The place I currently call home is in Studio City, yet I anticipate the visit to my motherland for the first time to feel as though I am coming home. I envision walking out of the doors of Zvartnots International Airport and breathing in the clean and unpolluted air, unlike that of Los Angeles. I’ll walk down the streets, entranced by the aroma of newly risen bread, and thrilled to embark on my journey. My quest will begin by visiting historical sites that I have been learning about since elementary school at Merdinian. I’m excited to finally see firsthand these landmarks that I’ve heard so much about. I am interested in interacting with the local people and getting to really know them, since all the individuals I am familiar with are a part of the diaspora. I presume that everyone in Armenia is kindhearted and hospitable, especially those who, during our camp sessions, will be preparing meals for and housing fifteen individuals they have never met.
Some have asked why I chose the Youth Corps program for my first visit to Armenia. I do not wish to stay in a luxurious hotel in Yerevan and solely visit the monumental sites of my country. I would much rather make a child smile or assist them in making a lanyard. The making of a lanyard enables them to learn a new skill, and is an item they will treasure as part of the many memories they make at camp. Knowing that I made a child smile reassures me that they are genuinely enjoying themselves in that moment. Although the children are young, I’m certain the memories they make will be landmarks in their childhood.
I am thankful to have been chosen to be a participant of this years Youth Corp family and am excited for the journey that lies ahead.
“A life changing experience” was how a Youth Corps alumnus described the impact of AYF’s summer program to me. Although the simple phrase is often overused and exaggerated, I absolutely believed him. From his sincere expression and distinct change in demeanor, I realized the program was extraordinary and that was the moment I decided to become a part of it.
One year later, I am anxiously packing for my trip to Armenia. Like many Armenian youth in the Diaspora, I have never been to Armenia and have no concrete ties to my homeland. Yet, I owe a great deal to Armenia. This country has given me an identity, family, and character all rooted in its rich culture and tumultuous history. I am grateful for this opportunity to establish meaningful connections to my homeland, and I am eager to build relationships with the children and future of Armenia.
All I expect is an adventure, one that will make me part of a greater whole. We must seize every opportunity to grow as human beings and positively impact fellow human lives. I believe it is the leaps of faith in ourselves and others that will yield the most reward. As I eagerly await this journey, I recall another Youth Corps alumnus who told me, “Everyday I wish I could go back!” I hope to return with the same sense of fulfillment accompanied by personal growth, a greater awareness of my people, and an unwavering confidence in the future of Armenia.
I attended Rose and Alex Pilibos my entire life, so you can only imagine my excitement on our first day of Jampar in Askeran, Artsakh, when a young boy came to camp in a Pilibos polo shirt, the same one I had worn for 15 years. My Armenian school uniform made its way to Artsakh and allowed me to realize that in one way or another, all roads lead to the Hayrenik. Growing up in California, in a very tight-knit Armenian community, I learned how important it was to connect to the homeland. In 2011, when I traveled to Hayastan for the first time, I was able to see the land I had learned so much about, but that void of connecting to the homeland on a more personal level was not filled because I was merely a tourist. I didn’t interact with any locals, I didn’t hear their personal stories, I didn’t experience life in Armenia, and while I fell in love with my homeland, I was not able to build my bridge to it. For that reason, I was very interested in participating in the Youth Corps program, knowing that its goal is to bridge the gap between the Diaspora and the homeland. To me, bridging meant having a personal relationship with the locals of the homeland. It also meant getting a feel of living in the homeland. AYF Youth Corps allowed me to do both. I interacted on a personal level with the kids and counselors in Gyumri, Baghanis, and Askeran. For over six weeks, I heard their stories, their fears, their joys, their dreams, and their aspirations. Ultimately, I built relationships in the different regions of Armenia that I know will not fade away.
Throughout the different camps, kids constantly asked me if I was Armenian. It really upset me at first because here I was, in Armenia with the intent of building a relationship with the local Armenians, and they don’t even know that there are Armenians who live outside of Armenia. However, this also created a drive within me; a drive to teach about how there are Diasporan Armenians who work tentatively to help the homeland and to build their bridges to it. Therefore, during educationals about the Diaspora in the different camps, I spoke about the history of the establishment of Diasporan Armenians following the Armenian Genocide of 1915, as well as the historical influxes of Diasporan Armenians throughout the last century. I also discussed the role that has been played by Diasporan Armenians to help develop and sustain our country. Through this educational, the campers began to understand and appreciate the importance of a strong relationship between Armenians living in the homeland and those abroad. Giving the Diaspora educational, my goal was to teach the kids to see me as an equal Armenian; to see how Armenian Diasporans care and work for the homeland even though we are outside the homeland. I wanted them to understand that geographic location does not define one’s Armenian spirit – one’s Hayrenasirootyoon.
