Today, we went to visit the memorial of several fedayis that fought in the Artsakh war who were from Proshyan, the village where our first jampar is located. The unger who was explaining their stories to us used the word “sacrifice” multiple times, and I could not stop comparing the words to my friends who spoke to me before I embarked on my Youth Corps trip who said, ‘Props to you for sacrificing your whole summer.” At the time I agreed that I was also making a sacrifice; but standing in front of their memorials I began to doubt myself. What I was doing was not a sacrifice. This Youth Corps trip was something that I wanted to do, but now I have realized it’s something I needed to do.
The constant pull between school, work, friends, and the Armenian Cause is something the average Armenian diasporan youth faces every day. There are tons of different external factors back in America that cause us to become distracted or lose focus when it comes to the Armenian Cause, but here in Armenia, I was finally given one that drew me in like a moth to a flame. In that moment, hearing the word “sacrifice” over and over again, I could see why I was here, clear as day — for the continued work of our ancestors through new means. We have the means of education, resources, and opportunity.
We visited a second monument later that day — less of a monument, more of a square piece of granite cemented in the ground. This was the exact spot the former village mayor, Unger Hratch Mouradian, was assassinated. The reasons for his assassination did not interest me as much as the impact that this man had on every single member of that community. The genuine sorrow in the locals’ eyes as we all stared at this square of granite was proof that not only did this man make a difference in his community, but he had the potential to do so much more. My fellow participants and I had not even met this man and yet we began to cry as they told us his story, about his many sacrifices. There was an instance where the unger explaining said, “Unger Hratch knew that the new generation would thrive if given the right means.” For the past 12 years I have always thought of my friends and myself when I heard the words “nor seroont” or “new generation’. In that moment I heard shouting in the distance from our campers calling, “Unger Koko!” That’s when I realized that Unger Hratch was correct because that “nor seroont” was standing in front of his memorial learning about his good deeds while being called for by the “Nor nor seroont” to ask about a lesson we taught them at jampar that day.
If there is one thing I know as fact, sacrifice is not a word that goes synonymously with the AYF Youth Corps program…but duty, might.
It was finally Monday morning, the day I had been waiting for impatiently. It was the start of my group’s jampar (camp) in Artsakh. I woke up anxious and excited to meet the countless young children in our village. Sadly, that same morning I woke up to a message from my mother letting me know that my grandmother had passed away. That was the worst news I could have received on a day when I was ready to set out to meet and interact with our campers.
I felt as though a part of me was gone—numb—unable to actually process the situation. But for some reason, I wanted to participate in our first day of camp, I wanted to be there with everyone in Artsakh, in Gyumri, in Tavshud, with my fellow volunteers and with the hundreds of kids in our homeland. My grandmother would have been proud of the work that I was doing and would have supported anything that gave me happiness and satisfaction.
During this time, I couldn’t help remembering Sosé & Allen, who worked so many years to make the AYF Youth Corps program a reality, and who lived their dream by repatriating to Armenia. Their memory, along with the memory of my grandmother gave me the strength to stand up stronger than ever motivated to do good.
The jampar in Artsakh had begun, and the first week was definitely one of adjusting to the kids. We (the counselors) were essentially strangers in their minds (all 150 of them). Even with all the adjustments, I can say that it was an instantaneous and natural bond that was established with these children. By the second week I realized that our time was nearing its end (and we would be moving on to Gyumri). I did not want to think about it. In our short time, I had build friendships that I know will last a lifetime. but I didn’t want to say goodbye.
One of memorable parts of jampar for me was prepping my group, which was the gabuyd (blue) team, for song competition; especially the young boy that I helped to do a solo for the song called “bidi bashdbanem” (“I will protect”). The dedication the group put into learning the songs was absolutely amazing. The little boys and girls singing that song made me feel especially proud and connected. Each and every morning the children would impatiently wait for us at the entrance of the school waiting for jampar to begin. The last day of our camp in Artsakh was so touching, but I expected it.
Saying goodbye is my weakness no matter what it comes down to. Signing these kids hands, shirts, and song books made them feel so special, and in a way made the counselors feel special because of what we meant to them – practically becoming their older sisters and brothers.
