YEREVAN, (AFP) - Jirair Avanian used to cut a familiar figure in New York's bohemian East Village. In the 1970s he had been a record company executive who worked on hit rock'n'roll albums, and more recently he owned a gallery and ran a business dealing in modern German expressionist art.
But 11 years ago he turned his back on that life and moved to Armenia. At the time, the former Soviet republic was at war with neighboring Azerbaijan, there was no electricity and the country was under blockade.
"It was a shock," Avanian said as he sipped wine in the successful restaurant he now runs in Armenia's capital, Yerevan.
"When I came in 1992 people were cooking on the street. They would tear up the books from their library because that was the only fuel they had and they would cook their meals like that. That was what made me realize that I could be useful here. I think if there had been really nice conditions I would not have come here. It was a desire to be needed. I was more useful here."
Avanian is part of a trickle of people from the United States and western Europe -- so far numbering only about 100 families -- who have traded in comfortable Western lifestyles for life in Armenia. Each has their own reasons for coming but they have a common bond -- they are part of the Armenian Diaspora whose parents and grandparents fled the Ottoman Empire's massacre of Armenians in 1915.
In the 1990s, as at least a third of Armenia's population emigrated for a better life in the West, these returnees traveled in the opposition direction and are now doing charitable works or running thriving businesses. Raffi Hovannisian is the most prominent member of this tiny group. Born in Fresno, California, he was a high-flying commercial lawyer.
When Armenia was devastated by an earthquake in 1988, he went there to help with the relief effort and when the country became independent from the Soviet Union three years later, he served for a while as its first foreign minister. He went as far as to give up his US passport so that he could take Armenian citizenship.
"I grew up in a family where my grandparents were survivors of the genocide and made their way to the United States," he said. "In my family there was an abiding belief not only in terms of commemorating the tragedy of the past but translating that into a personal contribution to the republic of Armenia."
"When we come across people here from the Diaspora, they talk about the sacrifices (we have made) but for me the sacrifice would have been staying in Los Angeles. We are doing what we want to do."
Shakeh Havan-Garapetian has a different story. She moved from Boston, Massachusetts, to Armenia with her two young children when her husband died and she decided she wanted to make a new start. Though she says she too is proud of her Armenian roots, she stays in Armenia because she enjoys the lifestyle. "When I was in the US my kids had to ... play in front of the kitchen window so I could see them."
"Here, the safety is unbelievable. My son, the 10-year-old, walks around town on his own and then comes home without any problems," she said at a table in the busy Yerevan coffee shop and bookshop she owns.
She added: "When I am asked what do I miss from the US, I have to think hard and say it's my garbage disposal... Armenia gives you whatever you want it to be. It is a growing country and that gives you a lot of opportunity."
Restaurant proprietor Avanian's parents fled Turkey for Soviet Armenia and from there emigrated to the US in 1970, when he was 18. Living in New York as a young man, he was only vaguely aware of his Armenian heritage.
But he said: "Eventually it touches you. It is like a spring. Eventually it pulls you back and maybe it pulls you back with more vigor than if you had stayed here the whole time."
He has stayed because the simple, unpressured lifestyle suits him. "I love the US (but) not for one minute have I ever thought that I want to go back."