When asked to serve as one of the directors of Youth Corps 2014, many thoughts ran through my mind. I was honored and thrilled, but at the same time, slightly intimidated by the idea of leading a group of young diasporans on a trip to our motherland to run a summer camp.
I got the roster of my group, “Group Red” as we called ourselves, and reviewed the names. Some names sounded familiar, some names I had never heard of. What was even scarier was the fact that I knew the parents of some of the participants but not the participants themselves. It seemed like a daunting task – one director, 12 counselors, and 180 kids. There were expectations to be met, responsibilities to follow through, and memories to be made. Most importantly, we needed to make an impact on the lives of children and families who were impoverished and underprivileged.
Without hesitation, I accepted the position.
Upon my arrival in Yerevan, I met the young adults who were going to serve as camp counselors for the summer. They seemed to be having a lot of fun – hanging out, laughing, and bonding. As I spent more time with them in Yerevan, before we went to Gyumri, our first Jampar location, I thought to myself, “How am I going to make sure these kids can run a day camp for 14 days?” And as we started talking and getting to know each other, I started to think on a deeper level and wondered, “Can I really lead these kids, or can these kids even be led?”
Nevertheless, we get to Gyumri and completed our first day of the Jampar. As we got accustomed to our daily activities and schedules, I got to spend a lot more time with the group and saw them in action. I witnessed them interacting with the children, I saw them working with each other, I saw them work for Gyumri.
From the group of 12, two of them do not speak Armenian at all, but I saw them interact with the children. That proved to me that language is an obstacle that can easily be overcome if you truly want to help your homeland. I witnessed 12 complete strangers living together in one house and truly becoming friends, “ungers”, for one cause. It was truly inspirational to see the concept of “the cause is greater than our differences” in action.
As I sit back and write, I dedicate this blog to you, the group that I was supposed to lead, the group that I was supposed to teach and guide. I dedicate this blog to all 12 of you who have taught me and guided me for the past 14 days, who have taught me never to lose faith in ourselves and never to judge a book by its cover. You have instilled my faith in all Armenians regardless of whether they can speak Armenian fluently or not, regardless if they can read Armenian or not. The passion I have seen in all of your eyes gives me hope and strength to go on and do what I do – everything for Armenia.
And for that, I am truly thankful that ALL OF YOU are my leaders.
Last week, Arsen walked in to Camp Martuni with a bright blue temporary tattoo on his left hand. I told him I want one, and sure enough, the following day, he walked in with a tattoo for me. The tattoo took four tries to stamp on. The image was a Barbie doll, my favorite childhood toy. It lasted in its full form for three days, and every day it faded more and more.
This temporary tattoo was originally a symbol of friendship between Arsen and me, but it later turned into a symbol of this program and my trip. We are all temporary tattoos that these kids experience for two weeks. Ten days are spent learning from each other and sharing experiences. For two weeks, I am not Diaspora and they are not deghatsi, but we mesh into an awkward in-between. I attempt to speak their dialect, and they make fun of mine. I teach them how to make a lanyard, and they teach me the rock game. The two weeks are magical and nothing short of amazing. EVER. Then we leave… We spend a few weeks exchanging Facebook messages with our favorite kids and then the messages slowly fade, and so do we.
We are temporary tattoos, and although our residue exists for a while, we leave and they stay. They remember how to make lanyards, but can’t continue making them because lanyard strings are not available in Armenia. They remember the songs, until they learn a new one at school. They keep the memory of the epic soccer game, until they have a new memorable soccer game.
But is all we’re doing really temporary? When I leave, will Arsen resume his life prior to camp? As an individual I may be temporary, our games and activities are temporary, but we exist under an ideology and a global organization that continues to facilitate our influence. We are fortunate to be the youth of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, because our work is not temporary. Our work started in 1890 and will never end as long as the youth of our nation is motivated.
I was fortunate enough to spend two weeks in Gyumri through AYF Youth Corps and the imprint that this city and its people have left on my heart is unimaginable. Although leading, organizing, and disciplining about 180 children at camp may be exhausting at times on me and my fellow counselors, it is all worth it each and every day. When I asked a few campers what their favorite food was, each and every one of them answered with porridge. I was extremely caught off guard with their replies and clarified my question, emphasizing the favorite part, because really, which American kid’s favorite food is bland porridge? But then they looked at me with a confused face, replying with the same answer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure their mothers make delicious porridge, but the fact of the matter is that their families do not have the means to eat much besides porridge, which lacks so many necessary nutrients they need in order to develop properly. We counselors have been complaining about the repetitive food at camp, craving Chipotle each and every day, but now I realize how important the yogurt, bread, juice, and hot dog we feed them every day are. The significance of giving back to Gyumri has never been so simple and evident to me.
