Imagine your summer filled with breath-taking landscape, food that entices your senses, monumental structures, endless laughter, meeting locals that will offer everything in their household to you, and taking on the responsibility of being a counselor/mentor to a group of underprivileged kids. Reality transcends imagination when you find yourself in Gyumri, Armenia.
Our real work has finally begun.
Today, at 10:30 AM we gathered at the center where we will be hosting our two-week long summer camp sessions for the local kids in Gyumri. By eleven o’clock 81 kids were present at the center. They were over-pouring with excitement as they could not sit still in their seats. The smiles on their faces and eagerness to start the camp session was absolutely priceless.
We started the camp session with our national anthem, ‘Mer Hayrenik’. We introduced ourselves and the camp rules. Next, we did some exercises, which was followed by ‘yogurt-time’ which is basically snack/recess time.
The day continued with an English period where we separated the kids into three different levels based on their English language speaking ability. After English, we had song practice; we handed out songbooks to the kids and taught them ‘Akhperus Oo Yes’. I was pretty surprised to see how fast the kids learned the song… I mean the melody and tune are pretty hard to pick up in a short amount of time, but somehow, these kids had the ability to grasp it very quickly! Later we had some lunch.
The next part of the agenda was probably my favorite. We went down to the field to play ‘Steal the Bacon’. Serop and I were standing at two different corners and Berj told all the kids to separate into two groups – to go toward either Serop or me.
It was really funny to see all the girls run toward me and all the boys run toward Serop. We decided it would be cool to leave the teams like that and play Steal the Bacon with an added twist, girls vs. boys. Sad to say, the boys beat the girls, but it was a very very close game! I am more than positive that the girls will win the next time we play. Our first day of camp ended at 4:00 – some of the kids walked home while others waited for their parents to come pick them up.
Having this amazing opportunity to be a counselor to a group of underprivileged kids in my own homeland is truly a gift. I have been a counselor at AYF Camp for quite some time now, but it is different here. It is very hard to explain with words but there is this self-satisfaction you feel here, because you realize that you are truly making a difference in these kids’ lives. Needless to say, this self-satisfaction is worth more than anything in the world, because you know that it will shape your own life and you will carry it on with you for the rest of your life.
On another note, it was Kevork Kebabjian’s birthday today!! Not a lot of diasporans have the chance to celebrate their birthday in their homeland, so he was extremely grateful for this opportunity!
Բարեւ սիրելի ընթերցող: Իմ անունս է Մանուկ Բէկինեան: Ես Հայ Յեղափոխական Դաշնակցութեան Հայաստանի Երիտասարդական Միութեան անդամ եմ ինչպէս նաեւ 19 տարեկան ուսանող: Այս կուսակցական ընկերներուն խնդրանքով միացած եմ խումբին ամբողջ տեղովութեան որուն հետ պիտի մնամ Հայաստան, ընկերակցելով իրենց: Կ’ուզեմ պատմել խումբի տպաւորութիւններուս մասին:
Նախ ըսեմ որ առաջին հանդիպումի պահեն, իրենք շատ համեստօրէն դիմաւորեցին զիս, բոլոր ընկերները շատ բարի, խելացի, եւ անշուշտ ընկերասեր: Այդ ըսելով, շուտ կարողացայ ընկերանալ իրենց հետ: Երբ տեղեկացայ որ ընկերները վեց ամիս շարունակ աշխատած են ինքնաշարժներ լուալով, նախաճաշներ պատրաստելով ու այլ դրամահաւաքներ կազմակերպելով որպէսզի իրենց ունեցած քումարով քան Հայաստան, այստեղ, եւ հայ փոքրերուն համար բանակում ծրագրեն սորվեցնելով Հայրենասիրութիւն եւ այլ գաղափարներ, հուզուեցայ…
Շարունակելով պատմել ընկերներուն մասին աւելի մանրամասն. Այն ընկերները որ շատ հայրենասէր են, անորմով ես համոզուած եմ բազմաթիւ անգամներ: Օրինակ՝ ընկերներէն երեգը Հայաստան այցելած են, բայց շտապեցին Հայաստան առանց առիթը բախցնելով: Իսկ միւս ընկերները առաջին անգամ ըլլալով հաճոյքով կը մնան Հայաստան: Այս փաստը շատ ուրախանալի է քան ամէն հայ որ պատրաստ է ամէն ինչ թողելու եւ հայրենադարձ քալու, չնայած որ ամէն հայի թանկ է հայրենական կարօտը:
Կյումրի հասնելով, բանակավայրը այցելեցինք ու սկսանք մաքրութեան: Սեղանները տեղաւորեցինք որպէսզի ամսուն 22-ին երեխաները դիմաւորենք: Բոլոր ընկերները շատ մեծ հաճոյքով աշխատեցան: Կյումրի գալէն առաջ սակայն, երկու օր մնացինք Արցախի մէջ: Այդ երկու օրուայ մէջ ամբողջ Արցախը շրջեցինք: Պէտք է ըսեմ որ ամբողջ ժամանակը, ընկերներս շատ հուզուած էին, որովհետեւ գացին այնպիտի վայրեր ուր պայքարած էին մեր Արցախի պատերազմի հերոսները: Տեսանք նաեւ Ֆետայիներու յիշատակումը թանգարանի մը մէջ եւ կրկնաբար պէտք է ըսեմ որ բոլորն ալ շատ հուզուած էին քանի որ ամէն օր կարող չես տեսնել թէ ինչ տեսակի տանջանքեր կրած են մեր ֆետայիները:
Լաւ յոյսով եմ որ համաձայն կ’ըլլաք կարծիքներուս հետ: Այս անգամ շատ քիչ գրեցի խումբին մասին բայց երբ մենք աւարտենք բանակումը, ես աւելի մանրամասն տեղեկութիւններով կը բացատրեմ:
The future of Nagorno-Karapagh remains in limbo as the world powers attempt to determine its destiny.
