Long car rides and bumpy roads have become a given in almost all of our road trips, whether it be from Martuni to Yerevan or Baghanis to Proshyan. Sitting in a 16-passenger van with no air conditioning for a minimum of 2 hours has also become a given, and luckily, we have learned that the smell of cattle outside is the least of our worries.
There comes a point in every car ride where we all sit in silence, enduring every bump, hoping the ride will soon come to an end. However, with all the lingering pessimism, looking outside and enjoying the beauty of the country feels strange and somewhat unconventional.
I feel that the real beauty of any country, especially Armenia and Artsakh, lies when you least expect it, like during a car ride with hundreds of bumps. Taking the time away from the slightest bit of negativity and grasping the infamous scenery truly brings one to a moment of peace amid an awkward situation.
That’s just one of the many things I’ve learned to appreciate while here. Take the time. Look outside. Just enjoy.
Coming to Armenia, we all knew that putting on the first ever AYF Youth Corps Jampar in Baghanis would be an experience of a lifetime. Since it is a small town with a small population and not a single one of us had ever been there, nobody really knew what to expect. Now that we have spent a week in Baghanis, we’ve, for the most part, adjusted to the way of life here. We have also seen many differences between the kids here and those that participated in our other camps. We noticed these differences through many aspects of camp throughout different parts of the day. For example, take Wednesday’s simple arts and crafts activity. It started off like any other Jampar activity. We asked the kids to draw two pictures: one of how they see Baghanis now, and another of how they want to see Baghanis in the future. Many of the kids said they saw Baghanis as a small town, but wanted to see it as a big city. Others drew future Baghanis as a town with more modern technology. Of all these drawings, one caught our eye the most.
Unger Narek, who is fifteen years old, handed us his paper just like everyone else and walked back to his table. On one side of the paper (how he sees Baghanis now), he had drawn the Armenia-Azerbeijan border, with armed men fighting on both sides. On the other side of the paper (how he wants to see Baghanis in the future), he again drew the Armenia-Azerbeijan border. However, this time, the men in the picture were unarmed and peacefully shaking hands.
Upon seeing it, we became overwhelmed with emotion and needed a moment to collect ourselves outside of the classroom. It’s unbelievable how this kid has so much to worry about, yet can carry on with his life every day, full of positive energy and dreaming of peace for his homeland. This was one of the most difficult and emotional, yet humbling moments that either of us experienced at Jampar so far. We realized how blessed we are that we never have to worry about such life-threatening situations like Narek and his friends do.
Walking into the classrooms each morning, with smiling faces greeting us, one would never know that each day, these children walk home in fear. They fear that at any moment, shots can be fired and any one of their loved ones can lose their life. But even with that instilled fear in them, they are full of faith and they are hopeful; faithful in their village and country, and hopeful that one day, they too, will live a peaceful, safe life. With a simple drawing of peace between the neighboring countries, so much is learned about their lives.
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.