On January 14, 1933, the Armenian Youth Federation was born. This week marks the 77th Anniversary of the AYF.
With its rich legacy of dedication and involvement in the community, we want to pay tribute to the countless generations of AYF members around the world who worked tirelessly for the political, cultural, social, educational, and athletic advancement of their people.
Happy birthday AYF!
May the coming generations carry the torch that has been passed on to new and higher heights.
This mansion belongs to just one of many millionaire oligarchs in Armenia
BY SEROUJ APRAHAMIAN and ALLEN YEKIKAN
The Turkey-Armenia Protocols ushered in an unprecedented wave of international outcry against the policies of the Armenian government.
Massive demonstrations took place in almost every major city of the Diaspora; 60,000 protestors took to the streets in Yerevan; leading Armenian academics and Genocide scholars forcefully spoke out against the Protocols; two former Foreign Ministers of Armenia came out against the measure; 14 political parties and dozens of organizations within Armenia signed a statement against ratification of the documents; and the sole opinion poll taken on the issue showed that 52.4% of the population in Yerevan was against the signing.
Nevertheless, the Foreign Minister of Armenia traveled to Zurich on October 10 and signed the Protocols with his Turkish counterpart. Today, the Armenian government vehemently calls on Turkey to ratify the agreement, after which it promises to immediately follow suit.
Given the widespread opposition and detrimental effects the Protocols are deemed to have on such pan-Armenian interests as Genocide recognition, legal claims to the Armenian homeland, and the liberation of Artsakh, many people have been left to wonder why Yerevan has pushed forward with this controversial policy with such vigor.
Why would the Armenian government risk going against the will of the majority of its people and give up so much in return for mere Turkish promises of normal relations?
Who Gains, Who Loses
To find answers to this question, it’s essential to look beyond just technical issues about what the Protocols entail and the arguments of both its proponents and opponents. We must look, instead, at the core interests of those in Armenia who hold the levers of power. To put it more simply, in order to understand how policy is formed, it is important to understand those who form policy.
By now, it should be common knowledge that decision-making in Armenia is controlled by a small circle of elites, who dominate the country’s political and economic landscape. Whether we look at the President’s administration, the makeup of the National Assembly, or the heads and support-base of political parties in the coalition government, we find an easily distinguishable lineup of oligarchs that have woven their noose around Armenia’s institutions and its society. What’s unique about this social class is the magnitude of power they command, far surpassing the influence of any other segment of the general population. These oligarchs also share a common set of economic interests, living standards, values, and norms of behavior. They are, in fact, a distinct social class with tight links to one another, who operate on a political plane detached from the general public.
When looking into the business interests of this group of people, we find that a large number of them have made their wealth by dominating key commodity imports (e.g. gas, wheat, oil, butter, sugar, and so on). These business interests of the oligarchic class reflect the makeup of Armenia’s skewed economic landscape as a whole, with imports making up 40% of GDP, while exports only account for 10%. Meanwhile, 70% of exports are comprised of raw materials, minerals, and stones. A large fraction of this class became rich through controlling the mining and exporting of Armenia’s diamonds, copper, and gold, to name a few. That virtually all of these individuals have also acquired large tracts of land and property throughout the country is no coincidence either, as 40% of Armenia’s annual growth is accredited to construction and real-estate. 
As such, a considerable level of power is in the hands of these oligarchs whose monopoly over key sectors of the economy has significantly stymied the country’s economic development.
The lifting of the Turkish blockade is anticipated to further enrich these dominant figures by allowing them to directly bring in products over the Turkish border, rather than the more costly route currently used through Georgia. In turn, opening the border is anticipated to provide new opportunities for those seeking to sell Armenia’s natural minerals in the international market. Property values and foreign investments are also expected to rise once relations are normalized with Turkey, placing many of those in Armenia’s oligarchic class who possess major real-estate and retail interests in a privileged position to reap profits.
The majority of Armenians, on the other hand, who struggle to make ends meet as farmers, wage laborers, or small businessmen are not likely to see much of the gains from opening the border. On the contrary, agricultural workers and local producers stand to suffer greatly under the weight of cheaper imports flooding in from Turkey, while laborers are likely to witness declining or stagnating wages under the pressure of foreign capital. Furthermore, rampant corruption and tax evasion ensure that whatever financial gains do accrue at the top will not be distributed down to the majority of the population.
The chairman of the Union of Domestic Manufacturers of Armenia, Vazgen Safarian, recently explained, “On the one hand, our consumers [and importers] will benefit from the cheap goods, but on the other hand, this will doom our local producers to having to shut down or to suspend operations.” Another Yerevan businessman, who actually imports fabrics from Turkey, stated “Then, many people will start importing goods, maybe the prices will go down. [T]his will hit everyone, [but] I think my business will suffer.”
Vardan Ayvazyan, the head of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Economic Issues has exploited his position to secure mining licenses for himself and his family.
