This trip has lead all of us to many unknowns. The drive to Javakhk was especially suspenseful. We did not know what kind of town or people we would walk into. We did not know if we were going to comfortably project combinations of words and sentences that brought mutual understanding. We did not know how deep the Armenian culture was dug into disguise. Many of us are used to a different world.
Our arrival was met with intrigued faces. The people were eager to dismantle the silence yet maintained the noiseless noise for observational purposes. Soon enough, we patted the vibes with sincere greetings as if we were all meeting a long-lost brother or sister.
The youth centers of Akhaltskha and Akhalkalak were quite simple. Ordinary in the ways the chairs were left and especially the wall decorations. In each space of culture haven, the walls were hugged with Armenian calendars and drawings of flags and fallen heroes that the youth of the building created. None of these pieces were radical in the love of their heritage, but the pieces quietly spoke it through the rooms. Seeing these faint movements on the wall glued my feet to the space I was viewing it from. I kept comparing it to the walls of my youth center back home. These thoughts circled me for a while.
All of us have pinned our hearts to the vocalization of our culture and historical roots. We have promised to continue to sing the songs that our grandparents have. We have made it our spirits’ call to reveal any wrongdoings that attempt to hush our culture’s colors. Some can work in uproars while others can only work behind dark curtains.
The people of Javakhk work quietly but work with the greatest of forces to hold their Armenian-ness tightly. They hold their grip by continuing the work through the power of passion.
This is what I got when I stared at those subtle walls. I did not respond with feeling sorry for the people for not being able to louden their hearts. I did not feel a drip of pity. However, I felt the toughness of the people. I felt their resisting energies vibrate through those plain walls.
Another moment that can never fall victim to memory loss was my conversation with one of the locals. For the sake of connection, I questioned him as to why he did not relocate to Armenia. His response was needed. He said, “Why should we move? This is our Armenia.”
The story of Javakhk and its people is very promising. As a diasporan, I am ready whenever to include myself in this process.
The ganches dedicated to us, the late night negotiations with our local ungers over when we would finally have to get some sleep, the impromptu khorovats– all things that I continue to miss a full five months upon our return to America. Every little face in my 1,200-picture photo album has a story and an inconceivable power to make me wonder. I wonder where they will be in life the next time I see them, I wonder what they are up to at this very moment, if they remember me and all our memories together. I wonder if they were aware that just as they admitted to counting down the hours between each camp day, they were who I rambled on and on about to those at home during those same hours. However, this is not to discredit the unexpected difficulty we faced in establishing relationships with local children.
The initial reaction we received from the campers was one of defiance, leading us to think hard about why we were being put to a test, and how we would overcome it. I can remember my first day at my first camp with just one word – madness. New and veteran badanis alike were running up and down the school corridor, exclaiming greetings, unable to contain their excitement, while I sat behind the sign-up desk in shock. There was a fully established dynamic amongst these kids – how was I expected to make a place for myself within it. Any sense of order that we tried to bring to this camp had completely vanished. It was time for the Plan B we did not have.
I remember going home the first few days, exhausted, with tears in my eyes. It was made known that our Western dialect was almost incomprehensible, our clothing, unusual, and my blonde hair and blue eyes, too foreign. I had accepted that there was no way my campers and I would come to understand each other, as I thought anxiously about the six long weeks ahead of me. It was in these first few days that I would learn what I was truly here for.
Within all the understanding of what being an Armenian is, there are the misunderstandings of the various places we all come from. It came time for the AYF Youth Corps team to bridge this deeply-rooted gap. The sentiment was blatantly revealed on the third day of camp, when the classroom discussion topic turned to hayrenasirutyun – love for one’s heritage. One of my oldest campers, and one of the brightest young women I have met, expressed that hayrenasirutyunarises and dies in the hayrenik – the motherland. She expressed her resistance toward us by communicating her disapproval for those who chose to live outside of Armenia, and namely, leaving their responsibility of serving in the army – a sensitive subject in the lives of the many children we met. This put me at a loss; for words, thoughts, even a simple reaction. I felt more defeated than I could ever remember feeling, and I could not think of the rights words in response. Luckily, my local co-counselor did not miss a beat, as he went on to explain that Armenians in the diaspora are soldiers of a different war – maintaining hayrenasirutyun. What most of our campers did not realize was that a lot of diasporan families did not choose to leave Armenia… It was the result of the genocide. And with this displacement came a great deal of effort to relocate and further cultivate our language, traditions and lifestyle in an otherwise foreign place. There was a short silence in the room before the argument went back and forth a few more times, never truly coming to a consensus. I left camp that day not wanting to return.
