Before Youth Corps started, I thought about what it might be like doing a program for six weeks in my homeland. My friends who had participated in previous years had told me about their amazing experiences and I couldn’t wait to have my own. I was extremely nervous at first, but the past three weeks have been incredible.
I’ve been going to AYF Camp near Los Angeles for the past twelve years. Joining Youth Corps and coming to Armenia, I thought the camps we were going to organize here were going to be like AYF Camp. After going through three weeks of camp, two in Artsakh and one in Broshian, I think it’s safe to say that I was both right and wrong. I was right in the sense that the Jampars we do here are like the camp I’ve grown to love. We play games like steal the bacon, butt volleyball, and dodgeball, we give the kids educationals about the ARF, and we teach them heghapokhagan songs in preparation for a song competition at the end of the week. A typical week at these Jampars consist of these activities, along with many more, and i’ve loved every minute of the last three weeks.
But there is one main difference between AYF Camp and the Jampars in Armenia. As I was sitting in Broshian with two girls who were going to sing the duet for the red group, I thought to myself, “These two girls are singing Garodee Hishadageen. But not only are they singing that song, they’re also Garod’s nieces.” At that moment, I realized how honored I was to be a part of this program. Who can say that they drove by the Mamik and Babik monument every morning to go to Jampar in Artsakh? Or that they woke up to a view of the majestic Mount Ararat in Broshian? How may people can say that they listened to a duet during song competition, sung by the nieces of Armenian hero Garod Mgrdchian, or that they got to meet his father? How many people could say that they saw where Bedo lived before he went off to the Kharapagh war? How many people could say that they became a part of the lives of hundreds of children in our homeland?
Thanks to Youth Corps, I can say yes to all of the above. That’s what Youth Corps is all about: being with the people, living with the people, and experiencing what they do in their daily lives. And I’m so happy to be a part of every minute of it. Two more weeks left… Gyumri here I come!
It is definitely not enough. One week in Proshyan is just too short. It’s too short for “Jampar” (camp). It’s too short to understand the value of the village, its people, the fallen heroes that lived there and their families that continue to do so. Only a mere 15 minutes outside of Yerevan, but a drastically different place. A week is too short, but I’m glad I was able to at least have that.
Where do I begin? I didn’t know much about Proshyan’s history before coming here. Nor did I get a chance to ask, as I soon realized its significance during the Artsakh liberation movement and thereafter, is enough history to digest during a short, one-week stay. Proshyan was one of the first villages to send fighters to Artsakh from Armenia during the early 1990s. It is also home to fallen Artsakh heroes, including Bedros Ghevondyan, Garod Megerdchian, and the recently murdered Hrach Mouradian. It continues to be home for their families, as well as many other freedom fighters, or “azadamardiks.” This reality, in and of itself, makes Proshyan a special place. When embarking on this 6-week program, I knew we would meet such individuals and their families, but I didn’t comprehend the effect it would have on me. We sing songs about their battles and in their memory, but shaking the hand of their brothers and fathers, hugging their children, seeing the house in which they would rest, evoke an emotion that is indescribable, but I will try to nonetheless. Beautiful. Inspiring. Motivating. Uplifting.
It was an everyday occurrence, as different people would visit Jampar throughout the day. Garod’s brother and father were regular visitors. Bedo’s relatives opened their home to show us some of his belongings, including the hat we see him wearing in almost all of his pictures. Hrach’s children participated in our Jampar and his son, Kevork, even stayed overnight as “bahag” (guard) one night. Everywhere we’d turn someone was there as proof that their memory and work will continue to live on for generations.
When surrounded by the families of so many fallen heroes in Proshyan, I can’t help but also think of those close to me that left far too early and without whom I wouldn’t be a group leader for AYF Youth Corps today. Every day, either during Jampar or after, I think about Sosé and Allen constantly. It is difficult not to. During Jampar I am surrounded by the fruit of their hard work and vision. After Jampar, I wish I could ask for their advice on certain decisions. We conduct each day of Jampar in their ever present and contagious spirit. Their inspiration is present even as I write this blog. I hope they are proud, but I’m sure I can do better.