Although we are giving to the new generation of Gyumri through this camp, the children here provide us with so much more. The warmth within each and every heart here is unexplainable. Campers who have been wearing the same pants to school every day shower us with bracelets and rings during arts and crafts. Campers who walk with us to school pick beautiful flowers from the street and pass it out to us. Campers who barely have internet connection find a way to friend request us on Facebook. Campers who are crammed into a small classroom always offer us a seat next to them. Campers who come to camp so hungry dig up a small piece of candy for us from the bottom of their pockets. Campers who have sores on their hands French-braid the girls’ hair beautifully. Campers who live in the most extreme conditions often give the warmest hugs. Campers who have not taken a single class on government have so many fresh ideas on the advancement of Armenia. Never have I ever met individuals who have so little that want to give so much.
Yes, we are providing these children with two weeks of fun, love, and friendship, but I now realize that this is not enough. The food, water bottles, t-shirts, crafts, and toothbrushes we provide them are so minuscule compared to the amount of help the Diaspora is capable of providing to the second-largest city in Armenia. If the children here are able to give us so much from the small means they come from, the Diaspora should be capable of providing them all with the brightest of futures.
Say hello to our little friend, Artur. Artur is a 5’0” Karabakhtsi 17-year-old who was assigned to take care of us during our time in Karabakh, and boy, is he a character! At first, we were all a little confused as to why this little runt would follow us around from place to place, but it didn’t take too long for our opinion of him to change.
Last weekend, we had a small getaway to Stepanakert, and of course, Artur came along. During this trip, away from the responsibility of camp and the kids, we saw the silly side of Artur. He has a personality that is very difficult to put into words. His voice inflects in such a way that even if you don’t understand the words he’s saying, you definitely know what he’s thinking. I, Nicole, personally bonded with Artur on a level I didn’t think I could with someone who spoke only pure Karabakhtsi Armenian. We pushed and shoved like siblings, and teased each other like lifelong friends. I, Ani, created an interesting bond with Artur. He is like the little brother I never wanted, who never stops talking, and always asks questions, but I love him with all my heart.
Needless to say, Artur was certainly one of the best blessings that we received in Martuni. Artur, if you’re reading this (translated), thank you for everything you did for us these past two weeks. We love you!
Thirteen strangers living together in Gyumri,
But it did not turn out how I expected it to be…
Never did I know that I would love all the participants,
Who knew Youth Corps would give me such amazing new friends.
We wake up together and share fresh tonir,
We make each other sandwiches, some “hats oo banir”.
We share laughs and bonchiks as our bond grows stronger,
Each day I wish the camp could be longer.
I made thirteen new best friends, sisters and brothers,
And even some local Gyumri friends, like Haik and Alice.
As we reach the half-way mark I already want to thank Youth Corps
For giving me new friends to cherish local and abroad.
As a summer baby, I always seem to be away from home on my birthday every year. Whether I’m with my friends at AYF Camp or with my family on a beach in Hawaii, Glendale is rarely the place I spend my birthday. This year was no different.
On Monday, I had the privilege of celebrating my 20th birthday in Martuni. Since I’m away from home once again, I wasn’t really expecting too much, because we have all been preoccupied with camp activities. A quick song and a small cake would have sufficed. However, instead, I got an experience I’ll definitely remember for the rest of my life. From the moment we walked through the school gates to begin our day at camp, I was greeted by campers with hugs, kisses, Russian “happy birthday” balloons, flowers, and gifts. Each gift I received was homemade and unique, and it was clear that each camper put a great amount of thought and effort into it. The rest of the day, not a second went by that I wasn’t reminded about my birthday. I heard anout a hundred “????????? ??????”s, asked how old I was countless times, and was carried up in a scary moment during a dance party (I still feel bad about pulling Vahe’s and Puzant’s hair, sorry guys).
After an already amazing day at camp, I came home to a birthday party hosted by my group, complete with pasta, garlic bread, two cakes baked by residents of Martuni, and, of course, birthday themed cups and plates. It’s safe to say that I have never felt as special and appreciated as I did that day, nor has my face ever been so red from smiling and blushing.
The love and attention I received on my birthday fully reveals the character of the people of Martuni, as well as the group of participants I came here with. I have known most of these people, both the residents of Martuni and many of my group members, for only one or two weeks, yet every single one of them went out of their way to make sure that I have a day to remember. It goes to show how in this short time, we have truly become a family and created a bond unlike any other. It really was the best birthday ever, and I’m looking forward to creating more memories like this throughout the rest of this life-changing trip.
