Today was the seventh day of camp in Gyumri. There are 180 eager children preparing for song competition on Thursday. In the hallway you can hear the different groups practicing and rehearsing their songs. The kids yell at the top of their lungs while they sing. I believe that they are convinced that this will guarantee them the win. When they are not practicing the songs the are learning English, having hygiene discussions, listening to educationals or competing with the other teams in a variety of activities for points.
Nare and I are the leaders of the orange team. We were in third place with the amount of points until Friday. By winning first place in the bucket-filling contest we began our winning streak; we won soccer yesterday and limbo today. After the first win, the drive in the kids to win was sparked. They are ready to compete and fight to win the competitions. The camaraderie amongst the children has also grown and they work as a team to win. Our group consists of six to twelve year olds and seeing the way they work together is amazing. The older ones always make sure that the younger ones receive their breakfast first and help them understand the games we play. They are given breakfast and lunch daily and always offer to help clean up. One of our kids, Jivan, eats his meal quickly so that he can be the first to offer his help. I truly enjoy seeing their eagerness to help and work together.
Our hygiene discussion today consisted of dental and smoking. After completing the discussion we asked if anyone had any questions or comments. One of our younger boys, David, who is eight years old, raised his hand and said that everyone needs to use their will power to avoid starting to smoke and stand up to their friends who call them weak and less manly. He mentioned that he was made fun of for being a dancer and how he overcame that because of his pride and realization that he had a talent that his friends did not. This was one of my favorite discussions with the children that I have had since camp started. This showed that they can stand above the influence and can fill their time with other activities that will keep them away from smoking and other influences.
Tomorrow we will continue practicing our songs for the competition and review everything they have learned thus far. They enjoy learning English songs, especially the ones with counting. When I ask my group which English song they want to sing, the first is always “Five Little Monkeys” and then “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” We will review those tomorrow and possibly teach them a new song as well.
I can’t believe the two weeks are almost over. It seems as though it was yesterday that we were counting our supplies and preparing to meet the new campers. Now we are preparing for the song competition and saying goodbye. The orange team will always have a place in my heart.
Camp Gyumri has been an eye-opening experience. I didn’t quite know what to expect before coming here, but I’m very pleased with the outcome. For this session, we were prepared to accommodate about 100 children, but had a much greater turnout. As I made a personal goal to mesh with the locals, I discovered some disheartening things. Finally, I was concerned about how the group dynamic would be, but soon learned that I had nothing to worry about. We all continue to struggle through and overcame the logistical obstacles together.
Amongst our obstacles at AYF Camp Gyumri was the overwhelming turnout of participants we had. The initiation of the fourth annual Camp Gyumri was marked with a warm welcome from over 180 eager children, greatly surpassing our anticipated 100 participants. Each camper is given a T-shirt, two meals a day, along with stationary for classwork and hygienic supplies. Although the amount of interested children have caused our financial figures to rise far beyond our anticipated budget, we agreed that it would be unfair to leave anyone behind. Fraternity and equality are among the pillars of our organization, so we made a point of instilling those virtues within the campers.
Unfortunately, equality is not a widely accepted concept in Armenia. Prior to arriving in Armenia, I decided to frequently communicate with locals to find out about their daily lives. From what I’ve gathered so far, the main issues among those who live here are the uneven distribution of wealth, the lack of social programs and the difficulty of finding a job. Several Armenian citizens have redirected their efforts from trying to better our homeland to trying their luck at success in the Diaspora. Though at times this can be discouraging to see and hear, any sadness I experience is soon turned into motivation to lend my people a helping hand through their current hardships. By spending time and learning with the children at Camp Gyumri, I realize the tremendous potential within the next generation of Armenians; each child is eager to learn, establish genuine friendships and is always willing to give in any way. If we each had a fraction of the motivation and optimism of our campers, we’d overcome any obstacle that come our way.
Although I was initially hesitant about my fellow Youth Corps 2012 group members, I soon realized that I am surrounded by a great group of people. Though we come from varying backgrounds and sometimes have different ideas about how things are done, the most important part is that we all have the same goals. We’re all here for the same reason: to actively affect our homeland and do our part to make it better. We’ve been faced with a few obstacles, including a shortage of supplies, but rather than driving us apart, these difficulties have brought us closer together. Only through teamwork can problems be solved and a difference made.