This year thus far has been difficult for Proshyan. On April 2nd, the mayor of Proshyan, Hrach Mouradian, was murdered in broad daylight. The assassin(s) are still unpunished. I’m not even sure that someone has been arrested. Why?! Why him?! An “azadamardik,” a proven hero, someone that willingly put his life on the line for the betterment of the country, an Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) member, someone that had been elected mayor 3 times, and was a loved and respected individual. Why him?! Why, after 4 months, has no one been punished?! The story reeks of political motives as the election for a new mayor found the Republican Party, the current president’s party, “victorious.” A hero was replaced by a man representing a party of crooks and thugs. What is most troubling is that there are no witnesses that have come forward, more than likely out of fear, to testify. If these thugs won’t hesitate to murder a mayor, they certainly won’t hesitate to murder any witnesses.
I wish I had the chance to meet “Unger” (Comrade) Hrach, as I heard he was a frequent visitor of Jampar during the prior two years it was in Proshyan. This year, the third year of Jampar in Proshyan, we decided to conduct the one-week camp in his name, to show the village, those responsible for his death, and those responsible for failing to punish the murderers, that the youth today, though separated by thousands of miles, are unified and will always remember Unger Hrach and what he represents. His death will not be in vain, and I can show you 180 kids and counselors who agree.
In Proshyan, Jampar started Monday with over 100 kids. The next day, the number grew to 150, the maximum number we can accept. The next day, even more kids showed up, forcing us to turn them away, undeniably the worst part about being group leader. We even had kids showing up on the second to last day, begging to participate. Nevertheless, we had the fortune to interact with a very special group of kids. Some stood out more than others. Whether it was their through exceptional singing, or entertaining personality, we embraced the opportunity to meet them all. Moreover, the Jampar was very special for Youth Corps participants because both groups worked together for a week, and they had a great time doing so. The day was full of high energy and excitement, which allowed for productive song practice and competitive games between color groups. The camp concluded with a memorable song competition, featuring Garod’s nieces singing a song dedicated to their uncle, talented singers displaying their beautiful voices, and a group performance of “Verkerov Li”, dedicated to Unger Hrach. Typically, song competition makes counselors proud of their campers as it reflects the hard work they put into teach the kids songs all week long. This song competition went a step further, touching all of us, and making the parents and members of the community and beyond, proud of the village’s children.
I can’t conclude my thoughts about Jampar in Proshyan without mentioning a vital key to its success, Unger Kevork Parseghian. At the beginning of the week, he was just the father of my close friend, Berj. At week’s end, he became my Unger. I didn’t know much about him, and he doesn’t like to talk about himself much, even though he, too, fought in the Artsakh war. He is a genuine “Tashnagtsagan” (Federation member), dedicated to the ideal of humbleness. Despite this, I was able to pick his brain during our various meetings throughout the day or during our drives into Yerevan to buy food for camp. At first he told me I didn’t have to go with him, but I insisted, and I’m glad I did. I learned a lot from Unger Kevork. I not only heard his stories about battles in Artsakh or the Lebanese civil war (which he also fought in) but also lessons about life, and in particular, Armenian life. He moved to Proshyan nine years ago, and has somehow remained calm in the face of many obstacles that have pushed him to the edge of frustration.
Perhaps the most notable memory I will have of him is from one of our drives into Yerevan at 8:30 in the morning. After pointing out all of the things wrong with the current state of Armenia, he told me “Yete hayrenikit mech bidi chi baykaris, baykareluh animasd eh” (“If you are not willing to fight for your country in your country, then your fight has no meaning).” At first I didn’t understand his point, because I don’t think one has to be in Armenia in order to fight for its betterment. But eventually, I figured out that’s not what he is saying. What he means is that that the country we want Armenia to become will not come into being unless we, and all Armenians alike, create a direct connection to it. And I wholeheartedly agree. We need to visit Armenia and spend time there, in order to understand it. And if we are able to, we must live there, not with the expectation that we are here to fix it, but with the desire to contribute to it. For generations, including those from Unger Kevork’s generation, a free and independent Armenia was just a dream. We now have a country that we can call our own, so it is up to us to unequivocally embrace it.
