20-year-old Anahid Yahjian of Los Angeles recently produced Armentsi, a 10-minute documentary exploring the assimilation of the Armenian community in Bulgaria.
A member of the Armenian Youth Federation’s Western Region, Yahjian was born in Sofia, Bulgaria and was raised in Los Angeles. She traveled to Bulgaria in winter 2008, where she filmed 11 interviews with various members of the Armenian communities of Sofia and Plovdiv.
The project was funded by a Richter-ASP research grant from Occidental College, where Yahjian is a senior English and Comparative Literary Studies major. The film is a product of Yahjian’s academic interest in both Armenian and non-Armenian conceptions of diaspora, nationalism, cultural memory and identity.
Armentsi contains a small portion of the interviews Yahjian conducted and focuses on the Armenians in Sofia. She is currently editing and compiling the remaining footage into mini-videos that she will then post to YouTube. Armentsi won second place at the 2010 Occidental College Student Film Festival, held on the Occidental campus in February.
Yahjian is currently in Kigali, Rwanda, volunteering as a photography instructor.
When I first arrived to Armenia, I was lost in all of our majestic historic landmarks; however today I find myself lost in my thoughts, my thoughts of how six weeks have gone by and I am about to return home.
This is why I have compiled a list. This list includes some of our prized accomplishments and moments:
We became local superstars! We were featured on television news in Armenia four times and by the end of camp everyone on the streets of Gyumri–and sometimes in Yerevan–knew who we were.
We accomplished sharing a single bathroom with 16+ people.
Motion sickness will never get the best of us, since we withstood our long and windy rode to Tatev.
We now have immediate back-up plans when ordering what to eat. Due to the fact that anything you are craving at the moment is always conveniently out of stock.
We always seem to “almost” do things (aka getting to the top of Arakats and Kaskad).
We can now survive off lavash for the rest of our lives.
We were able to cross the Armenian-Georgian border without needing to purchase a visa. But of course justice was served to us once we tried getting back to Armenia and the Armenian border control made us all purchase new visas.
We accomplished coming up with literally a handful of awkward gestures.
We can now say we are as reliable as a thesaurus due to our endless rounds of “Password”.
We survived sitting on Gyumri’s swing of death!
We are no longer frightened when someone *cough*Degeen Lilig*cough* peeps through the bathroom window and then barges in.
We have officially started the Tata Simonyan die-hard fan club.
We can now recognize who is coming into the room by hearing peoples footsteps.
We can get away with mischievous deeds by exclaiming “Eeee” or “Lav eli”.
We can now survive without being on our Blackberry or iPhone.
We are expert bargainers due to our several visits to Vernesajh.
We can officially state that we are nomads, due to the fact that we were always moving around on the weekends.
We now are also part sardine because of the way we can jam-pack 4 people into one sleeping bag.
We all are now individually able to say that we have added 10 more people into our family.
We made a positive impact on the lives of over 150 children in Gyumri by giving them a summer they will never forget or have gotten if it wasn’t for this amazing program.
We came to Armenia to work hand-in-hand with our brothers and sisters here to help make it a better place for our future.
This list can go on and on, but this is some insight on what we have done this summer. Six weeks in Armenia seems like too much, but now that we have gone through the program, all of us would not mind staying longer.
Now that our work is done, and we visited not only Armenia but Kharapagh and Javakhk as well, I am certain of one thing—our work here is no where to being over. The Armenian people’s cries for help echo off each mountain-top. We need to keep coming back to our homeland and working to making it a better place. We must be the change we wish to see. As cheesy as that may sound, it’s the truth.
Without Youth Corps I would have been another Diasporan, disconnected from my homeland. Now I understand why we refer to Armenia as “Mayr Hayastan”, it is like our mother you can’t leave it for too long; you need to return to enjoy it and care for it.
I remember my first day in Armenia back in June when a friend asked me why I came to Armenia this summer. Immediately, my answer was to help and put my values and my education into practice. Little did I realize that Armenia was the one helping me. I’ve been to Armenia twice before, I constantly read the Armenian paper and like you I have read all the blogs from last years Youth Corps participants. I thought I knew a lot about our homeland and our people. Now that I look back I realize how completely wrong I was.
Living in Gyumri over the past few months has taught me a lot. I’ve learned things that I would’ve never learned through the news or through a blog. How can one expect to know the visions, aspirations and feelings of their people without immersing themselves into their daily lives? How would I know the needs of the children in Gyumri if I had not spent everyday engaging in dialogue with them? How would I have learned about the dynamics of Gyumris social relationships if I had not stepped out of the circle of diasporan Armenians and stepped into the lives of the locals.
I came here to teach children and I became a student of my students. They have become a source of knowledge and information, teachers as well as learners. Together we explore, connect, investigate, inquire, ask questions, listen carefully, speak, and act.
