Accessibility links

Working: An Armenian Shoemaker - 2002-04-18

English Feature # 7-34366 Broadcast December 21, 2000

Today on New American Voices we continue our series on immigrants talking about their jobs. This week you'll meet Sarkis Mousessian, an Armenian shoemaker who owns and operates a little shop in Alexandria, Virginia, on the outskirts of Washington.

Sarkis Mousessian's shoe repair shop is in a mini-mall typical of the Washington suburbs - a little island of one-story buildings with storefronts, surrounded by a sea of fast-moving traffic. His shop is flanked on one side by a hairdressing salon run by a Spanish woman, on the other by a Korean-owned dry cleaner's. Mr. Mousessian's business, where he not only mends shoes but also does a variety of odd repair jobs, is the oldest on the block.

"I had my own business for almost twenty years. We do repair, you know, to replace the soles, shine, other things, meantime I do the luggage repair, I do leather, other stuff, repair like a coat, or pants, you know, to replace a zipper, this kind of stuff."

There are not that many skilled shoemakers any more, says Sarkis Mousessian, so his business is doing well and he earns good money.

"Well, I do around sixty to seventy thousand dollars, but I gotta work twelve hours a day. If I don't work twelve hours a day I cannot, because I support my family by myself."

Aside from his work, Mr. Mousessian says he has one great love.

"Family. My wife and my kids. I'm very pleased with my family. And that's all. And beside that I don't have any pleasure."

Sarkis Mousessian is in his forties, and slight of build. His black hair is slicked over his forehead, and his eyes are eerily magnified by the thick lenses of his eyeglasses. He was born in Iraq, where there is a large Armenian community, and grew up - and also learned his shoemaker's craft - in Lebanon. He first came to the United States as a tourist in 1977. When he happened to see a job advertisement for a shoemaker, he decided to apply for the job and stay in the U.S.

"I like the country. I see people are very civilized, and free country, you know, was nice people. And meantime we had a civil war back home, you know it's Christian, Muslim, this and that, it was not… So I decided to stay for a while and see what's going on, and I did like this, the United States of America."

After 24 years in America, Sarkis Mousessian is still very Armenian. The friends who come to drink coffee and chat with him in his shop are Armenian, he speaks Armenian at home, and he makes sure that his two sons - who are seven and ten years old - know about their heritage.

"Yes. I do go every Sunday to church, I take my kids, you have every Sunday Armenian school four hours, just to know their history and background from grandfather to grand-grandfather, you know, what happened, why we are Armenian."

Nevertheless, Sarkis Masoussian knows that his children, growing up in the United States, cannot be as Armenian as he is.

"They are American, I cannot deny that. They were born here, they are American. But they still leave something in their heart or in their mind, that they are Armenian. I don't have anything against them becoming American, but I like them to know who they are originally. That's all."

Mr. Mousessian says that coming as he does from the Middle East, what he particularly appreciates in America is the equality. And in general, he is content with his life in this country.

"There are so many things that are good, very easy to do so many things, like buy a house, you have so many ways - but you gotta pay, you know, nothing is free, you gotta work hard, you gotta pay a lot of interest - and there is again, nobody bother you if you don't bother anybody, nobody telling you where you come, or what religion you are, or what your color, nobody's asking you. And wherever you go, whether you're a senator, or a general, or any regular employee, you gotta wait the same, and even the presidents they treat the same way as they treat the people, you know."

Next week, on New Year's Day, we'll have a special program, bringing you the Neil Diamond hit song "America" which is the musical leitmotiv of New American Voices. Join us then, and make sure you have a pencil handy, for we'll introduce you to our brand-new web page.