Day 4 was a completely new ball game. One of my campers had painted a noor on a stone as a gift for me to take home, several other girls asked if they could braid my hair into two French braids with the combs and hair ties they brought from home, and a boy whose artistic talents I was completely unaware of gifted a portrait he sketched of me at home. Just like that, my group of campers and I became inseparable. Each morning, someone brought my co-counselor and I an assortment of fruits and snacks for breakfast. Our game-time consisted of English hangman, as requested by the campers who were eager to learn new English words. During our discussion period, the badanis even wanted to learn all about the communities we came from, and how we accomplish coming together for events, learning the language and raising new generations with a sense of our culture and motherland. Defeat turned into pride on this day. I was excited to share my diasporan experience, as it was never something I patted myself on the shoulder for, and to learn more about the deghatsi’s daily life.
At the closing of this camp in Gyumri, excessively long hugs were exchanged between people with tearful eyes, mementos were swapped, and vows were made to never forget each other.
I could not thank the AYF enough for giving me an experience that showed me something larger than myself. Beyond all that we do on a daily basis to keep our roots alive outside of our motherland, there is a need for a greater exchange between these two bodies. A mutual understanding can obviously lead to strong, supportive relationships, and that is what all Armenians should strive for – to never forget about each other.
GLENDALE—The application for the 2018 Armenian Youth Federation Youth Corps summer program is now available. AYF Youth Corps is a six-week program in Armenia, of which five weeks are dedicated to hosting summer camps for youth ages 9-16, and one week is scheduled for exploring the treasures of Armenia.
“Living in Armenia allows you to witness the everyday lives of the locals. Not only do you witness it, but you become a part of it. We spent hours outside playing sports or hanging out with locals rather than glued to our phones.” emphasized Knar Baghdassarian, a 2017 youth Corps participant. “Armenia’s living environment is very different from what we’re used to in America and living there definitely made me realized how much I take things for granted,”
Youth Corps participants get the opportunity to go on excursions to Armenian landmarks including Dzidzernakapert, Temple of Garni, Geghard Monastery, and more. The program participants run camps in various regions of Artsakh and get a chance to visit the Armenian community in Javakhk, Georgia during their time volunteering.
AYF Youth Corps participants during the morning flag ceremony
During the summer camps, Youth Corps participants lead children in competitions, sports, Armenian history lessons, arts and crafts, singing, and other aspects of Armenian culture. Participants are immersed in the city in which they host the camp for children that week.
The AYF Youth Corps provides a unique and hands-on opportunity for Armenian youth to connect with their Homeland, impacting both those who join as Youth Corps participants and the local communities that welcome AYF Youth Corps.
“Youth Corps is so unique in that you build bridges, memorable connections with the young kids who wait all year long to meet you as your campers at jampar; you reconnect to your roots, ignited by the day to day experience from waking up early by the cheerfully inpatient campers, ready for jampar, walking with you to and from the campsite, excited to show you their home,” said Alique Cherchian, a Youth Corps 2016 participant. “However, above all else, the humbleness of the beautiful kids and the community locals makes you realize truly how much of an impact you are making on them, their village community, and our Hayastan as a whole, simply by participating in the program.”
The deadline to submit an application is March 1, 2018. Apply today!
Founded in 1933 with organizational structures in over 17 regions around the world and a legacy of over eighty years of community involvement, the Armenian Youth Federation is the largest and most influential Armenian-American youth organization in the world, working to advance the social, political, educational, and cultural awareness of Armenian youth.
To be honest, I was a little skeptical of the overall political situation regarding its status. Being Armenian, my devotion to the roots my people defend in this land is a given; as an American, however, it is easy to come across different perspectives that often work to instill doubt. Having done my research on the area, I began to notice the atmosphere of Azeri propaganda prevalent on the Internet. A simple Wikipedia search would bring up the region as a part of Azerbaijan that is under dispute, sources favorable to Azeri claims more detailed in the info menus. Pulling up map applications would show the street names either in their Turkish form or Turkified. Absorbing statements that official political figures made would lead one to believe that maybe the land really does belong to Azerbaijan and that the disputes are tragic for both sides. So how does one reconcile these conflicting sides, especially as an Armenian?