We were overwhelmed by the great interest in our program when we started and turned no one away. I learned of some unfortunate issues in Armenia currently, but realized that the dedication and ambition of countless individuals can shape a strong and stable future. Facing many obstacles, our group quickly learned about the power and strength of friendship and teamwork. As I mentioned before, my time with the AYF Youth Corps has really opened my eyes. Though at times what I see is disheartening, it’s difficult to lose optimism when surrounded by my campers and fellow counselors. It’s difficult not to love Armenia and all its people. It’s difficult to hold back from wanting to keep helping.
As a member of the AYF, I feel it is my duty to encourage and inspire the future generation of Armenia to take a more active role in their government, to feel more compelled to voice their concerns, and to commit to working toward the betterment of our homeland.
This experience has given me a new perspective on old traditions. I’ve grown up as a Tashnagtzagan, I’ve been a part of AYF, I’ve attended Rose & Alex Pilibos Armenian School however, I’ve achieved a new level of understanding on old traditions now that I’ve had the pleasure of being in Arstakh.
Growing up I proudly sang our revolutionary songs and commemorated our fallen soldiers, but living in the home of a mother whose son was taken away from her gives a whole new meaning to these songs. Living in a home which was once subjected to war but now remains Armenian soil is empowering to say the least.
Babo is the grandmother who owns the home where we stay. Babo’s wrinkles tell a million stories. We often sit with Babo as she engages us in stories from the war. She tells the stories with a certain pain that nobody can really understand unless they were part of the war. Babo told us about her son and how he lost his life in the war, dying for the soil which we proudly call Arstakh today.
There was a few minutes of silence after the story. We all stared off into the mountains and I began to ponder how many Babo’s out there lost their son so that we can proudly call these lands ours.
I’d like to dedicate this blog to Babo, her son, Vahleri Baboyan, and all the mothers who have lost their husbands and sons in the war. We are eternally grateful for their sacrifice.
It’s been a few years since I first heard the music of two very talented sisters from Hayastan. As any person would do the same, I hoped to have the chance to see them live in concert one day. I never really imagined I’d be able to see them once I got to Hayastan, but coincidentally, things happen when you least expect them. On our way home after the third day of camp in Askeran in Artsakh, one of the deghatsee girls mentioned that there is a concert in the hrabarag that night. As soon as I heard her say Inga & Anush, I jumped up from my seat from excitement, and I couldn’t wait to go home to get ready to see them live.
When we arrived at the hrabarag in the evening, we had the pleasure of seeing some incredibly talented local musicians. We also experienced the amazing Karapaghtsees supporters for these local artists. Finally, Inga and Anush appeared on stage wearing traditional Armenian costumes, humbled to be performing in Artsakh in front of thousands of locals.
I was staring at their every move with amazement during the course of their performance. I just couldn’t get enough. Following their act appeared a surprise guest. I had heard one song of the Dorians before, but I never really got into them. However, seeing them perform live at the harabarag was amazing. I guess you can say I was lucky enough to the in the right place at the right time, experiencing some amazing Armenian artists performing in Artsakh.
Besides all the fun I’m having on my free time in Artsakh, I’m having just as great of a time at camp. The children of Artsakh are so well-behaved and have so much love for their country. I love the fact that I’m getting to know the children of Artsakh on a personal level.
Everything is so beautiful here. The people, the land, the energy …I’m in love.
After facing difficult circumstances in the past year, I felt as though I had lost my way. My decision to be a part of this years youth corps group was based on the mere idea of getting away from everything and actually doing something productive with my time. I could not have made a better decision.
I arrived in Armenia a little over a month ago. Overwhelmed to be in the motherland once more, I spent many nights in Yerevan with old friends, went to a preschool in Hraztan with AERF where they donated new backpacks for the kids and carpets so that they won’t have to cancel school in the winter from the cold, and enjoyed many other outings with my grandmother.
Two weeks later, my soon to be family arrived in Yerevan. Within our stay in Yerevan, we went touring and spent a lot of time getting to know one another. As the end of the week approached, the two groups split, and my group and I found ourselves on a long journey towards Arstakh.
