The 15th annual AYF Youth Corps project in Armenia this year successfully managed, for a second time, to run a day camp for 150 underprivileged children in Gyumri. Our goal was to invest in the children of Armenia, because we believe children are our future.
Our first task was to help strengthen their love of country’something their textbooks do little justice to in the one page set aside for the first Republic of Armenia. We sought to instill pride among the campers about the forefathers of their republic–the Aram Manougians and Antranig Ouzounians. We taught them the value of land and the shame behind throwing their trash on their streets, which Armenians in Karabakh fought to the death to defend. Every day, we worked to explain the importance of nature and what the future of this country will be like if they continued to take it for granted.
We also taught them practical skills. We split them into different skill levels and taught them English–from basic greetings to conversational English. At arts and crafts, campers were given an opportunity to discover unknown talents and hone their artistic skills. Daily karate lessons, meanwhile, became a source of pride, and inspiration for many of the campers, whose confidence was boosted after mastering new techniques after days of practice.
The song competition, held at the end of each session, was another unforgettable experience for us. Seeing each group’s members work together to practice their song seemed to us a new beginning for Armenia. Cooperation often takes a back seat to individualism here, but not during the song competition, where reliance and trust in the rest of your team is vital to successfully singing a song and performing a dance.
Most amazing of all, however, was the experience of reading each and every essay turned in by our campers during the “My Fatherland” essay competition, in which each camper wrote about their connection to Armenia.
Camp Gyumri gave these kids a truly unique place to learn, play and grow a place where value was place on respect, equality, and tolerance and not on corruption, bribery and cheating. With television shows glorifying mafia bosses who lie, cheat, steal and kill for power and glory, it is very difficult to expect Armenia’s youth to follow a different path. But we set out to dispel those false values. All in all, it was about what we could give to the future of Armenia based on the opportunities we have had growing up in the “West.”
Finding common language with the children was difficult at first, given our differences in language and culture. But within the first few days, those barriers broke down, as do most artificial barriers.
For six of the nine youth corps members, it was their first trip to Armenia, yet each of them said, multiple times throughout the trip, that they were finally home. It’s hard not to feel at home when you are welcomed with open arms. The family we stayed with in Gyumri took care of us as if we were their own. When one of us was sick, the mother, Digin Lilig, would take tea and medicine upstairs at least 5 times a day to make sure we would get better quick. She would talk to our parents over the phone and tell them how excited she was to have us and how she loved us and would make coffee or tea every morning depending on what each individual preferred that day. The local ARF also made every effort to make sure we were happy and comfortable, while working in Gyumri.
True, Armenia is not a perfect paradise, where we can all live comfortably like kings. That there are problems all around is obvious for anyone to see. But it is our homeland, and most important of all, it’s a place where we can make a difference, and start our lives anew.
Knowing that we were a positive influence on the lives of those 150 children in Gyumri is priceless, especially when considering that 40 of the campers signed up for the local badanegan, where they will spend their weekends throughout the year with their new friends in a fun and safe environment.
Making all of this a reality, however, was no easy task. It took an entire year of fundraising by local AYF chapter in the Western USA, as well as the Youth Corps central committee, to make this program a success. Many people helped make Youth Corps 2009 a reality, from friends and family who attended every breakfast and carwash fundraiser to support the program, to members of the community who invested in our ambitious goals.
In hopes of expanding the program’s reach and effectiveness, we made a major push this year to publicize our work and activities through so our supporters can see, first hand, all the great work we did and can do even further–in Armenia. We maintained a blog on Asbarez.com, gave interviews with local and Diaspora TV, newspapers and radio stations. We also worked with local non-profit organizations such as Birthright Armenia and the Civilitas Foundation to help raise awareness of the many opportunities available for Diasporan Armenians to help in Armenia’s development.
In order to extend our impact, we must expand our program beyond just one city beyond 150 campers. And we have begun to do just that. Planning is under way to establish a second camp in another of Armenia’s less developed regions.
We have much work to do in Armenia and we will be sharing that work with you, our friends, family, and community in the days, weeks, months and years ahead. Please spread the word about Youth Corps as much as possible so we can work together with our compatriots back home to help create the Armenia we all want to see our futures in!
This past week we have been walking around the parts of Gyumri that we have not had the chance to explore yet. Although Gyumri is a relatively small city, there is a lot to see. Furthermore, if you do not have a Gyumri native to point out interesting sights, a lot of the city will pass by without you noticing. Luckily, we have had some great tour guides to show us around and make sure we don’t miss anything important.
