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.
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.
As we finish our second week of Jampar in Gyumri, I can’t help but reflect on the most amazing, life-changing journey I have ever experienced. My AYF Youth Corps adventure has been nothing short of exceptional. In the past four weeks I have spent in Armenia and Artsakh, I have formed unbreakable ties with amazing children, I have made several personal revelations and I have had the privilege of experiencing our beautiful land, culture, and people for the first time. As you could imagine, there have been many people that have contributed to my experiences throughout the past four weeks, and I would like to take the time to thank a mere few of them.
Thank you to my 38 fellow 2015 youth corps participants and leaders, my second family. This trip would not have been the same without every single one of you, and I am beyond grateful to have been a part of such an incredible experience with such incredible people.
Thank you to brothers Gor and Georgie from Camp Astkashen for courageously raising your hands on the first day of Jampar, asking to sing “Akhperus ou Yes” in front of our entire blue group. I will never forget the tears you brought to my eyes that morning when I first heard your passionate voices sing one of my favorite songs. This song will forever remind me of you two.
Thank you to Unger Vahagk from Stepanakert, Artsakh, one of the most generous and inspiring individuals I was privileged to meet. From the second we arrived in Artsakh he made sure our time spent there was unforgettable, and because of him and the comfort I felt throughout my two week stay, I feel as though Artsakh is my second home.
Thank you to Unger Zorig from Astkashen, Artsakh for opening your home to us and inviting us over one of the days after Jampar. While sitting around his table with my fellow ungers, I took a step back and cherished that moment, knowing I would remember it forever. Whether it was because of the songs we sang, the conversations we had, or the friendships we built, that day spent in Astkashen was one of the best days of my life.
Thank you to Larissa, one of my campers from Camp Gyumri, who just so happens to be a four-year returning veteran to Jampar. I have never met a person filled with such energy and enthusiasm. Though I’ve only spent a couple of days with her thus far, I have become extremely attached to my new favorite nine year old. Earlier today while I was braiding her hair, Larissa turned to look at me and said the most special words I have ever heard: “Mernem gyankeed Ungerouhi Talar.” Thank you Larissa for allowing me the privilege to build an unbreakable bond with you that I will forever treasure.
Thank you to my Youth Corps group, the 11 people that I have spent every day with for the past four weeks. Whether it was the many times we fought over who got to shower first or the thousands of times we argued over the rules of Steal the Bacon, this trip could not have been the same without you and I’m so thankful I was able to embark on this journey with you all. There is a special place in my heart for each and every one of you.
Thank you to my motherland, the most beautiful land I have ever stepped foot on. This country and all that it has to offer has taught me to always appreciate all the small wonders around me waiting to be noticed. Having the privilege of walking down the streets of our country and speaking our beautiful language is unlike any other feeling in the world. There is truly no place like home, and I can’t wait to come home again.
First day of Jampar in Gyumri was finally here and so was a camper named Ardo who had trouble written all over him. Within minutes it was obvious he was going to be the obnoxious troublemaker none of us had the patience to deal with. After just a few hours he had disrespected and bothered more than enough campers and counselors and was told to go home and not return for the rest of the week. Of course, he didn’t listen to that either and within a couple minutes of sending him home he magically appeared in the classroom again. He promised to behave and for some reason we believed him and let him stay.
The next day before jampar even started he came up to me and said in Armenian, “Today I will behave, I have even learned all the songs you taught yesterday.” Very surprisingly he was the loudest one during song practice, he even threw his fist up with pride during the necessary times. It had become obvious that he learned respect and was ready to cooperate for the rest of the week. What wasn’t obvious was that he would end up being my favorite camper, the camper who would give me 40 kisses a day, and be the one to give me bracelets and presents every morning.
Thursday morning was a little different than the other mornings – he handed me a best friend bracelet on which he had written, ‘I love you.’ He gave it to me so I would remember him forever and asked for something in return so he could remember me. Thursday night I went to the store looking for something small and appropriate. After a while I saw a dice keychain and knew that it was the perfect gift.