The region is isolated to the rest of the world, the most convenient method of access is by a narrow, dangerous road paved through the Caucasus. To the rest of the world, all Artsakh seems to be is a two dimensional piece of land that is too irrelevant to worry about. It wasn’t until I stepped foot off that bus in Stepanakert that my perspective began to shift once again, this time toward reality. Walking down the streets I noticed all the street signs being Armenian, marketplaces selling traditional Armenian grocery items, with people speaking Armenian in the street corners. I opened up my maps once again to reassure myself I was in the right place: the name of the city showed “Xank?ndi.” Our day continued as we traveled to the day camp center in Askeran. I kept pulling my maps app out once again to track our location, once again coming across Turkish spelling with no indication of Armenian heritage. Yet once again, what I saw as we arrived was an Armenian community welcoming us with warmth, the children meeting us with smiles and curiosity with the backdrop of war as their façade, but that didn’t seem to bother them. In that moment it was clear to me: Artsakh is Armenian. A two dimensional map doesn’t do the reality any justice, if anything, it is counter intuitive and disrespectful to the identities of those who live their lives in these regions.
I needed to take in Artsakh with all my senses to truly grasp the meaning of Armenian heritage being rooted in this land: touching the ruins of Tigranabert, smelling the fresh air of the country side, tasting Armenian cuisine, hearing the vibrancy of the language all around town, and of course taking in the beautiful sight of the untouched nature that despite the atmosphere of war around it still retains its peaceful tranquility to which the people pride themselves in preserving. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what a map or political propaganda says. What matters is what is on the ground, what I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears. From the time of Tigran the Great 2 millennia ago to now, Artsakh is Armenian and always will be.
I’ve been to Armenia twice with my family (2004 and 2006) and once with my 11 class in 2011. The last time I went, I stayed a couple of weeks extra and volunteered at Orran, a center for atrisk children in Yerevan. Those 2 weeks could’ve been spent back in California lounging by a pool and spending time with friends, but the moment I stepped foot into Orran I knew that I’d return to Hayasdan soon to connect with and help the children of my motherland.
“Soon” didn’t happen as soon as it should have, and I’ve found myself drifting further and further away from my home and my roots. Los Angeles, despite it being a huge city, has always felt small and closeknit due to the presence of such a large Armenian community. I didn’t realize this until I went away for school in Santa Barbara in 2013 and was suddenly dropped in a sea of nonArmenians and nearly nobody to eat kebab and speak Armenian with. Little did I know, that soon I’d be studying abroad in Sweden, where the Armenian population is nearly nonexistent. My contact with anything Armenian has been limited to phone calls with my parents, repeatedly listening to Element on Spotify, and the single time I found grape leaves at a small store and was able to make myself sarma.
Youth Corps is my comeback. And I don’t mean in an “Eat, Pray, Love” sort of way where I find myself and reach nirvana while riding elephants in Thailand. I mean it in a “reality check” way, in a “there are bigger problems than your biochemistry final way”, in a “you are first-and-foremost an Armenian” way. I am thrilled at the thought of immersing myself in my mother tongue and feeling like my 5-year old self again, who didn’t even think twice about using Armenian as her default language. I am impatient to connect with my brothers and sisters on the other side of the world and realize that our lives aren’t as different as we think they are. And I hope I’m able to make them feel as proud of our nation and culture as I learned to be through AYF, whether your thousands of miles away from your roots or are fall asleep at night right at the feet of Mayr Hayasdan.
About ten years ago, after hearing endless stories about Youth Corps from alumni, from Sosé, at AYF Camp and at AYF Juniors meetings, I had given an oath to myself that the year 2016 will be the year in which I will finally embark the journey of AYF Youth Corps. The year has finally come, and the suspense of counting down the days to depart with only a few days left has made me even more impatient.