First up, was the now infamous Digin Lilig (read Serop’s last blog entry). After making us yet another delicious meal, Digin Lilig offered to take us to see Gyumri’s ‘Mayr Hayasdan’ statue. As she walked arm in arm with her hopeful future son-in-law Serop (that’s the running joke in the house), Digin Lilig showed us around some of the older neighborhoods in the city. Next stop was the tomb of the Unknown Soldier followed by the Sev Pert (Black Fort). The Sev Pert is a tremendously important historical landmark in Gyumri because it was once used to defend the entire city from the attacking Turks during the Armenian Genocide. Finally, we arrived at our destination, the majestic statue of Mayr Hayastan. The statue sits on top of a massive hill. You have to climb stairs that seem to have no end to reach the top and see the stature. However, a little lactic acid in your quadriceps is a small price to pay for the magnificent view you have from the top. You can see the entire town of Gyumri from the site of the statue. The feeling you get as you look at this triumphant symbol of Armenia watching over the proud town of Gyumri is difficult to describe within the limited space and time frame I have with this blog entry. My only alternative is to encourage you to come and experience it for yourself. Trust me, you will not regret it.
Round two of exploring Gyumri was lead by some of the older students we have at our day camp. Tatev, Arax, Anahit, Bella, and Meroujan were nice enough to take us around the city after we finished up our camp session yesterday. The tour started at Yot Verk Church. The church suffered major damage during the earthquake; however, it has now been fully renovated and is in great shape. The church has pieces of two fallen towers on display in its front court yard. The towers fell during the earthquake and serve as reminders of the terrible tragedy that struck Gyumri in 1988. Our tour guides then led us to see some of Gyumri’s cultural centers such as the opera house and the Kohar Music School (home of the world famous Kohar Yerkchakhoump). As we walked past statues of famous Armenian authors and artists such as Hovhaness Toumanian, the students enlightened us about Gyumri’s long history as the cultural epicenter of Armenia. We were all delighted to learn about Gyumri’s important role in the development and the future of Armenian art and culture. The tour concluded with a stop at the statue of Charles Aznavour. All in all, it was a great afternoon. We got to see a lot of stuff that we would have never seen if we were out exploring by ourselves. However, with the good came the bad. The student showed us around some parts of the city that have yet to be renovated from the earthquake. These areas are in extremely bad shape. There are buildings that are half-torn down with people still living in them. It looks like these structures are held together with the thinnest of threads and could crumble and crush its inhabitants at any second. It is appalling to find people living in these conditions more than 20 years after the earthquake. To cap it all off, the cab driver that drove us home described in detail the horrors of the earthquake. He told us stories of having to dig for days to find his relatives and then having to carry them on his back to bury them. All these sights showed me the tremendous amount of help this city really needs to return to its glory days. I hope these words and pictures will motivate you as much as experiencing these things first hand have motivated me to get involved and lend a helping hand to help out our motherland, our Mayr Hayasdan.
To end things on a positive note, I want to share with you all what happened to Serop and I when we stopped by the Gyumri fire station. Serop wanted to check out the fire station and see if he could buy a Gyumri Fire Department shirt for a buddy of his in the states. We walked in and greeted the firefighters around the station. Serop then proceeded to ask them if they had any t-shirts available that he could take back home with him. A very nice firefighter named Vasken smiled at Serop and then proceeded to literally give him the shirt off his own back. This was no t-shirt. This was an official Armenian Fire Service
uniform that firefighters here in Armenia wear when they are on duty. Serop attempted to refuse and tell Vasken that this was completely unnecessary, but it was to no avail. Vasken was having none of it. He told Serop that this was a present from his heart and he really wanted Serop to have it. Serop was left with no other choice but to accept the gift. In addition, Serop was extremely moved by Vasken’s actions and I don’t think Serop’s buddy is going to be able to get this shirt off Serop anytime soon. To return the favor, Serop and I stopped by the station today and gave the firefighters a few of our AYF beanies.
On Friday the 7th, the group went to the home of the Shirak Gen.Gen. chair, Unger Artak. As we sat down to the smorgasbord of delicacies placed before us, Unger Artak’s mother told us her experience from the day of the earthquake in ’88. The vividness of her story turned the events that happened more than 20 years ago into a reality and reinforced the fact that this region still needs our assistance in whatever way we can.
The next day, we took a two-hour ride to a camp site called Lasdeever; a truly enchanting place that met us with many surprises. As if it was pre-planned, the second we got out of the van, it started raining. So, in the rain, we all began what would become an hour and a half hike down the mountain. The hike consisted of extremely muddy terrain, slippery rocks and a constant supply of rain to keep us company. We were also limited in our mobility because we each had our hands full with either sleeping bags or other camping materials. Also, our tour guide was a lumberjack-esque man dressed head-to-toe in camouflage, carrying a multitude of seemingly unnecessary weaponry, including a very loud, sawed-off shotgun he enjoyed shooting at inopportune moments.
