By Maral Firkatian Wozniak
“Why do you love your mother?” Balu Rajan asked.
The question lingered in the air. Trying to vocalize the essence of that love in a way that was not cliché proved to be near impossible.
“It’s difficult to answer,” he said, prepared for this response. “That’s how it is with Armenia.”
Balu Rajan and Shabitha Alexander sat in the bright July sunlight on the grounds of their alma mater, the American University of Armenia (AUA), looking quite content. They are both graduates of AUA’s Gerald and Patricia Turpanjian School of Public Health (SPH); Balu is also a graduate of AUA’s MBA program. The newlyweds had recently returned to Armenia for their honeymoon and to host a second wedding, one which they could celebrate with their Armenian friends and family. Though neither are ethnically Armenian, one would hardly know it seeing how passionately they speak about the country.
“Armenia […] pushed me farther,” Balu said. “There are ups and downs,” he conceded, “you just have to make a point of learning from the challenges as much as the opportunities.”
“Armenia taught us what it means to live,” Shabitha said. “Every day when I wake up in the morning, it’s my decision to do what I want. It’s my life. Armenia gave us motivation.”
They both came to Armenia from Chennai (formerly called Madras), the capital of Tamil Nadu, India, with the intention of pursuing their education in medicine. Neither had any particular connection to Armenian history or culture or to the country itself.
It is perhaps a strange coincidence, therefore, that Chennai holds an important place in Armenian history. The city was home to the first Armenian newspaper in the world, Azadarar (Ազդարար). It was published by Father Harutyun Shmavonyan (Arthoon Shumavon) for the first time in 1794 and included information for Armenian merchants in the region in addition to news from Europe. He went on to print Armenian literature in Madras and was revered as the ‘Father of Armenian Literature.’ He is buried in the Armenian church that still exists in modern-day Chennai.
Balu mentioned the newspaper in recalling the Armenian community in Chennai. “We have a huge street [in Chennai] named after Armenia. We had the first Armenian newspaper . . . I had seen the street and the church, but I never knew what Armenia was until I came here.”
“I was very free in India,” Balu reflected, “but the country started to become limiting for me. I wanted to go beyond that limitation.” And so, upon the recommendation of a classmate, Balu made his way to Armenia to study at Yerevan State Medical University (YSMU).
Upon graduating from YSMU, Balu spent two years doing clinical work in India before returning to Armenia to start AUA’s Master of Public Health (MPH) and MBA programs. Balu graduated in 2015 as his class’s valedictorian. During his commencement speech, he recited Paruyr Sevak’s poem “Mor Dzerkere,” wowing the audience.
On that same memorable day, Shabitha received the prestigious Vartkess M. Balian Merit Award, which is given to one first-year AUA student annually for having an outstanding academic record and distinguishing oneself in community service.
“That was a completely life-changing moment for me,” Shabitha said earnestly. “It was a huge honor.”
In addition to her studies, Shabitha volunteered with the Mother Teresa Trust in Armenia, working with vulnerable communities.
When Shabitha graduated in 2016, she, like Balu, was also her class valedictorian.
While the couple reflected on their time at AUA during our interview, Dr. Varduhi Petrosyan, Dean of SPH and professor to both Balu and Shabitha, stopped by to say hello. She greeted them both warmly, congratulated them on their wedding and wished them the best in their future ventures.
“She’s like some kind of superhuman in public health,” Balu said, as soon as she’d left.
Shabitha nodded in agreement.
“She is an inspiration for me too, as a woman, professionally. If you go and ask her a question, she will not give you the answer, she will give you another ten questions. If you find the answers to those questions, you will find the answer to your question. I love that. She would rather make your brain work than give you an answer. Now I use the same strategy.”
Dr. Petrosyan is proud of her former students and views their success as a testament to their hard work and intellectual prowess, but also to the strength of the program itself.
“It is extremely rewarding to see how the MPH degree can empower our graduates and help them to become accomplished, competent and confident professionals that bring positive change to their own lives and the life of the community where they live and work,” she said.
Balu and Shabitha continue to be influenced by what they learned even now: “Dean Petrosyan would always use the word ‘specific.’ It’s her favorite vocabulary word,” Balu recalled.
“Now, I manage around 120 doctors. They come from different backgrounds, they have different citizenships, but whenever they talk to me I just say, ‘Doctor, please be specific,’ and the results come in.”
Currently employed by the Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia, Balu is working to prevent the spread of tuberculosis in the region.
During his interview with the Ministry of Health, Balu was surprised when the interviewer, the deputy health minister, reviewed his resume and asked,“Do you know Harout?”
Balu searched his memory, wondering which Harout the deputy minister could possibly know or be referencing.
“Do you mean Dr. Armenian?”
As it turned out, Dr. Armenian, President Emeritus of AUA and a renowned professor of public health, worked with the deputy minister and was his co-researcher.
Balu leaned back and brushed his hands against each other in an exceptionally Armenian gesture of finality.
“That’s it,” he said, indicating how fate had brought him to where he was. “What more do you want?”
Balu has been working for the ministry for a year as a program coordinator for the National Tuberculosis Control and Prevention Program (NTCPP). He oversees 84 primary healthcare centers and seven different hospitals, in total serving approximately 350,000 people living in the Bisha province of Saudi Arabia.
Tuberculosis is a real threat in Saudi Arabia due to the frequent influx of people for the Hajj, the pilgrimage every Muslim must make to Mecca at least once in their life. Although there are antibiotics to treat tuberculosis, drug-resistant strains of the bacteria have surfaced in recent years, making treatment of the disease much more difficult.
Maintaining the health of the community, the primary goal of any public health worker, is crucial when it comes to something like tuberculosis which is contagious and, when left untreated, can be fatal. Considering the importance of this work, Balu feels that people in public health, such as himself and Shabitha, are often overlooked and undervalued. He pointed out that historically, public health workers were responsible for eradicating smallpox and today are working to address polio, which has already been eliminated in many countries.
“I believe that every human being […] has a right to food, health and education,” said Balu. “If I can secure just one of those things [for other people] I am happy.”
His goal is to someday use the knowledge and skills he has acquired through his education at AUA and his experience in Saudi Arabia to address some of the health related issues facing India’s population of 1.35 billion people.
Shabitha’s long term goal is to start an organization for women and children that focuses on their health and education: “I fight for people who are not even considered human beings. In some societies women are not considered human beings.”
Forever in pursuit of knowledge and understanding, neither misses an opportunity to try and learn something new, whether it be about each other, or about their work.
“I see public health as an art form to improve the quality of life,” Shabitha says.
Shabitha, newly hired by Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health, will be joining Balu in the country to start this new chapter of their lives. Commenting on the upcoming stage in her life she says, “I don’t hold expectations for anyone or anything else, I only hold expectations for myself.”
However, the pair do have some plans for the future.
“I’ve already told him we are retiring in some small village in Armenia,” Shabitha smiles.
Indeed, it seems like the most natural progression of things.