Edgar Helgelyan, an expert with the Mitk Analytical Center, also weighed in on the issue. “We are seriously concerned that the opening of the border will considerably damage the Armenian economy. Imports from Turkey to Armenia account for about $178 million, while exports from Armenia to Turkey do not surpass $1.8 million,” he said during a press conference releasing a report submitted to the Armenian government on the subject.
In other words, the much-touted “growth in GDP” or “improvement of the Armenian economy” that IMF technocrats and government apologists alike parrot as the silver bullet behind supporting the Protocols, is likely to provide a boom for the oligarchic elite but a bust for nearly everyone else. This might help to explain why many average citizens in Armenia are opposed to the Protocols on economic, in addition to national, grounds; they fear having to bare the economic costs of the agreement while the elite reap the benefits.
This reality also helps to explain why Armenia’s leading class has lent its unflinching support to the Protocols, with many being vocally in favor of the move, both in parliament and in business circles.
To give one of many examples, a leading proponent of the agreements in Armenia is Vardan Ayvazyan, the current head of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Economic Issues. Throughout his years in government, Mr. Ayvazyan has secured various mining licenses for himself and his family, including an ironstone mine in Hrazdan and two mines for his brother in Syunik and Lori provinces. It therefore comes as no surprise that he repeatedly boasts about the benefits of the protocols, claiming that, “Opening of the border can lead to 4 percent growth of GDP” or that the Protocols will “ensure a new economic path for our country.”
For individuals such as Ayvazyan, who have used Armenia’s legislative process towards their economic gains, opening the border provides new opportunities to capitalize on the exploitation of Armenia’s natural resources.  The mere fact that the agreement has advanced this far is itself a testimony to the backing the government—many of who themselves make up the oligarchic class—has received from Armenia’s wealthy elite.
Indeed, in a recent interview to an Armenian newspaper, President Serzh Sargsyan smugly stated, “I have not heard from any serious businessperson in Armenia that has doubts of the economic benefit of opening the border.”
Capitalism Over Nationalism
Significant profits are surely anticipated to be made in the upper echelons of Armenian society once the borders are opened. But at what cost are Armenia’s oligarchs willing to pursue their pocket books? Would they be willing to give in to Turkish conditions and renounce Armenia’s national rights for the sake of lifting the blockade? Unfortunately, for many of the Armenian elite, national interests such as Karabakh’s self determination, justice for the Armenian Genocide or legal claims to historic lands do not seem to be as much of a concern as they are for the general population.
This was perhaps most famously demonstrated by the head of the Armenian Football Federation (AFF), well-known oligarch Ruben Hairapetyan. In the run-up to the Turkish president’s visit to Armenia for the much-touted soccer match between the two nations, Hairapetyan suddenly removed the image of Ararat from the AFF’s official logo, sparking a major outcry within Armenia. Although he was later forced to reinstate the original logo with Ararat as the centerpiece, the inherent disregard for Armenia’s national rights and dignity was blatantly exposed by the scandal.
It should be pointed out that such a dismissive attitude towards pan-national interests is not a new phenomenon among the ruling class in Armenia. We saw similar sentiments expressed during the tenure of Armenia’s first president, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who was the chief architect of the system of autocracy and oligopoly we presently see in Armenia. It was, thus, not surprising to see Ter-Petrosyan’s newly formed opposition immediately suspend their protest actions against the government in September 2008, when they learned that the Turkish president would be coming to town for a soccer match. More recently, despite his earlier bitter denunciations of the government, Ter-Petrosyan has praised the Sargsyan regime’s policy on Turkish-Armenian relations and has even expressed his desire to establish cooperation with the ruling regime.
In addition to the economic incentives and tendency to compromise national rights, there is an equally powerful factor to be considered when examining the ruling elite’s support for the Protocols: alignment with Russia.
Most of the prominent business and political elites in Armenia have direct personal ties to business and political interests in their former Soviet patron. We find that they either have major business ventures in Russia or serve as the overseers of Russian capital investments in Armenia. As one member of the ARF Western US Central Committee recently put it, “If Armenia is Russia’s backyard, then they [oligarchs] are the gardeners.”
Indeed, Russia itself has a controlling stake in many of Armenia’s most strategic assets—gas, oil, nuclear power, electricity, telecommunications, rail, and finance, to name a few. It is estimated that Russia has over $2.5 billion of economic interests in the country. Given Armenia’s vulnerability to any instability Russia could potentially cause in these strategically important sectors, no major decision on the magnitude of the Protocols could be made without the blessing of the “Big Uncle.” The ruling elite in Armenia must pay special heed to the wishes of Moscow if they want to avoid any unwanted disruptions to the state and economy. Thus, it was no accident that President Sargsyan, during a state visit to Moscow in June 2008, extended an invitation to his Turkish counterpart to come to Armenia for the first soccer match.
