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An Unshakable Faith

Lessons in perseverance from Armenia

by Gayane Abrahamyan

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Sister Arousiag Sajonian emanates a patience and kindness some associate with a bygone era — a time before the series of disasters that, for Armenians, have characterized the modern era.

“Sometimes it seems we are tilting at windmills,” she says, referencing the valiant but vain fight of Don Quixote against his imaginary enemies in the great 17th-century Spanish novel.

“When I first came to Armenia, it was a disastrous social situation; there was no bread, no water, no electricity. But people were helping each other; there was still hope.” However, she continues, these shared values, including people's faith in one another, have eroded.

“We teach our children the real and true values, and they often get confused, because they see one thing at home and something else at school. Struggling in conditions of such contradictions is extremely difficult.”

Recently, French President François Hollande awarded the Armenian Catholic sister of the Immaculate Conception with his country’s Order of Merit in appreciation of her humanitarian activities. The French ambassador to Armenia, in presenting the award, lauded the faith she has demonstrated through her tireless service.

“Sister Arousiag for me embodies two principles: First, it is faith in God,” said Ambassador Jean-François Charpentier. “It is faith that gives strength and energy to Sister Arousiag and makes her worthy of admiration. The second principle is faith in the human being, which is evidenced by everything that she has done in Gyumri. A human being is at the center of her activities — it is children, the poor, the elderly, it is educating and providing specialties to the young people so that they can find their place in life.”

The struggle for faith holds a central place in Sister Arousiag’s life and work. Although born and reared in Syria, her Christian faith forms the principal ground of her Armenian identity, which she has carried all over the world — from her youth in Syria and Lebanon to the United States, where she cofounded a school in Philadelphia. Her greatest mission has been to return to her ancestral homeland of Armenia. There, the people of the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion — in the year 301 A.D. — had begun to view ancient churches as museums rather than as places of prayer.

In 1990, after a long wait, Sister Arousiag received permission from the Soviet authorities to come to Armenia during one of the country's most difficult times. The devastating earthquake of December 1988 had claimed more than 25,000 lives and left as many as a million people homeless. That earthquake was soon followed by another: the unraveling of the Soviet Union and the emergence of an independent Armenia in 1991. War with neighboring Azerbaijan, economic collapse and an energy crisis, however, aggravated the poverty of the tiny republic, especially in the earthquake-devastated northwest.

To this day, Sister Arousiag remembers the victims’ eyes.

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