and the Near East School of Theology and has been principal since October.

During Lebanon’s nearly two-decade long Civil War, the school continued to operate, despite many shortcomings; they didn’t even have a telephone. Today, they have cellular phones, e-mail and an Internet connection.

But as with all Diaspora communities, there are also divisions in tiny Anjar — along denominational and political lines. The village’s less than 2,500 residents have three churches: Apostolic, Catholic and Evangelical.

In addition to the Evangelical school, there is another high school affiliated with the Armenian Apostolic Church of Lebanon; it was established in 1970. While some teachers work at both schools, there is very little cooperation between them other than the celebration of national holidays. “We have certain official contacts but deep down we do not have a dialogue on mutual concerns,” says Balabanian. Both schools have financial difficulties. Recently, there was some discussion on joining the upper grades. But, “this is only a wish at this point and nothing more,” he adds.

The Christian character and context of the school is an important part of its work. The care provided to the students is based on the faith and mission of the Evangelical church.

In a 1996 message to the students, Rev. Dieter Schultz, General Secretary of Hilfsbund Mission said, “Even the little contribution of the Hilfsbund helps the children of the Evangelical School to become people who carry the praise and the love of God into the world. Especially, you all as Armenians have a great task from God to witness by your history that Jesus Christ stands beside a people even in need and trouble.”

Hratch Tchilingirian
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