This being my third trip to my homeland, I thought the experience would be somewhat similar to my last two times. Little did I know this experience would be completely different. From the kids at camp, to our host family, to the deghatsis taking us around, or even the people we encounter on a daily basis, all have left a major impression on my life. It’s only been one week since I’ve been in Gyumri, and the experience has already been life changing.
I can’t begin to describe the joy in my heart every morning when I see my kid’s faces light up as we pull up in our cars; how they are already hugging and kissing us before we even get a chance to get out of the car or how they come with picked flower bouquets every morning for us. Their kind hearts want to do everything they can for us to feel more welcomed and comfortable. Although controlling a class of sixty kids with only two counselors has been pretty difficult, the pride I feel when these children learn something new is unexplainable. At the end of the day, no matter how exhausted I am, knowing I’m making a difference in these children’s lives is worthwhile and heart warming.
Although I haven’t had the chance to visit Armenia with my family, the six other participants in my group have turned into my family. I spend every minute of the day with this group and we go through our hardships and our high points together. I’m excited for the four more weeks I get to spend with my group and the three hundred other kids I will have the pleasure of meeting.
I have fallen in love with this country in a whole new way. Youth Corps gave me the opportunity to experience Armenia in a different way. It gave me the opportunity to live with the people of Gyumri and experience what they experience. I cannot imagine going back to my life in America; this has become my life and home and it’s distressing to know my time here is so short. But until the day I get the chance to move back here, I will continue doing my best to visit as often as I can and doing my part from the Diaspora to help progress and better our homeland.
When I was applying for Youth Corps I had no idea what I was getting myself into. To me, Youth Corps did the unimaginable . I left my comfort zone and got put into a room with six strangers. I had never thought how impossibly easy it would be to live with six people who I had never met before. Even though we have been together for two weeks, I feel as though we have become a family. We learn to work with what we have, look out for each other, and help one another discover ourselves. The reason behind this lies within our passion. The passion we have for Youth Corps, our homeland, our history, and for the future of Armenia and Karabagh. We are all united for one reason: to make an impact and build a bridge of communication between the diaspora and the homeland.
As the first week of camp in Stepanakert comes to an end, I am dissappointed that we only have one more week to spend with the kids. I have made such a connection with the kids at camp that I want to devote more time to them and inspire them in the way that they have inspired me. They fill me with strength as each child hugs and kisses me good bye at the end of every camp. In all of honesty, I was skeptical and worried about how I was going to handle over a hundred kids, but as soon as I stepped into the classroom, things happened naturally. I look forward to each camp day because these camps give me a purpose and a something to fight for. They give me hope for the future of Armenia and Karabagh. Some may define happiness in monetary values and materialistic objects, but to me waking up every morning and seeing the kids at camp is worth more than a million.
I don’t know whether to be happy or sad that today concluded the first week of camp in Gyumri. After a long week of English class, singing, arts and crafts, and competition we said farewell to the kids until camp reconvenes again on Monday.
When we first began I did not anticipate that after the tough, but exciting week I would be eager for Monday to arrive so I could see my campers again. One of the things I took from this first week was how the kids in Armenia look forward to the simple things in life.
The simplest things found in the yard bring them joy. Countless times throughout the day my group asks me when they will have the opportunity to go outside to play. I feel like this is lost amongst the kids in America, where the simple concept of chasing a ball around an uneven field brings a smile to every child’s face. The children’s enthusiasm makes me eager to join them in their daily activities; playing soccer and volleyball. However, what really surprises me is the kid’s fascination with taking pictures. As soon as any of the counselors take out their cameras, a camper is there ready to take pictures. They act as if they will never get the chance to do so again. They take every opportunity to capture every moment.
I wish there was a way I could extend the opportunities offered to them at camp into their daily lives. But for now I can only do my best to bring smiles to the faces of the children of Gyumri and look forward to another week of productive camp.
It all suddenly made sense the second I stepped foot into the “Tiv Yergoo” elementary school on Monday morning for the very first time. All the kind words, helpful advice, and built-up excitement given to me by previous Youth Corps members and group leaders began to come alive as we began our camp in Stepanagert. The kids’ consistent enthusiasm, forward and impatient introductions, and humble personalities left a great first impression upon me, of how amazing the next few weeks of my life are to be.
My now sore limbs and heavy eyelids suddenly all became worthwhile, upon seeing the excitement in these kids’ eyes. I will probably never forget my first impression of the eight year old boy who suddenly decided to point to me and began shouting to me his intricate riddles in hopes to outsmart me. After really thinking long and hard (no, honestly I really tried) he told me his brilliant answers, and from then on he became my sidekick/best friend. Of course, I was rest assured it was meant to be, because upon splitting up into color groups for competitions, he was the first to be called into my group.