Seeing the boy in the Pilibos polo, in a way, served as a physical symbol of my bridge built to the homeland. The polo was piece of my home and a symbol of my upbringing as a Diasporan Armenian. Seeing an Artsakhtsi boy wearing it allowed me to physically see the Diaspora’s connection to Armenia; how the Diaspora and the homeland are intact, bridged. I felt by seeing just how the Diaspora’s help and work to develop the homeland really does play a role in Armenia. It was the first day of camp, I did not know this boy yet, but I instantly felt a connection to him. Somehow, someway, we both wore the same polo. For my bridge built, I am eternally grateful to Youth Corps and everyone and everything, including my family and my Armenian school, which played a role in building the foundation of my bridge to my homeland. And lastly, I ask you to please keep donating to Hayastan and Artsakh, even if it is just old school uniforms, because they honestly get there and they really help the people who may not be as fortunate as us.
A ball and a field. Not anything written or spoken. A ball is all you need to unite people from completely different parts of the world. I have been to many different parts of Armenia with Youth Corps by now. My Armenian is not the most fluent, and I do occasionally have problems communicating with the campers, resulting in less of a bond with them than if I could speak more fluently. However, one thing has remained the same wherever I’ve gone. The children can react differently when you teach them songs, give educationals, or talk to them about different things like men and women having equal rights. However, once I bring out a soccer ball, the same thing has happened in three different camps. The fact that the children and I are from different countries, speak differently, have unique issues in our lives that are polar opposites from each other, and really don’t share much in common other than being Armenian, melts away.
For the children and me, even if only for half an hour each day, once the balls rolls out and the game starts, our worlds change. There is no impending threat from Azerbajian for the kids. There is no war-torn village in our minds. Being from Texas, having been raised around Armenian-American culture, and not having gone to an Armenian school five days a week are no more. What my parents do, what university I go to, and what I’m studying is irrelevant. The details that make up who we are in our lives don’t matter on the field. While we’re out there, the children and I communicate in an entirely different way. A tongue that can bring together anyone in this world regardless of where they’re from or what they do. Something that lets us have no problems understanding each other, unlike something spoken. That language isn’t English, nor is it Armenian. That language is the one of the beautiful game. The language of the ball and the field.
You are about to embark on a journey that will change you forever and I’ll start by telling you that it’s okay to go into this with high expectations – I say this with no hesitation because however high they may be, I give you my word it will exceed any level.
You’ll soon be walking down to camp every morning, greeted with herds of children with pictures they drew for you or hugs that will melt your heart and make your day, or a random fact about America that you’ll pretend to be learning for the first time. Soon, you’ll be yelling at the top of your lungs at your favorite camper because he’s really talkative, but everything that comes out of his mouth makes you crack up, and he’ll still kiss you on the cheek before going home today. You’ll be forming bonds with incredible people, amazing and beautiful kids. I’m already jealous of you and I still have a week of Jampar left.
I am no longer fazed by the fact that I haven’t slept in a bed in about a month, or that I wake up in a pool of my own sweat more than a couple times a week, or that flies wake me up every morning – I can easily laugh about all of this nowadays. The living situations may not always be ideal, but it doesn’t matter at all. It does not take away from this experience – if anything, it adds to it.
I had written in my pre-departure blog about how I was excited to give back to my country because it has given me so much, but the truth is this country never stops giving. I know in my heart I have accomplished and given a lot this summer, to the kids, to the people, to my new friends; but I have received more than imaginable. For starters, I was removed from my comfort zone and lived in a house with 11 strangers who would soon become my family – as I presumed before getting here. I have had the chance to live in my country as anything but a tourist. I got to really taste what it’s like to be a “deghatsi”, a native in my own country. Imagine that.
We are officially in our last week of Jampar in Proshyan, and while exhausted, I think I can speak for everyone when I say we don’t want this week to come to an end – because that means it’s over. As soon as song competition ends on Friday afternoon (and Red Team wins), it all ends. And that’s the last thing we want.
This is an amazing opportunity, if I haven’t already made that clear. You have made one of the best decisions of your life. I’ve fallen in love with this country in a different way – I can’t wait for you to do the same.