That conversation had my mind racing throughout the whole week. The needs for Armenia are vast, just like any other country. What this country needs is leadership that genuinely cares for it; leadership that values and invests the country’s beauty and potential. The people are thirsty for work. Not just work that will pay the bills, but work that will allow the country to grow and become something they can be proud of, something that represents the free and independent Armenia they have envisioned, and in some cases, died for. The current leadership is not that. The current leadership is worried about their personal gain, not that of the country. The current leadership is not working to find the culprits behind the murder of a village mayor, an Artsakh war hero. The current leadership doesn’t care that roads are unpaved or full of potholes; or that water doesn’t run through every village/city 24 hours a day; or that prices for gas, water and electricity have increased by large amounts while wages have stayed the same. But forget about the current leadership! To hell with them! Just because they don’t care, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. They are not Armenia. They don’t control you and me. The 150 tram revolution showed us the people aren’t scared to voice their concerns any longer. The current leadership’s time will eventually come to an end. It is our duty to continue working until that happens. We have roughly 8 million people living in the diaspora and 3 million living in Armenia. It is time for our collective 11 million to not just say that we care, but to truly show it.
Visit Armenia, it’s what Bedo, Garod and Hrach died for…and it’s beautiful.
Live in Armenia, it’s what Sosé, Allen and Unger Kevork did…and it’s home.
As our final days in Arstakh came to an end, I began to look back at what my group and I have accomplished and experienced in just these two weeks of “Jampar” (Camp). Personally, many emotions emerged throughout my journey thus far. One of which was my genuine desire to help educate the campers about our AYF program and about the meaning behind the goal of “Tashnastootyoun” (the Armenian Revolutionary Federation) and what it represents.
I recall that the first day I felt nervous yet excited. I was prepared to familiarize myself with the school, the Arstakh “parpar” (dialect) and culture, and the campers. I was placed in the “Dzeeranakyoun” (orange) group. I could tell the children were impatient to learn new topics!
As the days went by, I began to form close bonds with each of the campers. It was here at ”Jampar,” where I realized that I love working with children. To see their smiles and eagerness warmed my heart. The girls also viewed me as their role model. That encouraged me to take on the responsibility to maintain that position.
“Jampar” is not only about educating the children, it is also about creating and offering an optimal environment for them to express their beliefs freely. This will permit the children in Arstakh to become open minded and to lead the future of Arstakh. Not only were the campers educated, I also confess that the campers of Artsakh have taught me even more than I have taught them. They have taught me to be patient, selfless, and giving. They have also instilled in me the desire to remember my own childhood and realize that from the outside it may look vastly different but deep beneath the surface we have much in common. It made me realize that yes, there will always be a barrier (social or otherwise), if we chose to view our lives in that sense. However, if we opt to break the barriers we can develop a wide network of Armenians in Artsakh, Armenia and the Diaspora. An open mind and communication is so necessary for Armenians today. Another important lesson that the campers taught me was to strengthen my ties with my Armenian culture and identity. Before this time, frankly, I had lost a close connection with my identity as an Armenian-American. However, this trip has truly reassured my goal and desire to maintain, preserve and expand upon my Armenian identity and heritage. I look forward to the next three weeks of “Jampars” where I can learn more about myself, my culture and grow in unison with my new friends participating in the program as well. I am sure I will create even more memorable experiences in the coming week.
Two weeks in Gyumri have come and gone, our first Jampar with over 200 kids is over and it was all a big blur. As we were leaving the city this morning, I knew that I would miss Gyumri, but as we arrived in Yerevan I realized how different Gyumri is and how much I love it there. Not only the city, but more so the people. From the campers, to the taxi drivers, to the Ungers who were with us every day, in the last two weeks our group has come across some amazing people.
First we have the one and only Unger Kevork, the self-proclaimed manager of Gyumri. He will yell and scream at everyone and everything in sight, as needed. When you ask him for 2 pieces of khorovadz you get 14 pieces, and you will finish all of your plate whether you are hungry or not. If you make the mistake of speaking English in front of him, he will make sure you know that you are a “khiar” and you will never make that mistake again. Such a heated and dictatorial man, but when it comes down it, one of the nicest most caring people you will meet. As I became sick one day in Gyumri, he took me from camp to the pharmacy promising to get me the best Russian medicine that will have me feeling better in 15 minutes. We picked up the medicine and went to his office where he had me drink two different Russian concoctions, which somehow had me feeling better in 15 minutes just as he had promised.
