The Crisis of Armenian Education in Bulgaria

June 2001

The Crisis of Armenian Education in Bulgaria

By Hratch Tchilingirian

The decline of “Armenian education” in Bulgaria and its consequences on preservation of identity is a constant concern of Bulgarian Armenian community leaders. They point out that at least two generations of Armenian Bulgarians have been virtually or completely assimilated due to the closure of Armenian schools during Communism.

By the early 1970s all eight Armenian schools were closed and only language classes were allowed to be taught after regular school hours in designated state schools in Sofia, Varna, and Plovdiv.

“All private schools were closed by the Communists,” says Sonia Hangigian, 53, principal of the Armenian day school in Plovdiv, which was founded in 1831.

“Our school was closed for 14 years (1974-1990) and a whole generation was deprived of Armenian education. And sadly, they were easily assimilated,” she continues. The consequences seem to be almost irreversible. “Now the parents who never went to Armenian schools are not brining their children to Armenian schools as they were totally cut off and no longer realize the value of Armenian education. This is a problem for us,” laments Plovdiv-born Hangigian, who is a graduate of Sofia State University’s Department of Mathematics and has been the school’s principal since 1992. 

The school in Plovdiv reopened in September 1990 and currently has some 400 first to eight grade students and 28 teachers (seven Armenian).  In addition to local Armenians and some Bulgarians, there are 50-60 students whose parents come from Armenia.

While the school building belongs to the Armenian community and is located in the Armenian Church compound, “the school is completely state administered, including the curriculum,” explains Hangigian, “the teachers’ salaries and operational expenses are also paid by the government.” However, “because of the difficult economic situation in the country, the money given by the government is not enough to cover our coasts,” she adds. “That’s why we also rely on donations from local organizations and abroad, especially Bulgarian Armenians living in the US.”

The school’s annual budget is about $30,000, and as a state school, parents do not pay tuition or contribute to other related expenses. 

Still, Armenian is taught only two hours a week to 1-4 graders and four hours a week to 5-8 graders. The rest of classes are taught in Bulgarian. “A few hours of Armenian is not much,” admits Hangigian, “But we have a choir and dance group and try to compensate lack of formal classes.”  She points out that the most important aspect of the school is its “Armenian environment.”

Like their counterparts in many other Diaspora Armenian schools, “The students do not speak Armenian with each other outside the Armenian class,” says Hangigian, “Because they do not speak Armenian at home.” But she hopes “When they graduate, they’ll know a little bit of Armenian. More than the language, we try to instill in them the Armenian spirit. They might not speak fluent Armenian or not at all, but at least they might realize that they are Armenian.”

In the capital Sofia there are no Armenian day schools. Only Armenian language is taught four-hours a week, grades 1-8th, at the William Saroyan School No. 76, with two Armenian teachers.

Before the establishment of Communism in 1944, Sofia had the Mesrobian School, established by Istanbul-born educator and principal Kevork Mesrob. It was closed in the 1930s due to financial difficulties, but continued classes in rented facilities until 1944.

In addition to coping with consequences of 45 years of Communism, there are other practical and immediate challenges, such as finding Armenian teachers and adequate textbooks.

“We have difficulty finding teachers because the new generation is not interested in becoming Armenian language teachers,” explains Hangigian.

“One of our Armenian teachers is Bulgarian-born who studied in Armenia, but her Armenian is Eastern and we speak Western Armenian. As such, she teaches Eastern Armenian, while our desire is to teach Western Armenian, as we speak that dialect in Bulgaria. Our other Armenian language teacher is also Bulgarian-born. We sent her to Haigazian University in Beirut for a year of studies. Her Armenian is not brilliant, but adequate for 1-4th graders.”

In recent years the community had put its hopes on the graduates of the Melkonian Institute (Cyprus) for a new pool of Armenian teachers. Since the end of Communism, a large number of Bulgarian Armenians are sent to the 74-year old Armenian boarding school in Cyprus to study. But, again, the prospects are grim.

Zari Tankaranian, who studied philology in Armenia from 1978-1983 and currently teaches Armenian classes in Sofia, says Melkonian graduates are not interested in teaching Armenian anymore; their eyes are to the West,” referring to the mass emigration to the US and other countries. She observers that currently available teachers have a “modest” Armenian education. For example, one teacher who studied History of Diplomacy in Yerevan teaches Armenian to 1-4 graders.

“I wish we had at least one person, from anywhere, who would be willing to come here for a year and work with our teachers and prepare future Armenian instructors,” says worried Hangigian, adding that they have not found anyone yet.

Nevertheless, there are still some dedicated “soldiers of the language.” Recently, thirtysomething Tankaranian started Armenian language classes in the city of Khaskovo (Haskovo), where 320 Armenians live. With a “missionary” zeal, she travels from Sofia to Khaskovo by bus every Sunday, a four-hour trip each way, to teach Armenian to 20 children. A great believer that language is key to preservation of Armenian identity, she plans to start a second class and a youth choir with the help of AGBU. She points out that one of her little student’s grandmother is a Turk married to an Armenian.

Bringing the Armenian language and culture to these far spread tiny communities is a “mission” that individuals, like Tankaranian, are willing to carry out with virtually no organizational support or financial resources.

But, another major challenge to Armenian educators in Bulgaria, like so many of their counterparts in the Diaspora, is the lack of adequate textbooks to teach Armenian.  During Communism Armenian textbooks were brought from Soviet Armenia, but that introduced complications in the educational system as the books were in the Eastern Armenian and Bulgarian Armenians speak the Western dialect. 

After the end of Communism in 1989, Soviet-Armenian textbooks were replaced with publications from Syria and Lebanon.  “Some years ago we received books from Aleppo (Merkasdan) and that’s what we still use, by photocopying them every year,” says Hangigian. “We received some very well prepared books from the US, but they are too expensive for us, we cannot afford to order them from the US.”

Tankaranian adds that besides being outdated, the books from the Middle East are devoid of proper pedagogical approaches. “These books are littered with obscure sentences, like ‘The mouse ate grandmother’s meat’ (Mugeh gerav mamigin miseru).”  

She points out that Armenian is taught as “a foreign language to Armenians” in Bulgaria, as such, the methodologies used in the Middle East “are substantially different” from what Bulgarian Armenian students need.  Until new textbooks are prepared, which is not on the horizon, they are bound to use the books that are available, despite their inadequacy. 

As for the future of Armenian education in Bulgaria, “The question is whether we will have Armenian students in five or ten years?” asks Hangigian with uncertainty. “Every year the number of students is declining, so is the number of Armenian families in Plovdiv. Last year we had 43 Armenian students in our first grade, this year we have only 20. It would be difficult to preserve a school with such declining numbers.”

Hangigian expects further decline in the community due to the economic situation in Bulgaria, which has led to mass emigration. “I’m afraid, if the situation does not get better, we might not have Armenians left in Bulgaria.” On the other hand, she points out, “We also have large percentage of mix marriages and decline in birthrates. Some 40-45 percent of our students come from mixed families. These also have an affect on our future.”

But Tankaranian is optimistic. Despite the difficult socio-economic situation in the country, she sees a new “Armenian reawakening in all cities in Bulgaria,” especially in the last few years. “Cultural activities are taking place on a regular basis in all communities” she says. As a positive sign, she points out that recently a new Armenian center was built in Silistra, near the Romanian border, with a $60,000 donation from Bulgarian Armenians living in the US. 

Hratch Tchilingirian
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