BY HASMIK BURUSHYAN
I knew our minutes here were going to be spent like this. The ruminations of the past carved out my expectation that way. I just underestimated how full it was going to make my heart feel; my heart is lovingly overwhelmed because of the many marks left by the people of Armenia and Artsakh.
The plane was filled with all kinds of passengers. Amongst them, was a batch of seventeen who were impatient to get their feet on familiar land. The steady feeling that I got from this observation was that some of us were filling the shelves of our ears with tunes while thinking about the wonders of this trip. Some were trying to tame the restlessness with narrative film. Some of us were in a concrete slumber that had the possibility of serving us scattered scenes of what could be. And, some of us were fallen in a race of thoughts. We did not know that the next few weeks would put our hearts in an endless game of hopscotch.
Camp in Gyumri was everything I wanted it to be. I can say that when I first walked into the school, in which its backyard was covered with children, I was surrounded by walls of jitters and angst. But, the children toppled those walls at that very moment. After a few bashful greetings, I started the beginnings of friendships with these children and they immediately started picking fruits for me.
I became a counselor for the red group. I made it my goal to learn the names of each camper and to make sure that they were not just faces with names for me but to be campers that I made connections with. By the third day, with as much volume as I can pronounce, I energetically yelled out the names of each camper that passed by me and patted their excitement with a somewhat personalized handshake. The energy of the children of Gyumri was unbeatable. When we would move from room to room, the campers screeched “ԿԱՐՄԻՐ” with abounding dignity that lead my conscience to a star-struck episode. The residue of such amazement made me feel so grateful to be with a group of kids who had that much energy. As soon as I snapped out from the captivation, I joined the shouting. I yelled out our group’s color and made sure that our loud babbles could cause a commotion so great that it could have created ripples on the school’s walls. It was as if time stopped during these moments, and I loved every bit of that feeling.
The only negative attachment to the Gyumri camp was its lifespan. A week with those campers was just not enough. I was already thinking about how tough it would be during our farewells. Throughout that week, I got close to one camper, named Arthur. Arthur was the tiniest one in the group but had the tallest personality. At first, he sat in his seat in quietness and resentment. He never sang loud during song practice. Sometimes, he would even run away from me. But after awhile, we got along very well. I kept telling him that I would take him as my second luggage when it was time to go back to the states. He would deny my claim during the first few times. When the camp was coming to an end, he would describe what his days would be like in America when he comes with me. In general, goodbyes and I, did not sit well. It was something that I hated doing as a child and it seems more unbearable than ever now. Although it was unimaginable to do, I sent my final goodbyes to him with prayers for his wellness in the future because I knew he was going to grow up to protect our homeland. After all of that, I just kept thinking about how other camps would be like.
The road to Artsakh was plentiful of emotions. Back home, my comrades and I organize tirelessly for a land that is so dear to our people, and to finally visit this land is a mind-boggling feeling. I felt too blessed to be able to walk onto this land. The camp in Artsakh is parked in my heart in a more special spot, too. I made the move to get to know the campers earlier by playing games with them before camp registration. Amidst the competitive games, I learned their names and they learned mine. They were already begging me to be the counselor to their color group.
I got stuck with the blue group for this camp. And when I blurt the word “stuck”, it’s because this group turned out to be the most misbehaved. The camp being two weeks did not ease the load of work ahead either. Most of the days went by with counselors making several motions of not doing activities due to the lack of compromise the campers were willing to make. The blame-holders were the kids who always sat in the chairs of the back of the class. Tigo, Harut, Vahram, and Araqsia always sat in those seats and never failed to make the counselors leave the camp with sore throats and rising blood pressures. But at the end of the day, these campers never lost their obsession with camp and the counselors never forgot how lucky they were to be able to know these kids.
For unexplainable reasons, my bond with the mischief-causing havoc-frenzy group of kids became more significant during the last week in Artsakh. When camp was over, we would share funny one-liners with each other, which would always make me feel like I’m one of “them”, in the sense that it felt like I was part of their friend group. While the counselors waited for the bus to take us home, Harut and Tigo would always make sure that I lost a game of cards before I left. I remember how much we would laugh during these times.
As much as I did not want to, the time came where I had to shake hands with the fate of the last day. For our last day of the Stepanakert camp, I promised the campers that we can play a companionable game of Vartevar. My promise reeked of regret. Once camp was over, campers flooded the field with fear. Campers and counselors were running away from being the next soggy casualty. Tigo, Harut, and my anxiety outran me for I left the school’s ground as if I left a body of water. This kept us at a distraction from having to say the word we wished to dodge from saying: goodbye. And so, we didn’t. Instead, we didn’t dodge the doomed circumstance at the evening’s event.
Artsakh’s community gathered at the town center to commemorate the five risk-takers who gave their lives to our homeland’s dreams in 1983. I was emanated of happiness when I saw that Tigo, Harut, Vahram, and Araqsia decided to attend the event. It was everything to me to see them again. It was destiny’s gift to give me another moment with these kids. We walked around town while our conversations told tales of my next time in Artsakh. They always jabbed me with questions of my next return. To calm them down, I told them that I would be back next year. I told them we would have the greatest of adventures in Shushi next year.
Truthfully, I do not know when I would be back in Artsakh. This uncertainty laced my struggle of saying goodbye to them all. When the time came, I hugged them with all my might. As much as I wanted to leave the impression of a strong counselor, the tears won over me and spilled. Through a moment that felt endless, we hugged each other as long as time would allow and cried as long as it became almost embarrassing. I couldn’t speak much either. I forced my mouth to budge and leave a breeze of kind words. I wished them victories in every direction of life. I meant it all. It was especially significant with Araqsia because in an odd way, I related to her. It could have been that she was the only girl in that group of kids. But, what I do know is that it was a different kind of connection.
The winds calmed down and I spiritually prepared myself for the last camp. When we arrived to our shelter in Proshyan, we were immediately welcomed by kids who were going to be a part of the camp next week. They did not get too close to our van but they yelled their introductions to all their future counselors and that’s what stood out to me the most about Proshyan. Their eagerness for camp drove them to find us on our arrival and to flex it on us.
Proshyan’s camp went smoothly and it was rich of brilliant children with impressive voices. Xachik, one of the campers who loved singing, immediately gave me a nickname on the first day of camp. He said, “From now on, your name is Bznuni.” With a baffled aftertaste in my mouth, I accepted it as my nickname for a week. Every time he would casually call out my new name (and I would naturally answer to it), it reminded me of our new friendship. Another camper that stood out to me was Narek. He would always make me laugh by claiming that I constantly look tired and following it with a comical capture of his claim. The campers of Proshyan were awesome for loving the counselors to bits. They continuously hung out with us at the village’s town center. They showed us how fast they can ride their bikes. They taught us this confusing game they would play by only using small pebbles. And when it was time for them to return to their homes, they would keep yelling their goodbyes as they were walking. I can still imagine them turning their backs to say goodbye again, for the twentieth time. Being with these campers was always something that I wanted my day to be made of.
As I sit still in recollection of moments that I would do anything to experience again, my heart is lovingly overwhelmed. My heart is heavy of gratitude for having an existing program that put me in these unforgettable moments. The Armenian Youth Federation Youth Corps Program served its predetermined outcome and made me feel like I was on top of the world.
For the rest of my days, I’ll turn to these times in Armenia and Artsakh and owe Youth Corps for giving me memories that I’ll never want to trade.