A Doctor of the Diaspora, With Artsakh in His Heart

Dr. Raffy Hovanessian feature
Dr. Raffy Hovanessian

Dr. Raffy Hovanessian

A Remembrance of Dr. Raffy Hovanessian (1938-2020)

English rendering by CHRISTOPHER H. ZAKIAN

A physician, in the truest sense, is not defined solely by his choice of profession. What defines him is a lifelong impulse to help others: a commitment to treat fellow human beings with compassion.

That’s how I have always understood the medical calling, in its highest expression. The doctors endowed with these qualities are rare, and very precious. So when we lose such a noble figure, we should do more than simply mourn that doctor’s death. We should acknowledge, and celebrate, the life and accomplishment that preceded his passing.

Our community—our world—lost such a shining example this spring, in the person of Dr. Raffy Hovanessian. An Armenian-American physician of the highest caliber, Dr. Hovanessian was a well-known—and beloved—public figure throughout the Armenian world. His death at age 81 on May 27, 2020, following a long, brave battle against cancer, brought to a close an astonishing lifetime of accomplishment, compassion, and benevolent work.

He was born in Jerusalem, on August 16, 1938—the eldest child of two survivors of the Armenian Genocide. They instilled in their son the qualities that would be the foundation of his consequential life: a life inspired at the deepest level by his Christian faith and Armenian heritage, and nourished by the spiritual strength Raffy drew from his family, his church, and his homeland.

One iconic image guided Raffy throughout his life: the memory of his father, Arakel. Raffy would often lovingly refer to his father in conversation as “a simple shoemaker”; but it was clear that to this grateful son, Arakel Hovanessian was so much more: a patriot, a man of moral vision. To illustrate that feeling, Raffy would quote his father’s explanation for having six children: “Son,” the Genocide survivor would say, “we lost so many souls in my generation. So this too is a way to serve our nation: by having many children.”

Raffy’s mother Diruhi was a nurse—and the likely inspiration for his youthful decision to become a doctor. But the medical vocation also held a logical attraction for a boy with an instinct to help others. His parents encouraged him in every way they could. His father surprised Raffy one day by giving him a violin. When the boy asked how the instrument would help him achieve his goal in medicine, his father replied that a good doctor needs precise, agile fingers, and the violin would be excellent training for that.

The family resided in Aleppo throughout Raffy’s primary education, but for his medical training he applied to the American University in Beirut. It was while living in that city that Raffy met the beautiful Armenian woman who would become his future wife, Shoghag Varjabedian.

“I glorify God’s blessing for giving me a wife like Shoghag,” he repeated with joy throughout his life. “She has always been a support for my spirit, an inspiration to lead me forward. At the same time, she is an ideal mother and grandmother to our three children and seven grandchildren.”

“Together, these two were a most exemplary couple,” said longtime friend Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, currently the Armenian Church’s Pontifical Legate of Western Europe. “They complemented each other in every way. And through their partnership, numerous vital projects were brought to life.” One of the most important of these projects was the rescue of America’s St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, which was in danger of shutting its doors. During that crisis in the 1990s, the Hovanessians’ leadership largely ensured the seminary’s ongoing vitality as an educational institution, which persists to this day.

Some three decades earlier, when Raffy and Shoghag settled in Chicago in the mid-1960s, they had brought a similar energy to the local Armenian community, helping to establish an AGBU center in the city and its Sissag H. Varjabedian Armenian Saturday School.

The family took a special interest in the advancement of Armenian artists. Arriving in Armenia in the wake of the 1988 earthquake, Shoghag recognized the quality and talent of a number of Armenian painters. As an art connoisseur and curator of numerous prestigious contemporary art exhibits, she was enthusiastic about introducing these artists to a wider, international audience. But she was also moved by the poor conditions in which they lived. Together with her husband, Shoghag worked intensely to create secure lives for the painters, so they could continue to reside in Armenia while exhibiting their work abroad. “Our goal was to allow talented Armenian artists to stay in their homeland, so that we would not lose them abroad,” she said.

This is the attitude they brought to all the arts in Armenia: a sense of duty to preserve the country’s native creativity. I vividly remember the visit Dr. and Mrs. Hovanessian paid to the Octet Music School in Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri, which had been devastated by the 1988 earthquake. After listening to the impressive performances of the gifted students, they decided on the spot to support the higher education of several young talents, and later made active efforts to improve the school building and its resources.

Throughout their many visits to Armenia, the Hovanessians would frequently be in the company of their children—and later their grandchildren—in order to expose the new generations to the unique sights, sounds, tastes and aromas of their ancestral land.

Raffy Hovanessian grew up in an atmosphere of religious faith, observance, and piety—and those habits of the spirit remained with him throughout his life. As a boy attending Aleppo’s Emmanuel College, he become engrossed in the Bible, conversant in its stories and message. He put these lessons to active use in the way he conducted himself.

“The church has always been in me,” the doctor would later confess. He was convinced that if Armenians had not embraced Christianity, their nation would have ceased to exist as an entity in history. At a more personal level, the Armenian Church, with its deep and rich spiritual power, was where he would seek guidance, consolation, and encouragement at every crossroad in his life.

He would build many friendships based on such shared character. A notable one was forged in Beirut, where he befriended a young clergyman named Karekin Sarkissian. Their relationship was a great source of joy in Raffy’s life, and a source of pride as well, as he watched his friend scale the church hierarchy to become a bishop, the Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, and finally the Catholicos of All Armenians: His Holiness Karekin I.