There were many times when we were ankle-deep in mud and once we got our feet out of the mud we’d proceed to fall on our behinds in that same mud. We all helped each other when passing by difficult areas. Once we got there, we were expecting a cabin with beds and indoor insulation; however, we were unexpectedly greeted by a tent that was to fit 12 people. Needless to say, we were relatively surprised, but we made the best of it.
Since it was still raining, we couldn’t make our kebab, so we sat down together, very closely, and had bread and yeghshig sandwiches and sang. Once there was a break in the weather, we seized our opportunity to make our kebab. Soon enough, the rain started up again. But the end result was delicious. After that, we all went to sleep, there was very little space, but no one really minded because it increased the already low level of heat in the tent.
This experience did wonders for our bonding as a group. The next morning we woke up and went on a hike to look at the different caves in the area. This hike had no trails and was mostly just climbing steep sides of mountains, grabbing onto rocks and trees, and anything else that would support us. We saw a cave from the Stone Age, filled with magnificent carvings and priceless history.
Once we saw all the different caves and waterfalls, we went back to the campground, and went to the waterfall where a few of the boys took a swim in the roaring waters. Next we packed up and started our trek back. We were once again met by rain. On our way back we were more confident with our mountaineering skills, but the uphill climb made it difficult. When we finally made it to the top we were all grateful for the comfort of the bus and vowed to never take heat and personal space for granted again.
Monday marked the beginning of the second session of Youth Corps in Gyumri.
We had about 80 kids; many of the campers who were extremely satisfied with the first two weeks of camp came again hoping to register for this session as well. The campers were very enthusiastic, ready to begin a fun-filled week of activities and games.
The campers are amazing, yet sometimes very disobedient. They come to the center every morning with the brightest smiles on their faces. The day begins with the singing of the Armenian National Anthem, followed by exercises. The counselors were able to determine the English-language capability of the campers and divide them into their respected classrooms. Later on during the day the campers introduced themselves, sharing with us an interesting fact about themselves. It seems the kids here in Gyumri love rock music!
After a few days, many of the kids became so attached, they would not wait for their parents to pick them up from the center. Instead, they would walk with us home while singing heghapokhagan songs. I can proudly say many of the campers are potential ARF badanees in the near future. In fact, 25 kids from the last session signed up for badanegan on the last day.
As far as my classroom goes, Serop and I have the beginning English class where the kids don’t speak a word of English. It is difficult to communicate with them at times; however we make the best of it. Our plan is to teach our students the alphabet during the first week. Our lesson plans consist of worksheets with the alphabet and the sound of the letters spelled in Armenian.
It’s truly amazing how little things excite the kids. Similar to AYF Camp, the campers here are split into three teams (red, blue, and orange). I am a counselor for the blue team, we created a chant for the team, encouraging the kids to be the best in everything they do.
Imagine the song karoun karoun, karoun eh, and the chant goes like this…
This weekend was a well needed one. Kevork and I arrived in Yerevan on Friday while the rest arrived Saturday; we got an extra night of fun.
The Pan-Armenia games’ opening was the main reason for us taking this road trip and it was well worth it.
The night started off with all the athletes lined up in front of the stage and about 25,000 viewers held back by barriers. The usual things happened, speakers spoke and people cheered, but what surprised me was when international pop sensation Andy came on stage and gave a 5 minute speech BUT DID NOT SING.
As the first performer came on stage, the police officers removed the barriers and the crowd wildly ran to the stage. I stood still watching this in shock, until I finally realized that a performer was coming on stage. We finally decided to go by the stage and dance a little, all the teams from different countries were in little circles doing their own dances, and we obviously joined the western America team. When the festivities were over with, we went to an after party with all of the teams at a place called ‘Aftershock’. Just picture a small places packed to the door with diasporan Armenians just dancing with the music of Bob Sinclair and Pitbull.
The next morning we had one of the strangest breakfasts of our lives; we ate Armenian-Chinese food. The restaurant itself was set up like any other Chinese restaurant, and the food was amazing. While eating a group of Chinese people walk in, our group simultaneously stops talking and just stares as these 4 Chinese men walk through the restaurant and take their seats. We anxiously wanted to ask where they were from and what they were doing here, but everyone was too embarrassed. Since we’re on the subject of food, let’s speak of our dinner experience.
