I’m generally not a positive person. While contemplating on what to blog about, I was torn between a few depressing topics.
First I thought I could write about how our host family’s daughters will be married off to an appropriate suitor who comes asking for their hand (dating is absolutely out of the question). Then I considered writing about the woman who lives around the corner from us. Her home is literally a room with four broken down walls. No bathroom, no electricity, no water. We took her extra sandwiches one day after camp and she immediately burst into tears about how unbearable her situation is.
After giving it a little more thought, I decided that writing about the kids at camp would be appropriate; how during a game of soccer a group of boys rallied off the field in anger and frustration because two girls were going to play as well. Then I came to thinking that writing about the city itself might be interesting. I could discuss how we have been warned not to go out when its dark and to never go out alone because apparently Gyumri is very dangerous and we could get robbed, raped or killed. These are the types of affairs that normally catch my attention; like I said I’m cursed with a pessimistic attitude.
But, Wednesday was a special day. After a long day at camp, the Youth Corps group alongside our 85 campers, marched down the streets of Gymuri, each of us waving an ARF flag and singing Mshag Panvor. We were walking to church for a candlelight vigil in honor of the 27th anniversary of Lisbon 5. Today was special, because I was able to see, hear and feel the influences we are having in this city. When we told passersby that we are a group of Tashnagtsagan youth from Los Angeles, running a free day camp for kids, they were absolutely amazed. ‘’Vay abrek tsez’’ they would say, and nod their heads in approval.
On Wednesday I threw my negativity back into the face of the all that is evil in this country because on that day I realized that no matter how bad things are, no matter how corrupt, how unbearable or how revolting, we have the will, the desire and the power to change it. Today, 85 Gyumertsi children and their parents gained a newfound respect, love and interest for the organization and program that has given them a reformed and progressive summer. And with each life-changing experience, I too gain more respect, love and interest for this same organization.
There’s no doubt that driving a taxi is one of the most daunting and unappreciated occupations in Los Angeles. Many of those who sit in cabs for hours taking people from one destination to the next are immigrants seeking to earn money as a stepping stone for a better future. It estimated that about one-third of the taxi drivers in the greater LA area are Armenian immigrants.
As one of the prime markets for taxi service in Southern California, Santa Monica has long been the home for local Armenian businesses and drivers trying to make a living. But that might soon change.
In June, as part of an ordinance to overhaul the taxi system in Santa Monica, the City Hall staff recommended only 5 taxicab companies be allowed to operate in the city. Out of these five companies, none are Armenian owned or operated and only two are locally-based in the city. This, despite the fact that 6 locally-run and experienced Armenian companies put up valid bids for a franchise.
When the local taxi drivers got word of the recommendation, they were shocked and outraged. They staged a protest in front of the City Council the same day that the recommendation was to be voted on (see footage below). Due to the outcry, the City Council members decided to postpone their decision until September.
As it stands, the 7 members on the Council will be the final judge of the fate for the over 250 Armenian taxi drivers and their families who work in Santa Monica. The Armenian companies and drivers have continued to voice their opposition to the recommendation and demand a fairer, more inclusive awarding of the franchises.
It is up to our community to stand behind them in their fight.
Working as a counselor at this camp is perhaps the most exhausting thing I have done in my life. These kids are extremely energetic. Sitting still is not something they do often, and it really takes a lot to keep up with them. However, quieting them down has become the least of worries.
Out of all the counselors, I definitely take the competition aspect of the red, blue, orange teams the most seriously. Phrases like “KUTZEEEEE” and “GYANKEET HAMAR VAZEE” have become a part of my everyday vocabulary. I physically lift the smaller campers who eliminate an opponent from Steal the Bacon and give the bigger ones very powerful high fives. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm has not really reflected on the athletic skills of our team, for we keep consecutively getting second place!
Despite my competitive nature, all this loss has not changed my absolute love and fascination with the Camp Gyumri children. I think my favorite part about them is their eagerness to learn. Whether it’s how to start a lanyard or the translations to some of the most complicated Armenian words, they are all so anxious to absorbing new knowledge.
On Friday, we finished our first week at camp and what better way to end the most tiring 5 days of our lives then to attempt to climb Mount Arakadz, the highest mountain in Armenia. This was probably one of the most physically demanding things I have done in my life. After a while, we completely forgot about the altitude because we were too focused on trying to hold on to the very heavy rocks keeping the mountain together. It was much colder than expected, but the scenery was incredible. There was snow, grass, and rocks all in one view. Throughout our struggle to get to the top, many members were keeping themselves motivated thinking about the “khash” we were going to eat once we reached the base of the mountain.