While the world remains unsure of what will happen in the region, the people of Karapagh do not concern themselves with such matters for they have already decided their destiny–freedom, independence, democracy.
“We’ve united This is not Karapagh, this is Armenia. Let the rest of the world not recognize us, we don’t care, we are one,” said Gala Aroustanian, the owner of the Museum of Fallen Freedom Fighters of Artsakh.
With the help of other mothers in the area, she established this museum after the death of her son toward the end of the war in 1994. For Gala and for many others in the self-declared independent country, it is impossible to give up lands that have the stains of their people’s blood.
The pride of the people can be felt everywhere you go. They remain as strong and as beautiful as their mountains. The people seldom throw trash on the floor, and you can catch young men holding on to their cigarette butts until the nearest waste disposal. Often you will find smiles on the faces of the people walking down the street, and they enjoy giving you a cheery hello. Their hospitality is beyond belief. Throughout our three day stay in the region, we were offered food and drinks many times by strangers who expect nothing in return.
When I would ask about the possibility of President Serzh Sarkisian signing away the 7 liberated territories, I would always receive a bit of dismissal. “The government is government, the people are the ones who fought and freed our lands and ourselves we will not give them away,” said Arayig, a freedom fighter who I bumped into on the streets of Shoushi. “Politics is a dirty game, but when it comes down to someone hurting our children, we are the ones who will respond.”
With an unquestionable resolve in her voice, Gala similarly said: “Let the President meet with whoever he wants, but he cannot make any decisions without the people of Armenia; without the mothers, soldiers, sons and daughters of this land. We have already solved our problem.”
Be it a statue, a symbol, or a grave, nearly every corner of this mountainous republic serves as a testament to the soldiers who fell while fighting for freedom.
Interestingly, young men who were only infants during the war, carried the same sense of pride and strength we saw in the elders and veterans. When asked if they would give up land for peace, 23 year old Masis Haroutounian responded, “peace isn’t something that can be sold.” A young Zorig Ghazarian from Shoushi spoke of the splendor of Sushi and the impossibility of it ever being occupied by Azeris. “Shoushi is the spiritual home of Karapagh, there’s no way the people will give it away. It is simply impossible.”
The OSCE Minsk Group, which has been mediating the conflict since the early 90s, continues its attempts to find a solution to the Nagorno-Karapagh conflict. However, what they have been saying lately is not in touch with the reality on the ground.
According to every individual I spoke to on the streets, if the US, Russian and French co-chairs of the Minsk Group succeed in pressuring Sarkisian to sign away land to Azerbaijan, it will only instigate another war.
With this in mind, the ARF Bureau made the same warning only two days ago. The possibility of war begs the question of the people’s readiness to fight.
For Masis the responsibility to defend one’s homeland is crystal clear and sacred. “Absolutely; I will fight. A lot of people might say that they will not fight, but if war breaks out, then they most certainly will.”
Zorig, meanwhile, told us of a story of a small group of youth he once met who cynically called us to just “give up the lands and get it over with.” According to Zorig over 90 percent of Karbakh’s population is unwilling to “give away what is ours.”
“Our people are a proud people, a happy people, a peaceful people, but a people who can no longer be submitted to foreign rule and oppression,” he states.
