By: Sophia Moradian
Vahan Zanoyan is an author and global energy expert. He is educated at the Armenian Evangelical College in Beirut, The American University of Beirut and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Zanoyan has published two volumes of poetry, վերադարձ in 2010 and Եզրէն Դուրս in 2011. Inspired by a chance meeting with a victim of sex trafficking, he wrote his first novel, “A Place Far Away,” which was published in 2013. Its sequel, “The Doves of Ohanavank,” was published in 2014. He currently divides his time between Southern California, Armenia and the Middle East.
I (Sophia), had the opportunity to speak with Zanoyan before upcoming presentation on “The Sad Reality of Human Trafficking”. Our conversation is presented below.
SM: What inspired you to write A Place Far Away and The Doves of Ohanavank?
VZ: I met an Armenian girl in Dubai who slowly opened up to me about her being trafficked into the sex trade. It took a while to gain her trust, but eventually I was able to learn her story. The story of Lara Galian in A Place Far Away is actually a compilation of the stories of different women whom I spoke with while researching for the book. So, this book is fiction in the sense that the story does not belong to just one girl. However, her story is true in the sense that it comes from women who fell victim to human trafficking.
SM: How did you get involved in the topic given your background? How did the topic of raising awareness on human trafficking become a passion of yours?
VZ: I am by no means an expert on human trafficking. My main background is an energy consultant and I happened into this topic by chance when I was in Dubai. It took me years of research and writing for the first book (A Place Far Away) and several more months to complete The Doves of Ohanavank. I am still not an expert on the topic. And by the way this is not an Armenian phenomenon. It happens in Asia, and other parts of the former Soviet Union, to name a few places. But I’m not on a crusade to save the world. I am writing about what I know.
Once I started to learn more about human trafficking, I became more and more amazed at what I did not know before and what I believe many Diaspora may not know as well. I believe this is an issue that we should be more engaged and active on.
SM: What do you believe is the main driving factor driving human trafficking in Armenia?
VZ: The primary cause, I believe, is the severe economic hardship that the country has faced since gaining independence from the USSR. Families were broken apart, men moved to Russia for work, people lost social security, and on top of that a government that was essentially absent. The combination of extreme poverty and no government provided an ideal space for such a phenomenon to develop.
As Armenians, especially in the diaspora in the Middle East surrounded by other ethnicities, we were taught to hold ourselves to a certain moral standard. So to hear that these awful crimes happen in post-Soviet Armenia is difficult to comprehend and to discuss. When this topic is brought up, the most common reaction is to end the conversation. In Armenia, human trafficking, in addition to domestic violence, are topics that are considered taboo. But to not talk about human trafficking and domestic violence only leads to perpetuating these issues.
SM: What are some of the steps that Armenia as well as the international community can take to decrease the rates of human trafficking in the region?
VZ: Raising and maintaining awareness is key. The necessary laws are all there in Armenia, but enforcing those laws is something that needs to improve.
I have interviewed girls in shelters and the majority of them have told me that they got away by calling the police. Ten years ago this would not have been the case. The police would have hung up on on them and told them to call their families. To look on the bright side, today that is changing, for the better. We (the diaspora) need to keep applying pressure on the government to crack down on such crimes. However, the pressure must come from within as well.
By the way, all the proceeds (which are not much!) that I gain from the book are donated and matched by me to organizations and shelters that help victims of sex trafficking. It is not much, but this is how I am working to make a difference.
SM: How can the Armenian diaspora contribute to the efforts to halt sex trafficking in the homeland?
VZ: That is a very difficult question. Armenian communities are not comfortable discussing this painful subject. We have a saying in Armenian: amot e. But I would say, amot che! Human trafficking is something that we should not be silent about. We need to write about it, talk about it, and be active. If someone writes a book or an article but no one reads it, the message to the (Armenian) government will be that people do not care.
The Diaspora is very emotional and passionate about such issues but needs to be more active. To affect change we should encourage the Armenian government to take the issue of human trafficking more seriously. Supporting women’s shelters such as Mer Doon in Etchmiadzin, Houso Aygi, and the United Methodist Center for Relief is another way that the Diaspora can contribute.
Zanoyan will be speaking on the topic of “The Sad Reality of Human Trafficking” on January 25, 2015 at the Triton Mueseum of Art in Santa Clara, CA. More details can be found here.