I feel as though this year, in a strange way, symbolizes the commitment and determination of the Armenian Youth Federation even more tremendously; after the scare of the massive ceasefire violations in Artsakh, many were concerned with the possibility of holding back the Youth Corps program for this year. However, I am proud to say that I will be a part of a group that will continue the program despite such discouraging efforts. It only goes to show that the AYF, in the homeland and in the diaspora, is always consistently on the frontlines for the Armenian nation. I, as a member of the AYF Orange County “Ashod Yergat” chapter, am proud to also be able to be at the grand opening of the Gyumri agoump—since the renovations were made possible by AYF OC’s launch of the “We Are Gyumri Campaign.” There is a symbol that we, as a people, will always continue to build—and rebuild, overcoming obstacles to better our nation.
Despite the excitement, I fear some challenges that I will face: to be away from home for six weeks, the language barrier between eastern and western Armenian, and all the tasks that I will be responsible and held accountable for. However, I look forward to overcoming every single one of these challenges. I look forward to leaving a lasting impact on the Youth Corps campers; I look forward to learning from the campers just as much as I hope they will learn from me and my peers; I look forward to finally understanding the eastern Armenian dialect and to be surrounded by the speech of our beautiful and rich language; I look forward to being in my homeland to make a difference with my ungers by my side. Youth Corps 2016 has finally come, and I cannot wait to start my journey.
To say that the Youth Corps program changed my life would be to put it mildly. Every major event changes the course of your life as you know it; Participating in Youth Corps did much more than that. It changed who I am as a person, it redirected my goals and dreams for the better, and it opened my heart to a whole new sense of identity. Connecting with the homeland made me realize where my true home is and where I’m meant to be. Seeing the natural beauties of Armenia, experiencing the rich culture, and creating personal relationships with the natives were ingredients to only one recipe: to move to Armenia one day and build a family there. But this soulful awakening wasn’t even the best part of the entire experience. The greatest, and most rewarding, aspect was being able to do a little good for the future generations – the youth of Armenia. The smiles I saw on the faces of the kids every morning of camp is an image that will never be erased from my mind. From teaching the kids English, to getting competitive in a game of Steal the Bacon, and to heart fully singing Gini Lits, every moment was an impactful one. Connecting with hundreds of bright and talented kids in different parts of Armenia and Artsakh really ignited a whole new passion inside me – along with giving me new friendships to last a lifetime. To talk about every incredible aspect of Youth Corps, I would need a week – with no interruptions. All that can be said about Youth Corps could be better understood through experiencing it yourself. It’s an outstanding opportunity that I relive every moment, wishing I could be back in the wondrous mountains of Artsakh, singing
Life presents us with endless opportunities, and one of the greatest opportunities I was presented with up until now was AYF Youth Corps. When I decided to join AYF Youth Corps, all I knew was that I would be traveling through Armenia and Artsakh for six weeks as a summer camp counselor for children. I had heard stories, read blogs, and watched videos of smiling faces that held memories that would last a lifetime. All of this seemed so far away, but before I knew it I was there.
Deciding to sign up for this program was one of the best decisions I have made so far in my life. Being engulfed in a sea of inspired, grateful, and bright youth of my homeland opened up a side of me that I didn’t know existed. Everyday after camp when I would be relaxing and bonding with my fellow counselors, I had a nagging feeling of wanting to be with my campers, even though I had just spent my entire day surrounded by over 100 of them. Each and every one of their minds sparked new ideas, friendships, and love among each other and among the counselors, and it was a gift more valuable than anything tangible we were able to bring back with us.
I went, I experienced it, and I came back seeing a significant change in myself as a person and as an advocate for our cause of bettering our homeland. It was a trip that I wouldn’t trade for anything, and it is one that you must experience to know how it feels. Six weeks may seem like a long time, but when it is over you will never want it to end.
The memories I made during youth corps are ones I will cherish forever. I can’t tell people enough how much I miss my kids in Artsahk. How I actually miss being confused when one of the kids would try ask me a question, but I couldn’t understand any of it so they’d just laugh at me. I mean, I was hesitant to go in the first place, not being able to speak much Armenian, but now I have a new, special connection with my homeland that I never thought I would. On top of everything else, I had the chance to have about thirty wonderful people enter my life: almost each and every person I went to youth corps with has changed me for the better in one way or another. Youth corps was an experience I’ll keep close to my heart for the rest of my life, and I hope many more will be able to say the same.