We had finally found a Lebanese restaurant that actually served chikufte, manti, and jajekh. Everyone was pleased with that restaurant, we will definitely return to that establishment. At this point it is about 8:30 P.M. and we are getting ready to go home (Gyumri). The van arrives at 10 and everyone plans on sleeping in the car for the 2 hour trip.
We get settled in our seats and rest our heads when the driver plays a song and turns the volume up to the fullest! Our first reaction is to wake up and start clapping and dancing. No one was really mad, we just had big smiles on our faces as the driver was dancing and driving at the same time. There is not much else I could write about this weekend but there are many more stories to be told when we get back to America. Just approach any of us and ask us what happened that weekend.
After a long night of fun in Yerevan, we returned to Gyumri to get back to work. It was the second to last day of camp and all the color groups were practicing for the song competition to take place on Friday. We then had our English lessons, which went as smoothly as it could with 20 energetic kids. Our group activity for the day was a quizbowl on general Armenian knowledge. It was really interesting to see what the campers knew and didn’t considering they live in Armenia.
Once we wrapped up camp, the Birthright Armenia group in Gyumri met up with us. They are a slightly larger group and most are from the East Coast, Canada, and Argentina. It was nice talking to spyurkahyes that weren’t from the LA area and getting their perspective on Armenia. We also contrasted how different life in Gyumri is compared to fast-paced Yerevan, which is why most of them chose to work in Gyumri. I always enjoy running into spyurkahyes here because we are neither deghatsis nor foreign tourists. We are Armenians from the Diaspora living here and contributing to the growth of our nation, and that in itself is an amazing connection to have with someone you would have otherwise not met in the states.
On our last day of the first session of camp, we had our song competition and invited all of the parents to watch. All the kids did great and worked hard to get ready for the big day. The campers sang a diverse range of songs, from “Sardarabad” to “Mshag Panvor” to “All My Loving” by The Beatles. The parents loved it and had their cameras, camcorders, and cellphones in hand to capture every moment. Of course there had to be a winner, and the prize went to the blue team. Each camper got a signed song book from the counselors. After
ear-piercing screams of jubilation from the blue team upon their victory, it was time to party. Music was played and dancing ensued. There was even a bit of post Vartivar celebration when a few campers started dousing each other with bottles of water. We all ate ice cream afterward and gave the kids their English notebooks to take home. Every camper wanted our name, address, email, and telephone number so that they could contact us later on.
This first session was definitely a roller coaster ride. The kids learned from us, but we the counselors learned from them too. It took us and the kids a few days to understand each other fully, but once that connection was made it was a smooth ride. The kids that caused the most problems were the ones giving the longest hugs on the last day. It seems like we’ve formed a bond and I don’t think the campers will forget the things they learned from us Amerigah-hyes.
After we cleaned up camp and walked home (with some campers in tow), we went and had khorovadz with our Gyumri ungers at a river on the outskirts of Gyumri. The picnic area is right next to the 9th century Vank of Marmashen. People come to bbq here often, and it’s cool to see the juxtaposition of something so old next to a picnic area. Our dinner table was in a grove of apple trees, and just a few hundred meters away was a lookout point over the slow moving river. It was a very beautiful spot to finish off our first two weeks here. Great food, great friends, and great scenery.
It all started with an intense game of UNO with some of the kids before the day started. After lining up and singing Mer Hayrenik, a small white and black puppy was found outside, shaking from the cold. The puppy looked so helpless and we immediately gave her some food and water. After taking care of the puppy for a little bit, the kids did some exercises followed by English class.
In English class, which I teach with Alex and Levon, we taught them the songs All My Loving by The Beatles and We Will Rock You by Queen. The kids sing these English songs with passion and just get a huge kick out of it.
I’ve noticed that in Armenia people are a lot more relaxed and like to enjoy the simple things in life. I feel that in the US we are constantly on the go and wanting more and more. As I walk down the streets of Gyumri, I feel a sense of pride to be Armenian and I feel like this is my home where I belong and I’m proud to be here. Being half Armenian and weak with the language, i do not feel out of place at all.
The kids at camp are teaching me Armenian while I help them with English, and I feel that I can understand a whole bunch more than before. At camp I feel a connection with the kids and I’m having so much fun. The boys are very naughty; never listen, while the girls are always listening and good. These kids are very energetic, never calm or quiet. When this 1st session of camp is over, I will miss these kids a lot.
However, my Youth Corps group is awesome and we’ve definitely gotten a lot closer. It’s like we’re always either laughing, having a good time, or joking. We have unlimited amounts of fun. This trip has been awesome and I’m sad we have only 2 weeks left.
