Promoting understanding through language
Arizona Republic
January 31, 2007

Gregory and Emma O. Melikian are determined to foster greater understanding among people throughout the world, an understanding they believe could ease the proliferation of global conflict.

"What better way to understand each other than to know each other's language?" Gregory Melikian said just days after he and his wife of 52 years donated $1 million to Arizona State University to expand the school's Russian and East European Studies Center, which will be renamed the Melikian Center and will include the Critical Languages Institute.

The Melikians are both of Armenian descent. He was born in New York, the son of an immigrant who came to the United States at the age of 15 with $2 in his pocket after his parents were slain during a massacre in Christian Armenia.

Emma was born in Tehran, Iran, after her parents fled communism in Russia.
When Communists established a presence in Iran after World War II, Emma's family fled again, this time coming to New York City in 1948 when she was 14.

Emma graduated from college in New York and is the founder of the Thank You America Foundation, an organization of grateful immigrants and naturalized citizens that assists underprivileged children.

Thanks to his father's hard work, Gregory was able to attend law school, becoming a civil court judge in New York City and practicing real estate law. In 1958, he and Emma began investing in property in Phoenix and in 1969 moved their four children into a home on Camelback Mountain flanked by dirt roads and Camelback Road before traffic lights were installed.

Soon New York was a distant memory.

"We've always enjoyed Arizona," Emma said. "We never looked back."

All of their children attended ASU. In the 1970s, the Melikians began supporting the university, first by joining Friends of Eight, which helps fund the public television station headquartered on campus. Over the years, the Phoenix couple have been generous, making donations and hosting fund-raisers at their home. Emma became friends with Kathryn Gammage, wife of one-time ASU President Grady Gammage.

"We go back over 30 years in our involvement with the university," said Gregory, 82, who owns the San Carlos Hotel in downtown Phoenix. "We like education."

The Melikians' affection for ASU continues as they applaud the work of current President Michael Crow, who they believe is properly focusing on the university's role in promoting global engagement.

"That is the umbrella under which we are proceeding," Gregory said. "We're standing as teammates" with Crow.

In 2001, an endowment from the Melikians helped create the Melikian Fund for the teaching of Armenian language and culture at ASU. Their latest gift, Melikian Center director Stephen Batalden said, "expands a whole series of opportunities for student fellowships, faculty exchanges and support for the CLI, for instruction and partnerships with the university in a strategic part of the world."

Those opportunities will have far-reaching benefits, Batalden said.

"This is a partnership that builds on a relationship not just with the Melikians but the community," he said. "There has never been a more important time to prepare for the study of Eastern Europe and Eurasia."

With the conflict in Iraq, America has learned the harsh lessons that come from a poor understanding of another culture, Gregory said. We made the same mistakes, the couple believe, in Afghanistan.

"This program is designed to prevent that," he said. "The world is shrinking."

Emma said such knowledge is more critical than ever when dealing with the Middle East and East European countries emerging from communism.

"We have to know their history, their language. We can't be an island unto ourselves," she said.

The lessons begin at home. Three of the Melikian children have married into other cultures - Egyptian, Portuguese and Italian.

The Critical Languages program will expand the teaching of less commonly taught Eastern European and Eurasian languages such as Armenian, Albanian, Macedonian, Pashtu, Tatar and Uzbek - many of those spoken in the countries of the former Soviet Union and around the Islamic Rim. It will continue to create exchanges between American students and students from such institutions as Yerevan State University (Armenia), Moscow State University and the University of Pristina (Kosovo).

Students from emerging nations will study governance and the principles of democracy.

The Melikians have been thinking about their gift for a long time, they said, as they watched world events unfold.

"We're a world power," said Emma, who speaks Russian, Armenian, Farsi and French in addition to fluent English. "We have to educate the next generation, to speak not only English but other languages, so leaders of the world can reach a hand to history."

Too many Americans have been lazy about learning languages other than English, but we can't afford to be lazy any longer, said Gregory, who speaks Armenian and Spanish. As countries continue to interact, skilled translators will be needed, he said, and he hopes ASU will become a mecca for students of foreign languages.

Knowing the language of a people is a portal into their culture, Gregory
said: "It's in our national interest."

When we learn someone's language, "we're not going to fight each other.
We're not going to bomb each other."

Reach the reporter at barbara or (602) 444-8597.