BY HRAG TOMASSIAN
My journey volunteering in Armenia began when I arrived at Zvartnots Airport on July 2nd, 2016. It started with the AYF Youth Corps program, which brings young diasporan Armenians to their homeland to engage with local children in different villages throughout Armenia and Artsakh. The goal of the program is to teach the children English, help them improve their critical thinking skills, play games with them, and most importantly, establish an honest connection as a way of bridging the gap between Armenia and the diaspora.
Of course, before we could do all that, we spent one week orienting ourselves (or in some cases, reorienting) with the beauty of our homeland through sightseeing, day trips, and simply enjoying Yerevan life. Sardarabad, Dzidzernagapert, Garni, Geghard and Echmiadzin were just a few of the historic landmarks we visited. When we weren’t going on excursions, we were walking through the streets of Yerevan with diasporan youth from Lebanon, Australia and Canada, who were also doing similar programs organized by their respective countries. We discovered how drastically the city had changed since some of us had last visited. The development of new cafés, restaurants, hotels and bars, with remodeled, yet culturally preserved, buildings, monuments and parks showed us that Yerevan truly is a hidden gem of Eurasia. I was astonished, to say the least. Even then, I was already having thoughts of moving to Armenia someday soon.
The memories I made even just within my first week in Yerevan were enough for me to conclude that participating in AYF Youth Corps was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. From the bus rides to and from excursions, to spending time with local Armenian youth, to singing heghapoghagan songs and staying up all night playing Arbatash in our hostel, we realized that every day we spend with each other would surely leave a boundless lasting impression.
Yet, the program dictated that after our first week in Yerevan, the 33 participants would be split into two groups for the remaining five weeks of the program. This enabled us to target twice as many villages in Armenia and Artsakh. I was grouped with those who were sent to Askeran, Gyumri, and Proshyan.
In Askeran, all 16 volunteers lived together in one apartment, which meant every day brought new challenges, but also meant that we made some of the best memories of our trip. We befriended the local Armenian youth and played Mafia together, watched EUROCUP 2016 matches together, and even went to the local park in Stepangerd to play volleyball and soccer together.
In Gyumri, we stayed with Deegeen Lilit, a wonderful host who always wanted to make homemade dinners for our group. I’ll never forget the mornings in Gyumri where Varak would wake everyone up with his personal rendition of “Ambitionz of a Riydah,” or how Anthony and Zorig taught us how to play Belot, and of course there was Unger Hamo… enough said.
We spent our final two weeks in Proshyan where we lived in the local agoump, which was unique because we’d have our daily jampar sessions on the same property. We were in the same building for almost 24 hours a day. When our daily camp hours had finished, we roamed the streets, talked with the local of Proshyan, learned about its history, and even managed to set up a local fútbol scrimmage match against the local youth.
The best part of the five weeks volunteering with Youth Corp was how we spent nearly every day with the children of Armenia. Children from the ages of six to seventeen participated in our activities every day. We played dodgeball, volleyball, steal the bacon, and so much more. We gave educational talks about current Armenian events, history, and post-genocide activism. We taught them English vocabulary, writing, and critical thinking skills. We had arts and crafts and taught them Armenian songs. We would end the days with our casual water fights to cool off after hours under the scorching sun. Each day was breathtaking by its own right, not only because we were physically tired at the end of them, but also because we all knew we had stumbled into this remarkable experience. The smiles and laughter from volunteers and children alike only solidified the attachment we all felt toward one another. We looked forward to our meetings at the end of each day where we would discuss the highlights.We all knew that our time with the children was going to leave an impression on their lives – we just weren’t expecting how much our lives were going to change because of our experiences with them.
It was unbelievable how quickly those first six weeks with AYF Youth Corps flew by. By the end of the program, we knew that the bonds we’d forged within our group of volunteers would live on forever. We had lived in our motherland together for six weeks. We looked after one another. We laughed together. We cried together. We shared all the emotions of our daily work. We surpassed the status of just being volunteers or friends. We had become a family.
The AYF Youth Corps program had completed its mission, and the time arrived for the volunteers to return back to America. It was a bittersweet goodbye. As they departed from Zvartnots Airport, I remember being overwhelmed with a familiar feeling of nervousness. Although one chapter of my time in Armenia had ended, another was just beginning.
As my time with Birthright Armenia began, I quickly realized the beauty of the program; it allowed people from all over the world to participate. There were volunteers from America, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, England, Estonia, France, Germany, Lebanon, Russia, and Sweden, with the list only getting longer. The entirety of my seven-month stay in Armenia provided the opportunity for me to meet some of the most wonderful people. The weekly havaks, forums, and excursions helped create a permanent bond with the other volunteers. Learning about each other’s cultures, families, and traditions from all over the world helped me understand how truly amazing it was to be surrounded by other diasporans in Armenia.