Going to high school in Little Armenia, I have heard quite a lot about “khash,” but have never managed to see /smell it first hand. There have been mixed reviews, some people love it, and some say it the most disgusting thing in the world. Only four member of our group were courageous enough to try it (I was definitely not one of the brave ones). I knew this thing was a big deal when some of the non “khash” eaters demanded to sit on the opposite side of the table from the “khash” eaters. “Khash” definitely lives up to its reputation; it is intense. It is basically a stew with every body part of a cow it it, edible and non-edible. I managed to take a look at it and saw the hoof and vertebrae (along with some cartilage).
Overall, it was a very good day at Arakadz, I think everyone felt very accomplished.
All in all, I am really loving my experiences in Armenia. I have gotten very good at speaking eastern Armenian and plan to have completely mastered it by my next blog!
Where has the time gone? I have to say I have never been so exhausted in my life! These kids are definitely a handful—but are the funniest bunch I have ever met.
Each of them is more vibrant than the other.
I am proud to be the group leader of the Blue group who has managed to consonantly come in 2nd place in all of their activities throughout the week (which is driving Marae CRAZY). This week we had the opportunity to play butt-volleyball, steal the bacon, dodgeball, and a few friendly games of soccer.
The most difficult thing I must say is getting the groups attention, they are all so hyper and excited to be at camp it is overwhelming! Before we can even finish a sentence they are impatiently raising their hands, trying to catch our attention. It can be out of hand, but at the same time it is heartwarming to see every single child so eager to be the one who gets to hold the Armenian and Tashnagtzutyan flag during our opening and closing ceremonies day in and day out.
We have finally mastered a way to calm the classes down our secret weapon is the mighty Unger Allen! Allen has been playing the bad cop role to keep the kids from getting too rowdy. For us counselors, it is difficult to hold back our giggles while Allen is in his stern mode towards the kids, because we have gotten to know Allen and he is definitely not what we make him out to be to the kids.
Besides that, we spend most of our free time playing heads up seven up with kids, which is our excuse for a nap time (we wish!), or joking around by singing and dancing. The kids motivate us to do more, and it is well worth it once they are smiling back at you.
Once the clock strikes four we are all ready to pass out from exhaustion but of course Gourgen and Ardashes, otherwise known as the “Dubai brothers,” (for their matching Dubai hats) are always the last to leave. Thus we all huddle up in room 4 to clean up, recap, and sometimes take a quick nap before we embark on our march back to Deegen Lilig’s for one of her mouth watering feasts!
Let’s not neglect to mention our visits to the local “khanoot” for our daily dose of maroojne (ice cream).
This has become our daily routine for the past week and I must say it has been amazing… I can’t imagine spending my summer any other way. Youth Corps has given me the opportunity to not only visit my homeland for the first time, but experience the life of a deghatsi first hand. This experience has made me ten times more grateful for my lifestyle back home, but I am in love with this place!
After a near two hour ride from Yerevan, we finally arrived to our destination; Gyumri. This would be our home away from home for the next four weeks. As the van neared the house, we saw Digin Lilig, our host mother, waiting impatiently for us. She was standing by the door with arms wide open, ready to give each one of us a big hug and kiss. Her warm and welcoming nature, along with her excitement put us at ease right away.
My fellow participants and I toured the house and soon realized that we would be sharing a bathroom with the host family, an adventure within itself. With the entire top floor to ourselves, which includes three spacious rooms and a huge living room, we quickly settled in with much comfort. Afterwards, we all went down to have soorj with Digin Lilig, her two daughters, and her son. She talked about how excited she was for the upcoming weeks and told us stories about the previous Youth Corps group.
As much as we loved sitting around and drinking soorj, we realized that we had a lot to get done. We went upstairs and organized the supplies and materials for the first day of camp. From pencils and notebooks, to beads and colored pencils, we had everything we needed. After that initial process, we had a long meeting to discuss the camp schedule, which includes games, English classes, arts and crafts, and lectures. I guess here would be a good time to say that halfway through our meeting the electricity went out. It didn’t come on until an hour after we had fallen asleep.
The next morning was the first day of camp. All of us were excited and somewhat nervous. We woke up early and arrived at the camp at 10:00 AM, thirty minutes before it actually started. Apparently, we weren’t early enough because as we walked up to the school, we saw a large group of kids standing in front of the door. All of the campers were waving and smiling, beaming with joy. The excitement on their faces pumped us up.
After a quick set up, we opened the doors at 10:30 AM. The kids came rushing in and all gathered into one classroom. We first talked about AYF, the Youth Corps program, and ourselves. The kids then took turns introducing themselves. With introductions being over, we split ourselves up into three colors (red, blue, and orange) and went into our respective classrooms, where the campers had breakfast. At the previous night’s meeting, we had decided to keep the first day fun and simple. We played some games, got to know the kids, and gave them a short preview of the fun that was coming their way.
A main component of the camp is teaching English. On that first day, we split them into three groups: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. After lunch and a game of volleyball, the first day of camp was over.