Just like that, the two weeks in Artsakh had come to an end. But before I left, I made sure that I got the chance to light a candle at the beautiful Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi in memory of my grandmother, Sosé, and Allen. This was the perfect opportunity for me to pray and ask for their continual love and support. I had never felt better, and after many tears and many different emotions, I have been standing stronger than ever, ready for any type of challenge or situation that Youth Corps has to offer me.
After an amazing first week at the Proshyan jampar, one of our weekend activities was hiking up Arakadz Ler. I’ve been to Arakadz Ler before, but I have never hiked up the mountain. On July 19th we went as a group with a few ARF members, and Badanees who attend jampar. As we were driving up the Badanees began singing revolutionary songs; songs we were not learning during camp. They were overjoyed to find that many of us knew the songs as well, and we began to sing together. Watching Rosa, Anahid, Marine’, and Aida sing, talk, and exchange riddles with us during our bumpy ride made me realize that our returning presence in Proshyan is truly making a difference in their lives. Seeing their excitement overwhelmed me with joy because I knew that I was experiencing something that not many people get to do. The villagers gave us advice on how best to climb the mountain – the girls assured us that they would be with us the whole time to offer their support. I continue to discover that they teach us as much as we are here to teach them.
Being able to do this was something that was very exciting for all ten of us. It is a tradition to carry an engraved stone up the mountain to honor someone who has dedicated their lives to the Armenian Cause. Last year they honored Unger Garod Mgrtchyan, to whom we dedicated our Proshyan jampar. This year the ARF members had brought an engraved stone that honored unger Garo Kahkedjian. The climb up the mountain was already tough – I couldn’t imagine how hard it was for Kile who volunteered to carry the 60-pound stone on his back!
It proved to be a difficult climb indeed – with the cold, wind, and altitude. The weather was very cold, so cold we passed some large patches of snow at one point. Unfortunately I was unable to hike up to the top of the mountain – my ankle was still sprained from the previous week. So I sat in a patch of green grass with one of my group members and took it all in. I was three-quarters of the way up the highest peak in Armenia, gazing at a postcard-perfect view of Mt. Ararat just across the border. I sat in silence and listened to the wind; breathed in the fresh air of Hayasdan, felt the mountain beneath my feet…I was home.
I remember hearing stories about Youth Corps and how it will change my life in so many ways. I don’t remember being told that my life would begin to change after only one jampar in Askeran, Artsakh. I sit and replay memories of the past two weeks in my head, smiling to myself, still in awe of the fact that I am here.
My eyes fill with tears at the thought of possibly never seeing the glowing faces of my campers again, and that in a short amount of years, many of these teenage boys will be fighting for this small but incredibly proud republic. While children back home are planning on becoming doctors, professional athletes, and actors, the young men here are planning what position they want to serve in the military and what weapon they will be carrying to defend this land when they turn 18.
Being in Artsakh these past two weeks has felt like a completely different world, and I know it will feel different than the next two jampars that will be held in Armenia. These campers have taught me much more about myself and my life than I have been able to teach them in the two weeks that we have been together. Seeing children so proud of where they are from and this land that they are able to call “azad angakh Artsakh” affects me in an unexplainable way.
One of my favorite moments from this jampar was when I told my campers that I am only half Armenian and that my other half is German. I got wide-eyed looks of amazement. They then asked me, “Payts Hayeren hasganoom es?” and I responded, “Ayo, payts Haygagan tbrots chi katsi,” and after 25 looks of confusion and interest, one of my 16-year-old boys smiled and said “Abrik” and gave me a hug. I couldn’t hold back the burning sensation of tears in my eyes at how much that reaction affected me.
I came to Youth Corps unsure of my ability to communicate with these kids, unsure of what to expect, and hoping for a great experience. Now that I am here, I have never felt more Armenian and I have never felt so proud of where I come from. This trip is a blessing for me just as much as it is for these kids, and I admire every single one of them for the lives they lead and who they will become. I have gotten attached and it is going to be so difficult to let this go.
