A ball and a field. Not anything written or spoken. A ball is all you need to unite people from completely different parts of the world. I have been to many different parts of Armenia with Youth Corps by now. My Armenian is not the most fluent, and I do occasionally have problems communicating with the campers, resulting in less of a bond with them than if I could speak more fluently. However, one thing has remained the same wherever I’ve gone. The children can react differently when you teach them songs, give educationals, or talk to them about different things like men and women having equal rights. However, once I bring out a soccer ball, the same thing has happened in three different camps. The fact that the children and I are from different countries, speak differently, have unique issues in our lives that are polar opposites from each other, and really don’t share much in common other than being Armenian, melts away.
For the children and me, even if only for half an hour each day, once the balls rolls out and the game starts, our worlds change. There is no impending threat from Azerbajian for the kids. There is no war-torn village in our minds. Being from Texas, having been raised around Armenian-American culture, and not having gone to an Armenian school five days a week are no more. What my parents do, what university I go to, and what I’m studying is irrelevant. The details that make up who we are in our lives don’t matter on the field. While we’re out there, the children and I communicate in an entirely different way. A tongue that can bring together anyone in this world regardless of where they’re from or what they do. Something that lets us have no problems understanding each other, unlike something spoken. That language isn’t English, nor is it Armenian. That language is the one of the beautiful game. The language of the ball and the field.
You are about to embark on a journey that will change you forever and I’ll start by telling you that it’s okay to go into this with high expectations – I say this with no hesitation because however high they may be, I give you my word it will exceed any level.
You’ll soon be walking down to camp every morning, greeted with herds of children with pictures they drew for you or hugs that will melt your heart and make your day, or a random fact about America that you’ll pretend to be learning for the first time. Soon, you’ll be yelling at the top of your lungs at your favorite camper because he’s really talkative, but everything that comes out of his mouth makes you crack up, and he’ll still kiss you on the cheek before going home today. You’ll be forming bonds with incredible people, amazing and beautiful kids. I’m already jealous of you and I still have a week of Jampar left.
I am no longer fazed by the fact that I haven’t slept in a bed in about a month, or that I wake up in a pool of my own sweat more than a couple times a week, or that flies wake me up every morning – I can easily laugh about all of this nowadays. The living situations may not always be ideal, but it doesn’t matter at all. It does not take away from this experience – if anything, it adds to it.
I had written in my pre-departure blog about how I was excited to give back to my country because it has given me so much, but the truth is this country never stops giving. I know in my heart I have accomplished and given a lot this summer, to the kids, to the people, to my new friends; but I have received more than imaginable. For starters, I was removed from my comfort zone and lived in a house with 11 strangers who would soon become my family – as I presumed before getting here. I have had the chance to live in my country as anything but a tourist. I got to really taste what it’s like to be a “deghatsi”, a native in my own country. Imagine that.
We are officially in our last week of Jampar in Proshyan, and while exhausted, I think I can speak for everyone when I say we don’t want this week to come to an end – because that means it’s over. As soon as song competition ends on Friday afternoon (and Red Team wins), it all ends. And that’s the last thing we want.
This is an amazing opportunity, if I haven’t already made that clear. You have made one of the best decisions of your life. I’ve fallen in love with this country in a different way – I can’t wait for you to do the same.
Nearly six weeks ago, one of my closest friends asked me, “Gareen, why are you wasting your summer in Armenia working on a day camp?” and I didn’t have an answer. To be honest, I was completely going back on my decision of joining the program. I had just finished my freshman year of college and began having doubts because the typical college student would be spending their summer creating fun memories with friends and family. I had never spent more than a week away from home, and I don’t like being put into uncomfortable situations like sharing a small space with a large group of people. To sum it all up, I began having strong anxiety about my decision and started to doubt my ability to spend six week with strangers, working with kids and taking care of myself in another country so far from home.
My summer has passed and I am now confident in my reasoning for joining AYF Youth Corps. I knew in my heart that this was an opportunity for me to grow, but my definition of growing up has completely changed. I had imagined that growing up would mean changing who I was, becoming a serious person, with more responsibilities and less sense of humor. But now I know that growing up means many other things, lessons that I couldn’t have learned anywhere else, doing anything else.
