Armenian Youth Camp: A = B

Unger Arick plays his accordion as campers sing
Unger Arick plays his accordion as campers sing

Unger Arick plays his accordion as campers sing


I begin my Advanced Placement English Literature class with this formula. The students are often confused and even check their schedules to make sure they aren’t in some weird Common Core curriculum math course that they didn’t sign up for. No, you’re in the right room— English Lit with Panosian. I even reassure them that I would be a horrible math teacher, and if it wasn’t for the hours of homework help from my engineer math wiz of a father, I wouldn’t have passed the GRE and I surely wouldn’t be standing before them as a teacher. Miracles happen.

So, back to this formula. I begin the class with this simple explanation of the idea of metaphors and attempt to tie it into pop culture to sell the idea that I am more interesting than Instagram (not) but I give it a shot— Monsters Inc is a metaphorical representation of xenophobia (and an allegorical version of To Kill a Mockingbird, Boo = Boo Radley), that the Pixar film Ratatouille is a metaphor for how immigrants do thankless amounts of work in our country’s workplaces and get no credit for it, and how The Great Gatsby is a metaphor for the breakdown of the American dream, and also how Olaf’s song “In Summer” from the film Frozen is a metaphor and Biblical allusion to the trinity and hope.

After these statements, the kids are sold on the idea that maybe my class is worth it— that the countless essays and discussions on metaphors and symbols isn’t just for passing a test— there’s a bigger lesson to be learned here— that the metaphors we are presented within art, literature, and music are blueprints and archetypes to help us meander the sometimes confusing paths of our lives.

This summer, my daughters and their paragon of Armenian friends attended their second year of Armenian Youth Camp in the boreal forests outlying Yosemite National Park. For millennia, forests have not only symbolized the unknown but also the peaceful escape towards a more ideal existence— like Henry David Thoreau in his transcendental “Walden,” “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

The “essential facts of life” that these youth were able to learn were their own— free of social media, free of pressure—we parents prod and poke to get the stories and they divulge some but not all— those are the memories they will keep in their new Armenia. The first thing my younger one told me when she got in the car was that someone named Unger Armen gave an educational that changed her understanding of everything…that her job as a Diasporan Armenian was bigger than anything she could imagine. She then stared out the window and said, “and Unger Moushig instilled such a spirit in all of them that she couldn’t put it into words—only action.”

A scene from Armenian Youth Camp in Pinecrest, CA

A scene from Armenian Youth Camp in Pinecrest, CA

From the mouths of babes— my thirteen-year-old was having her transcendental moment. Thoreau states in Walden again, “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary…and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.”

This higher order of beings can only be shared among those who attend camp, and might only be shown in a video which I am posting here—the campers sang the song “Akhpers ou Yes”—a song which details the emotional yearnings of a soldier going off to war against the Turks. They are guided by Unger Arick and his accordion, and Unger Moushig and his passion and love for guiding Armenian youth.

We cannot simplify the lyrics of this song—I think it goes back to the formula for a metaphor—A=B. The soldier’s voice is A but the transfer, the metaphorical lesson for our youth, is this—being Armenian is one thing, staying Armenian is the true battle. Whether you speak the language, go to Armenian school or not, (Armenian school really helps), live in a diverse city where you can befriend Armenians (or not), or whether you simply have that one week of Armenianness that the AYC (and many Armenian camps) offers, the battle cannot be won alone—our youth will be able to build communities through the bonds created under the canopy of trees and stars—a canopy which cannot be replicated

Being in cities like San Francisco, Houston, Portland, Boston, Racine, or any city outside of Los Angeles, Armenian families have to be mindful and strategic in their attempt to stay Armenian. It takes work—it takes dedication—it takes cancelling a trip or planning a summer around that one week of camp. I am a product of camp—if it wasn’t for AYF Camp, I wouldn’t have the network of friends who are all active members of their respective Armenian communities. Camp does that—it provides another outlet and another ojakh (hearth) for your children to develop their understanding of “purpose” and the connection to a community who understands them without explanations.

Fortunately, we parents have a way to teleport ourselves into the world of these kids through social media. A friend of mine who was a volunteer at AYC posted this video—the video shows Director Moushig Andonian lovingly surrounded, arm in arm, with each and every camper as they sang Sevag Amroyan’s “Akhpers u yes.”

As I watch the video, it takes me to the idea of the metaphor, A=B—these camps, AYC, AYF, Camp Haiastan…they take the abstraction of “Armenian- ness” and transfer it to the concrete connection of a brotherhood (and sisterhood) of Armenian youth who share the universal bond of cultural, social, and ethnic self-preservation. Like the lyrics of the song “Ինչքան պետք լինի կկռվենք այսպես, հայ ազգի համար ախպեր ու ես…” the struggle has been softened by the growth of these camps, and the dedication of individuals like Unger Moushig to connect the youth under yet another canopy of stars. Whether it’s Pinecrest or Valyrmo Calfiornia or as far as Franklin, Massachusetts, these camps are the embodiment of that concrete image, the brotherhood, children who choose to “live with the license of a higher order of beings.” And for that, we can be assured that the lyrics of the song, though mournful as they expand on the spiritual life of our dear soldiers, these campers will keep the spirit of the Armenian people alive and well on foreign lands. Ինչքան պետք լինի կկռվենք այսպես , հայ ազգի համար ախպեր ու ես…


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