Promoting understanding through language
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
"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
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
Students from emerging nations will study governance and the principles of
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
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 .email@example.com or (602) 444-8597.