“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” This line from “The New Colossus,” by poet Emma Lazarus, upholds American values of hope and freedom from persecution towards all the downtrodden of the world. Nothing has defined America’s cultural identity more than the concept of the “American Dream,” the long-held belief that those persecuted and oppressed in other nations can find refuge and hope in the United States of America—a land where shared values of democracy, prosperity, and freedom bind people together.
Sylva Etian is someone who believed in the dream and achieved it. She is the descendant of Armenian refugees fleeing from the 1916 Armenian Genocide, when the Ottoman Empire destroyed much of the Armenian population within their borders, triggering an exodus that formed the basis of the Armenian diaspora abroad. Her family immigrated to the United States in 1953 and has largely remained there since. During her time in college, she ran into a Peace Corps recruiter, a moment that would change the rest of her life. After serving in Côte d’Ivoire, Etian continued to work for the Peace Corps and eventually USAID and the Foreign Service.
In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, we see the importance for American diplomats and advisers to see through the cultural, religious, and political lens of their foreign counterparts. Etian would later go on to become the Peace Corps director for the Armenian Program as well as deputy director of the USAID Russian Office and director of the USAID Senegal Office, assisting both nations in their fight against the HIV/AIDS Pandemic during the early 2000s. Sylva Etian’s interview was conducted by Linda Lippner on July 10, 2020.
Read Sylva Etian’s full oral history here: https://www.adst.org/OH%20TOCs/Etian.Slyva.pdf.