The next three weeks have so many incredible things in store, but I will never forget the special connection I have with these children in Artsakh. I hold back tears as I write this, but I feel nothing but happiness and pride. I am so excited to see what the future weeks hold.
Typically, one would say, “I had no idea what to expect” when embarking on such a unique experience such as the one Youth Corps offers; however, I can’t lie, I thought I had an idea of what I was getting myself into. Having years of experience with kids being a Homenetmen scout for 7 years and participating in multiple AYF camp trips, I thought I was a veteran when it came to running a day camp for the children of Armenia. I was wrong, in the best way possible. Day one of jampar in Proshyan has commenced, and I have already learned so much, in such little time. These kids, in one word, are rejuvenating. So full of life and energy, so eager to learn and play, so excited to meet new people and make friends — qualities so rarely found amongst adolescent children nowadays. They are not interested in the latest gadget or the coolest game application, but rather enjoy the simple joys of playing Steal the Bacon or ‘futbol’. On the first day, kids were already learning all our names quicker than we could learn theirs, and volunteering to help us get the younger kids in a straight line for flag ceremony. During our morning exercise, virtually all hands were flung up into the air when the kids were asked if any of them had an exercise they wanted to share and demonstrate for everybody. They would all soulfully sing ‘Mer Hayrenik’ and ‘Mshag Panvor’ without reluctance during song practice. These demonstrated qualities of eager participation and helpfulness may seem expected or standard, but if you have had any experience with young children at all, you would know they are hard to come by in this day and age. These young kids show so much promise, it’s inspiring. My most treasured moment from the first day was meeting a young lady named Aida, who is 13 years old. She has the most advanced English speaking skills from the group, which she told me she learned on her own during her free time. She has successfully taught all three of her younger siblings English to the best of her abilities. Throughout the entire day she continued to speak to me in English, regardless of the fact that I was responding in Armenian. She later confessed that she wished to have conversations with me only in English to further advance her English speaking skills. This kind of ambition and hard work was absolutely astonishing for me. It wasn’t that I expected the kids of Proshyan to be lazy or incompetent; I expected them to be energetic and clever, yet they’ve exceeded all my expectations. I thought I had come here to help give these children life and knowledge, yet that’s exactly what they’ve given me. They’ve given me life in showing me that our Armenian youth shows great promise and potential, and knowledge that our culture’s future lies in the great hands of these aspirational, enthusiastic, and intelligent young adults. I thought I had come to Armenia to change lives, but they are changing mine.
Honestly what can I say? I am living one of my life long dreams; I’m home! By now you know that we have already toured Yerevan and my group is in Stepanakert for our first week at camp.
I came on this trip knowing there was going to be a language barrier, but I knew we could overcome it. I knew that there would be behavior difficulties, but by working together we can learn to understand each other. What I wasn’t prepared for was the emotional aspect. Every time I speak to one of the children at camp, I am amazed more and more. Today, there was one camper in particular that stood out to me. A twelve year old girl named Lilit. During free time I was walking around with a few of the other campers getting to know them. Suddenly, with much excitement, Lilit walked up to me and asked if she can speak English with me. Feeling confident and in my element I agreed. For the next twenty-five minutes we had a full conversation in English. Lilit kept asking me questions, as if she liked hearing me speak. Finally, I stared asking her questions to which she answered with short but sweet answers. I knew that something about the way I was speaking was very interesting for her.
Lilit asked me if I had been anywhere else in the world other than Armenia. I told her that I had been to Mexico but nowhere else. I reiterated the question to her. She told me she hasn’t been anywhere else but it’s been a dream of her’s to go to France and America. She told me that her father had promised her that for her sixteenth birthday he was going to take her to France. What she said was very heartbreaking to hear. She continued to say that even though her father promised her, she didn’t have much hope because of her family’s difficult economic conditions. All I could do was say encouraging words and I try to spark a bit of hope about her father’s promise.
Dear sweet Lilit, keep faith and hope in your father and keep dreaming. One day your dream will also come true. Keep that amazing smile on your face and continue to shine bright.
I can’t wait to meet the other children and get to know them. I could travel the world and never find another place like this. I’m home.