The two weeks in Artsakh gave me a whole new perspective. Being surrounded by such passionate kids made me realize that this is not the end, but it is just the beginning of my life of learning about who I am and my place here, not only as a human being, but as an Armenian. Teaching them patriotic songs and feeling the intensity in their voice when they sang every word gave me hope for the future. They showed me the perfect example of never giving up no matter how tough life gets. They have seen war and lost so many family members, yet it’s an honor for all of them that their fathers and brothers fought in the war and lost their lives for their “Hayreni Hogh.”
Following the example of our azadamardigs, my group members and I are giving back to our homeland in our own way. By teaching the kids hayrenasirootyoon, the ideology of the ARF, teaching them English and Hygiene related topics, we are in hopes of carving a brighter future for our brothers and sisters, but most importantly for our nation as a whole. In order for one to see freedom, they must also need to see a struggle. Therefore, waking up early, standing under the sun all day, and taking care of almost 200 kids every day is the least we can do to see a united Armenia.
Coming into this trip, I asked myself how Armenia could help me, however I came to the conclusion that I was asking the wrong question. To take from JFK, it is not what Armenia can do for me, but what I can do for Armenia, and this helped me realize I am slowly finding myself by doing so.
Interacting with the kids in Artsakh and Gyumri has been one of the greatest experiences I’ve had when it comes to children. I was placed in the blue group with Nanor as my co-captain. When we met the kids in Artsakh, we knew that they were going to be one of the funniest groups, they were raucous, annoying, yet at the same time we loved them. They were ridiculous, constantly complaining about the most useless things. One of them, Gamo, would never want to sit on the ground, his main concern was that the ground was too dirty for his fresh clothes; he wore the same outfit everyday. He was one of the troublemakers in the blue group along with Haik and Araik. These three would constantly disrupt every single class; the names would make me shudder when I would try to plan out my English or Health lessons for the following days.
For two weeks Nanor and I labored at trying to make the group of 45 plus kids learn the words to Yelek Hayer and Baderazm enk Gnoom for the song competition. Not only did they have to learn the words, they needed to learn how to sing together. The competition was on Thursday and blue group was not ready at all. We were extremely stressed, nervous and wanted to kill ourselves. We gave constant lectures about how disrespectful and shameful their behavior was but to no avail, they would grin then promise to behave and repeat the same irritable behavior. It was a vicious cycle.
Nanor and I had almost lost all hope for this group. They were so apathetic when it came down to singing the songs, there was absolutely no emotion, I was very certain that the blue group was going to lose the competition. The day of the competition, the blue group came in as usual being loud and ridiculous, we practiced the songs once before the competition and as usual it was not the greatest performance. Red was our main competition, the group leaders Mane and Hoory would tell us how their group would sing with full emotion and would bring them to tears. Hearing this, Nanor and I became discouraged knowing that our group couldn’t muster up the tiniest bit of emotion for any of the songs. However, when song competition began, all of a sudden the blue group transformed into this amazing choir signing loudly and together. It was beautiful. We were in shock; we never expected them to come together like that. I got goosebumps for the first time while hearing my group sing.
After the song competition, we lined up to hear the winners of the competition and the winners of the entire camp activities. Unger Berj started with the drawings the groups created. Orange and Blue both got second place and Red took first. This is when our group started to come to terms with our eventual placement at second place for song competition. Unger Berj moved on to song competition, and everyone grew quiet awaiting the final judgment. Orange takes third place. Blue members started to talk amongst each other saying that red probably took first, and that it’s fine that we’ll be taking second. Our entire group was in complete shock when Unger Berj announced Red took second and we were the winners of song competition! I can safely say winning the song competition was one of the proudest moments of my life. The joy, excitement and pride is beautifully captured in the attached video.
Now we’re in Gyumri and just finished our second day at camp and I’m excited to see what the following days will bring about. When Nanor and I met these kids we were quite surprised as they were relatively well behaved. We would tell them to stay quiet and they actually would. However, when we started the first game this afternoon, Steal the Bacon, the kids got intense. With the combined action of cheering and reminders that the Blue group was the best, we won! They were so happy; it was like the light opened up in their eyes. After the game you could feel the rise of camaraderie and loyalty within the blue group. This is a group of kids who just met each other in the morning as it was most of their first times at camp, yet after the game they were like a group of well-trained soldiers, knowing each others names and helping each other out. Gyumri Blue started off well and we’ll see how Red and Orange strike back in the coming days. Regardless of the outcome I’m proud to be Blue.
