Armenian Lawmakers Visiting Cyprus Were Confronted by Protesters Hoping Armenia’s New Leaders Can Make a Difference
The Melkonian Educational Institute in Nicosia “should reopen,” said Cyprus’ House of Representatives President Demetris Syllouris during a meeting on July 4 in the Cypriot capital with a delegation of Armenian lawmakers headed by Parliament Speaker Ararat Mirzoyan.
The decision to abruptly close the historic Melkonian School in 2005 became a topic of discussion between Cypriot and Armenian legislators. Also participating in last week’s meeting was Vartkes Mahdessian, an Armenian member of the Cypriot parliament.
According to the Nicosia-based Financial Mirror, the Cypriot side lamented the decision by school administrators to sell the land on which the school sits, despite appeals by Cyprus officials that the school should reopen in order to serve the needs of the Armenian Diaspora.
The Financial Mirror also reported that Syllouris had raised the Melkonian School issue with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan during his visit to Yerevan in May, emphasizing that the school property should not be made available for any commercial activities, but a solution should be found to benefit the Armenian Diaspora and the community in Cyprus, with Melkonian becoming a center of excellence for education, technology and research.
Syllouris reportedly reiterated the Cypriot government’s opposition to Melkonian’s closure during a meeting with then parliament speaker Ara Babloyan, stressing that many Armenians and the entire Cypriot nation were against selling the Melkonian School and its property, which includes acres of forest whose first trees were planted by orphans of the Armenian Genocide when the Melkonian institute was initially operating as an orphanage.
Syllouris also fondly recalled being a guest of honor at a gathering in 2016 hosted by Melkonian alumni who gathered at the school’s grounds to mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Melkonian Orphanage. During the event, Syllouris was presented with a special honor presented by Dr. Daniel Abdoulian, one of the oldest surviving Melkonian graduates from 1944, who had traveled to Cyprus from Los Angeles.
Syllouris had declared at the time that the award would be placed at the Presidential Palace because it was dedicated “to the entire nation of Cyprus.”
Syllouris and his legislative colleagues were at the forefront of efforts to keep the school open in 2004 and 2005, when the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), which was running the school, opted to close the venerable educational institution and sell the property. Syllouris also spearheaded the effort to designate the school and its property as a “protected national heritage site,” to prevent development and sale of the property.
Before the Armenian legislative delegation visited the Melkonian School on July 5, the chair of the Armenian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Science, Education, Culture, Diaspora, Sport and Youth Affairs Mkhitar Hayrapetyan said that Melkonian’s closure was painful.
Hayrapetyan, who was part of the Mirzoyan-led delegation and until the December 9 parliamentary election was Armenia’s Diaspora Minister, said that the Melkonian School has always been a focal point of his visits to Cyprus.
The Armenian legislative delegation arrived at the Melkonian School on Friday, July 5 and they were met by community members, activists and Cypriot organizational leaders who were protesting the sale of the land and the school’s closure.
Organized by the Melkonian Global Initiative, the protesters hoped that they would find a sympathetic ear in the Armenian legislative delegation, most of whom represent the Pashinyan’s “My Step” alliance. MGI founder Arsine Shirvanian, who had traveled to Nicosia from the Los Angeles especially for this event, stressed the importance of Armenian education and educational institutions in the uphill battle to preserve Armenian identity and advance the Armenian Nation.
While the Armenian lawmakers were sympathetic to the protesters’ demands and pledged to further address various resolutions to the issue, they were non-committal.
“Melkonian [school] is not owned by the Republic of Armenian, it is owned by the AGBU,” Armenia’s parliament speaker told the crowd gathered at the school grounds last week.
“It is extremely painful for me to see that the school that became a home for Armenian orphans of the Genocide and for several generations is closed down. Words can’t describe my emotions,” said Mkhitaryan before visiting Melkonian last week.
“I would not be wrong, if I said that the Melkonian Educational Institute is a symbol of all Armenians, of their persistence to be reborn, struggle and succeed after the Genocide, and it is on this symbolic day that Ararat Mirzoyan and I will be visiting the once active, but now silent and melancholic corner of Cyprus,” said Hayrapetyan pointing out that July 5 was National Symbols Day in Armenia in addition to being Constitution Day.
Sympathetic, but non-committal. Will a new—and young—crop of Armenian lawmakers, one of whom expressed his “extreme” sadness about the Melkonian School closure, take active steps toward reopening the school? Or will fight for the school remain a torch carried by activist Melkonian alumni, the Cyprus-Armenian community and the government of Cyprus?