As our final days in Arstakh came to an end, I began to look back at what my group and I have accomplished and experienced in just these two weeks of “Jampar” (Camp). Personally, many emotions emerged throughout my journey thus far. One of which was my genuine desire to help educate the campers about our AYF program and about the meaning behind the goal of “Tashnastootyoun” (the Armenian Revolutionary Federation) and what it represents.
I recall that the first day I felt nervous yet excited. I was prepared to familiarize myself with the school, the Arstakh “parpar” (dialect) and culture, and the campers. I was placed in the “Dzeeranakyoun” (orange) group. I could tell the children were impatient to learn new topics!
As the days went by, I began to form close bonds with each of the campers. It was here at ”Jampar,” where I realized that I love working with children. To see their smiles and eagerness warmed my heart. The girls also viewed me as their role model. That encouraged me to take on the responsibility to maintain that position.
“Jampar” is not only about educating the children, it is also about creating and offering an optimal environment for them to express their beliefs freely. This will permit the children in Arstakh to become open minded and to lead the future of Arstakh. Not only were the campers educated, I also confess that the campers of Artsakh have taught me even more than I have taught them. They have taught me to be patient, selfless, and giving. They have also instilled in me the desire to remember my own childhood and realize that from the outside it may look vastly different but deep beneath the surface we have much in common. It made me realize that yes, there will always be a barrier (social or otherwise), if we chose to view our lives in that sense. However, if we opt to break the barriers we can develop a wide network of Armenians in Artsakh, Armenia and the Diaspora. An open mind and communication is so necessary for Armenians today. Another important lesson that the campers taught me was to strengthen my ties with my Armenian culture and identity. Before this time, frankly, I had lost a close connection with my identity as an Armenian-American. However, this trip has truly reassured my goal and desire to maintain, preserve and expand upon my Armenian identity and heritage. I look forward to the next three weeks of “Jampars” where I can learn more about myself, my culture and grow in unison with my new friends participating in the program as well. I am sure I will create even more memorable experiences in the coming week.
Two weeks in Gyumri have come and gone, our first Jampar with over 200 kids is over and it was all a big blur. As we were leaving the city this morning, I knew that I would miss Gyumri, but as we arrived in Yerevan I realized how different Gyumri is and how much I love it there. Not only the city, but more so the people. From the campers, to the taxi drivers, to the Ungers who were with us every day, in the last two weeks our group has come across some amazing people.
First we have the one and only Unger Kevork, the self-proclaimed manager of Gyumri. He will yell and scream at everyone and everything in sight, as needed. When you ask him for 2 pieces of khorovadz you get 14 pieces, and you will finish all of your plate whether you are hungry or not. If you make the mistake of speaking English in front of him, he will make sure you know that you are a “khiar” and you will never make that mistake again. Such a heated and dictatorial man, but when it comes down it, one of the nicest most caring people you will meet. As I became sick one day in Gyumri, he took me from camp to the pharmacy promising to get me the best Russian medicine that will have me feeling better in 15 minutes. We picked up the medicine and went to his office where he had me drink two different Russian concoctions, which somehow had me feeling better in 15 minutes just as he had promised.
Most importantly we had our 200 crazy campers. From little Larissa, who would steal my hat and wear it backwards around camp calling herself “Unger Levon,” to Hovannes who thought the entire 2 week duration of camp was a Kung Fu movie production as he ran around from class to class doing karate chops and jump kicks. Then we had Gourgen, the Jampar veteran who has attended Jampar for the last 4 years without missing a day, he was always the first one in line, but always the last one to stop talking. These are some of the campers I spent the last two weeks with; the campers that would drive me absolutely crazy; the campers that would say “Unger Levon” about 4,000 times a day; the campers with selective hearing; the campers who had to use the restroom every 15 minutes and could only go in groups of 5; the campers who made my two weeks in Gyumri absolutely unforgettable.
Our last day of camp in Gyumri has already arrived. These last two weeks have flown by, but it feels as if we’ve been here for months. For two weeks we’ve been teaching the children English, giving educationals, learning “heghapokhagan” (revolutionary themed) songs, and playing games. My favorite time of the day is in the morning when we have our opening ceremonies in the “daleej” (gym) singing the Armenian anthem, doing exercises, and listening to the different groups of kids (separated by colors) saying their “ganches” (each group has a unique chant). The change that I’ve seen in the kids from the first day of camp are remarkable. During the first couple days of camp, the kids would take at least ten minutes to line up, but now as soon as they come in, they line up in their colors and make sure their lines are straight so Unger Arek can reward them by letting them go inside first. I now look at the children like my younger brothers and sisters and want the absolute best for every single one of them. Today, two of the boys from our color group came running into our classroom bearing two roses and a bouquet of flowers for Ani, Christine, and I. They explained to me that they woke up extra early and went to their “harevan’s” (neighbor’s) house and asked them for roses from the garden and they picked the rest of the flowers from a small garden on the way to camp. Caught off guard, all I could do was smile and thank them for their kind gesture as that was the sweetest thing anyone’s done for me. In just three weeks 11 people that I just met have become my family. I’ve always been known as the quiet and shy girl, but with every passing day I feel like I’m able to open up even more to my group. From the moment we wake up in the morning until we go to sleep, whatever we do, we do together. We’ve already made so many memories together and we’re only half way through our trip. I can’t wait for all the fun experiences that await us in Proshyan and Artsakh.