The world is at a constant struggle between villains and heroes. The heroes are selfless characters who intertwine their lives with the struggle and perseverance of others. Constantly vying for their presence, they fully dedicate themselves to a motive that befits the needs of the majority. The villains, on the other hand, control most of the access to resources and commodify them to satisfy their interests. It is this constant struggle between heroes and villains that pummels nations deeper into poverty and hinders their growth and development. Respective governments become fractured by these conflicting interests, obligatory to the ideals of the heroes and citizens, but highly dependent on the offerings of the villains. Thus, in turn the development challenge comes about.
The development challenge has become a reality for the majority of the world’s population. Developing countries face problems that are very different from one another, but follow a similar pattern. Living in a comfortable world becomes all the more difficult when we face the reality of having one billion people live in developing countries. As a developing nation, Armenia faces these difficult issues within the realms of its society. The problems that Armenia faces are serious, but they are fixable. With strong leadership and an informed citizenry, Armenia has all the tools in place to bring about these reforms. A wide range of policies and programs need to be utilized in order to correctly set these standards and establish norms of behavior. Internal challenges to the government and society are not necessarily hindrances, but can be valuable to the growth and development of the nation as a whole.
First and foremost, Armenia needs to establish forums for the citizenry to have a voice in their government. These forums need to routinely coordinate with the populace in order to determine which services are desired. Government should be open, permissionless, and generative, encouraging current generations to turn to collective action. The politics of the country cannot change, but the government can be altered to work for all of us. An evolutionary change is needed to fix the way people view citizenship, not just try to bring about quick and unstable reforms. We need to establish values-based organizations that consider what is complacent to the whole of society and collectivize a specific and progressive goal.
The problems in Armenia do not stem from apathy amongst the people. We simply live in a world that encourages disengagement and makes it difficult for us to become involved. It is not that people do not care, but they are not given the opportunity to care. The intentional exclusion of people keeps us away from the decision-making process, making it seem as uninviting as possible. Citizenship is not a spectator sport, but it is a full-on, contact game. If people are not encouraged to participate in government, we cannot expect them to see themselves as potential leaders of their communities. The environment may place obstacles our way, but we need to identify and dismantle them.
The reforms needed in Armenia will find their way with the engagement of the society as a whole. We need an independent and fair judicial system that will uphold the rule of law. A reformed police force of properly trained individuals will implement those laws and establish them as behavioral norms. We need an increase in funding for social services based on the changing needs of the citizenry, allowing civil society to prosper. The educational system needs to be renovated to ensure a strong and stable curriculum, guaranteeing that future generations are receiving a quality education. The reforms in the health system needs to provide quality, affordable care for all citizens. Monopolies on certain markets need to be broken up and competition encouraged. There should be clear incentives for small businesses, encouraging citizens to take up their own ventures. We need strong support for the growing information technology sector in Armenia, promoting investments for its development. We need to put an end to the degradation of the Armenian environment through mining projects that benefit foreign investors. We need real leaders who inspire the populace, not just those who have position and priority.
We need movements led by people who work hard for what they believe in. These movements need to emerge organically, not when there is a sense of urgency.
It is not about throwing money at these countries or these problems. It is about immersing ourselves and taking action. Change cannot be imposed, but must come from within. There are many struggles between brave people who are willing to work for change and interests who are too entrenched amongst themselves. We cannot be bystanders in bringing about change to this world. We need to take an active stance and become a part of the struggles. In some cases, providing aid does not work well in certain environments. It is not enough for us to recognize the problem and sympathize with it. Understanding the problem is the easiest part of development, finishing the job is the hard part.
We need to build a unity of purpose. We need to change the ways of thinking that have imbedded themselves too deeply within this society. We need to reach out to wider audiences and create a new and informed citizenry. Thus, we will not only allow Armenia to grow and prosper, but we can establish a new sense of hope for the people here. Development is about giving hope to the people living in Armenia that they can create the society they want to live in. Without that hope, people will direct their energies not to development, but to escape.