Growing up means putting another’s needs before your own. I used to feel like my problems were so large and so overwhelming, as if it were the end of my world. Who was I kidding? The kids in Artsakh are facing a potential war in their backyard, which could change their entire lives. There were kids in Baghanis who could hear gunfire at night but came to camp every day with a smile on their faces, and suddenly my problems seemed irrelevant. I may have problems close to the heart, but these kids are full of resilience. In the six weeks I have spent with local Armenian kids, not one complaint and not one tear.
Growing up means being able to not only trust yourself, but others as well. Our campers open up to us with so much, and believe in us to teach them about Armenian pride. They express their vulnerabilities, talking about fears and dreams, and trust that we will take care of them and befriend them no matter what. They have taught me to trust myself in giving them all that they need, because they have never expressed anything other than gratitude.
Growing up means accepting yourself and feeling comfortable in your own skin. Six weeks ago, if I had seen one of my campers back home, I would not have been able to see past their exterior. In Armenia, I have learned that it takes time to see people’s true beauty, inside and out. Not only were the kids comfortable in their own skin, but also my co-counselors and I have learned so much about the value of people and the definition of beauty.
Growing up means having more responsibilities and learning how to adapt to certain environments, and I have definitely gained that experience. But one important realization that was taught to me by my campers was that growing up and maturing has nothing to do with changing yourself. The children in Armenia and Artsakh brought back the child in me and I have been reliving my childhood with them. The happiness in winning a competition, the anger and disappointment in losing to a better team, the sympathy when someone gets hurt, the excitement of learning new English words, and finally, the innocence in feeling and being completely carefree.
Now I know that growing up means appreciating the beauty in life and being grateful for everything we have. I feel different than the person I was six weeks ago and am content and truly happy, in a mature kind of way. If someone were to ask me the same question now, I would have so many reasons to give and so much to say as to why I joined AYF Youth Corps.
Yesterday, I walked into the Askeran school and was greeted by “Trcheyi Mdkov Doon”. I stood there mesmerized, listening to one of the campers sing with such passion, and could not keep my tears under control. I closed my eyes, silently singing with her as I, too, flew to another place, another time, back to 1994 to a small village in the Martuni region called Ashan, where I had been a Youth Corps participant.
Although the Youth Corps program has changed from a rebuilding program to a Jampar, from the looks on the faces of the counselors, I knew that everything we had received as participants 20 years ago is still the same today: a lifetime of memories with a special group of Armenians. We had participated in the program believing that our mission was to help the villagers, help the schools and guide the children, but later realized that in fact, it was us who had things to learn. We learned about the resilience of our people, about the bright future of our country, and about the importance of building bridges with our homeland. These lessons can only be comprehended through programs such as Youth Corps, where participants have the opportunity to experience to real lives of locals, and truly experience the joys and wonders of Armenia and Artsakh.
Today, I visited the AYF Youth Corps group, went from classroom to classroom watching the campers making lanyards, listening to educationals about the lives of fedayees, and watched counselors connecting with the campers as they wrote about their hopes and dreams, fears and worries. Witnessing the counselors interact with the campers, I was overcome by a sense of immense pride – pride that I have been fortunate enough to belong to a great youth organization, the Armenian Youth Federation; pride that I have had the opportunity to participate in the best and most meaningful summer program, the AYF Youth Corps; and extreme pride that after 20 years, we are still able to impact the lives of hundreds of Armenian youth, put a smile on their faces, and continue to give them hope, as we ourselves better understand the true meaning of life simply by listening to a magical song.
— Dzia Vartabedian
Dzia Vartabedian was one of the first participants of AYF Youth Corps. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the program, which began after the cease-fire of 1994 by Armenian-American youth whose mission was to help rebuild their homeland.
In the early hours of the day, you hear the sounds of the crowing rooster. In the distance, the firing shots.
In the early hours of the day, you hear the sounds of the mooing cows. In the distance, the firing shots.