A dice is the perfect way to describe everything that has happened to me on this trip so far. Ardo is one of seven children, his hygienic condition speaks for itself that his family isn’t the wealthiest, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that all seven children have one room to in which to sleep. This is where the dice comes in – Ardo and I both have 100% Armenian blood, but due to “paghd” (luck) he is living in such conditions, and I am living in the States, worried about which 2016 model car I want, when he will soon worry about how he will care for his family and himself financially. The destiny of two Armenians is as random as a roll of a dice; it all depends on luck, whether you end up with a one or a six. I do not deserve the lifestyle in America more than he does, in fact he is the one who allows me to have a homeland to visit, it is someone like me who falls victim to white genocide.
This trip has made me realize that one of my dreams is only just a dream. A dream I would like to make a goal in the future would be to move to my homeland and raise a family. Unfortunately, during a discussion with my campers from Artsakh, I opened up under pressure and realized how different their lives are. These children who come in the morning with the biggest smiles, wettest kisses, and biggest hugs have brothers, fathers, and uncles who have died to keep our land, who are on the front lines to defend our land, and who soon will wholeheartedly join the army to keep our land. Standing in front of these teenage boys thinking I am doing a huge deed for my country while they are the soil and mountains keeping a country alive on a map made me realize the actual sacrifice I have to make. Hearing stories of how all three brothers and a father were killed leaving a mother alone made me ask myself a question – am I, or anyone back in the states willing to sacrifice all the male figures in their family just so we keep our land?
I began to explain to Ardo why I got him a dice but tears didn’t allow me to finish. I watched the troublemaker of camp cry and it wasn’t because of a horrible “badeej”, it was because of an everlasting connection made between the diaspora and the homeland.
Today, we went to visit the memorial of several fedayis that fought in the Artsakh war who were from Proshyan, the village where our first jampar is located. The unger who was explaining their stories to us used the word “sacrifice” multiple times, and I could not stop comparing the words to my friends who spoke to me before I embarked on my Youth Corps trip who said, ‘Props to you for sacrificing your whole summer.” At the time I agreed that I was also making a sacrifice; but standing in front of their memorials I began to doubt myself. What I was doing was not a sacrifice. This Youth Corps trip was something that I wanted to do, but now I have realized it’s something I needed to do.
The constant pull between school, work, friends, and the Armenian Cause is something the average Armenian diasporan youth faces every day. There are tons of different external factors back in America that cause us to become distracted or lose focus when it comes to the Armenian Cause, but here in Armenia, I was finally given one that drew me in like a moth to a flame. In that moment, hearing the word “sacrifice” over and over again, I could see why I was here, clear as day — for the continued work of our ancestors through new means. We have the means of education, resources, and opportunity.
We visited a second monument later that day — less of a monument, more of a square piece of granite cemented in the ground. This was the exact spot the former village mayor, Unger Hratch Mouradian, was assassinated. The reasons for his assassination did not interest me as much as the impact that this man had on every single member of that community. The genuine sorrow in the locals’ eyes as we all stared at this square of granite was proof that not only did this man make a difference in his community, but he had the potential to do so much more. My fellow participants and I had not even met this man and yet we began to cry as they told us his story, about his many sacrifices. There was an instance where the unger explaining said, “Unger Hratch knew that the new generation would thrive if given the right means.” For the past 12 years I have always thought of my friends and myself when I heard the words “nor seroont” or “new generation’. In that moment I heard shouting in the distance from our campers calling, “Unger Koko!” That’s when I realized that Unger Hratch was correct because that “nor seroont” was standing in front of his memorial learning about his good deeds while being called for by the “Nor nor seroont” to ask about a lesson we taught them at jampar that day.
If there is one thing I know as fact, sacrifice is not a word that goes synonymously with the AYF Youth Corps program…but duty, might.