For its part, Russia has openly expressed its support for the Protocols, with many analysts pointing out that it would be the main beneficiary of potential energy and transportation projects between Armenia and Turkey. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Grigori Karasin, was recently quoted as saying, “The Russian Inter RAO EES Company, which has energy facilities in Armenia, is exporting electricity to Turkey and the Russian Railway CJSC is ready to ensure uninterrupted rail communication between the two countries through the Dogukapy-Akhuryan checkpoint.” Interestingly enough, two of the main initial projects expected to develop following the implementation of the Protocols are the sale of Armenian electricity to Turkey and the opening of joint railroad transportation–both of which are Armenian industries dominated by Russia.
The Path Forward
Of course, the West is also keen to see rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey. The heavy dependence Armenia has on Western loans and the desire to deflect attention away from the state’s crackdowns of March 1 is surely another motivation for Armenia’s pursuit of the Protocols.
Yet, blame for the Protocols cannot be laid at the door of foreign pressure (whether from Russia, Turkey, or the West). As Armenia’s Foreign Minister himself explained, “All states except for one or two supported the process and did not pressure us. It was Armenia’s initiative. We reached the agreement jointly with Turkey.”
The responsibility, thus, lies with the ruling elite in Armenia. These elite hold the reigns of power in the country and have obvious motivations for seeing the Turkish blockade lifted despite its costs. In the end, the Protocols and the ensuing establishment of relations between Armenia and Turkey are a direct reflection of the interests of this tiny set of powerbrokers within Armenia.
The question, then, becomes how can the people act to prevent the ruling class from negotiating away Armenian national rights? The answer to this question lies partly in the international public opposition against the Protocols witnessed in recent months.
The unprecedented wave of mass demonstrations organized against the Armenian government pointed to a potential constraint on government decision-making. Hence, the public awareness raised against the Protocols, the delay by Nalbandian during the signing ceremony in Zurich, and President Sargsyan’s televised public address hours before the signing were a direct consequence of people taking to the streets in Yerevan and capitals throughout the world.
To date, these demonstrations have been the most serious disruption to the Armenian government’s plans for pushing through the Protocols. Indeed, the constant secrecy, media control, and deceptive statements issued by the government indicate their concern over the Armenian public’s negative reaction to their policies.
By putting into question the reality of the Armenian Genocide through a so-called historical commission, recognizing the existing illegitimate border that forfeits legal claims to the Armenian homeland, and compromising Armenia’s ability to defend the freedom of Artsakh, the Protocols pose a grave threat to the Armenian Cause–a cause considered to be paramount in the hearts and minds of Armenians around the world.
However, protests and negative opinion alone are likely not to be enough to stop the regime from ratifying the agreements. Public opposition must be translated into serious organization and concerted action in order to raise the costs high enough to be heeded by the administration in Yerevan. The system of centralized, elite power in Armenia must be checked by a vigilant and organized populace in order to restrain the wreckage of the self-interested schemes of the oligarchic elite.
The Diaspora has a special role to play in this battle. Through its relative freedom and more abundant resources, it has an important obligation to stand in support of those in Armenia who are genuinely struggling to create a more just and equitable future in the Homeland. As in the past, only by coming together collectively and reaching beyond artificial divisions will the Armenian people succeed in defending their pan-national interests.
Editor’s Note: This article is featured in the Winter 2010 issue of Haytoug, a quarterly publication by the Armenian Youth Federation. The upcoming issue is set for release in late January. It will be available, free, at community centers, schools and local Armenian book stores. You can also download it in PDF or sign up to receive a free copy in the mail at http://www.haytoug.org/subscribe/
 “Yerevan Survey Finds Majority Opposed to Protocols,” ArmInfo, September 29, 2009.
 Ara Nranyan, “Neoliberalism and Armenia: 18 Years of Integration with Capitalism,” presentation delivered at the 2009 Armenians and Progressive Politics conference in Glendale, CA
 Marianna Grigoryan, “Is Yerevan Caught in a Trade Trap?” Eurasianet, October 5, 2009. See also Hasmik Hambardzumian, “Armenians Wary of Turkish Trade,” Asia Times, September 29, 2009.
 “Opening of Border with Turkey Will Devastate Armenian Businesses,” PanArmenian.net, September 25, 2009. See also the thorough, 192-page study commissioned by the ARF Bureau on the economic impact of opening the border: Mher Dzadourian, Pavel Hovhannisan, and Albert Babayan, “Economic-Trade Issues Surrounding the Opening of the Armenia-Turkey Border,” June 2009, Yerevan.
 Gayane Abrahamyan, “Parliament Debates Diplomatic Normalization with Turkey,” Eurasianet, October 1, 2009. For a background on Ayvazyan’s interests in the mining industry, see Edik Baghdasaryan, “Vardan Ayvazyan’s Business Project,” Hetq, April 2, 2007.
 Despite the constant propaganda meted out to the contrary, people within Armenia consistently express their support for the cause of Genocide recognition and reparations from Turkey. See Serouj Aprahamian, “Armenia vs. Diaspora: The Myth of Diverging Interests Over the Genocide,” Haytoug, Spring 2009, 6-9. In the most recent opinion poll taken after the announcement of the Protocols, 52.4% of Yerevan residents rejected the terms of the agreements and 41% insisted that they want the Turkish-Armenian border to remain closed. “Poll Finds Turkey Deal Unpopular in Yerevan,” Asbarez, October 19, 2009.
