Planting Hope and New Beginnings in Armenia

Edesia’s Executive Director Maria Kasparian plants an apricot tree in Armenia earlier this year.

By Maria Kasparian, Executive Director of Edesia

In September, I had the privilege of attending the Global Child Nutrition Forum overseas. It’s an annual international learning and technical assistance conference that supports countries in the development and implementation of sustainable school feeding programs. Delegations from more than 40 countries all over the globe gather to discuss the importance of getting good nutrition into the mouths of schoolchildren — to promote both their health and learning as well as the well-being and economic development of their communities. Every year the conference is hosted in a different country; this year it was in Armenia, a country with personal significance for me.

I am the great-granddaughter of survivors of the Armenian genocide. My father’s grandparents hail from towns spread across what is now modern-day Turkey. Forced to flee their homes, my ancestors made their way to neighboring countries and then ultimately the United States. Modern-day Armenia is positioned to the east of Turkey — a tiny sliver of historic Armenia — but a mighty one. I share this family history, not to dredge up past grief or to assign blame to wrongs but to convey a story of hope and resilience.

I remember the story of my great-grandmother, Yeranouhi. After her father and brothers were killed, she and her mother spent four years in a Greek refugee camp until she, at the age of 18, was promised to an Armenian man (my great-grandfather) who had already made his way to the United States. In the early 1920s, with no knowledge of the United States or of the English language, she and her mother started their new life in Chicago. Despite the struggles that new immigrants face, they thrived, and my great-grandparents’ family grew — soon to include my grandmother, Violet.

My great-grandmother Yeranouhi (far right), weaving rugs with other refugee women in Greece (c. 1920).

Three generations later, Armenia, as a country and culture, is still present in my heart and mind — the food, family, language, dance, and religion. So I was delighted when the opportunity to combine a personal and professional passion presented itself in September. Checking into the hotel upon arrival, I was immediately greeted with “Welcome back to your motherland,” which I understood thanks to my years of Armenian language classes back home. It made me smile and feel connected from the start.

I had the opportunity to visit some of the well-known landmarks in and around Yerevan — historic monasteries, markets, and memorials. Each visit was meaningful, however, one of the most memorable occasions of the whole trip was a conference-organized visit to a school in Vedi, where we planted young apricot and pear trees with the excited students. As we dug into the soil, I knew in my heart that we were also planting hope and new beginnings.

Edesia’s work, at its core, is about planting seeds to nourish the future. The products that we make for young children, mothers, and schoolchildren all focus on life-giving nutrition. My family was uprooted and then replanted in the United States as refugees, just a few generations ago. They rebuilt their lives here and then used their success to help those in Armenia to rebuild theirs as well. I am honored that my work with Edesia now also helps refugees — in both the U.S. and around the world — to help rebuild their lives. New opportunities and good nutrition are the fundamentals of nourishing the next generation.

Thank you, Armenia, for instilling within me these important lessons.

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