In more formal roles, Dr. Hovanessian was a longtime member of the Diocesan Council of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, serving as its vice chair. Twice, in 1995 and 1999, he was elected to represent the Diocese at the National Ecclesiastical Assembly convened at the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin. Fellow church delegates from across the globe chose Raffy to chair those historic gatherings.

In 2014, the Eastern Diocese honored Dr. Raffy Hovanessian as its “Armenian Church Member of the Year” during ceremonies at St. Vartan Cathedral in New York City, surrounding that year’s Diocesan Assembly.

But above and beyond such public distinctions, Raffy’s first and deepest motivation was always to live up to his father’s counsel “to love the church and serve the church.” Wherever life took him, he followed it with the intense conviction that the Lord was guiding his steps.

From his earliest years, patriotic Armenian songs were always in Raffy’s ear—often sung by his father. Armenian recordings and radio were part of the ambient sound of the Hovanessian home throughout his life; Raffy would quiet a crowd when an Armenian broadcast came on with the phrase, “Yerevan is speaking.”

But it took until 1986 for him to arrive for the first time in Armenia. He did so in the company of his son Armen, and together they scaled the heights of Dzidzernagapert to burn incense at the Genocide Memorial in memory of their ancestors.

He became a much more frequent visitor in the years following Armenia’s independence—difficult as that time was with its dearth of electricity and heating. He would travel there every three to six months, usually in his professional capacity as a physician. His natural compassionate spirit was energized as never before when he witnessed the hardships being endured by his countrymen, and Raffy vowed to do whatever he could to stand by his people, and encourage their progress.

In his heart, Raffy paid little heed to the constricted political boundaries of his homeland. For him, Armenia included Javakhk and Artsakh, and the Armenians resident in those regions were equally the focus of Raffy’s attention and concern.

His motivation in all things was a commitment to national ideas, the preservation of Armenian identity and, more personally, a desire that his life would not be lived in vain. To these ends, he made his influential mark on the diaspora’s numerous educational and charitable organizations, among them the Armenian Assembly of America (where he was a board member from 1986 to 1989) and the Armenian General Benevolent Union (where he sat on the Central Council from 1989 to 2000).

Standing out among these efforts was his fruitful leadership role in the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR), the humanitarian aid, relief, and development organization of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America. Dr. Hovanessian became an initiator and promoter of countless FAR projects, often focusing on the reform and advancement of medicine, medical education, and healthcare in the young Armenian Republic.

He was instrumental in launching FAR’s “Regional Doctor Training Program” in 2005, which trained physicians in Armenia’s far flung provinces, as well as programs that gave special attention given to medical personnel from Javakhk and Artsakh. I can envision Raffy during the press conference announcing one such effort in 2011, where he stood among officials of the Ministries of Health of Armenia and Artsakh, the State Medical University, and FAR. Dr. Hovanessian’s beaming face expressed the deep satisfaction he found in these undertakings.

The truth is that following the Soviet Union’s collapse, healthcare systems among the former Soviet republics were on a hazardous path to failure. The programs and fundraising shouldered by Dr. Raffy Hovanessian, through FAR and the Armenian-American Health Professionals Organization (AAHPO), gave Armenia and its medical professionals a fighting chance to improve their skills and upgrade the country’s health system, with benefits felt in the treatment of countless Armenian citizens. Today, most of the physicians and medical personnel working in Armenia and Artsakh have taken advantage of one or more of the innovative training programs resulting from these efforts.

Realizing that competent nursing played a crucial role in the healthcare systems of rural Armenia and Artsakh, Raffy prevailed upon his close friend, the great American-Armenian benefactor Nazar Nazarian, to fund a top-notch training and continuing education program for nurses. The practical model of first-aid training that emerged from the program has proved vitally important in a region that is under constant threat of war from Azerbaijan. It has also been effective in managing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in the region.

Dr. Hovanessian also contributed to the progress of Yerevan State Medical University—becoming its “unofficial ambassador to America,” in the words of Dr. Gevorg Yaghjyan, a former vice-rector of the university and a board member of the FAR Medical Alumni Association.

A Doctor’s Prescription
In the final seven years of his life, Dr. Raffy Hovanessian fought a battle against cancer. He fought courageously, but also quietly: refusing to surrender a single moment to regret or self-pity; never losing any of his characteristic optimism. To the very end he met with leaders in the business and medical circles of the Armenian-American community, always promoting the importance of the programs he was involved with—always stressing the utmost imperative of their continuation.

As an immediate legacy of his passing, he left a bequest to the Fund for Armenian Relief to establish the “Raffy Hovanessian Educational Foundation.” Once again, the target of his concern was Artsakh and the development of its healthcare system.

Certainly, the name of Dr. Raffy Hovanessian will be remembered with honor, in death as it was in life. During his lifetime he was the recipient of numerous awards, from entities around the world. He was grateful for such recognitions—he was especially charmed that both he and Shoghag had been awarded America’s Ellis Island Medal of Honor—while accepting them in a spirit of genuine humility and detachment. The glory of name-recognition was never Raffy’s motivation. What drove him, filling his life with consequence and joy, was the work itself, and the chance it presented to do a good turn to others—especially to his own people.

It’s not surprising that as a physician, Dr. Hovanessian was concerned with the health and well-being of his countrymen. He gave voice to that sentiment in an interview he once gave: “Let us never forget that we are Armenians,” he said. “Our great connection to each other is that we belong to the same nation. The blood flowing in our veins is distinctive, unique; to infect it with mutual jealousy, animosity, and opposition would be a costly mistake.”

Though uttered years ago, those words speak with poignant urgency and meaning to our own day. They provide the perfect note on which to conclude this remembrance of a patriotic Armenian—and a physician in the truest sense.


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