Never have I ever had to take care of 200 screaming campers.
Never have I ever had to share a house with 11 other people that I barely know.
Never have I ever had to explain the concept of raising one’s hand before asking a question.
Never have I ever had to wait until a certain time of the day to take a shower.
Never have I ever had to use the words “erexek” (“children”) and “soos mna” (“stay quiet”) so many times in one day.
Never have I ever had to live out of a suitcase for seven weeks.
Never have I ever had to live without any Internet access.
Never have I ever had to carry toilet paper around with me everywhere I go.
Never have I ever had Nutella sandwiches for so many meals.
Never have I ever lost my voice in such a short amount of time.
Never have I ever seen kids so grateful to receive such simple items like water bottles, t-shirts and toothbrushes.
Never have I ever had so much fun hanging out at home with the same group of people every single night.
Never have I ever seen kids so enthusiastic and eager about learning.
Never have I ever been so excited to be woken up at 8am with pillows being thrown at me.
Never have I ever had my name chanted by 200 kids.
Never have I ever been so happy to be without Internet access.
Never have I ever been so excited to answer the same question over and over and over again.
Never have I ever gotten so close to 11 people within such a short period of time.
Never have I ever felt so important to a group of kids.
Never have I ever heard children speak so passionately about where they come from.
Never have I ever felt so close to my homeland.
Never have I ever been so happy about the decision I made to participate in Youth Corps.
It’s already the 7th day of Jampar and I can’t believe how fast the days are passing by. It feels as though it was just a day or two ago when I was introducing myself and trying to learn all the kids’ names. By now, I have all my students’ names memorized (quite an accomplishment for those who know me). This is because everything feels different here in Gyumri. It’s not just any other group of kids that I’m counseling and working with, but rather my younger brothers and sisters. As cliché as that sounds, it bodes true for me. Although we live thousands of miles apart and have never met before, I feel as though we are from the same family. Although not always cooperative, all of these kids with their crazy ideas and thoughts will always be my younger siblings. Every day, the kids anxiously wait for our arrival, and although some of the counselors may not admit it, we all walk with the same anxiousness to see them. My personal favorite is English class which happens right after breakfast for the Blue Team. I love asking my siblings an English question and hearing them all scream back different responses in English, Russian, Armenian, and of course, that secret language every child creates and is convinced that others will understand.
Come 4 o’clock, as soon as camp ends, I get to spend time with my other family: the 10 other participants and our fearless leader, Arek. It’s clear to anyone who interacts with us for 5 minutes how close we all have gotten. All the awkwardness from the first time we all met is long gone and now we share everything with one another. I’ll admit that at first, the living situation sounded a bit scary… 12 people sharing one bathroom and one shower (which could only be used at certain times during the day). Now, I can’t imagine going to the bathroom and not having to wait in line or being caught in the shower rush. When I say rush I literally mean rush. Anyone who has done Youth Corps in the past knows the shower rules at Deegeen Leelig’s. Hot water goes on, and everyone has to jump in back to back and shower as quickly as possible. Although it sounds like the most difficult thing to manage, we’ve all figured out a fun way to make it work. I love it here.
I thought the hikes back home were beautiful, but the one we went on the other day was indescribable. The area we hiked in was in the Deel mountains of Artsakh, in a place called Hunod, more commonly known as Zontik. The hike started off with our van, “the Gazelle,” trailing off the main road onto a narrow dirt path. We could no longer continue our journey with the van, so the rest of the way was taken on foot. We grabbed our cooking supplies, tomatoes, pork, peppers, etc. Unger Razmig carried our watermelon during the entire 2 kilometer hike. Needless to say, he almost dropped it a few times along the way, while he himself also almost fell. During the scenic hike, we walked through a waterfall, crossed a very narrow bridge, and climbed over steep hills. In particular, the narrow bridge above the river scared Ungerouhi Areni and she was on the verge of tears as she crossed, while the rest of us all laughed. Areni warned us to NEVER LOOK DOWN. We agreed not to remind her about this same route we would have to take on the way back. After a seemingly endless and perilous journey, we arrived at the perfect location. This little paradise was close to a small waterfall where Ungerouhi Vana and I took a plunge into the cold water while the rest chickened out. The guys collected dry branches and built a fire, while the girls helped with food preparation. Even though our skewered meat was placed directly upon the dirty rocks, something which is normally unacceptable in America, we devoured our meal. Armenia and Artsakh will be the only places where I will eat food in unsanitary conditions. After lunch, we sat atop the waterfall watching the clouds pass, and told funny stories about our campers. A few hours later, we hiked back through our now familiar path and enjoyed the all too familiar bumpy Gazelle ride back to Babo’s.
