When Rafik Papalian arrived in Haverhill as an Iranian immigrant 35 years ago, he barely had a dollar in his pocket.
Just being in the land of opportunity was enough. Armed with a student visa, he was sponsored by the Rev. Haigazoun Melkonian, then pastor of St. Gregory Armenian Church.
“Go to school, get an education, and use your talent to secure a good job,” the priest told him. “We have a wonderful, supportive community in Haverhill. We’re all behind you.”
So off Papalian went, securing a GED from Haverhill High School. Next he attended Northern Essex Community College, where he earned an engineering degree.
He lived where he could, working in pizza shops, bagging groceries in supermarkets, and cooking in restaurants. The extra money he earned went back to Iran to support his family. A brother had been killed in the war when the Shah of Iran was overthrown.
Papalian went off to California a few years later, securing a job as a gold salesman. There he met his future wife and eventually settled down.
Later, he returned east and decided to venture forth with a self-owned business. Two weeks after opening a jewelry store locally, he was robbed. Thieves cleaned out $50,000 worth of merchandise — every locket and ring he owned.
Not to be defeated, he started again with another jewelry store across the border along Route 125 in Plaistow. Papalian slowly recovered, enough to open a second and a third jewelry business in Southern New Hampshire.
A man of strong Christian character, he served his community and church dutifully, spending 15 years as an ordained deacon and putting his faith in God.
Now, the 53-year-old Papalian is on a different path. He’s down to one jewelry store being managed by employee Khachik Mouradian, who has been with him for 14 years.
Papalian is in West Africa mining gold. He had heard and read about Ghana being one of the top eight countries in the world for gold prospecting, so he staked a claim there.
Papalian picked up 100 acres of land on the frontier. The mining license he was required to get carried a stipulation. He needed to perform community service in that country.
Aside from the land, all the machinery and equipment, all the geologists and the 20 paid employees he wound up hiring, he became responsible for a school and orphanage in the heart of “nowhere,” he said.
The children have a name for Papalian. They call him “Papa,” a derivative of his surname. Sometimes, it’s Rafik Papa. Other times, Papa Rafik.
He adopted two orphaned girls and placed them into caring homes. He drops by the school some days so covered in mud and grime from digging that he showers with his clothes on to clean them as well.
Papalian calls his venture the Ashanti Gold Mining Belt. Google it and you’ll see what it’s all about.
“My jewelry business hit a lull and I needed a career change, a new investment,” he said. “We made a family commitment to sacrifice in order to make this work.”
The name “Ghana” means “warrior king.” In some ways, it typifies Papalian. He’s been a true warrior through the ordeal inside a land known for its instability and where weapons roam freely.
There is no hot running water. Extreme heat of more than 100 degrees arrives daily. There are few basic necessities. Nets are required for sleeping. The mosquitoes are so vicious, they’re like bloodsuckers.
That’s the life he’s chosen for himself these past 2½ years, making it back home every six months to check on family matters and his jewelry business. Walk inside his shop along Route 125 in Plaistow and you’ll see handbags and shoes on display, the proceeds of which support the orphans.
With a wife and four children, the prospecting project become a lesson in resiliency for Papalian. Gold prospects have ranged from one- to 10-gram nuggets. Diamond deposits have been an added inducement.
“Right now, we’re at the break-even point,” he said. “With the gold we’ve found, it’s led to better equipment and pumping machines. The best is yet to come. I see it happening.”
He set up quarters inside a guest house. His room is about 10 feet square. Typical foods are yams, plantan (bananas) and other fruits. Bush meat comes from anything caught in the wild.
Papalian is cultivating an Armenian community there. He’s hooked up with four Belgium Armenian prospectors who have been mining for 11 years. They get together, speak their native language, even prepare some Armenian cuisine. He’s also learned to communicate in Chie, the native language of Ghana.
“When we put the new company together, it’ll be called ‘Ararat Mining’ after our mountain in Armenia where Noah landed his Ark after the great flood,” Papalian envisions. “And we’ll fly the Armenian flag as our symbol. It might just be the only Armenian flag in all of Africa.”