BY HANNAH MANSOUR
Stepping into this trip, I was questioning my ability to form relationships with the kids we would be working with. I did not grow up speaking Armenian, and I really never had an opportunity to learn. I have worked with kids for the past 10 years, but even when I have done volunteer work in other countries working with kids, a language barrier had never been an issue. I honestly was filled with a lot of self-doubt about my ability to connect with any of the kids at jambar. This doubt in my ability to do the work that I came to do was amplified when we arrived to the first agoump – when we were told that we couldn’t speak any English, because nobody would understand us. However, that all changed on the first day of jambar in Stepanakert, Artsakh. The day started out with an overwhelming feeling, as kids were pouring into our class. I felt uneasy as kids came up to me asking questions, or tried to talk to me. I wanted nothing more than to be there for them and answer their questions, but I found myself at a loss of what to do.
As the campers were sitting in the classroom, I was left alone for a moment with them. I was writing something on the board when I heard a “Hello!” As I turned around, trying to find out who was speaking English, my gaze stopped on this young boy who proceeded to say “hello,” again, and ask how I’m doing. Shocked that he was speaking English, I began to speak with him. For the rest of jambar, this sweet boy, Narek, followed me around camp and translated for me. Not only was he so helpful to me, but it was so special to be able to build a relationship with him and with other kids through his desire to translate for me. When he grows up he wants to be a translator and has taught himself multiple languages already. When other campers began to realize that I didn’t speak Armenian, I was swarmed everyday by kids who wanted to practice their English with me and teach me Armenian. Because of this relationship I was able to form, it left me excited for the remaining jambars, where I would form unbreakable relationships with campers.
Arriving at our next jambar in Gyumri, I was filled with more confidence from my experience in Artsakh, and eager to form connections with campers. While there was not another Narek that could be my little translator buddy, I was still able to create genuine, deep relationships with campers even without the use of words. On one of the first days in Gyumri, a young girl in my color group was sitting at lunch with tears in her eyes. I brought her over to me to just sit, and even though I was unable to understand her, I knew that my company could help cheer her up. Lusi was very quiet and didn’t talk much to anyone throughout our two weeks in Gyumri. On the morning of our hantes, she ran up to me with a gift. Her sweet gesture was enough for me to see that we did not need to use words for us to form a strong connection. That night at the hantes, her mom came up to tell me that Lusi had told her so much about me.
This experience has taught me that our connections with people around us can run so much deeper than what we are able to say to one another. On our last day of jambar in Gyumri, I gifted a bracelet of mine to Lusi so that she too could be reminded of the connection we had and know that she is special to me even though our words were few. Each time it came time for another goodbye, I knew that the relationships that I have formed in Armenia through AYF Youth Corps will be in my heart and a part of the foundation of my first experience in Armenia.