Our first order of business was to create distinct and original chants for our groups. I now find myself barely able to get a word in, between all the amazing suggestions of rhymes with such powerful meanings, that I really had to take a step back and thought about the meanings behind these chants. Not only did I realize how strongly these kids feel about their country and their people, I also realized that if by any chance Artsakh’s seize-fire were to turn into any sort of war, these children are our future front-line soldiers, nurses or doctors, political leaders, etc.
Every drop of blood in their body truly bleeds for their tiny bit of land they can proudly call their own. This characteristic rooted within the core of each and every child, truly was an eye-opening experience to me because after a heavy first week in Yerevan, I was a bit shaken up. After seeing various martyred soldier’s tombs, having encounters with precious loved ones of these soldiers, and even just being in an environment where you wake up to see Mt. Ararat standing so stern and close to the city and yet so far away from our reach, truly struck home. Coming to Artsakh and interacting with these kids really gave me a sense of hope and enlightenment, that the sacrifice of our beloved soldiers brought such an inspirational effect to the future generation of the Armenian race, particularly within the homeland.
Now, only four days into meeting these children on the very first day of camp, I sit in the open playground with three little girls braiding my hair while singing Armenian patriotic songs, and a little boy frantically expressing to me his disappointment for the heartbreaking loss in the game of “steal the bacon”, all while trying to find a moment to spare to write this blog. Within this short period of time, I have realized really how large of an impact our camp makes on these children. I cannot take three steps on the campground without having a little girl come hold my hand. I have kids begging and pleading for the hours and number of days of the camp to be extended. I have already been thoroughly interrogated about next summer’s plans to come back to Kharapakh for camp; just to give a few examples.
I feel as if a part of me has been stowed away inside all of this time as I spend my days staying contsantly determined to understand the beyond difficult Kharapaghtsi dialect (still working on it!), run our beloved camp with fellow Gharapaghtsi AYF members, rewarding myself on the walk back home from camp with some Grand Candy “marojhni,” as well as making my home with my amazing Youth Corps group members in our lovely Babo’s home-stay, along with her family, a Sooryatsi businesssman, an out-of-the-truck meat salesman with his “Kikor” apprentice, as well as a handsome team of eight year-old soccer players with their trainer. (Yes, we all share one bathroom.)
Against all differences, setbacks, or discomforts I have come across thus far, I can honestly say that I wake up every morning facing a new adventure and every moment is one to look forward to. I am truly greatful for this experience, and most definitely look forward to making a difference here at Kharapagh and later in Gyumri as well.
But until then, enjoy some of my personal favorite chants from the best BLUE group in the history of forever! :]
Today marked the fourth day of our Gyumri camp. You would think that by now we would have a concrete list of the kids attending the camp, but that’s not the case. We’ve had new kids come to camp everyday hoping they would be able to attend as well. Although, we weren’t supposed to have more than 150 kids, we didn’t have the heart to turn kids away and deprive them from having an amazing camp experience. I’ve only spent four days with these children and I already feel as though they are a part of my family. I’ve woken up with a smile every morning knowing I have the opportunity to spend more time with them and get to know them on a more personal basis.
When we arrived to the camp ground the children were already there impatiently awaiting our arrival. They ran up to our car greeting us with warm hugs and smiles. I was amazed to see how interested they were in what we had to say and all we had to teach them. My campers did not speak or understand English at all and within the last two days they were able to learn and write the letters of the alphabet as well as count to ten. They were also able to learn the song “Mshag Panvor” in one day and are now able to sing it every morning and afternoon during the opening and closing flag ceremonies. These children have incredible retention capabilities and can accomplish anything if given the right tools and resources. What we are doing here is just a starting point.
The Armenian Diaspora needs to be more active in helping better the educational system in Armenia because our country’s future is in their hands. These children have impacted my life more in these few days than most can in a lifetime and I will do everything in my power to do the same. We still have four and a half weeks left in Armenia and I can already tell this will be the most amazing and most memorable summer of all.
Day 3 was so much smoother than the first two days. I love how the children wait for us every morning with enthusiasm. When we get out of our cars, they all start chanting their colors and running towards us to give us hugs and high fives.
This morning, Unger Caspar taught them a new A.R.F ‘ganch’, and almost instantly the campers picked it up and started chanting. It gave me goose bumps.
The other counselors and I have organized the days so well that everything is running smoothly. At first I thought that being in a classroom would be too chaotic, but the most important part of these children’s day is learning something new. They love the English lessons. Of course they misbehave in the classroom, but when it actually comes down to it, they are completely interested.
We, as counselors, have already gotten the flow of things and every afternoon after camp we talk about what went good and what we can do to improve any rough edges.