Most importantly we had our 200 crazy campers. From little Larissa, who would steal my hat and wear it backwards around camp calling herself “Unger Levon,” to Hovannes who thought the entire 2 week duration of camp was a Kung Fu movie production as he ran around from class to class doing karate chops and jump kicks. Then we had Gourgen, the Jampar veteran who has attended Jampar for the last 4 years without missing a day, he was always the first one in line, but always the last one to stop talking. These are some of the campers I spent the last two weeks with; the campers that would drive me absolutely crazy; the campers that would say “Unger Levon” about 4,000 times a day; the campers with selective hearing; the campers who had to use the restroom every 15 minutes and could only go in groups of 5; the campers who made my two weeks in Gyumri absolutely unforgettable.
Our last day of camp in Gyumri has already arrived. These last two weeks have flown by, but it feels as if we’ve been here for months. For two weeks we’ve been teaching the children English, giving educationals, learning “heghapokhagan” (revolutionary themed) songs, and playing games. My favorite time of the day is in the morning when we have our opening ceremonies in the “daleej” (gym) singing the Armenian anthem, doing exercises, and listening to the different groups of kids (separated by colors) saying their “ganches” (each group has a unique chant). The change that I’ve seen in the kids from the first day of camp are remarkable. During the first couple days of camp, the kids would take at least ten minutes to line up, but now as soon as they come in, they line up in their colors and make sure their lines are straight so Unger Arek can reward them by letting them go inside first. I now look at the children like my younger brothers and sisters and want the absolute best for every single one of them. Today, two of the boys from our color group came running into our classroom bearing two roses and a bouquet of flowers for Ani, Christine, and I. They explained to me that they woke up extra early and went to their “harevan’s” (neighbor’s) house and asked them for roses from the garden and they picked the rest of the flowers from a small garden on the way to camp. Caught off guard, all I could do was smile and thank them for their kind gesture as that was the sweetest thing anyone’s done for me. In just three weeks 11 people that I just met have become my family. I’ve always been known as the quiet and shy girl, but with every passing day I feel like I’m able to open up even more to my group. From the moment we wake up in the morning until we go to sleep, whatever we do, we do together. We’ve already made so many memories together and we’re only half way through our trip. I can’t wait for all the fun experiences that await us in Proshyan and Artsakh.
Never have I ever had to take care of 200 screaming campers.
Never have I ever had to share a house with 11 other people that I barely know.
Never have I ever had to explain the concept of raising one’s hand before asking a question.
Never have I ever had to wait until a certain time of the day to take a shower.
Never have I ever had to use the words “erexek” (“children”) and “soos mna” (“stay quiet”) so many times in one day.
Never have I ever had to live out of a suitcase for seven weeks.
Never have I ever had to live without any Internet access.
Never have I ever had to carry toilet paper around with me everywhere I go.
Never have I ever had Nutella sandwiches for so many meals.
Never have I ever lost my voice in such a short amount of time.
Never have I ever seen kids so grateful to receive such simple items like water bottles, t-shirts and toothbrushes.
Never have I ever had so much fun hanging out at home with the same group of people every single night.
Never have I ever seen kids so enthusiastic and eager about learning.
Never have I ever been so excited to be woken up at 8am with pillows being thrown at me.
Never have I ever had my name chanted by 200 kids.
Never have I ever been so happy to be without Internet access.
Never have I ever been so excited to answer the same question over and over and over again.
Never have I ever gotten so close to 11 people within such a short period of time.
Never have I ever felt so important to a group of kids.
Never have I ever heard children speak so passionately about where they come from.
Never have I ever felt so close to my homeland.
Never have I ever been so happy about the decision I made to participate in Youth Corps.
It’s already the 7th day of Jampar and I can’t believe how fast the days are passing by. It feels as though it was just a day or two ago when I was introducing myself and trying to learn all the kids’ names. By now, I have all my students’ names memorized (quite an accomplishment for those who know me). This is because everything feels different here in Gyumri. It’s not just any other group of kids that I’m counseling and working with, but rather my younger brothers and sisters. As cliché as that sounds, it bodes true for me. Although we live thousands of miles apart and have never met before, I feel as though we are from the same family. Although not always cooperative, all of these kids with their crazy ideas and thoughts will always be my younger siblings. Every day, the kids anxiously wait for our arrival, and although some of the counselors may not admit it, we all walk with the same anxiousness to see them. My personal favorite is English class which happens right after breakfast for the Blue Team. I love asking my siblings an English question and hearing them all scream back different responses in English, Russian, Armenian, and of course, that secret language every child creates and is convinced that others will understand.
