The Bridge to Armenia
Mhare Mouradian gives back to the country he never knew
Published in 2022 Southern California Super Lawyers Magazine on January 18, 2022
Mhare Mouradian had an itinerant childhood—born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, raised in the San Francisco Bay Area—but he didn’t get the chance to visit the land of his Armenian ancestors until 2015, when he was 40.
He was amazed to see the history he’d only read about, and describes visiting Geghard, a church carved into the side of a mountain, as “a holy experience.” He got to see some family history, too. After the Armenian genocide of 1915-1917, his mother’s side of the family ended up in Ethiopia, his father’s in Syria, but both of Mouradian’s parents were sent back to Armenia for college. “That’s where they met,” Mouradian says. “Seeing their dorms and hearing the stories was pretty cool.”
He also got to meet some relatives. “I have two uncles and cousins who grew up in Syria,” he says. “But then the war in Syria started and they got displaced again.”
In other words, the descendants of the family that fled the Armenian genocide had to flee back to Armenia because of the Syrian civil war. “They had to leave everything,” Mouradian says.
Mouradian knows about having to leave everything. In the early 1970s, his father was principal of the Armenian school in Addis Ababa, while his mother, with a master’s in music, was a teacher at the royal palace of King Haile Selassie. Then there was a military coup, the 82-year-old Selassie was overthrown, and the family immigrated to the U.S. to give their children a better chance.
In Concord, California, his father worked in a soap factory and his mother gave private piano lessons. Mouradian, whose first language was Amharic, learned English via Sesame Street. He and his twin brother had to deal with American kids who couldn’t wrap their minds around their past. He remembers them asking: Wait, are you Ethiopian or Armenian? And what is that anyway? “It was a lot of teasing of my name, too,” he says. In first grade, both boys were put into an ESL class despite speaking the language as well as their classmates. “I remember feeling like they just put us in there because of our names,” he says. “We were in there for literally one week and then got put back in regular English class.”
Eventually, his mother became a successful music teacher in the Bay Area while his father, after working at his uncle-in-law’s 7-Eleven, worked for Southland Corp., the 7-Eleven franchiser. “He got promoted to market director in the Bay Area, then opened up his own franchise store,” Mouradian says.
It was seeing the legal ramifications of having a business that got Mouradian interested in the law. “It’s all I do now,” he says. “I’m a business attorney helping businesses in different kinds of disputes.”
And now he’s using his business knowledge and connections for the good of Armenia.
It began in the fall of 2020. “Azerbaijan attacked an area called Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenians call Artsakh,” he says. The war, which lasted 44 days, had him worrying about Armenia losing people, land, history and culture. “But part of it was also the pandemic. Even in the U.S., we had supply-chain issues, with nothing on grocery store shelves. If you can have that here in the U.S., imagine Armenia.”
He adds: “If you look at a map, Armenia is landlocked. You have the southern border to Iran, you have the northern border to Georgia, and you’ve got Turkey and Azerbaijan on both sides. So the main idea was to build a bridge from the U.S. diaspora to Armenia, and then from Armenia to the U.S., to promote trade and business.”
That bridge, Armenia Empowered, focuses on technology, manufacturing, fashion, wine and culinary arts. “And tourism is something we want to increase,” he says. “It’s such a gorgeous place. I don’t think that’s fully known.”
Some of the work the nonprofit does is matchmaking: introducing angel investors here to startup companies there. Some of it is mentorship. The most challenging aspect, he adds, is just keeping the momentum going; but it’s a cause he believes in. “It’s the only democracy in that area,” he says. “Not to get into politics, because we’re nonpolitical, but I think democracy definitely encourages business, encourages oversight, encourages modernization and discourages corruption. It’s important to keep Armenia that way. And to keep it existing."
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