As I had unmistakably imagined, it was extremely grim having to part with the little ones on the last day of session 1 of Camp Gyumri. Being an alumnus AYF and Camp Hayastan camper, I figured I was completely prepared for the trauma of this scene; the kids pass out handmade lanyards or drawings that they have made for their favorite counselors, snap a couple of group shots and are on their way out bursting with laughter from the memories they have made and the victory-leading chants that they have newly acquired.
Wrong. Nothing could have prepared me for what fell onto my lap on this day. Not only was I mistaken, I was faced with a cruel reality; a jolt of shock. Upon the closing of the first session, I saw streams of tears falling to the floor from the kids’ eyes. The toughest boys of Blue Team, who would strut their stuff and toot their own horns as they walked around the classroom, disobediently talking and laughing with one another, had cringed into the littlest of human beings while crying to us that they did not want to leave camp. The same boys, the head honchos, the macho men who received a punishment because they refused to play soccer if the girls were playing, were crying! These boys were not 8 or 9 years old, they were over the age of 12. I could not believe what I was seeing. All of a sudden I was faced with the brutal truth of this situation; Camp Gyumri, for the majority of the children, was a safe haven from the tense atmosphere of their homes and a place of fun and learning where they could get away from the mundane existence of summer in Gyumri.
Picture this: 4:45 PM, two days before the last day of session 1. It’s 45 minutes after camp has finished and Little Eliza is the only camper left. She is sitting on a ledge all by herself, notebook and newly received toothbrush in hand. Her grandpa has not come to pick her up. On the verge of tears, head hung in embarrassment, she directs us towards the bazaar where her mom works, and when we approach, there is absolutely no expression of concern or uneasiness on her face for the fact that 11 counselors are walking her daughter home. She casually greets us, along with her daughter, and requests us to walk Eliza home. Half an hour later, as we enter the run-down neighborhood, a man approaches us and leads us to the girl’s family; we all take note of the fact that Eliza does not acknowledge him; she does not even turn her head his way. We become a bit skeptical, but just figure he lives in the vicinity and knows where the girl’s family lives. Sure enough the man turned out to be her father. I’ll let your imagination guide you to the conclusion of why she might have not acknowledged his presence. We walk into a one room “apartment” in which there is no difference between the bedroom, living room, kitchen or bathroom and all that exists of the bed is the frame—the mattress non-existent. Her grandparents are not at all shocked either that they forgot to pick her up. They nonchalantly offer us some coffee and pastries as if it was all planned out for us to bring Eliza home. “Are you ok now? Go drink some water and feel better sweetie” we say to Eliza after an hour of feeling completely neglected.
Immediately after, Eliza’s grandmother looks up at us with the most shocking expression on her face and after everything that happened, thoughtlessly asks “What’s the big deal? What could have happened?! What’s wrong?”
She was completely oblivious of the possible consequences of her neglect and why her granddaughter might be troubled by this lack of attention.
For the kids of session I, the last day of camp would be the end of Camp Gyumri 2010 but the beginning of a year full of hope, optimism and ambition—a new outlook on life.
During the course of this trip, I, like my fellow Youth Corps sister, Sanan Shirinian, have also developed a new perspective on life. It has dawned on me that every single situation one faces in life is both an ending and a beginning.
For the 11 of us counselors, the start of our four-week stay in Gyumri marked the beginning of the end for our staying-in-between-the-crosswalk-lines habit, introducing us to a new pedestrian culture. We have mastered the art of Jay-walking, stopping cars with a simple palm up motion as we cross Gyumri’s 8-way intersections of death.
The 11 of us have also experienced the end of conventionalism. We are no longer just day-to-day citizens. Being in Gyumri has introduced us to the beginning of our celebrity lives. People here have seen us on TV four times already and once we were on the Radio. As we walk down the streets wearing our Camp T-Shirts, we can’t help feel the weight of the many eyes upon us as the Gyumretsis stare, point, and whisper. We even get special treatment in some restaurants.
I, personally, have reached the end of my in-n-out diet and the beginning of my lavash diet.
Living here has also given me a fresh perspective on friendships and dating. I have come to appreciate the freedom I have back home–of being able to get lunch with a male friend of mine without the entire community considering me any less of a woman than I am. Our host sister who is 24 years old has had 7 suitors come to her house asking for her hand in marriage and she has refused all of them because she has not found them to be up to the caliber that she desires for herself. This is how she is supposed to meet her future husband, who she will marry and live with for the rest of her life. Dating here is out of the question.
I have also reached the ending of taking America for granted and constantly complaining about certain laws or restrictions and have reached the beginning of appreciating the many freedoms we are privileged with. Some of us Friday morning walked downstairs to see our host mother sobbing. Her youngest daughter, who passed her high school exams and had been admitted to the local University, had now been turned away. Months ago, the family paid one-year’s full tuition to the University to secure her spot, only to be told yesterday their daughter’s position was unavailable. The administration had replaced her daughter with students who had failed their exams and did not qualify for entry. The families of these students had bribed the dean and now he, in turn, was demanding a bribe from our host mother. This ordeal brought our proud and independent host mother to the point of desperation, filled her with anger toward Armenia and its ruthless rulers who are capable of depriving the citizens of our homeland of opportunities to live and succeed.
From working with children to simultaneously keeping everyone back home aware of our work, we are hoping our efforts and energy spent here in Armenia will work toward a new beginning of the Diaspora Armenian mind-set—one that is closer to the reality of the difficult conditions and the state of life in our Homeland.