Yesterday, we got up early to start our six-hour trip to Artsakh. On the way we went to Noravank and Khor Virab. Going to Khor Virab was an especially emotional experience in that besides being a site of religious importance, it is also known to be one of the places where you can see Mt. Ararat the clearest because it is so close to the Turkish border.
Needless to say, I only felt anger knowing that a few hundred feet away there was an artificial barrier separating me from land that should and needs to belong to my people.
Thinking that those lands and those people were under the control of a foreign government strengthened mine and everyone else’s personal resolve to continue working and fighting for the Armenian Cause.
Being so close to Mt. Ararat turned all of the rhetoric we so often hear into reality. These people aren’t just words in a heghapokhagan song – they are living in circumstances that must be changed and seeing it first hand further convinced me that it’s up to us to change it.
These feelings were only strengthened when we finally arrived in Artsakh. The first thing we saw there was a group of kids playing by the hotel. They had no videogames or toys but were content running around throwing flowers at the local tourists. But the increasingly possible thought that those children might soon live under foreign rule, to grow up oppressed, only further magnified the feeling that it is up to us to do something. We can’t let these lands be taken.
These lands were won with bloodshed and it will be kept by any means necessary as long as the diasporan Armenian population fully realizes the seriousness of the situation and that we have to do something to make sure that land remains ours. Sitting side by side with people who had fought in the war or speaking to people who had lost loved ones only cemented this realization.
The people who live here are ready to defend their land, culture and lives once again if necessary, now it is our turn to show that same willingness.
I hesitate to write about my experience in Armenia only because it is difficult to find words to explain my emotions. Constantly being surrounded by everything Armenian amazes me every morning when I open my eyes in Yerevan.
Being a diasporan Armenian visiting his homeland simply makes everything in Armenia different, even so from everything Armenian that we have in Glendale. Speaking, listening, and reading Armenian everywhere here is obviously a natural thing to the locals, but I still find it strange as this is the first time ever I am being exposed to it. These include the greetings we receive every time we enter a grocery store, the sales receipts, the street names, etc.
Listening to lyrics like “hou-merik inch lav-ne angakh hayasdan, hayasdan anoush eh sirenk hayasdan.” and driving around in the homeland establishes an actual physical bond that was previously just a concept in my mind.
Since our landing in Armenia, we are constantly reminded that it is apricot season and are told to try some everywhere we go. We’ve eaten apricots literally everywhere; at churches, at roadsides, street corners, at the airport, in buildings, and from locals offering us apricots just to be courteous.
We visited the museum Madenataran today and saw Mesrob Mashdots’ statue, the founder of our beautiful alphabet. The museum was filled with several ancient gospels and historic texts chronicling the rich history of our literature.
Next we went to the Dzizernagapert, which is the Armenian Genocide memorial. Before visiting the memorial, we went to the Armenian Genocide museum on the grounds; there I witnessed some gruesome photos and such that I had never seen before. A couple were the Turkish plans to massacre the Armenians, photos of the deportations, a Turkish solider teasing Armenians with a loaf of bread and things that just filled my heart with pain, anger, and disbelief toward what took place during the Genocide.
After leaving and visiting Erebuni and the Pantheon, and having the chance to adjust ourselves back into the spirits of lively Yerevan, we went to watch a soccer match between our local Pyunik vs. Dinamo (some Croatian team). We went with some friends from the local HEM (Armenia’s AYF) and were in for quite a surprise. People yelling, screaming, running, chanting, the energy in the stadium was so incredible! Team Armenia jerseys were everywhere, and half of our section was standing up the entire game. We left the stadium and took our energy out into the night life of Yerevan; it was the last night we would be there for a while as we geared up to leave for Artsakh the next morning
P.S. Armenian chants were a lot of fun; stuff like, “hye-enk, hye-enk, menk hezor enk, menk hbard enk, menk bidi hakhtenk”
Our visit to Garni and Geghard today marked the first time we truly got a glimpse of this country’s natural beauty. The road up to Garni was windy and kind of bumpy, but the views of the Ararat valley were incredible. Once we got to Garni, we got to walk inside the temple which was built before Christ during Armenia’s pagan years. I had only read about things this old in textbooks, but today I got to sit on the steps of one and take a picture with it. By far the best thing about the temple is that it sits at the edge of a steep canyon with the Garni River winding through it. The view from up here is truly breathtaking and to just stand there and feel the wind on your face and soak in the view was amazing.
After buying some homemade batsukh (fruit leather) and soujoukh (the sweet kind) from the vendors at the temple, we continued up the road to Geghard. This church is built in a canyon with a few of its rooms carved into the cliff side. Just before we entered the church courtyard, we decided to make a slight detour up a steep, rocky path that led to small rooms carved into the cliff face. The hike required a little more work than we thought it would but it was well worth the effort. Once again the view from up here didn’t fail to amaze us.