I didn’t realize how much I missed the Armenian language until we came to Gyumri and started camp, also known as Jampar. Going from having Armenian classes every day for 8 years, to a private American high school where there were only about 5 Armenians, to Santa Clara University, where I have yet to meet a fellow Armenian, I was starting to lose touch with my roots and culture. Yes, my family and I speak Armenian at home, but it’s more of a mix, where we tend to speak more English. I was starting to miss speaking Armenian and I didn’t know how I could fix that, especially since I’m up at school for 9 out of the 12 months of the year and have no one to talk to.
When we first came to Gyumri, I knew I was going to be with kids that didn’t speak a word of English for more than 5 hours a day, 5 days a week. It was then when I realized I now have a chance to make up for all those times in school where I was unable to speak Armenian and a chance to get back in touch with my culture. I was worried at first; worried that I wouldn’t be able to communicate with the kids because it had been so long since I actually spoke Armenian, especially to people directly from Armenia, where dialect and even some words are different.
Now, however, a week into Jampar and about to start our second week, I have had no complications whatsoever in communicating with the kids. Actually, the kids have been helping me improve my Armenian. This may be extreme, but I would say that these kids pretty much saved me from forgetting my language and losing my culture. I didn’t realize how much I needed this until coming to Jampar, and I would say that this is probably the main reason why I decided to do Youth Corps — to get back in touch with my culture and not lose the Armenian in me.
Days before Camp Martuni began, I was nervous and anxious. It’s my first time participating in Youth Corps so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. You can say my emotions were running wild. On the first day of camp, when we met and started getting to know all of the campers, they were hyper and so excited to meet us. With over a hundred kids trying to sign up for camp, it was overwhelming and exciting all at once. In the midst of all the chaos, there was one camper that caught my attention, Ungerouhi Aida. She has the sweetest personality and a smile that can brighten up any room. I fell in love with her within the first hour of camp. During the first day of class, she was attentive and so eager to learn. You could tell how happy she was to be able to participate in the camp.
On Thursday morning, as I walked into school, a group of kids were already there waiting for our arrival like they do every day. As I got closer, Ungerouhi Aida walked up to me and gave me a bouquet of flowers she had picked herself. She was so excited to hand them to me. I realized that just a few days into camp, these kids were already appreciative of us. Spending this past week with them has been such a fun learning experience and has already been life-changing. Not only because of how great these kids are and that I have the opportunity to work with them, but also because I get to experience the kindness and generosity of the people of Martuni. I’m so happy I still have a week to spend with Ungerouhi Aida and the rest our campers at Camp Martuni.
I am currently sitting in Digin Lilig’s living room with a few of my fellow Youth Corps participants and I am questioning how I ended up here. Just over a week ago, I was in Los Angeles and now I am sitting in a host family’s house in the middle of Gyumri with 13 other participants who are slowly becoming family. I attended AYF Camp as a camper multiple times, but I never returned when I was old enough to be a counselor. Now, I can’t believe I am in Gyumri, the night of my first day as AYF Youth Corps Jampar counselor, trying to put to words this truly life-changing experience.
I was told that Youth Corps’ agenda would be very similar to AYF Camp’s, so what I was expecting here was not much different. Once we left Yerevan and entered Gyumri after a week of sight-seeing and touring, the reality finally hit me; I was not in a city anymore. Gyumri literally looks like a place uncovered in a documentary: a city-state filled with destroyed buildings, half-finished homes, and rocky dirt roads.
Today, as our group walked through the streets of Gyumri towards “Tbrots 10”, we found our way by getting directions from the locals on the street. Once we got there, I was overfilled with emotions; it was truly an incredible feeling walking into the school’s yard and seeing dozens of children lined up at the door to enter Jampar, an hour before it actually started. The entire experience really made my heart melt. Just through that moment alone, I knew that I was in Hayastan for a purpose: to work with and for these kids who have honestly been waiting all year to participate in our Jampar. I’ll never forget the smiles on the children’s faces when we gave them Jampar T-shirts, water bottles, and wrist bands, something that is so common and simple for us to have. It really made me realize how little these children actually have, and how everything we give to them and every second we spend with them has immense value and a great impact on them.
I am not going to lie, I am not a person who gets emotional quickly, but this was truly something else. The experience of walking into Gyumri’s “Tbrots 10” and spending the entire day with 130 Gyumretsi kids of various ages will forever be inscribed in my memory. I cannot wait to spend the rest of the week with all the great kids I met today, and I cannot wait to meet all the kids during the coming weeks of Jampar. This entire experience made me realize that if the first day of Jampar this was exciting, heartfelt, and satisfying, then every day that follows is going to be so much more!