Come 4 o’clock, as soon as camp ends, I get to spend time with my other family: the 10 other participants and our fearless leader, Arek. It’s clear to anyone who interacts with us for 5 minutes how close we all have gotten. All the awkwardness from the first time we all met is long gone and now we share everything with one another. I’ll admit that at first, the living situation sounded a bit scary… 12 people sharing one bathroom and one shower (which could only be used at certain times during the day). Now, I can’t imagine going to the bathroom and not having to wait in line or being caught in the shower rush. When I say rush I literally mean rush. Anyone who has done Youth Corps in the past knows the shower rules at Deegeen Leelig’s. Hot water goes on, and everyone has to jump in back to back and shower as quickly as possible. Although it sounds like the most difficult thing to manage, we’ve all figured out a fun way to make it work. I love it here.
I thought the hikes back home were beautiful, but the one we went on the other day was indescribable. The area we hiked in was in the Deel mountains of Artsakh, in a place called Hunod, more commonly known as Zontik. The hike started off with our van, “the Gazelle,” trailing off the main road onto a narrow dirt path. We could no longer continue our journey with the van, so the rest of the way was taken on foot. We grabbed our cooking supplies, tomatoes, pork, peppers, etc. Unger Razmig carried our watermelon during the entire 2 kilometer hike. Needless to say, he almost dropped it a few times along the way, while he himself also almost fell. During the scenic hike, we walked through a waterfall, crossed a very narrow bridge, and climbed over steep hills. In particular, the narrow bridge above the river scared Ungerouhi Areni and she was on the verge of tears as she crossed, while the rest of us all laughed. Areni warned us to NEVER LOOK DOWN. We agreed not to remind her about this same route we would have to take on the way back. After a seemingly endless and perilous journey, we arrived at the perfect location. This little paradise was close to a small waterfall where Ungerouhi Vana and I took a plunge into the cold water while the rest chickened out. The guys collected dry branches and built a fire, while the girls helped with food preparation. Even though our skewered meat was placed directly upon the dirty rocks, something which is normally unacceptable in America, we devoured our meal. Armenia and Artsakh will be the only places where I will eat food in unsanitary conditions. After lunch, we sat atop the waterfall watching the clouds pass, and told funny stories about our campers. A few hours later, we hiked back through our now familiar path and enjoyed the all too familiar bumpy Gazelle ride back to Babo’s.
As our third week in Armenia and our second week of Gyumri Jampar begins, I reminisce about all of the things we have experienced in Armenia thus far. Since this is my first time visiting Armenia, I had no idea what to expect… Traveling through Yerevan was absolutely beautiful and when we left I was under the impression that the best part of my trip was over. Arriving in Gyumri, I came to realize that I still had five amazing weeks to spend in this country. Jampar began and as I began to interact with these kids, I realized how lucky I am to have this opportunity.
I have worked with kids before through different after school programs, but nothing compares to the children of Gyumri. These kids are full of life, enthusiasm, and curiosity. It is refreshing to see that kids are still so eager to learn new things. English class is the quietest time throughout the day and the kids are always asking if they are doing their assignments correctly. Anytime I speak English with Arin, another fellow counselor in Team Gabooyd, I immediately see their eyes light up. It’s strange how interested they are about our lives and the English language, in the same way we are interested in their lives.
At first I was hesitant about leaving Yerevan and traveling to a different part of Armenia, but after living in Gyumri, I feel like I have experienced the true Armenia. In Gyumri, I realized that this is the city that is full of true Armenian history, culture, and tradition. This city and its residents truly appreciate us and the Youth Corps program for all that it has done and continues to do in their city. We receive countless “thank yous” everyday from parents and the local residents as we walk to and from Jampar. Now that I have interacted with this kids, I am that much more excited to see what the next two sessions of Jampar hold.