But it doesn’t end with them.
When I’m not at Camp Gyumri I’m with the local AYF and ARF members. Through them I have learned the similarities and differences of how our organization works in Armenia in comparison to the diaspora, the challenges they face and the work they do with the badanees.
I’ve also had the privilege of living with the Karapetyans (my previous host family). I was able to take part in the engagement of their 25-year-old daughter and the birth of Nare, my other host sister’s new baby. Every night we would talk about the traditions, lifestyle and history of Gyumri. We spent countless hours talking about anything from politics to the 1988 earthquake that still effects every individual and is a topic that comes up with every Gyumretsi I talk to.
These connections and relationships are not temporary; these individuals will be my comrades, my friends and my family for life. I came to Armenia thinking I would give back to my homeland but what I got in return was so much more.
This blog is dedicated to all those who wish to visit Armenia one day. I hope that you will adventure out of Yerevan and out of your comfort zone. Visit the real Armenia, the neglected Armenia, visit Gyumri and talk to the people. You will learn a lot about our homeland, our people and about yourself.
SANTA MONICA The Armenian National Committee of America Western Region (ANCA-WR) and the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) are working with Armenian American taxi companies who were refused operational rights by a Santa Monica City Council Taskforce, through a recommendation which would allow the franchise of only five taxi companies to operate within the City. The Santa Monica City Council is scheduled to vote on this recommendation in September.
“When we were approached about this issue a few weeks back, we did a thorough investigation about the process used by the bureaucrats in Santa Monica in awarding franchises,” said Armen Martin, a board member of the ANCA-WR. “That investigation has left us with significant worries about a flawed and potentially discriminatory process. We intend to follow up with Santa Monica city officials as well as other representatives of the area to advocate on behalf of the nearly 300 Armenian American families which will lose their primary source of income if this decision is not reversed.”
“The fact that 6 out of 13 applicants were owned or operated by Armenian Americans and not a single one of them was recommended to win a franchise, speaks volumes,” said Serouj Aprahamian, Executive Director of the AYF. “When you look into it on a deeper level and you see that some of these Armenian American taxi companies had substantially longer operating histories and were stronger companies than some of the companies which were recommended, it certainly raises a concern that the Armenian American owned companies were intentionally discriminated against.”
The ANCA-WR and AYF are planning to meet with Santa Monica City Council members in the coming weeks, to share their concern about the unjustified recommendation.
“We are incredibly grateful that the ANCA-WR and AYF have taken such an interest on this issue,” said Elen Poghosyan of VIP Yellow Cab. “We look forward in working together to help save the livelihoods of over 300 Armenian families in Los Angeles.”
The Armenian National Committee of America-Western Region is the largest Armenian American grassroots advocacy organization in the Western United States. Working in coordination with a network of offices, chapters, and supporters throughout the Western United States and affiliated organizations around the country, the ANCA-WR advances the concerns of the Armenian American community on a broad range of issues.
Founded in 1933, the Armenian Youth Federation, with chapters throughout the United States and affiliated organizations around the world, has grown to become the largest Armenian American youth organization. Inspired by the past and motivated by the needs of the future, the AYF actively strives to advance the social, political, educational and cultural awareness of all Armenian youth.
Do I have any right to be upset? I’m a healthy 21-year-old senior in college, living at home with my parents in beautiful La Crescenta, CA. What right do I have to get upset or mad or frustrated at the fact that kids in Gyumri do not know the meaning of our tricolored flag? Who am I to get disappointed when my campers don’t know how many Armenians were slaughtered in the Genocide? My hardships may be minimal compared to these kids, but I cannot deny the fact that I am genuinely and wholeheartedly upset.
I honestly feel like I have entered the twilight zone. What is this place that is so incredibly different from the little Armenian community I was raised in back home? All throughout my adolescence I was nurtured with such national pride and national awareness, all the while believing that when I get older I can come to Mayr Hayasdan and find a cohesive attitude with my people, and finally put all my “Armenianness” to practice. I’ve come to the shocking realization that, even with all its natural beauty, with all its historical magnificence, Armenia is not the glorious treasure our textbooks, poetry and songs lead us to believe.
When I first realized that my kids at camp Gyumri did not know who Talaat Pasha was, did not know when Armenia first proclaimed independence, and did not know the words to our national anthem, I was furious. I kept them in from playtime that day and tried shoving as much of this basic information into their minds as possible. I am not doubting the fact that they have more knowledge, experience and education about their country than I do, but my point is not about who knows more and who knows less. My point is that the lack of familiarity of these simple yet vital historical facts, reflex a lack of national pride. What is the future of this nation if the new generation is indifferent to our flag, our anthem, our history, our politics, our geography and our natural environment? Is the government intentionally keeping these kids uninformed and preoccupied so one day they won’t be a threat to those in power?