Joining us on these tours and our nights out in this city is Manouk, a native Yerevantsi and member of the local AYF chapter. We all clicked with him the moment we met and having him with us has made our trip more interesting than it already is. As we exchange stories about how life is in our respective countries we gain a much better understanding of the people here. Communicating with him is also very helpful in building the group’s Armenian skills and often times funny as we try to describe the words we are trying to say.
We then carefully clambered/slid down the cliff side and entered Geghard’s courtyard. The first room that we saw was carved out of stone and looked like a cave except for the detailed carvings on the walls, ceiling, and pillars. There was a window at the top that let in a beam of light. The acoustics in the room are incredible. Berj and Kevork decided to start singing Der Voghormya and the way their voices resonated gave me chills. I can just imagine priests conducting service in here and how amazing it would sound. After all that singing, we all went quiet for a moment so that we could hear just how wonderfully silent the church can be.
We made our way to several other smaller carved out rooms and then to the main church, which stands on its own and is made of slabs of rosy tufa stone (of course). All the rooms were dark and any light that is available is through small windows or lit candles. The church is surrounded by forest, which adds to this monastery’s beauty.
Perhaps the best part of the day came when we all sat down for lunch in a local family’s backyard restaurant. Not only was the food good (including the best fish I’ve ever tasted), but the setting was relaxing. We ate outside on a large picnic table under the shade of dozens of large fruit trees.
As the oghi flowed, our group began to open up to each other even more than we have been over the past few days. Life, death, friends, and family were all discussed while we ate and drank and sang. These are the moments which make this trip so worthwhile. Living with others and working towards a common goal brings so many different emotions out of you that would otherwise not occur at home. I’m really looking forward to getting to know this group of people over the next five weeks and becoming more like family than friends.
As you all have heard, the trip has been amazing. It’s my first time in Hayastan and it’s pretty hard to find words to describe the emotions you get when you visit places that you have read about and seen in pictures.
Today we went to the churches of Soorp Gayane and Soorp Hripsime. The designs and details and size of each of the buildings are truly unbelievable, especially after you find out that the churches were built around 600 AD. Etchmiadzin was also an amazing sight to see. And I know I might sound generic when I use words like “amazing” and “unbelievable” but it’s impossible to find words in any language that can describe the places we’ve seen. They really are places that you need to see for yourself.
Today was also a very emotional day for us. We went to Yeraploor which is a cemetery that holds the graves of our fedayees and our heroes that lost their lives fighting for Artsakh. You walk around and you read each tombstone. Some names you recognize from songs and stories and some you don’t recognize. Some are only 19 years old. But, you realize that each has given the same sacrifice for our people.
The groundskeeper, who acted as our guide, added to the emotions of sadness but also to the pride and appreciation felt towards our heroes. He fought and was wounded in Artsakh, on his hand was a tattoo which read, “PARK MONTE” in honor of the man who led the people of his region. He let us know that not many people have the honor of carrying that mark. As we walked he explained how each of the fallen is honored to be buried overlooking Ararat. He spoke of the courage needed to sacrifice your life for your country. His words were enunciated with such power and with such fire that you knew if conflict were ever to arise again he would be there to fight, regardless of his condition.
You can’t help but ask yourself if you would do the same. I think any of us can say that this experience at Yeraploor is and will be one of the most memorable experiences of our lives. Our new friend Albert did not hesitate to take a few pictures with us before we left.
Next, we went to Sardarabad where we met a woman who told us to wait around because the museum would open in half an hour. Slowly, our conversation builds and she begins to tell us how she takes care of the truly beautiful garden that surrounds the graves and photos of those from her region who passed during the battles of Artsakh, one of which was her beloved husband. She told us the story of his passing. She introduced us to her son, named after his father, who he had never seen before. You don’t know how to respond or what to say. What words can you find to express to her how meaningful and honorable her husband’s sacrifice was? Just imagine the strength of this woman and her family. Everyday she willingly goes to work, where she takes care of the memorial of her fallen husband. This was another unforgettable experience. The strength and courage of our people amazes me.
