Ruben Izmailyan, 29, has been helping to support his father in Armenia since graduating from college. Ruben talked to MEL about why he does it, how he does it and how it’s changed his life.
I grew up in Armenia, and my parents divorced when I was a little kid. I didn’t see my dad for a couple years after that, but he became a presence again when I was around six, and it kept on like that until I turned 12, in 1999, when I left the country to move to Russia with my grandfather, and my mom and older brother moved to the US.
After the Soviet era, the economy had collapsed in Armenia. There was a massive wave of emigration, particularly from working-age men. My mother’s brother was working in Russia, and he’d been supporting us and my grandparents while we were in Armenia by sending money every month.
But my dad stayed in the country — he had remarried shortly after divorcing my mom and had a new family to support — and he was working at the second biggest chemical plant in Armenia, in Yerevan, the capital. He essentially worked as a warehouse manager. My loose understanding is he hocked shit to anyone who would buy the industrial equipment sitting around the plant. Then he would split that money with his employees. Everyone technically had a job, and they technically had a salary. But no one was actually paying them — it was a completely collapsed manufacturing economy that thought it wasn’t a completely collapsed manufacturing economy.
I’m proud that I’m able to dedicate the equivalent of a couple of fancy dinners to making sure my dad can eat well. It’s a no-brainer.
In 2001, after my grandfather passed away, I joined my mom and my brother in the D.C. suburbs. For the first few years, my dad would send me 100 bucks on my birthday, which was a lot for him. I mean, the average income in Armenia is a few hundred bucks a month, but he wanted to do a nice thing.
By the time my brother and I started working six or seven years ago, however, things had flipped. My dad was out of work for long periods of time; he basically called us a couple different times and said, “Is there any way you guys can send me some money?” With his other family in Armenia and not knowing any English, coming to the West wasn’t really an option for him. He went to work in Russia for about eight months a couple years ago when he was extra desperate, but it ended up being almost a slave laborer situation. They said they’d give him a work permit, but instead, they never paid him. He ended up having to spend all his money to get a ticket home.
My brother and I started out helping him with cash irregularly, but now it’s every month. His situation has been unstable; ours has been stable. Each month we send him anywhere from $200 to $400 — and we’ve been doing it without fail for the last couple of years.
I love doing it. It’s a magical feeling. I’m proud that I’m able to dedicate what is a small amount of money in the U.S. — the equivalent of a couple of fancy dinners — to making sure my dad can eat well. It’s a no-brainer.
Plus, it’s part of Armenian culture. You don’t do the whole mine-yours thing within families, especially when it comes to money. Money was always tight growing up, but if there was family in need, we somehow found a way to help them out. You never lend money, you never borrow money; you just give it or you take it.
I’m lucky that my wife, who’s American, has been extremely supportive about my helping my dad out — because now it’s not just me, but us giving him money. There was a bit of a cultural barrier at first, since in the U.S., the parent helps the kid, or the money is in the form of loans, but overwhelmingly she’s been supportive.
People tend to be very quick to jump to conclusions about how a situation like this could happen — my dad must be lazy, that kind of stuff. They always think there’s some hidden reason to explain what’s going on. But in most of the world, things don’t work in any rational way: A brilliant construction engineer like my dad goes years not being able to draw a salary. My mom, too. She was a top anesthesiologist in Armenia who had to move to America and start over doing bullshit medical assistant work for $30,000 a year in order to support her kids as a single parent.
I don’t hate talking about this with people, but I end up having to educate them on the absurdity of the post-Soviet world.
A year and a half ago, my dad had a heart attack. He was on the operating table while I was negotiating with a nurse about how soon I could send the hospital the money so they could put a stent in his heart valve. Pretty fucked-up shit.
This was Martin Luther King Day in the U.S., so banks were closed. I tried to explain this to the hospital and told them that I could send the money the next day, but they said, “No, we need the money before we can do the operation.” TD Bank, the Canadians, bailed me out — I didn’t have an account with them, but they let me do a cash advance on my debit card. So we found a way to get like $6,000 together, and then I spent the rest of the day at MoneyGram, making sure the money got wired over to literally save his life.
Normally, though, most of the money I give him goes toward things like medicine, groceries and bills. The cost of living is surprisingly high in Armenia. Like most older folks there, my dad owns the apartment he lives in, so there isn’t rent to pay, and he’s been driving the same Lada since 1984. But because the country is largely blockaded by Turkey and Azerbaijan, energy and food costs are comparable to those in the U.S. He pays $150 a month for utilities, and groceries at a normal market are like $200 a month.
The fact that I pay for these things hasn’t changed our relationship. But there’s an element of reliance he has on his kids he probably wishes he didn’t have. Again, it might seem different to an American, but where I come from, it’s really not. Something like one-fifth of Armenia’s GDP is remittances. It’s just the way it is; the kids are sending money to help out because the situation there is shit.
That doesn’t mean it hasn’t had a big impact on my life. When I was figuring out jobs after college, it was always with the understanding that I wanted to support my dad, and eventually my mom as well. (Though she’s having none of it.) It also has kept me from quitting jobs that made me miserable and from switching careers way earlier than I would have liked.
I did quit my job at a financial analytics company at the beginning of this year so that I could start my own business — it’s a startup, a personal finance service called Budgit. Before I quit, though, I opened a separate bank account with four grand — a year’s worth of money for my dad. Having that money set aside in the bank freed me from having to work a certain job in order to keep my obligations to my dad.
My dad is a man of few non-sarcastic words, but there are two things he’s told me about money that have stuck with me.
First, when he was saying goodbye to me at the airport when I was 12, when it was obvious to him that I wasn’t gonna come back, he told me, “Remember, between your brother and you, there is no mine or yours.” Which has helped whenever I get into an argument with my brother.
The other thing he told me was that whether I have $500 or nothing in my pocket, money shouldn’t change the way I treat other people, or the way I think of myself. I don’t live by that advice as well as I should, but I think about it all the time.
Sam is a staff writer at MEL.