 Hayrapetyan owns several businesses and is the Chairman of the Armtobacco Company. Most recently, he took ownership of the Bjni Mineral Water Factory in a controversial deal following the original owner’s (oligarch Khachatur Sukiasyan) fall out with the government over his support of Levon Ter-Petrosyan and his alleged role in the March 1st events. See Gayane Mkrtchyan, “The Politics of Table Water: ‘National Treasure’ Bjni Changes hands in Disputed Sale,” Armenia Now, September 2, 2009.
 See Ian Bremmer and Cory Welt, “Armenia’s New Autocrats,” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 8, 3, July 1997, 77-91.
 Marianna Grigoryan, “Armenia, Turkey Put Differences Aside for Soccer,” Eurasianet, September 5, 2008.
 “Armenian Opposition Leader Backs President on Turkey,” RFE/RL, November 12, 2009.
 Town Hall Meeting on Pan-Armenian Challenges. November 19, 2009. Encino, CA. Personal notes.
For a more historical perspective of this same phenomenon, we are reminded of the following quote from Armenian revolutionary hero, Aram Manukian: “That [exploitative] class is the capitalist class, which by descent is Armenian but in fact serves as the defender of foreign and Russian interests. They pretend to pose as the leaders of our people, but they consider Armenians to be only a pedestal under Russian tutelage for them to use to advance a more vibrant life. This class has turned into a threat to the Armenian people’s unity. They have become bait for our neighbors to use against us. They have become a ‘fishing hook’ in the hands of the Russians with which to ‘catch’ Armenians. Although they may possess Armenian names, this class is, in fact, our enemy.” Roupen Der-Minassian, Memoirs of an Armenian Revolutionary, Vol. 2.
 “Russia to Support Armenia-Turkey Ties With Economic Projects,” Asbarez, November 4, 2009.
 “Nalbandyan Does Not Feel ‘Embarrassed and Insulted’”, News.am, October 30, 2009.
A New Mission in Gyumri Touches Lives in Armenia and the Diaspora
BY ALLEN YEKIKAN
HOLLYWOOD–With its majestic architecture and storied past, the city of Gyumri is a living museum to Armenia’s greatest catastrophe following the Genocide. The devastating earthquake in 1988 killed some 20 thousand and nearly leveled Armenia’s second largest city. Yet, the people of Gyumri are an inspiring example of how Armenians have the unique ability to look beyond disaster and despair, to come together, regroup, and work toward a better and brighter future.
Although Gyumri’s pre-Soviet structures still stand, many parts of the city still remain in ruin. It’s hard not to feel the pain this city has endured when walking through its dilapidated streets. Little economic development has occurred here since the earthquake, and Gyumri’s people continue to struggle to survive. They live much more modest lives than their counterparts in Yerevan and lack many of the amenities capital city residents have enjoyed during the last few years. Employment opportunities in Gyumri are limited and sometimes the prospects for change seem bleak. Only recently has the Armenian government become serious about rebuilding what was once the industrial center of the Caucasus.
Despite the adversities they face, the people of this storied town posses an uncanny sense of humor. They turn despair into laughter and sorrow into cheer. This becomes all the more apparent when looking at its energetic youth. Their future may seem gloomy and their material possessions may be as meager as the third-hand clothes they wear, but these children and teens find joy and excitement in the most modest of things.
This summer nine young diasporans from California traveled to Gyumri to set up a day-camp for the city’s youth—to live among them, share in their experiences, and make a small but positive impact on their lives. They were not surprised that dozens of boys and girls flocked to the camp, excited that Armenians from abroad had come to their hometown to spend the summer with them.
A mission for the youth
Youth Corps began in 1994 as AYF’s response to the desperate needs to rebuild war-torn villages in Artsakh. The program sent groups of young Armenians from the Diaspora to the Homeland every summer to help in reconstruction efforts throughout the region. In 2008, the program changed its focus from rebuilding shattered buildings to reviving broken spirits.
Gyumri was therefore chosen as the pilot location for what is becoming an entirely new archetype for Diaspora-Homeland relations.
“It’s easy to blindly send money, but the impact and real value in rebuilding our people’s confidence in the Armenian nation is priceless,” explains Sose Thomassian, the Director of the Youth Corps program. “The Youth Corps camp has given us an opportunity to interact with the children and youth of Gyumri, to build bonds with them, to teach them and learn from them, and show them that people outside Armenia have a vested interest in their future.”
Youth Corps Volunteer Serop Chalian with campers
Fifteen-year-old Arax Manoukian was among the 150 children who attended the camp this summer. Seeing first-hand how much her Diasporan brothers and sisters really care about her existence and future was inspiring, she says, describing her feeling about the group in her winning entry in the camp’s essay competition.
