With a set of pipes that could easily be mistaken for someone three times her age, Ani Margaryan belts out the first lines of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.”
The 9-year-old’s stage was the carpeted floor of the library in the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, and its residents were her audience.
Margaryan’s backup band was an audio file of the hit single without Franklin’s vocals, and 14-year-old Aleksandr Avetisyan on saxophone, who picked up with silky smooth stylings during a vocal break for Margaryan.
Both Margaryan and Avetisyan are from Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia, a landlocked country in Asia that was once part of the former Soviet Union. The young musicians were in town with the Children of Armenia Fund, a non-governmental organization focused on education and economic development in rural Armenian villages.
Their performance at the Hebrew Home was part of a citywide series of performances over several days leading up to their annual fundraiser at the Manhattan restaurant Cipriani on Dec. 16. For Hebrew Home president Daniel Reingold, the decision to invite the Armenian children was a personal one.
“What struck me was the connection between the Armenian and the Jewish people,” he said. “Both are populations that have suffered a genocide.”
The Armenian genocide in 1915, a systematic killing of ethnic Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, is widely accepted as the first genocide of the 20th century. This is something Turkey — the successor state to the Ottoman Empire — vehemently denies by saying people on both sides suffered terrible fates.
Rather than focus on the past, however, the Armenian fund — which was founded in 2004 — focuses on the future and development of villages in far-flung areas of Armenia.
“Rather than bringing these people to the cities and centralizing all of the opportunities in big cities, we make it happen in rural areas,” said Ashot Margaryan — no relation to the young singer — who leads strategy for the fund. That means providing for villages with something more commonly found in cities: state-of-the-art technology in classrooms.
The fund is building up to a 2018 launch of what it calls a Smart Center in the village of Debet in the Lori region of northern Armenia. The Smart Center is a sprawling complex built into the verdant, hilly landscape that will provide Debet and neighboring villages with the latest technology for learning like digital libraries, computer labs and virtual classrooms.
Between the musical performances by Avetisyan and Margaryan, Hebrew Home residents met Nareh Galstyan, a 16-year-old high school student, who spoke at length about her experiences with the organization, and how she landed a spot in the Future Leaders Exchange Program, a U.S. government-sponsored program that brings European and Eurasian students to the United States for an academic year.
“In my school here, there are about 2,000 students, and back home in my town there are 2,000 people,” said Galstyan, who lives in Lernagog, a village in western Armenia where the fund has a heavy presence. That village, like others throughout the country, suffered heavily after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.
“We were part of a system that used to function throughout (the) Soviet Union,” said Hasmik Sargsyan, the fund’s marketing coordinator. “Once it collapsed, the factories closed down. People were left without any job opportunities. They couldn’t support their families, and most of them migrated to Russia or Europe or America.”
Villages where the Armenian fund has a presence have drastically improved, according to the fund, although there is still work to be done in villages where the organization hasn’t made inroads.
“You go from COAF village to non-COAF village, the difference is stark,” said Johannes Michaelian, an Australian medical student of Armenian descent, who volunteered with the fund teaching first aid throughout Armenian villages.
When Michaelian saw the difference fresh approaches to education made in places far removed from city life, he quickly understood the value in fostering young minds and building communities in his ancestral homeland.
As far as Avetisyan, the young saxophonist, is concerned, questions of policy and economic development are simply beyond him. It’s all about the music.
“I like the freedom in jazz,” Avetisyan said through a translator, just before taking the stage in a room full of Americans.