BY ARIANNA MESROBIAN
Although I have been to Armenia a handful of times, it is my first time outside the city of Yerevan and my emotions and senses are at a new high. My first experience in Gyumri has opened my eyes to the true nature of living in Armenia. It has been my one true experience with deghatsis (local Armenians). As I walked down the street to our house on the first night, I was intrigued by the idea that we, as spyurkahyes (Diasporan Armenians), can verbally acknowledge that our own people live such a daily life, but could never truly understand it. Instead of a passing thought, it would be my reality for the following two weeks. During my second day at camp I realized the central purpose of this jampar – and I’ll do my best to describe that moment of realization:
My fellow Youth Corps volunteer, Meghry, and I passed out sheets of paper and pens to our campers, ages 13 to 15 and told them to write a one page response to the question: If you had the choice, would you stay in or leave Armenia? The responses were moving to say the least. Although each of our campers could somewhat envision a life outside of their motherland, each and every one of them said that they would never consider leaving.
One camper’s response stirred thoughts and emotions in the room. The topic quickly turned to hayrenasirutyun – the love for one’s motherland. This young girl wrote that hayrenasirutyun for Armenians starts and ends in Armenia – that those Armenians living outside of Armenia could never truly claim to be hayrenaser. A wall seemed to form between the counselors and the campers… A wall that I hope I can help bring down through AYF Youth Corps. This camper firmly backed her statement and pointed out that Armenians living outside of Armenia do not endure the country’s everyday hardships or risk their lives on the front-lines like the families in Armenia. Before Meghry and I could answer, an AYF member from Gyumri stepped in to engage the camper in conversation on our behalf as I sat back, doubting my own hayrenasirutyun for the first time in my life. The purpose of the jampar is to bridge the gap between Armenia and Diaspora, and create a better understanding between deghatsis and spyurkahyes.
In this way, on our second day of camp, we began to dismantle the wall. Some Armenians living in Armenia may see us at fault for choosing a life elsewhere. But they don’t encounter the difficulty that goes into preserving our culture in the Diaspora. While they do not have a choice of identity, Armenians in the Diaspora choose and fight to honor their Armenian identity and embody hayrenasirutyun. This effort by the individuals of the Armenian Diaspora, to me, is hayrenasirutyun. While my camper and I have different definitions for this heavy word, both ends have an undying love for their heritage and there is no greater way to honor our ancestors and the history that our country has endured than to maintain this love.
AYF Youth Corps is a six-week program in Armenia, of which five weeks is dedicated to directing a summer camp for youth (ages 9-16), and one week to exploring and discovering the hidden treasures of Armenia and Artsakh. The camp program allows campers to learn basic English, Armenian history, patriotic songs, arts and crafts, and participate in sports and other competitions. Participants also visit Javakhk, various parts of Artsakh, Lake Sevan, Echmiadzin, Dzidzernagapert, Sardarabad and Tatev Monastery. Since 1994, hundreds of volunteers from around the world have spent summers in Armenia and Artsakh to better the foundation and build bridges to the homeland.