“The Youth Corps group is really inspiring the kids here,” says Arax. “Their love of nation is motivating because they show us how supreme the fatherland is for them, even from thousands of miles away.”
That love of nation, and the invisible bond connecting young Armenians in the United States with their peers in the Homeland is evident in the effort Youth Corps volunteers make year-round to make their projects in Armenia a reality.
AYF members worked tirelessly, year-round, to raise the money needed to execute their visions for the Youth Corps program. Their work enabled them to connect Armenians regardless of distance, borders, and financial obstacles.
“Fundraising for the program began early in the year,” explains Sose. “AYF chapters worked with the Youth Corps committee to organize events in their communities, and they raised money for the program. Chapters worked with the Youth Corps committee to sell merchandise. They organized car washes, breakfasts, dinners, and bowling nights.”
Alongside the fundraising was a thorough effort to plan the camp’s day-to-day activities. Camp Gyumri’s curriculum, schedule, and mode of operation were adapted from the program used by AYF Camp Big Pines for the past 32 years. The schedule consisted of morning exercises, breakfast, English lessons, song and dance practice, Karate lessons, lunch, art & crafts, and group activities.
Touching down in Armenia
After months of hard work and preparation Serop Chalian, Levon Abrahamian, Berj Parseghian, Kevork Babayan, Kevork Kebabjian, Sanan Haroun, Arianna Deleon, and Nora Injeyan arrived at Yerevan’s Zvartnotz airport on July 11 to begin their mission in the Homeland. They were joined in Yerevan by Manuk Gerbinyan, a local AYF member who volunteered to work with the group during their stay in Gyumri. A few weeks later, an anxious and jet-lagged Alex DerAlexanian landed in Yerevan, hopped on the first bus to Gyumri and also joined the group.
In the days leading up to the flight, Asbarez Newspaper established a blog page for Youth Corps to let the participants chronicle their adventure and share it with the community back home. It was through this blog that Youth Corps volunteers shared their experience of being in Armenia, many for the first time.
“As we arrived to Zvartnots it hit me like a bag of bricks,” says Levon Abrahamian. “I was in my Motherland for the first time. The only thing I wanted to do at this point was step out of the plane and say ‘Parev’ to everyone that I saw. I didn’t know what to expect of Armenia once I got there, but I had a feeling this would all be worth it.”
The group spent its first week in Armenia touring the sites they had read about growing up.
“We wanted to experience it all,” says Levon. “From the hectic trek across Yerevan’s streets to find a 24 hour grocery store, to the exalting feeling of standing at the foot of the Sardarabad monument.”
Along the tour through Armenia, the group made stops at the National History Museum, where the 4000-year history of the Armenian people resides. A visit to the Holy Sea of Echmiadzin left the group breathless. The volunteer were in awe at the vast sea of Armenians gathered from across the world at the soul of Armenian Christianity.
“The designs and details and size of each of the buildings are truly unbelievable, especially after you find out that the churches were built around 600 AD,” says Serop Chalian, vividly recalling the red and blue colors and unique imagery of the religious icons. “I know I might sound generic when I use words like ‘amazing’ and ‘unbelievable’ but it’s impossible to find words in any language that can describe the places we’ve seen. They really are places that you need to see for yourself.”
At Yerablur – the final resting place of Armenia’s heroes – Serop laid flowers for fallen soldiers who had died for home and country. The cemetery is nestled a top one of three hills located immediately outside Yerevan. With its name meaning three mountains, Yerablur is a shrine for family, friends and strangers, who make regular pilgrimages to remember and pay their respects for men and women who put their lives on the line to fight for freedom and justice.
“You walk around and you read each tombstone,” Serop says. “Some names you recognize from songs and stories, and some you don’t recognize. Some died when they were only 19-years-old. But, you realize that each made the ultimate sacrifice for our people.”
The weight of that sacrifice was all the more amplified for the group as they trekked across the mountains of Artsakh and visited the proud city of Shushi. The fog shrouding the fortress city – once the cradle of Armenian culture in this isolated region – was a breathtaking sight for most who had only seen this ancient place through photographs.”Be it a statue, a symbol, or a grave, nearly every corner of this mountainous republic serves as a testament to the soldiers who fell while fighting for freedom,” says Berj Parseghian. He is at an internet cafe in Karabakh’s capital, Stepanakert, ready to update his blog and write about his many encounters during the trip.
Here, amid the lush forests of Artsakh, Youth Corps volunteers spoke with locals and witnessed first-hand the limitless strength of the Armenian people, their determination to struggle against the odds, and their embrace of life and freedom.
After the volunteers’ visit to Stepanakert, the group began its journey to Gyumri to start a project that many in group say has changed their lives forever.
The Youth Corps 2009 Camp t-shirt, designed by campers last summer, was given to every one attending camp.
“Imagine your summer filled with breath-taking landscape, food that entices your senses, monumental structures, endless laughter, meeting locals that will offer everything in their household to you, and taking on the responsibility of being a mentor to a group of children thousands of miles away,” says Sanan Haroun, describing her first few days in Gyumri. “Reality transcends imagination when you find yourself in Gyumri.”