Nearly six weeks ago, one of my closest friends asked me, “Gareen, why are you wasting your summer in Armenia working on a day camp?” and I didn’t have an answer. To be honest, I was completely going back on my decision of joining the program. I had just finished my freshman year of college and began having doubts because the typical college student would be spending their summer creating fun memories with friends and family. I had never spent more than a week away from home, and I don’t like being put into uncomfortable situations like sharing a small space with a large group of people. To sum it all up, I began having strong anxiety about my decision and started to doubt my ability to spend six week with strangers, working with kids and taking care of myself in another country so far from home.
My summer has passed and I am now confident in my reasoning for joining AYF Youth Corps. I knew in my heart that this was an opportunity for me to grow, but my definition of growing up has completely changed. I had imagined that growing up would mean changing who I was, becoming a serious person, with more responsibilities and less sense of humor. But now I know that growing up means many other things, lessons that I couldn’t have learned anywhere else, doing anything else.
Growing up means putting another’s needs before your own. I used to feel like my problems were so large and so overwhelming, as if it were the end of my world. Who was I kidding? The kids in Artsakh are facing a potential war in their backyard, which could change their entire lives. There were kids in Baghanis who could hear gunfire at night but came to camp every day with a smile on their faces, and suddenly my problems seemed irrelevant. I may have problems close to the heart, but these kids are full of resilience. In the six weeks I have spent with local Armenian kids, not one complaint and not one tear.
Growing up means being able to not only trust yourself, but others as well. Our campers open up to us with so much, and believe in us to teach them about Armenian pride. They express their vulnerabilities, talking about fears and dreams, and trust that we will take care of them and befriend them no matter what. They have taught me to trust myself in giving them all that they need, because they have never expressed anything other than gratitude.
Growing up means accepting yourself and feeling comfortable in your own skin. Six weeks ago, if I had seen one of my campers back home, I would not have been able to see past their exterior. In Armenia, I have learned that it takes time to see people’s true beauty, inside and out. Not only were the kids comfortable in their own skin, but also my co-counselors and I have learned so much about the value of people and the definition of beauty.
Growing up means having more responsibilities and learning how to adapt to certain environments, and I have definitely gained that experience. But one important realization that was taught to me by my campers was that growing up and maturing has nothing to do with changing yourself. The children in Armenia and Artsakh brought back the child in me and I have been reliving my childhood with them. The happiness in winning a competition, the anger and disappointment in losing to a better team, the sympathy when someone gets hurt, the excitement of learning new English words, and finally, the innocence in feeling and being completely carefree.
Now I know that growing up means appreciating the beauty in life and being grateful for everything we have. I feel different than the person I was six weeks ago and am content and truly happy, in a mature kind of way. If someone were to ask me the same question now, I would have so many reasons to give and so much to say as to why I joined AYF Youth Corps.
Yesterday, I walked into the Askeran school and was greeted by “Trcheyi Mdkov Doon”. I stood there mesmerized, listening to one of the campers sing with such passion, and could not keep my tears under control. I closed my eyes, silently singing with her as I, too, flew to another place, another time, back to 1994 to a small village in the Martuni region called Ashan, where I had been a Youth Corps participant.
Although the Youth Corps program has changed from a rebuilding program to a Jampar, from the looks on the faces of the counselors, I knew that everything we had received as participants 20 years ago is still the same today: a lifetime of memories with a special group of Armenians. We had participated in the program believing that our mission was to help the villagers, help the schools and guide the children, but later realized that in fact, it was us who had things to learn. We learned about the resilience of our people, about the bright future of our country, and about the importance of building bridges with our homeland. These lessons can only be comprehended through programs such as Youth Corps, where participants have the opportunity to experience to real lives of locals, and truly experience the joys and wonders of Armenia and Artsakh.
Today, I visited the AYF Youth Corps group, went from classroom to classroom watching the campers making lanyards, listening to educationals about the lives of fedayees, and watched counselors connecting with the campers as they wrote about their hopes and dreams, fears and worries. Witnessing the counselors interact with the campers, I was overcome by a sense of immense pride – pride that I have been fortunate enough to belong to a great youth organization, the Armenian Youth Federation; pride that I have had the opportunity to participate in the best and most meaningful summer program, the AYF Youth Corps; and extreme pride that after 20 years, we are still able to impact the lives of hundreds of Armenian youth, put a smile on their faces, and continue to give them hope, as we ourselves better understand the true meaning of life simply by listening to a magical song.
