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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

When There's No Place Like a Yerevan Home

YEREVAN, Armenia -- Ten years ago, Jirair Avanian was an art dealer in New York City. Life was easy, the food was great and he never had to worry about paying bills.

"Somehow my life in the United States worked out so nicely it got boring," Jirair says. We are sitting in his cozy restaurant in central Yerevan, sipping thyme tea and listening to sad Armenian folks songs on the radio.

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When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, long lost friends from Jirair's childhood started to visit the United States, and they told him about how Armenia was changing. Suddenly he felt a longing to return to Armenia, to see the places and visit the friends he had left behind 20 years before.

"For a year I went back and forth, back and forth," Jirair says. His soft-spoken American voice still has an Armenian lilt to it. "And then one day I realized, what am I doing? All I want to do is live here."

In February 1992, Jirair packed his bags and moved to Yerevan for good. It was a different world from the one he was used to in the States. Food was scarce, the electricity only worked for two hours a day, and without the familiarity of the Soviet Union, many were afraid of what the future would bring.

But for Jirair this was a challenge. In the past, all his family seemed to do was leave Armenia: His mother was born in the Armenian diaspora in Egypt; his father was born in Lebanon.

After World War II, Jirair's parents moved back to Soviet Armenia, when the Communists were trying to boost the country's dwindling population (tens of thousands had perished at the front). But, disillusioned with their homeland, the Avanians left again in 1970, when Jirair was 18, to begin a new life in the United States.

Today Jirair is as at home in Armenia as he ever was in America. He runs two restaurants and a craft shop, which sells traditional toys and handwoven rugs to the scores of Armenians visiting briefly from abroad.

Just outside Yerevan a housing complex complete with 24-hour security and a golf course has been built for overseas Armenians who want to return to the homeland. It has unrivaled views of Mount Ararat, the national symbol of Armenia (although it is now in northern Turkey), where Noah was supposed to have brought his ark to rest.

So far, most of the houses remain empty.

"It's funny, I expected Armenians from the diaspora to come flooding home when I did," Jirair says. "But so far I'm one of the only ones. Perhaps they will start coming back soon."

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.