Camp Gyumri opened its doors on July 22 at 10:30 AM. By 11:00 AM, the the run-down Armenian Relief Society (ARS) center used for the camp site had been flooded with more than 80 kids. “They were overwhelmed with excitement,” says Sanan, recalling how the campers couldn’t sit still in their seats. “The smiles on their faces and eagerness to start the camp session was absolutely priceless.”
The first few days of camp were difficult for the group. Though most had served as counselors at AYF Camp, nothing could have prepared them for the kids of Gyumri. The campers were unrestrained and full of limitless energy.
“The kids in Gyumri are like AYF Camp kids, but on steroids,” says Alex DerAlexanian. “They are constantly moving at 100-miles-an-hour, and they have no brakes or any intention of slowing down. However, they are the most humble and the sweetest kids I have ever worked with. They joke with us, they pick us flowers, and they never complain.”
Camp counselor Kevork Babayan teaching English
Alex, who participated in Youth Corps through the Birthright Armenia Program, landed in Armenia a few days after the camp began its operations. He says recuperation from jet lag would’ve been a waste of time, so he set out to immediately experience Armenia.
“It took us all a few days to get the hang of the whole thing,” recalls Kevork Babayan. It’s past midnight, and he hovers over an authentic wooden backgammon board at the Youth Corps house. In this moment of meditation and reflection, he says, “the hardest part of it all was coming up with daily agendas and work for the kids. But we eventually grew into our jobs, and it became sort of natural.”
The next morning Kevork holds up flash cards of images for the children to identify during English class, while Sanan Haroun and Nora Injeyan write down the words on a giant piece of paper for the kids to copy down in their notebooks.
“We check their notebooks at the end of every class, and whoever has it all right gets a sticker. They really loved this,” says Sanan. “We have review sessions at the beginning of every day and have a quiz mid week on the words they have learned.”
In a white-walled classroom furnished with school desks, the campers looked toward the future, working on essays about the Homeland. The essays will be entered in a composition competition at the end of the session.
The campers also help design the logo for next year’s camp t-shirt during arts and crafts. Between these activities, campers spend half-an-hour every day learning Karate with Berj, who holds a third degree black-belt. Berj says his goal for the trip was to instill discipline into the kids.
Youth Corps Volunteer Berg Parseghian teaches karatee to his eager students.
Donning their white AYF camp t-shirts, the eager students form lines in the center’s courtyard. Behind them is the picturesque ravine with an ancient church on the other side. In the patio, the campers stand firm in a defensive position taught to by their sensei. They wait for Berj to shout commands, orders, and names of moves they should perform during their martial arts lessons.
“Everyone needs to know how to defend themselves, so they don’t get taken advantage of or hurt,” explains Hovo, a 10-year-old camper. Hovo says Karate lessons were his favorite activity and that “those people who know how to defend themselves need to take care of the weak, who don’t.”
“You could really see how much they loved the Karate lessons,” says Berj. “It’s as if they have a natural inclination for learning how to defend. Maybe this comes natural to Armenians.”
Campers jump with joy after winning the quizbowl.
To keep the campers organized and involved, they were divided into tri-color groups–red, blue, and orange–with each group working together to prepare for a final song competition at the close of each of the two sessions.
The blue team twice took first place in the song competition with enthusiastic performances that incorporated music and fast-paced dance compilations, explains Kevork Kebabjian. The groups also squared-off every day competing in short quizbowls on Armenian history and trivia.
After jumping up with joy for answering the winning question for the blue team in a quizbowl competition, 14-year-old Rouben Abrahamian darts toward Kevork, his group leader, and thanks him. “I would be sitting at home, bored, and doing nothing if it weren’t for you,” Rouben says. But because of camp, Rouben was able to learn new things, meet new friends, and spend his time “in a much more enjoyable way than at home.”
“Our schools don’t teach us the things they teach us here,” Rouben explains. “They don’t go deep into Armenian history, about the Fedayees or their victories and struggles. But here, we have fun learning about our heroes and their stories inspire us and make us proud.”
Early on, it was apparent to the entire group that these kids never experienced a summer like this before.
“Every game, every song, every activity we do, the kids genuinely enjoy,” says Serop. “Seeing their looks of amazement when they watch Sensei Berj do some karate moves and the giant smiles on their faces when they do the chicken dance during morning exercises are all we need to let us know that the kids are loving the camp.”
The beneficiaries of this summer of fun, however, weren’t just the kids of Gyumri. On any given evening, one would find the Youth Corps crew reminiscing about memorable moments throughout the day as they walked down Gyumri’s brick-laden streets to their home-away-from-home in the Turki Mayla neighborhood.
“I have been a counselor at AYF Camp for quite some time now, but it is different here,” says Sanan. “It is very hard to explain with words, but there is this self-satisfaction you feel here. Because you realize that you are truly making a difference in these kids’ lives.”