Our group had decided to meet up every night to discuss our day at camp. So after the first day, we had the first of many meetings. My fellow Youth Corps participants and I all shared the same opinion. We were definitely tired from the day and from the amount of energy the kids had, but nothing measured up to how happy and excited we were for camp Gyumri.
To be perfectly honest, getting up at 8:00 AM everyday isn’t my idea of a fun time. But after seeing the smiles on the camper’s faces and after witnessing their joy and excitement about the simplest things at camp, 8:00 AM wasn’t early enough. I knew that I would gladly wake up early to spend time with them. Whether from writing the A B C’s to drawing a picture, the campers were overjoyed and grateful for everything.
After that first day, I quickly realized that this would not only be rewarding for the campers but for myself as well. I now count down the minutes to camp Gyumri everyday. I know that it will be an experience we will never forget.
After months of fundraising back home and another week of touring throughout the homeland, we finally began our work at Camp Gyumri on Tuesday, July 20. Located at the center of the city in Gyumri’s 6th school, Camp Gyumri is a four week long summer day camp that’s free and open to the public.
We arrived at camp on Tuesday a half hour early to find a long line of children and parents waiting to check in for the two week experience. All in all, we accepted 85 kids, ten more than the year before. Many of the kids, interestingly enough, attended last year’s camp and had waited all year to come back to Camp Gyumri. The first day was fun and exciting but extremely taxing.
Here are photos from Day 1. Youth Corps participant Kareen Sassounian is going to talk more about our first day in her posting tomorrow so stay tuned for that one.
What happened on The second day, is what I want to focus on. We arrived at camp early again, but this time we were greeted by a reporter and a camera crew from the local television station, who had come to do a feature report on our activities. A very big thank you to Ungers Gevork and Ara from the local ARF for making this happen.
The reporter, Margarita Hovanisyan, and her cameraman went from classroom to classroom interviewing our campers and counselors, and observing our English lesson, arts and crafts activities, and athletic games. That night, during dinner, we heard the television in the background say the word “Jambar” and quickly ran to the living room of our host family’s house to watch the news piece. I quickly recorded it off the TV screen with my cell phone. The next day, I was able to obtain the original report, the video is below.
After being interviewed myself, I asked Margarita if she would share her personal impressions of the camp with me and my camera. She was more than happy to do so; Her thoughts are very telling of a people happy to see their brothers and sisters from the Diaspora working in the homeland and spending time with their children. Check out her video below.
Without a doubt, word of our camp is spreading very quickly throughout town. Not a day goes by in Gyumri that people on the streets don’t ask us about our “Jambar” and wish us the best of luck when we tell them who we are, what we are doing and why we are here. We tell them we are ARF youth from America, here to learn about our homeland and lend a hand to her people.
Paralleling the zestful feasts that they present on twenty-foot tables and the flamboyant wardrobes that they fashion on the streets of Artsakh, the hearts and personalities of Karabakhtzees are immense. They are not putting on a façade when they greet guests with open arms and huge hearts; that is simply their true nature; their Armenian-ness as I would call it.
Our visit to Karabakh was simply proof of the bits and pieces of the colossal nature of the Armenian Culture that we see in America. Upon our arrival to the Stepanakert Youth Center, which by the way looks awesome, (Good job youth corps 2007!), the youth there approached us immediately, made us feel at home, and began conversing with us as they would their close their friends.
Hand in hand, walking through Artsakh, they showed us around and gave us as much information in their power about the history of their hometown. Meanwhile, grasping as much as I could to take back home with me, I realized I was not too far from home. In Artsakh, a car will not be caught dead driving by without providing ten seconds of an ear-aching screech for the entire community to hear. Patience is non existent; even if the meter says that there are 8 more seconds left to cross the street, you better run for your life to avoid getting hit by a car. With bakeries and hatzatoons on every corner, it is not humanly possible to fight off the temptation of snatching a khachapooree or a boncheek while walking by.
On a more serious note, we got along very well with the local youth. Before our twenty foot table feast, we played a game called “Mafia” with them. The funniest part was having to incorporate both our rules and their rules into one version and trying to understand the games’ lingo in both languages. During dinner we asked them if they had any recollections of the war there. One of the Ungers, Vahe, told us that he was six years old during the war. He recalled that on his walk home one day, by himself, the windows of his neighbors’ apartment exploded the second he walked past them and then he got punished by his mom for being out and unwillingly coming across this horrible experience. The girls just remembered the aftermath of the war, peoples’ attitude changes, lifestyle changes, etc. We made about 24 toasts that night, and sang our hearts away.