It was finally Monday morning, the day I had been waiting for impatiently. It was the start of my group’s jampar (camp) in Artsakh. I woke up anxious and excited to meet the countless young children in our village. Sadly, that same morning I woke up to a message from my mother letting me know that my grandmother had passed away. That was the worst news I could have received on a day when I was ready to set out to meet and interact with our campers.
I felt as though a part of me was gone—numb—unable to actually process the situation. But for some reason, I wanted to participate in our first day of camp, I wanted to be there with everyone in Artsakh, in Gyumri, in Tavshud, with my fellow volunteers and with the hundreds of kids in our homeland. My grandmother would have been proud of the work that I was doing and would have supported anything that gave me happiness and satisfaction.
During this time, I couldn’t help remembering Sosé & Allen, who worked so many years to make the AYF Youth Corps program a reality, and who lived their dream by repatriating to Armenia. Their memory, along with the memory of my grandmother gave me the strength to stand up stronger than ever motivated to do good.
The jampar in Artsakh had begun, and the first week was definitely one of adjusting to the kids. We (the counselors) were essentially strangers in their minds (all 150 of them). Even with all the adjustments, I can say that it was an instantaneous and natural bond that was established with these children. By the second week I realized that our time was nearing its end (and we would be moving on to Gyumri). I did not want to think about it. In our short time, I had build friendships that I know will last a lifetime. but I didn’t want to say goodbye.
One of memorable parts of jampar for me was prepping my group, which was the gabuyd (blue) team, for song competition; especially the young boy that I helped to do a solo for the song called “bidi bashdbanem” (“I will protect”). The dedication the group put into learning the songs was absolutely amazing. The little boys and girls singing that song made me feel especially proud and connected. Each and every morning the children would impatiently wait for us at the entrance of the school waiting for jampar to begin. The last day of our camp in Artsakh was so touching, but I expected it.
Saying goodbye is my weakness no matter what it comes down to. Signing these kids hands, shirts, and song books made them feel so special, and in a way made the counselors feel special because of what we meant to them – practically becoming their older sisters and brothers.
Just like that, the two weeks in Artsakh had come to an end. But before I left, I made sure that I got the chance to light a candle at the beautiful Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi in memory of my grandmother, Sosé, and Allen. This was the perfect opportunity for me to pray and ask for their continual love and support. I had never felt better, and after many tears and many different emotions, I have been standing stronger than ever, ready for any type of challenge or situation that Youth Corps has to offer me.
“Shad boyov eh, shad boyov eh”, was all the chatter I heard as I walked into the gym packed with eager little campers. It was registration day and I had the glorious position of occupying the campers’ time with games until camp officially began. I was frightened, since I have never worked with kids in my life. Yet I found myself excited to get camp underway in Proshyan. The transition from the practical European city of Yerevan to the village of Proshyan was remarkably easy. I fell in love with village life. The strong sense of community found in Proshyan was unlike anything I’ve experienced. The village has a strong ARF presence. Around Proshyan, the Tashnagtsoutyun is more than just a political party–it’s a lifestyle these villagers religiously follow. Words like “badanee,” “unger,” and “agoump” are held to an extreme I’m not used to experiencing. The strong traditional culture found here is what I want all us participants to extract back home to our own chapters. Wherever I go in Proshyan, I can feel the happiness our presence brings into the community. Children follow me through the streets wherever I go like I am of importance. Little do they know I’m usually just going up the street for some ice cream. On multiple occasions the villagers expressed their gratitude of how the Armenian diaspora has not forgotten about their homeland. They always leave me speechless and overcome with emotion. Nothing brings me more joy than knowing I’m instilling the best of both worlds onto our young generation. Knowing I’m shaping the future of Armenia is the most powerful feeling I have ever felt. From my explorations in Proshyan, it’s very obvious to me how far it has come as a village. It has such a bright future in these children and I personally want to remain a part of it. The hospitality, warmth and strength of the villagers have allowed me to find a home away from home. I love every minute of living here. My name is Harout Pomakian, I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but Proshyan adopted me.