Sis — Refugees Find New Home in the Shadow of Ararat

Sis -- Refugees Find New Home in the Shadow of Ararat

July 11, 2003

For additional photos related to this article, visit the ATG Photo Gallery.

by Andranik Michaelian

Sis, Province of Ararat, Armenia — Planting barley in most Armenian villages is a routine event. In the village of Sis, however, it marked a milestone in the spring of 2003.

Since 1988, not much that has taken place in Sis could be characterized as routine. That year, a pogrom against the Armenian community of Sumgait, Azerbaijan, signaled the beginning of ethnic conflict between Armenians and Azeris in what was then the Soviet Union. Within two years, more than 300,000 Armenians left Azerbaijan, while nearly 200,000 Azeris moved out of Armenia.

Sis, which had been populated mainly by Azeris, became home to nearly 4,000 Armenian refugees from Baku and Sumgait. The village, located near the town of Masis in the Ararat valley, faced enormous problems, compounded by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Economically, there was little for the mostly urban refugees to do. Most of the local industries had ceased functioning. Farming was one of the few options, but the land was in poor condition and few of the villagers had a background in agriculture. Many of Sis’ residents decided they had no choice but to leave their new home.

Building new lives

In the mid-1990s, two local leaders began exploring ways to revive Sis’ economy. Sergey Khachatryan, a former university professor, and Mischa Lazginyan, chairman of the Benevolent Union of Sis, approached the Armenian Technology Group (ATG) with a proposal to assist Sis. ATG, a California-based non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of Armenia’s agriculture, was up to the challenge. By that time, ATG was already familiar with the issues surrounding rural economic development and job creation. ATG’s Armenia director, Roger Benton, was impressed with Khachatryan and Lazginyan’s understanding of the economic forces affecting Sis. He relayed their proposal to ATG Chairman Arthur Hazarabedian and ATG Executive Director Varoujan Der Simonian, who enthusiastically endorsed what would later be called the Sis Project.

ATG secured an $84,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to begin reclaiming 25 hectares (62 acres) of land just outside of Sis. The fields there had been largely abandoned because of the high alkaline content of the soil. In addition, ATG Board Member Varoujan Bedikian contributed $25,000 to the project.

With the funding, ATG drilled an artesian well, capable of pumping 300 gallons a minute to irrigate and leach 120 hectares (296 acres). Drainage ditches were dug and pipeline laid, with holes carefully drilled to ensure proper leaching. Naturally occurring gypsum was used to enrich the land. Sudan grass (a forage related to sorghum) was planted, both to feed the village animals and draw salts from the soil.

The results were inspiring. Cows feeding on the Sudan grass produced twice as much milk as before. Moreover, the increase in milk production illustrated one of ATG’s main objectives: convincing farmers of the benefits of crop rotation. In Sis and other areas, ATG has stressed that rotating grain with crops such as Sudan grass and alfalfa not only yields high-quality livestock feed but also restores nitrogen to the soil.

Ready for planting

In April 2003, the soil on a 13.5-hectare (33-acre) plot was finally ready for growing grain. Barley was chosen for planting in part because it grows well in alkaline soil. A truck arrived loaded with sacks of barley tested and labeled by ATG agronomists and the Armenian Department of Agriculture. With a tractor and spreader purchased by ATG, the villagers began sowing the seeds. At the same time, another group drilled holes in pipes that had been placed in newly dug ditches to reclaim the remaining 11.5 hectares (28 acres) of land.

As the tractor chugged slowly toward Mt. Ararat, the Armenian national symbol, in the fading sunlight, Khachatryan recalled the words of the Armenian-American author William Saroyan. “Saroyan once said, ‘It is time for Armenians to become prosperous, so they will be the ones helping others.’ This is happening in Sis. Other villages are in need, and can succeed like us. Armenians need to help them.”

Khachatryan then spoke of the pogroms in Sumgait and Baku. “It was at that point,” he said, “that I was reawakened as an Armenian. My wish now is that a small church be built in our village. That would make our lives complete.”

Khachatryan is also looking forward to a continued relationship with ATG. Plans call for ATG to extend its seed multiplication program to Sis. The program will be another step in strengthening Sis’ economy and expanding employment opportunities. Now that the future looks brighter, Khachatryan, Lazginyan, and their fellow former refugees are happy to call Sis home.

For more information about how you can help Armenia’s farmers, contact the ATG office at (559) 224-1000 or by e-mail ( Tax-deductible donations can be sent to ATG; 1300 E. Shaw, Suite 149; P.O.Box 5969; Fresno, CA 93755-5969.
You may also donate to ATG online.