Then there is another side of me that thinks, why should these kids care? Would I care about the well-being of my country when my own father is an alcoholic and beats me everyday like 9-year-old Suzanna’s father does?
Today she told me that when he gets really angry, he pulls her off the ground by her hair and slams her against the wall. As for her mother; a few years ago she told Suzanna to sit and wait in front of their neighbors’ house. She never came back. Would I care to learn about the suffering of my ancestors when I have to share one toothbrush with my whole family like Dianna does?
I suppose for me national pride comes easy, because I am not the one experiencing the hardships of this country today. But for kids like Suzanna and Dianna, pride in their homeland and history may become slightly more important when they are given a reason to love Armenia.
Although these kids are the future of our nation, they need their basic security, livelihood, and humanity respected in order for them to be interested and to care; care about our history, our culture and care to want to make the changes our country so desperately needs.
After all it is human nature to cherish the things you love and the things that love you back.
As I had unmistakably imagined, it was extremely grim having to part with the little ones on the last day of session 1 of Camp Gyumri. Being an alumnus AYF and Camp Hayastan camper, I figured I was completely prepared for the trauma of this scene; the kids pass out handmade lanyards or drawings that they have made for their favorite counselors, snap a couple of group shots and are on their way out bursting with laughter from the memories they have made and the victory-leading chants that they have newly acquired.
Wrong. Nothing could have prepared me for what fell onto my lap on this day. Not only was I mistaken, I was faced with a cruel reality; a jolt of shock. Upon the closing of the first session, I saw streams of tears falling to the floor from the kids’ eyes. The toughest boys of Blue Team, who would strut their stuff and toot their own horns as they walked around the classroom, disobediently talking and laughing with one another, had cringed into the littlest of human beings while crying to us that they did not want to leave camp. The same boys, the head honchos, the macho men who received a punishment because they refused to play soccer if the girls were playing, were crying! These boys were not 8 or 9 years old, they were over the age of 12. I could not believe what I was seeing. All of a sudden I was faced with the brutal truth of this situation; Camp Gyumri, for the majority of the children, was a safe haven from the tense atmosphere of their homes and a place of fun and learning where they could get away from the mundane existence of summer in Gyumri.
Picture this: 4:45 PM, two days before the last day of session 1. It’s 45 minutes after camp has finished and Little Eliza is the only camper left. She is sitting on a ledge all by herself, notebook and newly received toothbrush in hand. Her grandpa has not come to pick her up. On the verge of tears, head hung in embarrassment, she directs us towards the bazaar where her mom works, and when we approach, there is absolutely no expression of concern or uneasiness on her face for the fact that 11 counselors are walking her daughter home. She casually greets us, along with her daughter, and requests us to walk Eliza home. Half an hour later, as we enter the run-down neighborhood, a man approaches us and leads us to the girl’s family; we all take note of the fact that Eliza does not acknowledge him; she does not even turn her head his way. We become a bit skeptical, but just figure he lives in the vicinity and knows where the girl’s family lives. Sure enough the man turned out to be her father. I’ll let your imagination guide you to the conclusion of why she might have not acknowledged his presence. We walk into a one room “apartment” in which there is no difference between the bedroom, living room, kitchen or bathroom and all that exists of the bed is the frame—the mattress non-existent. Her grandparents are not at all shocked either that they forgot to pick her up. They nonchalantly offer us some coffee and pastries as if it was all planned out for us to bring Eliza home. “Are you ok now? Go drink some water and feel better sweetie” we say to Eliza after an hour of feeling completely neglected.
Immediately after, Eliza’s grandmother looks up at us with the most shocking expression on her face and after everything that happened, thoughtlessly asks “What’s the big deal? What could have happened?! What’s wrong?”
She was completely oblivious of the possible consequences of her neglect and why her granddaughter might be troubled by this lack of attention.
For the kids of session I, the last day of camp would be the end of Camp Gyumri 2010 but the beginning of a year full of hope, optimism and ambition—a new outlook on life.
During the course of this trip, I, like my fellow Youth Corps sister, Sanan Shirinian, have also developed a new perspective on life. It has dawned on me that every single situation one faces in life is both an ending and a beginning.
For the 11 of us counselors, the start of our four-week stay in Gyumri marked the beginning of the end for our staying-in-between-the-crosswalk-lines habit, introducing us to a new pedestrian culture. We have mastered the art of Jay-walking, stopping cars with a simple palm up motion as we cross Gyumri’s 8-way intersections of death.
The 11 of us have also experienced the end of conventionalism. We are no longer just day-to-day citizens. Being in Gyumri has introduced us to the beginning of our celebrity lives. People here have seen us on TV four times already and once we were on the Radio. As we walk down the streets wearing our Camp T-Shirts, we can’t help feel the weight of the many eyes upon us as the Gyumretsis stare, point, and whisper. We even get special treatment in some restaurants.