For the past few weeks, I have spent my time in Armenia with people who carry these very ideals. We work hard each and every day at camp because we believe that we are making a difference in the lives of these children. We try hard to understand the way of life here. We immerse ourselves into the culture and accept it as it is. The problems in Armenia are our problems. We are not guests here. These are our struggles and we accept them. We will take the opportunities that we have been given and use them as catalysts for change. We carry the burden of using all that we have to create the Armenia that we imagine. This is our country and we accept full responsibility for it.
It was pitch black. The horizon was nowhere in sight and the only source of light available were the countless amount of stars shining above us. Yet, I could not help but think that it was the most beautiful experience I had ever been a part of.
It truly is a different feeling, being a member of the first generation following the mighty freedom fighters of the Kharabakh War. It almost feels surreal to talk to actual people who lived under bombs raining above them, lost their children, fathers, or their own limbs. It hurt a lot to hear about the circumstances that people around me lived through only a couple of years ago. But what hurt the most was that I realized that I never had felt a real connection with them relative to what they had experienced.
All of that changed in the matter of an instance. Upon gazing beyond the darkness, the stars glistening above, and the cool evening breeze blowing around me, I felt like I was on top of the world. I found myself on top of one of the most meaningful memorials of the liberation of Artsakh. It was the only tank that was used by the soldiers who captured the city of Shushi. Sitting on top of it, endlessly singing patriotic songs with the Kharapaghtsi AYF and fellow Youth Corps members, I felt the unity of the future generations of our race who will continue the unfinished work of our fallen soldiers toward a fully recognized and liberated Artsakh. Though what struck me the most was that I truly felt the soldiers’ presence there; their voices echoing above the roaring gun fires, singing the very same songs in the very same place that we were at. What was the most interesting though, was the sense of peace and serenity I felt while sitting there. How can a mere object that has seen the worst of the worst type of violence, loss, and death, have such a peaceful effect on me? The answer to this question was much simpler than I thought. The answer was all around me. Every broken building, cobblestone, and tin covered roof signifies the dedication and will of the people who sacrificed everything they had to fight for their freedom; to be able to call these lands their own. The end results of this violence and torment is the reason Armenians in Kharabakh can grab a handful of soil in their hand and call it “Hyereni Hogh.” Realizing all of this within the relatively short amount of time we were sitting there had a very strong impact on me and helped me realize the true value of my lands, my people, and my culture. I have also realized how important it is to protect these sacred principles, as well as to preserve and constantly work hard to better them by any means possible.
As the general motto of Youth Corps states that our goal is to, “build bridges to our homeland,” I have come to the conclusion that that is not enough. Realizing how hard my people have fought for a liberated country to live freely without oppression or injustice, has given me the confidence to say that one day I will also walk across that bridge, ready to be a part of where I truly belong, my Hayrenik.
Edgar likes to takes pictures. He’s notoriously naughty, uses his youth corps wristband as a sling shot, and has difficulty sitting still for extended periods of time. Edgar gets in trouble more often than anybody at camp because he’s eight years old and can’t yet control his impulses.
Gayane is six going on seven. Like most of the girls in hayastan, she’s sweet, shy, and helpful. She speaks softly unless she’s reciting a poem. Once, she hugged me after a tiring day of camp chasing Edgar and reminded me why I came.
Harout has green eyes, light hair, and tendency to play rough. He does questionable and dangerous things like quadruple back flips on the stairs and throws rocks at the wild dog that roams the neighborhood; but he always keeps a careful eye on his younger brother. He’s a regular in time out, and was a regular street kid before Youth Corps came to Gyumri.
Ruzana is only seven but she reads and writes fluently in three languages.
I told Nareg if he memorized all of Arytok Ovker En in ten minutes he could sing it solo for song competition. On Friday, Nareg will perform all 7 verses of Artyok Ovker En for all of camp and their parents.
Shushan asked me what the girls were going to do while the boys were playing futbol. My answer surprised her- it was that the girls can choose to play soccer with the boys or they can choose to sit down. Then we chose to play soccer. It was satisfying.
Yesterday these kids lined up in the correct order, by themselves. In an hour I get to teach and sing and play with them again. And they get to teach and sing and play with me.
I guess this is an attempt to communicate that regardless of who you are or where you’re from, if you were here, you’d agree with the following: the people, especially the children, of Gyumri are amazing.