Late one night, Sanan jots down notes into her journal, so that she will know what to post in her next blog entry. “Needless to say, this is worth more than anything in the world, because you know that it will shape your own life, and you will carry it on with you for the rest of your life.”
A group becomes a family
Strangers and acquaintances who participated in Camp Gyumri this summer quickly became a family. Two weeks into the trip, they had come to see this city – with its genuine people and picturesque surroundings – as their newfound home and the campers as a regular part of their lives.
“The nine of us have gotten very close,” Serop says. He’s sitting at the patio table of the Youth Corps house, slowly sipping a muddy brown mug with dark Armenian coffee. “We spend a lot of time in our living room just hanging out. We do a lot of talking. We play backgammon, chess, and different card games. And we joke around a lot.”
The home they stayed in was atypical of Gyumri–a pre-Soviet two-story structure of mismatched rooms, with old rusty pipes and walls lined with pealing wallpaper and chipped paint. The house belongs to a family of five, who survived the earthquake of 1988 thanks to its 19th century Armenian-built home. The Youth Corps group rented out the top level of the house, sharing the kitchen and only bathroom with the family below.
“Deegeen Lillig, our host, was incredible,” says Serop. “Everytime we saw her, she greeted us with a huge smile and always asked if we needed anything. He remembers ventured into Deegen Lillig’s garage to discover a mini bread factory, complete with an Armenian tonir and a crew of bakers. “She cared for us like we were her own, working nonstop in the kitchen, taking care of the house, her husband, her three kids, and our group, all while smiling and giggling at every little funny or interesting occurrence.”
Deegen Lillig would make regular phone calls to Youth Corps volunteers’ parents, ranting and raving about how sweet they were and listing, in colorful detail, every single positive quality she noticed in each member.
Having become a family over the course of the 6-week program, the participants often spoke regretfully of the day they would have to part from Gyumri to return to their lives in the States.
The group skaling the mountains of Ijevan
During late night conversations, Arianna Deleon recounts the “awesome times” she’s had with her co-counselors, about the jokes, the laughter and the adventures she shared with her new family.
The defining moment for the group, however, came on a rainy day deep in the mountains of Ijevan, at a mysterious site by the river known by the locals as Lastiver.
“On that day we all began what would become a treacherous hour and a half hike in the mountains, through extremely muddy terrain, over slippery rocks, and underneath the constant downpour of a heavy rain,” Nora recalls.
The group was guided on the high-altitude trail by a man Nora describes as a “lumberjack-esque man,” dressed head-to-toe in camouflage. “He was carrying a multitude of seemingly unnecessary weaponry, and would effortlessly sprint through the narrow passes on the cliff-side”
“The hike really took a lot of teamwork, with each of us rotating turns carrying boxes of food and supplies down the slippery slopes of the mountains,” she says. “The experience did wonders for our bonding as a group, especially at night when we had to huddle together under a tarp to keep warm under the rain.”
Laying the foundations
For these young Diasporans, Youth Corps was more than just summer fun; they were in Armenia for a specific purpose, and each of them knew exactly what that was.
“The AYF sent us to Armenia to set the foundation for a new generation that will take ownership of its homeland and look forward to a future living on the land of their forefathers,” explains Berj.
The Youth Corps program, from its inception, has sought to close the artificial gap created by the Genocide and widened by decades of isolation during the Cold War. The program exists to encourage Diasporans to take on a more direct role in the nation building process in Armenia.
“The homeland is very distant, and you can’t fully comprehend what the situation is like here from watching it on television,” says Artak Avedisian, the Chairman of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s Central Committee in Shirak. He is also a volunteer counselor at the camp, and he says it’s hard for Diasporans to understand how people live in Armenia, what their needs are, and what are things that are to be cherished and preserved without Diasporans seeing them and experiencing them first-hand.
Sitting at a table at Camp Gyumri, Artak talks about his experience with the campers. He talks about working as a teacher and principal at a local school, and he sifts through a bucket of colorful beads, assembling tri-color bracelets for his campers.
Youth Corps counselors and campers take a picture at Gyumri's ARF center
“Through Youth Corps, the AYF volunteers experienced first hand what it is that Armenians here struggle with,” says Artak. The volunteers also saw the country and met the people they work to promote, protect and empower through their unique position in the United States. Armenia became real for them here. It became more than something they read about or talk about or a dream they work toward. I believe this experience will inspire them to work much harder for their ideals.”
Artak is 35-years-old, and he is a veteran of the Karabakh liberation struggle. He has been working for years with his fellow ARF members in Gyumri to establish regular Sunday schools and day camps for youth in the area. There’s a desperate need for it, he says, referring back to his own experience in the school system.
“Quite frankly, the schools here don’t instill love of country in the kids early on,” he says with an air of concern while preparing supplies for his Arts & Crafts class at the camp. “There is no school here that starts off the day with the singing of the Armenian national anthem, and no book that animates for them the achievements of our people throughout history.”
Camp Gyumri is a welcomed change for Artak and may parents who sent their children and teenagers to the Youth Corps program. It gave dozens of kids in Gyumri a completely different experience.