Birthright Armenia wasn’t just about having an opportunity to live in Armenia. It was about creating connections with people, whether they were born and raised in Armenia or they had come to volunteer from somewhere else in the world. However, these connections weren’t made simply by talking. They were forged through the daily activities and interactions organized by the Birthright Armenia team, which became a significant factor in creating such a deeply rooted attachment to the county.
I first began volunteering with Green Lane, a local NGO that focuses on self-sustainable living. Together, we would install solar panels on village buildings to harness sunlight to use for electricity and heating water. We renovate buildings and also established a proper channel to receive ground water. It was truly amazing to see how efficient locals wanted their life to be. They were accepting to new ideas and integrated them into their daily lives. For about two months, my daily routine was to take the bus toward Masiv and jump on marshrutka #0 to get to Dzoraghpyur, where I’d start with my tasks after I met with my group. The best part was that our facility was in the mountains at higher elevation, so I had a perfect view of Mt. Ararat. I would often stop in the middle of my work to gaze at the mountain and think about how lucky I was. That romantic idea of living and working in Armenia and seeing Mt. Ararat every day emotionally empowered me. That was the moment when I realized that participating with Birthright Armenia was one of the best decision I’d ever made.
After two months with Green Lane, I began volunteering part-time at the American University of Armenia (AUA) and at the International Center for Agribusiness Research and Education (ICARE). At AUA, I worked in the Office of Admissions, helping with applications and presentation materials for recruitment. At ICARE, I researched potential new environmental health and safety policies that could be implemented, as well as new progressive methods for the institution’s PR campaign. It was a unique experience to work in such different fields for the remainder of my time in Armenia. It gave me a glimpse into how different daily life was for locals, almost as if they had a completely different definition of what it meant to live.
Apart from my daily volunteering, each weekend with Birthright Armenia brought a different adventure. Our weekly excursions ranged from exploring the caves in Areni, where the world’s oldest leather shoe was found, to hiking through Bjni to reach its ancient fortress. I saw parts of Armenia that most people only dream of seeing. My favorite excursions were the overnight, and weekend trips. On separate occasions, we visited Gapan, Meghri and Artsakh with the entire group of Birthright Armenia volunteers. For me, those 6+ hour bus rides were the most memorable. Sevan, the country director of Birthright Armenia, would always go through his routine of stating some fun fact about the village we were traveling through, while Hayk, the staff member in charge of planning our weekly excursions, would go out of his way to keep us awake on the bus with games and sing-a-longs. Those were amongst the best times I had throughout my seven-month stay in Armenia.
There was never a dull moment. This was especially due to the fact that a few of us Birthright Armenia volunteers pitched in and rented an apartment together for the duration of our stay. Garin, Viken, Njteh, Lori and I stayed in a cozy, little apartment on the 3rd floor of a building on Tumanyan 10, right across from Old Beijing. We’d have breakfast together in the mornings before work and dinner at nights before we went out to enjoy Yerevan nightlife. We prepared a magnificent feast for Thanksgiving, and decorated our bedrooms and living room for Christmas. We even adopted a cat, Leyla, and added her to our family. Living with them truly added to the grandeur of my experience.
I came to Armenia in July 2016 with many set expectations, yet when I was sitting at Zvartnots Airport waiting for my return flight back to America, I knew all my expectations had been well surpassed. As I claimed my seat in the airplane and waited for takeoff, I couldn’t help but think about my past seven months in Armenia – all the memories, friendships and experiences. The 22-hour flight back gave me the opportunity to reflect upon my life.
I was born and raised in Los Angeles, where I attended Ferrahian High School – a private Armenian school. I joined Armenian organizations from a young age and constantly volunteered within the Armenian community. I was always proud to be an Armenian, which ultimately led me to the decision of volunteering in Armenia. I noticed how much Armenia had progressed and how the lives of the locals differed from mine back in Los Angeles. As the plane touched down at LAX, I felt my heart skip a few beats. I was overwhelmed with excitement because I could finally see my family and friends. And yet, at the core of this excitement I knew another reason existed.
I stepped through the arrival gates to see my parents waving with nothing but pure happiness. We greeted each other with hugs and kisses and when they asked how my trip went, I spared no detail in expressing how amazing my experience was. As I told them stories from my adventures, I came to the utter realization that my life in Los Angeles was never going to be same because of one important gift – the most important gift – that this 7-month journey gave me: The opportunity to see that I could actually live in Armenia for the rest of my life. From that moment on, I knew that I’d be moving back soon…