” . . . I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”
With these words, today Ara and Gayane Avagyan became citizens of the United States of America.
Like many Americans by Choice, the Avagyan’s path to citizenship was arduous, and far from certain. A native of Armenia, Ara first came to the U.S. in 2000 through a student exchange program, to work at a Wingina farm owner by Richard Bean and Jean Rinaldi, called Double H Farm. After a five month internship, Ara returned to Armenia, where the following year he received an offer to become Agricultural Manager of Double H Farm. Though 9/11 delayed immigration approvals, in 2004 Ara finally received his visa. He, Gayane, and their children Samson (10) and Ludi (6) were leaving the only home they knew.
On September 28, 2004, the Avagyans arrived in America. “It was a great opportunity for us as a family to work and learn in America,” said Gayane. “We wanted better opportunities for ourselves and our children that we couldn’t have in Armenia.”
Samson, Ludi, Gayane, and Ara Avagyan, arriving in America, 2004
The Avagyans at Double H Farm, 2004
They began their new lives living in a small cottage on Double H Farm, with little to their name. Drawing on a degree in agricultural management, Ara worked to develop the farm’s produce under Bean, a tireless advocate of local and organic food. It was hard work, but rewarding, and Ara found that he and Gayane had a knack for it.
As humble farmers, it is not the Avagyans’ nature to boast about their work. But, Ludi beams with the pride of a daughter. “They do back breaking work,” said Ludi.
“They don’t have a 9-5 job, they have a 6am – 10pm job, sometimes until 12 am.” Bean was so impressed by the Avagyans’ work ethic and aptitude that he wanted them to continue the farm’s legacy after he was gone. Before succumbing to cancer in 2013, Bean entered into a lease-to-own agreement with the Avagyans, which eventually allowed them to take ownership of the farm. “I don’t think they ever imagined they’d own the farm and run such a thriving business,” said Ludi. “Their hard work and persistence led them here.”
Today, the farm’s products are renowned – Berkshire pigs, free range eggs, and organic vegetables, among others. Restaurant menu items like the Ivy Inn’s Double H Farm Crispy Pork Belly proudly display the name of Double H Farm, which savvy diners have come to recognize as a stamp of quality. “Ara and Gayane are the embodiment of the American Dream,” said the Ivy Inn’s Angelo Vangelopoulos, “and the best example I know in our local farming community.”
Not long ago, the Avagyans worried whether they would be able to remain in the U.S. at all. The H1B visa under which Ara first came to the U.S. allows foreign nationals to work in the country for no more than three years. Ara renewed his visa in 2007, but federal law generally prohibits more than one renewal.
And so, when Ara’s second visa expired in 2010, the only way he could remain in the country would be to obtain a green card for permanent residence. Unfortunately, Ara’s application for permanent residence was denied. Devastated, Ara feared that his family could be ordered to leave the country at any time.
Fortunately, by then the Avagyans had become a beloved part of the community, which rallied to their support. More than 400 people petitioned Virginia’s U.S. Congressional representatives to help with the Avagyans’ residency status. The Nelson County Board of Supervisors even passed a resolution formally requesting the same: RESOLUTION R2011-67: REQUEST FOR DISCRETIONARY RELIEF FOR THE AVAGYAN FAMILY.
After years of petitions, appeals, and worry, in 2015 the Avagyans finally received their green cards, allowing them permanent residence in the U.S. While thrilled, they were determined not to stop there. The Avagyans sought to be United States citizens. “We wanted to feel more a part of this country and our community in Nelson and Charlottesville,” said Gayane. “We needed reassurance that we belonged here . . . And, we wanted to give our children the best possible opportunities.”
Indeed, Ara and Gayane are not the only ones becoming U.S. citizens. Ludi took the oath today, and Samson will next month.
When they first arrived in the U.S., Samson and Ludi spoke no English. Gayane considered home-schooling them, but realized her own English was not good enough for her to teach. So, it was off to public school they went, where the language barrier made learning difficult and making friends even harder. But, like their parents did on the farm, Samson and Ludi persevered. “For me, it was a goal to match their hard work,” Ludi said. “Whatever they did in the field, I had to match it in the classroom.”
In 2012, Samson graduated as valedictorian from Nelson County High School, where his sister finished third in her class a few years later. Samson has since earned a degree from the University of Virginia, and Ludi is a fourth year there. Samson’s and Ludi’s excellence was even part of the basis for the 2011 Nelson County resolution requesting discretionary relief to allow the Avagyans to remain in the country:
Both Samson and Ludi are exceptional as persons, scholars, and athletes ranking at the top of their respective classes and are well liked for their personal qualities and excellence in academics, sports, and the arts. They represent human and intellectual “capital” that has been recognized by neighbors, teachers, and institutions, including the Rotary Club and the White House.
Now that Ludi has almost completed college, she finds her parents’ success even more meaningful.
It’s really wonderful to see my parents so accepted and loved in Nelson and Charlottesville . . . They live humbly and to serve their community. But they do it all because they genuinely love making their customers happy. They do it all to ensure that my brother and I can have the best possible education. And they do it all for our families back in Armenia, who we miss every day, and whose trust and support brought us here, and gave us a new family. The communities of Nelson and Charlottesville, our customers, our friends, they are our chosen family. And we will forever be grateful for them.
“Without any mental reservation”
At 12:30 today, in Norfolk, Virginia, Ara, Gayane, and Ludi Avagyan became citizens of the United States of America. Federal law requires new citizens to accept their obligations of citizenship “without any mental reservation.” For the Avagyans, this was easy.
What citizenship means to them:
It means becoming a full member of our community. It means all the sacrifices we’ve made have paid off. It means we’ve earned the right to live here. We’ve tried our best to be good and positive members of our community, and now it means we are safe and secure here. – Ara
It means we’re worthy members of this country and that we’ve been accepted. It was very hard to push our case to receive our green cards. We were unsure if we’d be able to stay in the United States in, and it seemed like things wouldn’t work out. Then our entire community came together to show that they stood behind us. They wanted to ensure we had a home here. That’s when we knew we belonged here, and that we were cared for by everyone around us. – Gayane
It means not living complacently in the country we’ve called home for so many years. It means participating politically, using our voices to vote and be a part of the change. – Ludi
“My parents came here with very little money and a dream to find better opportunities,” said Ludi. “They never gave up, even at times when many others may have.” But, as much as Ludi credits her parents for her family’s success, her parents credit others. “My father attributes it all to the support, kindness, and faith our community had in us,” said Ludi. “It takes a village to achieve the American Dream. We were never in this alone.”
Painted in red on the farm’s yellow “Sunshine Van,” the name Double H stands for “happy hearts.”
Today in particular. Happy hearts.