“Here the children sing the national anthem with pride every morning,” says Artak. “They learn national and patriotic songs, and about our greatest moments like the establishment of the first Republic of Armenia, the Battle of Sardarapat, and the liberation of Arstakh. These are historic moments they can be proud of.”
He flips through the pages of an elementary school history book that only allocated two paragraphs to the liberation war in Artsakh. “These are things they learn very little about in their schoolbooks.”
For Artak, and the families touched by the camp, these nine Diasporans who came to Gyumri from California had more of an impact than they may ever truly realize.
“Youth corps has laid the foundation for the ARF in Armenia to set up Sunday schools and regular day camps not just in Gyumri, but throughout the entire country,” Artak proudly states. “At the end of the camp we had over 30 children sign up for the local ARF youth club. This would have taken us years of difficult work to do that without Camp Gyumri and the Youth Corps project.”
AYF Youth Corps volunteers promise that extending this impact will be the mission of the program in the coming years. Upon their return home, volunteers quickly began planning for a second camp in another one of Armenia’s less developed regions.
The Youth Corps team on a stroll through the magestic streets of Gyumri
Editor’s Note: This article is featured in the Winter 2010 issue of Haytoug, a quarterly publication by the Armenian Youth Federation. The upcoming issue is set for release in late January. It will be available, free, at community centers, schools and local Armenian book stores. You can also download it in PDF or sign up to receive a free copy in the mail at http://www.haytoug.org/subscribe/
Pasadena AYF "Nigol Touman" chapter members with representatives of the Armenian Library and Museum of America, former Pasadena Mayor Bill Paparian and Pasadena ANC activist Raffi Hamparian.
PASADENA, CA A broad and diverse standing room only crowd of Armenian Americans recently attended a program highlighting an exhibit commissioned by the Armenian Library and Museum of America (ALMA) regarding the heroic service of the Armenian Legion in World War I. The program, entitled Forgotten Heroes The Armenian Legion and the Great War, was held at the Pasadena Central Library on Sunday, January 3, 2010. The program was sponsored by ALMA, the Armenian Rights Council of America and the Pasadena Armenian National Committee and supported by the Pasadena Armenian Youth Federation Nigol Touman Chapter.
Former Pasadena Mayor Bill Paparian served as the master of ceremonies for the program honoring those Armenians, many from America, who served in the Armenian Legion early in the twentieth century. Former Pasadena Deputy City Manager Ed Aghjayan, whose father served as an Armenian Legion member, served as the programs keynote speaker. Speaking on behalf of the Armenian Rights Council of America was Dr. Raffi Balian. On behalf of the Armenian National Committee, Pasadena Chapter, Chairmen Raffi Hamparian delivered his remarks to the present guest and presented awards to both the Pasadena Central Library and ALMA for their central role in bringing the Forgotten Heroes The Armenian Legion and the Great War exhibit to the City of Pasadena.
Our AYF chapter was proud to learn more about the heroic Armenian Americans who served in the Armenian Legion, remarked Pasadena AYF Nigol Touman Executive member Berj Parseghian after the program. The shared history of sacrifice Armenian Legion members displayed made a strong impact on the 20 AYF members who came to todays program. We are proud to have been part of this program and glad that many of our AYF members were able to make the exhibit a teachable moment. Parseghian added.
The Pasadena ANC is proud to have supported ALMAs exhibit highlighting the Armenian Legion, stated Ishkhan Boghossian, the Executive Director of the Pasadena Armenian National Committee. We salute all the community groups and members who joined with Bill Paparian, Ed Aghjayan and the Pasadena Central Library in hosting a truly wonderful event that drew a standing room only crowd to the librarys Wright Auditorium, Boghossian added.
The Armenian Legion was created during World War I to support Allied forces in their war against Turkey, Austria and Germany. Many Armenian Americans, including individuals from southern California, proudly served in the Armenian Legion. According to the ALMA exhibit, Armenian Legion recruits from the United States were shipped from New York to Marseille, France and then to a training ground in Monarka, Cyprus. From there the Armenian Legion fought in a number of decisive battles in World War I under the command of British General Edmund Allenby. Despite their bravery, Allied forces ultimately betrayed the Armenian Legion by accommodating the demands of Turkish nationalists at the end of World War I.
The ALMA exhibit on the Armenian Legion was originally produced in 2001. Due to overwhelming demand, a traveling version of the exhibit was created and has been shown at various venues throughout the United States. The exhibit was made possible through a generous grant from the K. George and Carolann S. Najarian Foundation, with additional support by the Armenian American Veterans of Milford, Massachusetts.
The Pasadena ANC advocates for the social, economic, cultural, and political rights of the areas Armenian American community and promotes increased Armenian American civic participation at the grassroots and public policy levels.
Photo Caption: Pasadena AYF “Nigol Touman” chapter members with representatives of the Armenian Library and Museum of America, former Pasadena Mayor Bill Paparian and Pasadena ANC activist Raffi Hamparian.