Sept. 19, 2014: Living in Armenia teaches a lesson in freedom, by Sarah Rothfuss

September 19, 2014 by

Sarah Rothfuss

Sarah Rothfuss

I recently returned from living and working abroad in Yerevan, Armenia.

The country itself dates back to 1300 B.C. but has only been an independent democracy since 1991.

Armenia could be likened to a teenager with many growing pains — one of the largest being employment and distribution of wealth.

The top 3 percent of the population controls the wealth of the nation, while the average family in the city has an annual income of $3,000 (in U.S. dollars).

Since Armenia is landlocked, importing needed goods is difficult at best. What can be likened to the Armenian mafia controls what comes in and what goes out. That explains, in part, why good are priced higher than in the U.S. Adding to the cost are import taxes.

Many of my days were finding homes for United States employees in the capital city. I would walk into buildings where hot wires were hanging out of the ceiling and a shoebox elevator was stuck in between floors. Electricity was only on for certain hours of the day and water was available even less.

The real estate market was little to nonexistent. When the Soviet Union dissolved 25 years ago, apartments were inherited by whoever lived there. And with no income, Armenian families gathered together under one roof — grandpas, grandmas, moms, dads, cousins, brothers and sisters in a one-bedroom apartment.

My heart was often humbled as I explained to my staff that the apartments they were showing me, which were way beyond their own means, did not come up to U.S. living standards.

I represented the American dream they desired — but what was their luxury was our cast off.

It never fazed the Armenians, though. They laughed freely, put their family first and would do anything to help a neighbor.

Parents often sacrificed to make sure their children had the best education possible — not for status but for the education itself, for they valued workmanship and the process. When they left the house they may have only had one outfit but it was starched, their shoes shined and their hair in place.

They were proud of who they were; they were Armenian. And they treated their new freedom with care, cultivated it and desired its growth.

As Americans we may take our freedom for granted, to never give a thought to those original few who created this great nation. But what was it like for them?

Much like the Armenian people, they were discovering how to do all things for themselves. They worked hard, invested in each other and in their families and nurtured their country’s heritage.

I was recently reminded that our national anthem actually a series of questions. It asks, “Does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free…?

Does it wave? Are we proud? Do we walk out of our homes each day realizing the responsibility we have?

The line continues, “… and the home of the brave?”

Are we brave? Freedom is an overwhelming concept, but empowering.

When I have children, I want them to come into a world where we roll up our sleeves and work hard, where we put our families and friends first, where we help our neighbor and we are constantly learning.

The lesson the Armenian people taught me is that life is not easy, but you can be proud and you can be brave because you are free.

— Sarah Rothfuss is director of the Comcordia Chamber of Commerce.

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