On a much much lighter note, I’ll update you on a few interesting events that have recently taken place. The other day Kevork, Kevork, Levon, and I went out to get breakfast for everyone. We stopped at a bakery to get some bread. The woman greated us and waited in front of a wall of different kinds of bread as we discussed what we wanted. We decided on two loaves. Before I continue, let me emphasize that we were at a BAKERY, we were planning on purchasing some BREAD for breakfast, we now knew how much BREAD we wanted, and the nice woman was standing in front of piles of BREAD. Take a second to visualize. OK, so the next thing that came out of Levon’s mouth was “Hatz oonik?” and we all kind of stood there for a second and looked at each other. Then we realized what he said and we all began to laugh. The woman also began to laugh as she responded by pointing at the stacks of bread behind her and saying “Ayo hatz oonink.” We’ve already reminded each other of the story thousands of times and it seems to be just as funny each time.
Another notable occurrence, after our tour of the Bureau building we were walking down an alley where we heard a familiar tune. We walked a little further and realized that an Armenian man in a big truck parked on the side of the road was bumping T-Payne’s “Blame It on the Alcohol.” Put yourself in our shoes. This time, all 8 of us began to laugh. Hopefully you guys find these stories kind of funny. We miss all of you back home and hope all is well.
We started out our wonderful journey by heading to the store to buy hatz yev baneer for breakfast. The group had an “intense” discussion about the previous night, then we went to the Bureau office to visit the museum that was located downstairs.
Anoush, the curator of the museum, gave us an in depth tour of the exhibits. From what Anoush was saying, I immediately picked up the fact that she was extremely intelligent on this subject when she was speaking.
However, as a non fluent speaker in Armenian, I found it very hard to understand what she was saying, due to the fact that she was speaking extremely fast; but I didn’t care because I’m so desperate to speak/understand my language that any exposure is great.
After the Bureau office, our group headed to the Kerakyun Marmin building, which is the headquarters of the ARF in Armenia.
Riding on the metro... almost
Seeing this made me realize that we Armenians are very powerful and anything we set our mind to will definitely come true and nothing can stop us from what we have to say or do.
Throughout the day as we walked through Yerevan we went to the beautiful church of St. Gregory the Illuminator that I am hoping to get married in.
We also went and experienced the metro underground for the first time.
This trip is by far THE best experience I’ve ever had. This would be my first time coming to my homeland and I love it so much. Being in Armenia for a day or so already makes me want to buy a house and move here. I honestly love this group and we have had so much fun, we all just clicked and to me they’re like my brothers and sisters. I have a feeling I am not going to want to leave Armenia because I’m having the time of my life!!!
Anyone can tell you that the plane ride to the destination is the worst part of it all.
But my overwhelming anticipation to finally arrive in Armenia kept me awake the full 20 hour trip. I didn’t know what to expect of Armenia once I got there but I had a feeling this would all be worth it.
As we arrived to Zvartnots it hit me like a bag of bricks, I was in my Motherland for the first time. The only thing I wanted to do at this point was step out of the plane and say “Parev” to everyone that I saw.
As we reached the arrival gate we see Berj’s father who was kind enough to come welcome us. So there we are, we have all our luggage and are waiting for the van to come pick us up, everyone tired and excited at the same time. Finally the van arrives and we head out to our apartment building in Yerevan.
While driving I turn to my right to gaze at a gorgeous view of Mount Ararat. I couldn’t stop staring at it and just thinking, thinking about how much work everyone in that van has put in for our Armenia, thinking about how one day I would love to have a simple picnic at the base of Ararat and not have to see it on the other side of the border.
My final thoughts on Ararat, as it disappeared behind buildings, were “I want that back.”
We reach our apartment building and I notice the other buildings around us have a unique style, each unit with a balcony of its own and each balcony designed in their own special way. Some had tile around it others had nice stones, as if to point out the individuality of the families living there. Our apartment units were simple and plain, yet I wouldn’t take a suite at the Marriot hotel over it.
At this point all of us are hungry but no restaurants are open only 24 hour grocery stores. Our first meal in Armenia was a traditional one; we had bread with cheese, boureg and apricot juice. Sitting on a small table, barely enough room to fit everyone, we shared one of the greatest meals of our lives.
After we rested for a little while we decided to walk the streets of Yerevan and possibly eat again. When you hear someone say the drivers in Armenia really don’t care about pedestrians, the stories they tell are 100% true. We had many close encounters in our 2 hour walk through of the city.
We also saw a lot of very interesting things, like a local shawerma restaurant called Sayat Shawerma, which I would recommend to anyone looking for a very good shawerma meal.
On our way back to the apartment we learned how to deal with the drivers that almost run you over, you simply stick your arm out and yell at them, they either apologize by sticking their arms out of the window and showing you the universal hand gesture for thank you/I�m sorry or they drive away mumbling to themselves about how rude you were–oh the irony in that!
It is currently 9:30 P.M. so the night is young and we are ready for a fun filled evening in the city. For my first day in Yerevan, I can tell you that this day alone was worth that 20 hour Trip.