“I was 14 when my father turned me into the streets, and I am grateful to him for that.” Varda Avetisyan: from cutting a divisive figure to becoming a game- changing restaurateur
“I’ve always felt like an orphan, a parentless child, and I had to stand up for myself, shape myself up, so that whenever I failed I would know it was my fault,” says Varda Avetisyan, a restaurateur and founder of Kchuch, Losh and Tava restaurants of authentic Armenian cuisine in Dilijan.
“I lost my mother at the age of 10, and my father kicked me out of the house when I was 14. When I look back now, I feel I’ve reconciled myself with my childhood. I’m even thankful to my father for that. Maybe I would not get anywhere if not for what he had done back then,” says Varda.
The whole life of Varda — a tall brunette with a husky voice and a confident walk – looks more like a long-term survival course. The eldest of the three children in her family, she was rebellious and talented, yet she was always forced to please her parents.
“Father was beating my mother out from jealousy. Fights, beatings and scandals were a common thing at home. My father beat me to a pulp, and my mother was very strict, so I was in a constant search for ways to please them. I was a bright child and was good at math, but if my handwriting wasn’t neat enough or if I misspelled anything, my mother would break my fingers,” she recalls.
Constant beatings were exasperated by the sense of guilt after her mother’s death. Varda’s last memory of her mother standing on the stairs, while she was leaving for a maternity hospital and her last words kept haunting her for decades.
“My last memory of my mother was her standing on the stairs, ranting at me and saying she never wanted to come back to me from hospital, because I annoyed her that much. These were her last words to me. I spent my teenage years with a sense of guilt. It felt like I had never been loved by anyone.”
After her mother’s death, Varda’s father and grandmother were taking care of the children. They forced Varda to play the victim, become a sympathy seeker to make ends meet.
“They stopped dressing us properly, ‘you are orphans and you live in poverty, so you will live on whatever others will give you out of pity’, they told us. My grandmother used to take us to the market, saying ‘you are motherless children now; you should be down at heel’. She used this as an excuse to get free food from the market. This annoyed me most. I was very proud and would never make use of my mother’s death whenever I was in need for something. They failed to instill a victim mindset in me, no matter how hard they tried.”
She was an eighth-grade student, when she was accepted to Imastaser (eng. Philosopher) college and none of her classmates ever knew that Varda came from a problematic family that barely made ends meet.
Everything turned upside down when she turned 14.
“My father forbade us to communicate with our mother’s relatives, but I kept in touch with them and even visited my aunts at times. When they learnt about it, they first gave me a good hiding then kicked me out of the house with my younger sister. We already had a stepmother at that time and she had influenced my father’s decision. When they discovered at the college that I had been banished from the house they branded me a girl of loose morals.”
Varda’s aunt made a temporary home for the girl and sent back her younger sister to their father. Varda felt out of place in her aunt’s house too and never wanted to become a burden to anyone. She started studying social science at the Yerevan State University at the age of 16. Soon afterwards she began to combine work and study, conducting sociological surveys and doing translations for various non-governmental agencies.
“I used to take on any job I was offered, even if I had to go the extra mile. There was no issue I couldn’t solve. There was nothing impossible and nothing I could not do,”says Varda.
As a second-year student, she applied for a training exchange program in the US and was successfully selected to take part in it. Varda went to the US to study and stayed there for 13 years. The then 19-year-old student combined work and study. Here she was treated without prejudice. No one underestimated her or asked to outdo herself, nor was she a victim for anyone. She just lived her life and kept it real. One they she found herself in the restaurant business, where she was able to put to use her talent and imagination. She started as a dishwasher and waitress and became a manager in a short time. She would walk into a restaurant and create a new menu, putting an emphasis on original cuisine and recruiting new staff. Restaurant business was where she felt very much at home with everything.
During her life in the US, Varda met her future husband who was of Moroccan decent. They started a family and had two children.
“Motherhood made me realize how much love I had inside me to give to my children. I wanted them to have a loving family and good parents – something I never had. I achieved everything I ever dreamt of in America. I had a wonderful family — two children and a husband. I had built a successful career and had quite comfortable income. I had a separate house on a lakeside in the outskirts of Chicago, I had several cars… But I felt empty deep inside,” she recalls.
To fill this emptiness, Varda moved to Armenia with her children and settled in Dilijan in 2012. Meanwhile, they started arguing with her husband about where the family should live. Her husband did not want to leave the US. He tried to convince her to go back and even threatened to take away their children. Varda started contemplating divorce.
“In Dilijan, I took a break from my daily hassles and active social life. It was the first time that I really took some time off to look at my life with peace of mind. I revisited my childhood memories, tried to figure out where I was going and what I was doing. Meanwhile, were still trying to save our marriage. My husband came from Chicago to try and live with us in Dilijan, but nothing worked anyway,” says Varda.
Months later, when she tried to have a heart-to-heart talk with her husband about their problems and the fact that she had met someone new, her husband moved back to the US and took away their children. From that day Varda’s children were not allowed to communicate with their mother.
“I stayed at home for two months, I did not eat anything for days and I didn’t want to see anyone. This was a painful blow for me. Working saved my life. I knew only I was able to help myself,” she said, admitting that it wasn’t her pain that she was concerned about, but rather the sense of guilt that her children might develop for their situation.
“I was a wonderful mother to my children. I was their friend. They are still mine and they will come back to me anyway. They just need time to figure things out. They have never confronted a real problem in their whole lives, they have never come across any obstacles, nor have they ever gone through any hardship. So this is their ordeal now. I know they still have affection towards me. My children will come back to me eventually and we’ll be even closer than before,” says Varda, smiling hopefully through her tears.
story by Lilit Arakelyan
photos by Emma Grigoryan
video by Sona Martirosyan, Action Studio