It’s Tuesday night and we have now completed seven full days of our “Jampar” in Gyumri. The camp is running much smoother now that we and the children have become more comfortable with the daily routine. But, the kids are still extremely excited. It’s very easy to see that they have never experienced something like this camp. Every game, every song, every activity we do the kids genuinely enjoy. Seeing their looks of amazement when they watch Sensei Berj do some karate moves and the giant smiles on their faces when they do the chicken dance with 18-23 year olds during morning exercises are all we need to let us know that the kids are loving the camp.
As each day goes by our relationship with the kids grows. We have become very comfortable with each other. The jokes seem to be rolling freely now. Yesterday morning, the guy counselors finally confronted the group about the only real issue we’ve had so far; the flower issue. We explained to them how sad we were to see the girl counselors receive flowers every morning. Today, we were kind of regretting it because we are now all receiving what seems to be an endless supply of flowers throughout the day.
The kids mess around with us too. The boys collect tons of these spiky balls that grow on weeds all around our camp. These “pooshes,” as the kids call them, seem to stick to everything including clothes and hair. So once they collect enough they choose their target and carefully approach. Once their leader feels the time is right he yells “Hartsagoom!!!” and they all attack. You try to defend yourself at first, then you try to run but you turn around to see that you are surrounded. The attacks are always well organized. The designated target ends up with about 60 pooshes stuck all around his or her body.
Life outside of camp is pretty relaxing. The ten of us have become very close. We spend a lot of time in the living room just hanging out. We do a lot of talking. We play nardi, chess, and different card games. And we joke around a lot.
Deegeen Lilly, our host, is incredible. Every time we see her she greets us with a huge smile and always asks us if we need anything. Every morning she makes us breakfast with coffee and tea. She has made us dinner the passed couple nights. She always offers us something to eat and it’s impossible to refuse because her food is so good. Every time one of us coughs or shows any sign of being sick she gets worried and tries to diagnose our ailment and treat it properly. She cares for us like we are her kids. She laughs a lot and her laugh is adorable. She is amazing. She works nonstop in the kitchen taking care of the house, her husband, her three kids, and the ten of us, all while smiling and giggling at every little funny or interesting occurrence.
I have been in Armenia for three days now. I am the last member of the Youth Corps group to arrive due to my sister’s wedding which was last Saturday. My plane landed at 3 o’clock in the morning and Berj’s father was nice enough to pick me up from the airport in the middle of the night and drive me to Gyumri.
We got to Gyumri around 7 AM and I was happy to see some familiar faces and some new ones. The Youth Corps group is awesome and I am glad we all get along so well. Within minutes of settling in, I felt as if I was a part of the family and that the two weeks that I missed had no affect on the chemistry of the group.
After eating breakfast with my YC mates, our group leader approached me with a difficult situation. Did I want to stay home for the day and rest up after nearly 24 hours of traveling or did I want to rough it out and go to work? It was a difficult decision, but I decided that there would be plenty of opportunities for rest later and it was time to experience Armenia. It is important to mention that this is my first time in Armenia, and at this point I have literally been in the country for about 4 hours.
But I digress. Let’s get back to the story. So, a hefty serving of Armenian Coffee and a ten minute walk later, I was looking at nearly 80 extremely excited and hyper children from Gyumri that were ready to have a good time. Scratch that. Extremely excited and hyper is a huge understatement. I have been a counselor at AYF Camp in California for a few years now and I thought the kids in America were rowdy, but this was a completely different ball game.
The kids in Gyumri are like AYF Camp kids, but on steroids. They are constantly moving at 100 miles per hour and they have no brakes or any intention of slowing down. However, they are the most humble and sweetest kids I have ever worked with. They joke with us, they pick us flowers (only for the girls though, us guy counselors are extremely bitter), and they never complain.
Gyumri is the second largest city in Armenia. However, the effects of the massive earthquake that hit this city in 1988 are still very visible around the city. Furthermore, the facilities we use in our day to day activities with the children are in dismal shape. For example, the soccer field we used yesterday had absolutely no grass, was filled with rocks and potholes, and I am pretty sure was once used as a Soviet military barracks. However, the kids don’t mind. They play and laugh harder than anyone.
Being a spurkahye from America, I can’t help but to compare things in Armenia with what I am used to at home. So when I think about the equipment and camp ground we use in the states, like state-of-the-art rock climbing equipment, swimming pools, canoes, etc, and then compare it to what the kids play with here in Armenia, the willpower and positive attitude of the kids of Gyumri is absolutely remarkable. Everyday we spend in Gyumri working with the kids is a different and unique adventure. I am looking forward to continuing our work here and sharing my experience with you all.