A couple of days ago, I received a very special phone call. I cannot help but want to tell my story so far, partly from the fear of forgetting important details but more importantly from the desire to remember and honor those who have helped me so much along the way.
It was the winter of 1993. Yerevan was covered with a white freezing blanket of snow. It was serene and peaceful outside, no cars, no people, nothing. Just the snow… and the occasional smoke emanating from a makeshift tin exhaust vent built into the kitchen or living room window, a pipe on a wall made black by whatever people had been burning to stay warm. No power, no gas, no phone, no water. It was almost as cold inside as it was outside. My father would joke that the only utility still operational was the sewer system. No school, no work, nothing… just staying alive. The reality was unacceptable, unimaginable, and unforgettable. I had to get out of that frozen hell known as the Fatherland, or the Mother Armenia. I cannot even imagine what my parents must have felt in those days because for me life was easier… reading, writing, talking, laughing and dreaming, and of course, buying the daily bread ration, chopping wood for the stove, and bringing water from the nearby houses to our fifth floor apartment.
Every day for hours, I would do English exercises, copy down chapters of books in English, listen to the the Voice of America and the BBC on our short-wave radio, and dream big dreams. Perhaps learning the language was all I could do because the dream was too far, too impossible. My family was happy but we were not wealthy or well connected. I could see no other way to reach a dream than to do what I could do and hope for the rest.
Months later, in our room where we had the tiny ten inch TV running on a car battery, during the evening news broadcast I heard about a program that was recruiting exchange students for a one-year visit to America. There was no other option. I had to apply. The process was unclear but I had to write an essay and submit for consideration. After writing the best essay I could write in a language I had just barely learned and taking it to the embassy with my friend, all I could do was wait, and continue dreaming. Little did I know that over fifteen hundred others had also submitted their essays. I’m not sure how many had re-written their essay at least a dozen times to make sure the writing and the spelling were perfect and had written over the same text on the final version to make sure every letter was perfectly traced to fix the poor job of the cheap pen.
Days or maybe a week or two later, I heard that the results were back and names would be announced at the embassy. I went there alone as I could not bother my parents or anyone else to come along for a non-event. Everything was rigged in those days. Why would this be any different? Others had attended expensive private English lessons or had gone to English schools. Their parents had money and connections. I had little chance but deep down there was a glimmer of hope that maybe by divine intervention, my name would also come up. So, I went to the embassy alone and discovered a huge noisy crowd. Some time later, a man came out of the embassy, stood on the fence holding onto the wrought iron railing and began to announce names into a loudspeaker. I think mine was the first name announced. All I could do is stand there in complete shock thinking maybe I had wanted to hear my name so much that it was all an illusion. I asked the people next to me if they had heard my name but they were too busy listening for names they cared about and did not know for sure.
I had passed the first gate. The holes of the giant sifter were too small for me to fall through this time, but I knew that at each of the next stages, they would come with an even smaller sifter with bigger holes and would shake the applicant pool some more to see who would remain in the human sifter.