Prior to our visit to Stepanakert, we had the chance to experience the childhood activities and mannerisms of the youth in Shoushi. The kids that lived in the surrounding apartments of our hotel entertained us a good amount. We played soccer with them in the mornings, conversed with them in the afternoons and waved goodnight to them in the evenings, half way in tears because we did not want to separate. They were so vibrant and full of life; so eager to learn how to speak English. The thing that amazed me most was that they did not even know that a language known as “English” existed in the world. This was a HUGE shocker to all of us because we thought that even if people from different parts of the world do not know how to speak English, they would at least know of its existence. Robert, one of the little boys, after repeating “I love you” after me yelled out, “I love you? Ayseenkun meeyayn yes yev doo? (As in just ME and YOU?)”. Immediately after, he excitedly called his friends to join him in his English lessons, “ Dghek! Arek! Engleren em sovoroom! ‘I love you’ arten sovoretzee!”
Leaving these boys and girls from Shoushi after only having been with them for a total of maybe a few hours was the hardest thing some of us have had to do. I cannot even imagine how difficult it is going to be having to leave kids that we are now counselors of for two weeks. Stay tuned…
I’ve heard that many people who visit Armenia don’t usually get the chance to visit Artsakh. Thankfully, the Youth Corps program was able to secure this opportunity for us.
What more logical way to introduce our journey than to address the road we took? In addition to being a physical link between two sections of Miatsyal Hayastan, the drive along the Goris-Stepanagerd Highway has an important ideological significance.
Funding for this $10 million roadway – along with the $28.5 million North-South Highway which forms NKR’s backbone – was secured by the All-Armenia Fund; both are unbelievably strong testaments to the Diaspora’s commitment to the homeland and to safeguarding the return of its territories. The more of this beautiful country we see, the clearer the link between Diaspora and motherland or Armenia and Artsakh becomes.
On our way to Shoushi, the Nagorno Karabakh Republic’s second-largest city, we stopped by the ruined ghost town of Aghdam. The video below will give you an idea of what the crumbling buildings that made up the grim landscape looked like.
Contrasting the bleakness at Aghdam were the city and museum at Tigranakert. One of seven capitals built in the emperor Tigran the Great’s name, Artsakh’s Tigranakert is a city standing, in a sense, on the knife’s edge between life and death. It was resurrected through excavations that began in 2005, and now boasts a very modern and attractive museum.
Built in the 13th century, the walled abbey at Gandsasar is an architectural marvel with strong resemblances to another wonder of Armenian church architecture – Aghtamar’s Sourp Khatch (Holy Cross) cathedral. It is said that the Sourp Hovhannes Mgrditch (St. John the Baptist) Cathedral located within Gandsasar ‘s walls is the final resting place of a key Christian relic: the head of St. John the Baptist.
During our trip, Shoushi became our base of operations in Artsakh and the Shoushi Hotel our home. The view from our room was spectacular, as we awoke every morning with Ghazanchetsots Church greeting us. One night, after an especially djokh dinner in the hotel’s dining room, the staff apologisingly asked us to call it a night as our celebrations were bothering the other guests. What was our solution? To congregate on the streets of this former capital for a 2am heghapokhagan song session.
Stepanakert is the current capital of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic. While there, we put aside the day to focus on one thing: the Karabakh liberation movement. After visiting our ungers at the local ARF office, we moved on to the Azadamardig (Freedom Fighter) Museum. Owner Galia Adamanian gave an extraordinarily moving account of the war’s human toll, as well as of the importance of safeguarding freedom even at the cost of one’s life. This last lesson wasn’t one we could allow ourselves to take lightly, however, as Mrs Adamanian was speaking from experience: her son had given his life for Artsakh 20 years previously and she had established this museum in his honour and all those who had sacrificed so much for their nation.
We wrapped up our stay in Stepanakert with a very generous dinner hosted by the city’s AYF chapter. Preceded by a game of mafia and ending with a cup of tea; the experience was truly amazing. We sat in the centre’s courtyard under a cool night sky enjoying the mounds of khorovadz and ever-flowing stream of tti oghi (mulberry vodka).
Below are some more clips from our time in Stepanakert.
We’ve arrived at Heathrow, our midway point along our 7000 mile journey to Armenia. Our group has been here for some time now–five hours to be exact–touring our terminal in what is said to be the world’s largest and busiest airport.
Our LAX group includes: Rita Yemenidjian, Patil Gharibian, Kareen Sassounian, Marae Sarkuni, Alina Soukasian, Christina Karayan. We met up at Heathrow with Daniel Ohanian, a YC participant from Canada. In less than a day we’ll be in Yerevan where we will meet up with Sanan Shirinian and Nora Kayserian of our group.
The Youth Corps participants at LAX with Program Director Sose Thomassian on the left.
These are very exciting times for everyone in the team, some still have yet to come to terms with the reality that they will be at the foothills of Ararat tomorrow morning. Here’s a video blog straight from Heathrow from Daniel Ohanian, who shares his own experiences and feelings thus far.
These are really exciting times. Hope you continue to follow us on our blog!