A journey about 17 years in the making finally came to an end when Ara, Gayane and their daughter Ludi Avagyan could call themselves United States citizens just in time for the July 4 holiday.
“It was really nice. It was good that the journey came to the end,” Gayane Avagyan said.
With the uncertainty of what the future will look like because of the coronavirus pandemic and having waited so long already, Gayane Avagyan said the family couldn’t wait any longer.
On June 30 they pushed pause on their incredibly busy lives on their farm in Shipman and drove down to Norfolk to take their oath of citizenship.
“I think it’s a testament to how hard my parents work. Literally we drove three and a half hours for an eight-minute ceremony and hopped right back in the car. … they had to get right back to the farm and get back to work,” Ludi Avagyan said.
However, there still is one missing piece before the family of four can fully celebrate. Samson Avagyan, Ara and Gayane’s son, still has to take his oath and receive his citizenship status, but they anticipated that would happen Wednesday.
“We’re hoping that he will get it done and have it over with also. I wish it were by family, I feel like it should have been by family,” Ludi Avagyan said.
The Avagyans always have considered Nelson County their home away from home and their customers like neighbors, friends and even family. They have established roots in the community that go beyond what they plant in the fields of Double H Farm — which the family owns — nestled in Shipman.
“Every time somebody comes up to the stand at the [Nelson Farmers Market Cooperative] it’s always like coming up to a friend,” Ludi Avagyan said. “They treat everyone like friends and family and eventually that’s what it felt like to be in Nelson.”
And with their certifications in hand, that feeling has only deepened.
“Especially now that we are citizens, it feels more than home,” Gayane Avagyan said.
The three took their oath June 30, and Ara Avagyan said that upon word getting out of their now-citizenship status, the family has received an outpouring of support from the community. He said many friends and supporters wanted to come and celebrate with them, but they had to settle for celebrating by themselves with a bottle of champagne because of COVID-19.
“It was so nice to have customers come to us at the market and say congrats,” Ara Avagyan said.
According to Ludi Avagyan, every step of their journey to become U.S. citizens, hardships and all, was worth it.
‘We are the lucky ones’
Ludi Avagyan said she considers her family to be some of the lucky ones.
In 2003, the family of four emigrated from Armenia on Ara Avagyan’s work visa. Ara, his wife Gayane and their children — Samson, who was 10 at the time; and Ludi, who was 6; came to Nelson County to live and work on Double H Farm that was owned by Richard Bean.
They came to America for better opportunities in both agriculture and education for Samson and Ludi, both of whom spoke little English when they arrived as children and have gone on to pursue higher education and careers.
While the family would eventually come to own the farm in 2016 after years of work and management, a milestone on its own that Ludi Avagyan at the time had described as the “American dream,” the family’s path to permanent residency and eventual citizenship was not without its hardships. There were times when it was unclear if they might ever reach the finish line at all.
Ludi Avagyan said her parent’s hard work and dedication in the field was an inspiration to her and Samson to match that drive in the classroom.
It took the family more than 10 years to secure permanent residency — a green card. For years, Ara Avagyan had a U.S. H1B visa, which is a non-immigrant visa that allows companies in the U.S. to employ foreign workers in fields like engineering, architecture, science and medicine. At a certain point, he no longer could renew that visa, and the family’s status in the country fell under jeopardy.
Those spinning wheels put the family at risk of deportation, but the Nelson County community didn’t easily accept that. Championed by German immigrants Axel Goetz and his wife, Anke, more than 400 residents signed a petition appealing tto federal officials to approve the family’s application for permanent residency status, according to Nelson County Times archives.
The Goetzes had come to call the Avagyans friends after meeting at the farmers market and, having emigrated to the U.S. themselves, knew their struggle all too well.
“We are the lucky ones. It could’ve happened that we would have been undocumented for too long and it would be too risky to be here,” Ludi Avagyan said.
To this day, Gayane Avagyan said she doesn’t understand why getting green cards was such a challenge in the first place given the family already possessed visas.
Among other concerns, Gayane Avagyan said she feared the possibility of having to take Samson and Ludi back to Armenia to live after they had accomplished and learned so much.
“So many things were going in my head, but luckily after the appeal … with the community support, it happened,” Gayane Avagyan said of the green card struggle.
Along with the community support, the Nelson County Board of Supervisors in 2011 passed a resolution requesting senators and representatives provide relief to the family.
“We feel very fortunate and at that time you realize where you’re living, who’s next to you,” Ara Avagyan said of the community support they received.
Even the COVID-19 pandemic, which has rocked industries both locally and worldwide, couldn’t keep the Avagyans and Double H Farm down for too long.
When restaurants in Nelson County first began closing their doors around April, business dried up for the Avagyans as well. Double H Farm worked closely with local restaurants for most of its regular weekly income, which at that point had become zero, according to Ara Avagyan. They also didn’t have the Nelson County Farmers Market Cooperative, located in Nellysford, to lean on, either as that was closed at the time also.
“We panicked too. We didn’t know what was going to happen,” Ara Avagyan said.
But the family adapted. They hit the ground running and started filling individual customer orders as a means to make up for lost income. They soon found themselves as busy as ever working around their new business model, Ludi Avagyan said.
What does citizenship mean for them?
When asked what citizenship means to them, Ara, Gayane and Ludi each gave a different answer.
For Ludi, it means being politically active. To have the right to vote and be a part of the change they want to instill in the county. Now 23 years old, she said the right to vote has been something she has wanted ever since she turned 18 and she now can advocate for what she believes in after living in the country for about 16 years.
For Gayane, the citizenship status the family has obtained validates everything they have struggled with over the years. The family has worked hard to earn their citizenship and Gayane Avagyan said the family deserves to be where they are now.
And for Ara Avagyan, Citizenship meant a couple things. He said he is proud of what they have accomplished and they will continue to do their part to “keep our country safe.”
He was even proud just to be able to obtain an American passport, which he said carries far fewer restrictions than an Armenian passport.
Regardless of the individual meanings they take from becoming citizens, Ludi Avagyan said the family will strive to be responsible, continue to serve the community they have called home for so many years and never take it for granted.
“As immigrants we’ve never taken anything for granted, that’s why we work as hard as we do. We know what it takes,” Ludi Avagyan said. “We understand the value in it and we want to do the best that we can with it.”
Reach Cropper at (434) 385-5522.
Nick Cropper covers Nelson County. Reach him at (434) 385-5522.
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