— Dzia Vartabedian
Dzia Vartabedian was one of the first participants of AYF Youth Corps. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the program, which began after the cease-fire of 1994 by Armenian-American youth whose mission was to help rebuild their homeland.
In the early hours of the day, you hear the sounds of the crowing rooster. In the distance, the firing shots.
In the early hours of the day, you hear the sounds of the mooing cows. In the distance, the firing shots.
In the early hours of the day, you hear the sounds of the old creaking wood floors. In the distance, the firing shots.
In the early hours of the day, you hear the sounds of the ticking clock as time stands still. In the distance, the firing shots.
This is the bittersweet symphony of the village of Baghanis.
Baghanis is found in the northeastern Tavush region of Armenia, bordering Azerbaijan. The village is small, the population number is low, the stores are scarce, and there are no restaurants in sight.
One may wonder why anyone would voluntarily visit such a place. Every time I spoke about our Jampar in Baghanis, I received two different responses. The first was people not knowing anything about its existence. The second was concern as to why 25 young Armenian Diasporans from the United States would want to visit such a remote, and at times dangerous, village so near to the border of Azerbaijan. My response was always the same: we were going to bring happiness to the children of the village.
Upon reaching Baghanis, I began realizing the validity of the responses I had received. The life of Baghanis was very simple. The food was gathered daily from cows, pigs, and chickens who roam the fields of the stone buildings. Water was boiled by wood fire, if it were even available. And at least once a day, from a distance, we heard the sounds of Azeri shots being fired.
The scenery of Baghanis was unlike any other. We spent many hours each day in the school field playing soccer, a favorite pastime of the campers. And each day, my co-counselors and I took a moment to appreciate all the nature of our homeland, the green of the mountains, the clear blue sky, the shining golden sun and the bright smiling faces of over 100 local children that attended our Jampar – the true beauty of Baghanis.
Even in such poor conditions, the children were always full of joy, hope and happiness, something I had thought we would be bringing them. Instead they brought it to us – the mere joy, hope and happiness in befriending the future generation of our resilient people.
Although we were merely one mile from the border, we were never in danger of the enemy. The only real danger we ever encountered was falling deeply in love with the children and knowing that after only five short days, we would depart, and sadly, never see them again. The danger was in our devastation and heartbreak.
This is the bittersweet symphony of the village of Baghanis.
Baghanis is a small village in northeast Armenia, merely 1.5 miles away from the border of Azerbaijan. For those unaware of the situation between the two countries, Azerbajian is currently one of Armenia’s biggest enemies. There are continuous disputes between the two countries, which sometimes result in gunfire that can be heard all throughout this border village. Unaccustomed to the sound of gunfire, our group was completely oblivious to when and where this was occurring.
One morning at camp, a group of my campers ran up to me and asked if I had heard the noises of gunfire the night before. Oblivious to anything having happened, I asked them more and they answered in a very nonchalant manner saying the firing had begun around 7 p.m., while they were playing soccer in the field. I was incredibly shocked, not only to be hearing the campers say that there had been gunfire shared between the Armenians and Azeris, but more so that the children in Baghanis reacted in such a “no big deal” way.
How someone could have such a reaction to the sound of gunfire was so beyond me. I personally was afraid for the children, afraid for their future and afraid that they would grow up being numb to threats and violence. It made me sad that they were so used to hearing gunfire and living in a place where war and safety are an everyday concern. But there was something else about the situation that made me happy and proud. The children continued their game because they weren’t afraid. They are aware of the instability of their safety, but don’t let the fear of hearing gunfire on the border stop them from having fun and living their lives. There was such a strong lesson in this realization and I am so grateful to have experienced it.
What amazed me most about Baghanis was not the beautiful mountain scenery, or the fact that there were animals roaming the streets freely, but the children. These kids not only live in a small, desolate village with one main road and homes that lack running water, but they are also on the border of Armenia’s current enemy. Yet, they are happy and full of life. They came to camp everyday with a HUGE smile on their face, eager to learn and be a part of something more. Camp gave them an opportunity to not only forget about the dangers of what was going on around them, but to actually talk about their challenges and express their feelings.
These kids helped me see the bigger picture: that it’s not about how comfortably you live in your home, or whether or not you have access to water and electricity all day long, but it’s really about your attitude and approach to the hand you are dealt. They taught me that even though we may not live in the best conditions, there is still a way to make the best of it. For these kids, it was continuing their soccer game; for me, it’s finishing this program knowing I made a difference in over 100 kids’ lives.