As our third week in Armenia and our second week of Gyumri Jampar begins, I reminisce about all of the things we have experienced in Armenia thus far. Since this is my first time visiting Armenia, I had no idea what to expect… Traveling through Yerevan was absolutely beautiful and when we left I was under the impression that the best part of my trip was over. Arriving in Gyumri, I came to realize that I still had five amazing weeks to spend in this country. Jampar began and as I began to interact with these kids, I realized how lucky I am to have this opportunity.
I have worked with kids before through different after school programs, but nothing compares to the children of Gyumri. These kids are full of life, enthusiasm, and curiosity. It is refreshing to see that kids are still so eager to learn new things. English class is the quietest time throughout the day and the kids are always asking if they are doing their assignments correctly. Anytime I speak English with Arin, another fellow counselor in Team Gabooyd, I immediately see their eyes light up. It’s strange how interested they are about our lives and the English language, in the same way we are interested in their lives.
At first I was hesitant about leaving Yerevan and traveling to a different part of Armenia, but after living in Gyumri, I feel like I have experienced the true Armenia. In Gyumri, I realized that this is the city that is full of true Armenian history, culture, and tradition. This city and its residents truly appreciate us and the Youth Corps program for all that it has done and continues to do in their city. We receive countless “thank yous” everyday from parents and the local residents as we walk to and from Jampar. Now that I have interacted with this kids, I am that much more excited to see what the next two sessions of Jampar hold.
Today we were in Javakhk. Javakhk has the types of majestic mountains I always fantasize about when I think of my dream place. It felt like a calm environment where the stresses back in LA felt far away-almost forgettable- and there were no deadlines to abide by. This is the type of place I would lay down and look up to the sky-its cathartic feeling as I am part of the earth.
While driving by Parvana Lake, our van felt like it was going to tilt into the lake. The guys had no problem scaring us by shaking the van towards the water- a scary, but hilarious experience. Our van eventually did get stuck in the lake and we had to do an emergency evacuation through the window. Simple moments like this left me with valuable and hilarious memories.
At our Jampar in Gyumri, as I was pouring juice to serve to the kids during lunch, I realized how far I have come away from my usual mundane, dull tasks. If you had asked me several months ago what I would be doing during summer, I probably would have thought of school, work, travel with family, or my usual hang out spots. I knew I was interested in Youth Corps and its purpose, but for some reason I didn’t think of the types of interactions I would have with the kids.
Later, that feeling hit me again when I was standing in front of my entire group instructing them during song practice in class. I knew that I would be instructing a class, but I never really imagined the setting. At times when all ears were on me, I felt responsible over the kids and their success. I have no desire to become a teacher, but I do have a passion to one day be a reliable leader my peers and future generations can look up to.
As our first week in Artsakh comes to an end, I look back to the day we were on the road heading to town, not knowing what to expect. We were greeted by the ARF and AYF members of Artsakh, who I am now happy to call my friends. We’ve shared laughs and toasts over dinner at Nigol Touman’s house and worked together with the kids at camp. The support we’ve had from them has been exceptional and has allowed us to run camp more smoothly.
We have molded the jampar in Artsakh after AYF Summer Camp in California, and fortunately, the children are catching on real quick. They all shout their color names and get really excited saying their ganches (group chants). My group, the blue group, chose Dashnak Dro as a name without my influence, if I might add. This meant a lot to me since I am a part of the AYF Dro Chapter.
English lessons are slowly progressing and the children’s participation is exponentially growing. I’m teaching the intermediate class, and throughout the week, we’ve been learning vocabulary words for each letter in the alphabet. Yesterday, many of the kids ran up to me with their notebooks and asked me if what they wrote is correct. To end the week, we had a spelling bee. These kids are always ready to raise their hands and participate, answer a question, or sing a song. Their excitement is truly fulfilling and definitely contagious. Sometimes I catch myself smiling while sitting on the sidewalk watching them play ball. Thinking about how happy these kids are with what little resources they have just melts my heart. I can already feel that this past week and the week to come will be a significant part in both our lives and theirs.
I probably won’t ever forget the hugs I’ve gotten from the little girls who look at me like a role model, or the young boys who high five me after a victory. In addition, our reciprocation means the world to these kids. I think I can speak for all of the Youth Corps participants when I say I’m looking forward to the remaining four weeks!