Although I must maintain an authoritarian role to keep the camp running calmly, I’m happy that I’m making a difference in these children’s life. Even though at times I wish there were more of us in charge of all these children who wait all year long for these two weeks of camp, the entire day is filled with the kid’s excitement, and you could tell in their eyes that they’re happy because their energy tells us so. Not only do we all see and feel this happiness, the children constantly remind us that they’re so happy to be here, and that gives me motivation to wake up in the morning and go to camp with a smile on my face every single day.
A genuine smile with few teeth is preferable to an empty smile with beautiful teeth.
America might be beautiful with its accessible luxuries and social necessities but how far can that beauty take you to happiness? Being in Armenia has allowed me to realize the difference between genuine happiness and fabricated happiness.
There are problems in Armenia, many problems that don’t have easy or quick solutions. But how can I dwell on the problems when I meet a “dadik” serving corn on the road smiling as we come upon her. We were on the road to Dilijan when we stopped at a random corn stall. The “dadik” smiled when she saw that we were a group of young Armenians; one could tell how happy she was to meet us. The warmth of her smile gave our group a strong connection to this newly met woman.
Another person we encountered that left an impression upon me was an old man from Dilijan. We were walking around the village and we saw a small opening, we decided to go near, when we got close to the opening we realized that it was a shack with an old man inside. We slowly started to walk away not knowing that it was inhabited, but then the old man began to come out to greet us. He was equipped with a hammer, dusty clothes and a smile. This man goes on to explain how he recently purchased this room and is currently under renovation. We died of laughter as we walked back to the van! Thinking of these two individuals from two separate places in Armenia brings a smile to my face. Both were from different places, but were extremely welcoming regardless of their situations.
Some might say that these people are blissfully ignorant without having American resources and innovations, but I believe that America has been blinded by its own progression. Regardless of the problems and tribulations my country and my people have been put through, happiness exists and we want to be a part of fostering good spirits. Happiness can be created in many ways, whether it is through the relationships made with the sharing of corn or through being welcomed into one’s personal home.
America’s smile can captivate and mesmerize people with its razzle-dazzle, and although Armenia is missing some teeth and does not have that eerily perfectness, I am more likely to return that smile.
This is my first time in Hayastan, and my first time joining Youth Corps. I definitely have bottled up feelings of everything: happiness, sadness, excitement. I must admit I was nervous before starting Youth Corps, even though I’ve worked with children before. People had painted a very particular picture of what to expect when I arrived in Armenia however, once we pulled in the school on the first day of camp, and saw those kids outside waiting impatiently for our arrival, I thought to myself: “asonk en mer hay bzdignereh,” (these are our Armenian children).
Immediately, I thought that all I wanted to do is play with them, and spend time with them. When we walked to the fields to play a game and we were singing “mer hayrenik” on the streets of Gyumri, one of the children pulled me aside and asked if I had done this before and I answered, “no, why?,” she said “because you are very dedicated”, and I replied “I’m dedicated because I love you all.”
The children of Gyumri don’t even have running water to drink in the school, yet they’re so excited and ready to play and spend time with us daily. It warms my heart and opens up my eyes and makes me realize all the things we take advantage of in Los Angeles.
The fact that Unger Caspar didn’t deny any child to participate in our camp, even though we are understaffed and lack sufficient supplies to facilitate the number of children, brought instant happiness to my heart. All he said was, “well figure it out.”
Today we had about 180 people in the hall of the school with no electricity to play music from an ipod for “butt volleyball.” Ungeroohi Siroon, who had no piano background, was playing the piano for the game. Talk about improvising.
Nothing or nobody’s comments will affect me in a negative way during this experience. Every day I turn around to my teammates and I say, “we’re in Hayasdan,” and this was only day 2 of 5 more weeks.
Previous AYF Youth Corps participants told us aspiring campers would anxiously await their two weeks at camp gathered in groups in the field in front of the school. That’s exactly how the day started.
One hundred fifty children of Gyumri’s future, some shy, some loud, some first timers, some returners, some seven years old, some fourteen, some unafraid, some disciplined, some untamed, all excited, lined the courtyard.
As is done every year, we split the group into three colors red, blue, and orange. Almost immediately, the kids began chanting. It was as if the campers had been in these groups forever.
After conducting lessons, we walked from the school to the park to play Steal the Bacon. The entire walk through the city, the campers were chanting, repeatedly proclaiming their love for their newly formed teams. Welcoming locals watched our parade from their windows. It seemed like all of Gyumri wanted to join in.
Soon after, the first day of Camp Gyumri ended the same way it began, with one hundred fifty members of Gyumri’s future lining the courtyard, all individuals, but all excited.