In the early hours of the day, you hear the sounds of the old creaking wood floors. In the distance, the firing shots.
In the early hours of the day, you hear the sounds of the ticking clock as time stands still. In the distance, the firing shots.
This is the bittersweet symphony of the village of Baghanis.
Baghanis is found in the northeastern Tavush region of Armenia, bordering Azerbaijan. The village is small, the population number is low, the stores are scarce, and there are no restaurants in sight.
One may wonder why anyone would voluntarily visit such a place. Every time I spoke about our Jampar in Baghanis, I received two different responses. The first was people not knowing anything about its existence. The second was concern as to why 25 young Armenian Diasporans from the United States would want to visit such a remote, and at times dangerous, village so near to the border of Azerbaijan. My response was always the same: we were going to bring happiness to the children of the village.
Upon reaching Baghanis, I began realizing the validity of the responses I had received. The life of Baghanis was very simple. The food was gathered daily from cows, pigs, and chickens who roam the fields of the stone buildings. Water was boiled by wood fire, if it were even available. And at least once a day, from a distance, we heard the sounds of Azeri shots being fired.
The scenery of Baghanis was unlike any other. We spent many hours each day in the school field playing soccer, a favorite pastime of the campers. And each day, my co-counselors and I took a moment to appreciate all the nature of our homeland, the green of the mountains, the clear blue sky, the shining golden sun and the bright smiling faces of over 100 local children that attended our Jampar – the true beauty of Baghanis.
Even in such poor conditions, the children were always full of joy, hope and happiness, something I had thought we would be bringing them. Instead they brought it to us – the mere joy, hope and happiness in befriending the future generation of our resilient people.
Although we were merely one mile from the border, we were never in danger of the enemy. The only real danger we ever encountered was falling deeply in love with the children and knowing that after only five short days, we would depart, and sadly, never see them again. The danger was in our devastation and heartbreak.
This is the bittersweet symphony of the village of Baghanis.
Baghanis is a small village in northeast Armenia, merely 1.5 miles away from the border of Azerbaijan. For those unaware of the situation between the two countries, Azerbajian is currently one of Armenia’s biggest enemies. There are continuous disputes between the two countries, which sometimes result in gunfire that can be heard all throughout this border village. Unaccustomed to the sound of gunfire, our group was completely oblivious to when and where this was occurring.
One morning at camp, a group of my campers ran up to me and asked if I had heard the noises of gunfire the night before. Oblivious to anything having happened, I asked them more and they answered in a very nonchalant manner saying the firing had begun around 7 p.m., while they were playing soccer in the field. I was incredibly shocked, not only to be hearing the campers say that there had been gunfire shared between the Armenians and Azeris, but more so that the children in Baghanis reacted in such a “no big deal” way.
How someone could have such a reaction to the sound of gunfire was so beyond me. I personally was afraid for the children, afraid for their future and afraid that they would grow up being numb to threats and violence. It made me sad that they were so used to hearing gunfire and living in a place where war and safety are an everyday concern. But there was something else about the situation that made me happy and proud. The children continued their game because they weren’t afraid. They are aware of the instability of their safety, but don’t let the fear of hearing gunfire on the border stop them from having fun and living their lives. There was such a strong lesson in this realization and I am so grateful to have experienced it.
What amazed me most about Baghanis was not the beautiful mountain scenery, or the fact that there were animals roaming the streets freely, but the children. These kids not only live in a small, desolate village with one main road and homes that lack running water, but they are also on the border of Armenia’s current enemy. Yet, they are happy and full of life. They came to camp everyday with a HUGE smile on their face, eager to learn and be a part of something more. Camp gave them an opportunity to not only forget about the dangers of what was going on around them, but to actually talk about their challenges and express their feelings.
These kids helped me see the bigger picture: that it’s not about how comfortably you live in your home, or whether or not you have access to water and electricity all day long, but it’s really about your attitude and approach to the hand you are dealt. They taught me that even though we may not live in the best conditions, there is still a way to make the best of it. For these kids, it was continuing their soccer game; for me, it’s finishing this program knowing I made a difference in over 100 kids’ lives.
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.