I, personally, have reached the end of my in-n-out diet and the beginning of my lavash diet.
Living here has also given me a fresh perspective on friendships and dating. I have come to appreciate the freedom I have back home–of being able to get lunch with a male friend of mine without the entire community considering me any less of a woman than I am. Our host sister who is 24 years old has had 7 suitors come to her house asking for her hand in marriage and she has refused all of them because she has not found them to be up to the caliber that she desires for herself. This is how she is supposed to meet her future husband, who she will marry and live with for the rest of her life. Dating here is out of the question.
I have also reached the ending of taking America for granted and constantly complaining about certain laws or restrictions and have reached the beginning of appreciating the many freedoms we are privileged with. Some of us Friday morning walked downstairs to see our host mother sobbing. Her youngest daughter, who passed her high school exams and had been admitted to the local University, had now been turned away. Months ago, the family paid one-year’s full tuition to the University to secure her spot, only to be told yesterday their daughter’s position was unavailable. The administration had replaced her daughter with students who had failed their exams and did not qualify for entry. The families of these students had bribed the dean and now he, in turn, was demanding a bribe from our host mother. This ordeal brought our proud and independent host mother to the point of desperation, filled her with anger toward Armenia and its ruthless rulers who are capable of depriving the citizens of our homeland of opportunities to live and succeed.
From working with children to simultaneously keeping everyone back home aware of our work, we are hoping our efforts and energy spent here in Armenia will work toward a new beginning of the Diaspora Armenian mind-set—one that is closer to the reality of the difficult conditions and the state of life in our Homeland.
Tuesday July 27, 2010 was not like any other ordinary day we’ve had here in Gyumri, Armenia so far. Instead of going home or to the ARF getron after camp, we walked through the hrabarag to the Seven Wounds Church along with our 85 campers to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the death of five young, brave men.
As we commemorated the memory of the Lisbon 5 operation on that day, it was a feeling I couldn’t help but stop and think; I was doing something I have never done before—I was in the homeland, raising awareness of the Armenian Cause. We walked from school through the Harabarag and to the church with our 75 campers, who were all singing Mshag Panvor and waiving the Armenian and Tashnagtsagan flag. Our procession garnered much attention, with people approaching us to ask what we were doing. It was truly amazing.
At the church, we had a candle light vigil for the death of Sarkis Abrahamian, Setrak Ajemian, Vatche Daghlian, Ara Kuhrjulian and Simon Yahniyan—the five young men who sacrificed themselves in Lisbon to raise the hopes and ambitions of our people. After the church ceremony, we went to the center of the Harabarag and sang the Lisbon 5 song we had spent weeks trying to teach the kids.
It was so gratifying hearing the kids sing this song with such accuracy and pride after several days of difficult practice. Hearing these kids sing and seeing them commemorate these five men brought tears to my eyes. It had taken all the will in my power to not cry, at least not in front everyone.
After we sang Lisbon 5, we sang a few more heghapokhagan songs along with a few of the kids. We sang Kedashen and Kini Litz along with a few others. To be able to be in Armenia and commemorate the Lisbon 5 anniversary is definitely a different experience from what I usually do in America on July 27.
After a long day at camp last Monday, we came back home as soon as we could to make it to Heripsime’s (Digin Lilig’s Daughter) birthday. When we were walking back home all the girls were thinking of what to wear. As we passed by the house and took a quick glimpse of what people were wearing, we rushed quickly to put on our dresses and got ready!
When we went down stairs, we were all shocked at the amount of food and drinks there were on the table. Plates on top of plates of food I soon realized that these people although do not have the means to do this were more generous than the people back home.
One by one we were all introduced to their family and friends. Digin Lilig kept coming around and making sure that our plates were always full. Then the genatsner started; Digin Lilig’s husband throughout the night made a toast to everyone in the family. Before all the food had even come the dancing had begun! Tata was obviously the family favorite, as we danced to his new CD for most of the night.
Throughout the night we felt more like family then guests at the birthday party. You could tell on Digin Lilig’s face she was happy to have us there. If there was music on, you can bet that Digin Lilig was making us dance! The best part of the night had to be when Allen had to slow dance with Digin Lilig.
As the night came to an end, Kareen and I realized how much cleaning there was to be done, so we went downstairs to help Digin Lilig, which created bonding time with her and her two daughters. After an endless amount of dishes, she force-fed us delicious madzoon with sugar and lavash.
We then moved over to the computer and started watching videos of us dancing the night away. Apparently every second of the night was recorded! After an hour of watching videos, we went upstairs only after Digin Lilig gave us a huge hug and kiss goodnight.