I’m in my motherland, but I have one small problem: I don’t know the language. However, that problem meant nothing today.
This past week we held our first camp in Askeran. The minute we stepped onto the school grounds with all of our boxes we were greeted by the many smiles of the kids excited for their week at camp.
I’m sure I can speak for the entire group when I say that as excited as all of us were while heading to camp, seeing the joy in all the kids’ faces when we arrived boosted our excitement to a level beyond what we imagined.
I’m not going to lie – after we separated into colors and met in the classrooms, there were quite a few awkward moments between us and the campers; But as we began to play games and sing, everyone began warming up to one another. I can honestly say that it is one of the best moments of any camp – when the campers and counselors form those bonds to help make camp worthwhile.
Speaking of the campers, I’ve had the fortune of working with kids back home in America, but I knew there would obviously be a difference between the children here and the children there, yet I’m still astonished by the fact that the kids I met today, my campers, were so polite, attentive and eager to learn. They know how privileged they are to be here, and I couldn’t be more honored to be able to be a part of their experience. Even though I can’t verbally communicate with them, physical interaction and laughter are enough to take its place; for me at least.
It did not hit me until we stepped foot in the Proshyan agoump; I felt a mix of overwhelming joy, zealousness, and hope. Joy because this agoump was none like any I have ever seen before; it had its own gym, filled with punching bags and weightlifting equipment, and that is only downstairs. Upstairs has its own astonishing features, such as the stone-walled conference room and the newly built dorm-like rooms full of brand new bunks prepared for our use. Proshyan is only fifteen minutes from Yerevan, and after a week of touring, mostly in the city, I became used to calling Yerevan home. After settling in at the agoump, we returned with our group to Yerevan for dinner; I couldn’t wait to get back to Proshyan. I’m sure it had something to do with us sleeping at the Proshyan agoump that made me call it home, but Proshyan was the first place in Armenia to which I felt an emotional attachment. Never before have I seen a city that widely expresses their Tashnag roots; nor have I seen a people belonging to a village that walk around with their Zeenanshan necklaces chained tightly around their necks, waiting for everyone to take notice.
We all had a great week in Yerevan and my group was fortunate enough to spend Vartivar there too. However, by the end of the week all of us were ready to start having a different type of fun. We were all impatiently waiting to finally start camp and do what we really came to do.
That day finally came on Monday, July 13. The first day of camp in Proshyan left me impressed and in complete shock. From the start the kids of Proshyan treated us with utmost respect and kindness, and welcomed us with the most overwhelming warmth.
What really got to me was when seven year old kids started singing all four verses of Mer Hayrenik, and Mshag Panvor with such strength and pride. I always thought that the Diasporan Armenian youth expressed more patriotism than the ones living in Armenia, but now I’m not so sure that is the case. I felt proud but also disappointed and wished that campers back in LA were as enthusiastic about Hai Tahd, ARF, and the Armenian Cause. I know I’m quick to judge but after one day in Proshyan, I am positive that these kids will grow up to be prominent men and women making real changes in Armenia.
In Proshyan not only did I meet new influential young ungers and ungerouhies, but I also connected with my new family- Harut, Mel, Koko, Kile, Talia, Taline, Ani, Paulina, and our group leader, Melo. Soon Paulina became my mom, and who knew Koko could make such amazing breakfasts. I know it’s only been a day but I’m just so excited to learn from the kids here in Proshyan, later in Gyumri and Artsakh, and from my fellow Youth Corps group members – truly my new family. One thing I hope to do on this trip is to make the campers remember me like they remembered past Youth Corps participants.
The place I currently call home is in Studio City, yet I anticipate the visit to my motherland for the first time to feel as though I am coming home. I envision walking out of the doors of Zvartnots International Airport and breathing in the clean and unpolluted air, unlike that of Los Angeles. I’ll walk down the streets, entranced by the aroma of newly risen bread, and thrilled to embark on my journey. My quest will begin by visiting historical sites that I have been learning about since elementary school at Merdinian. I’m excited to finally see firsthand these landmarks that I’ve heard so much about. I am interested in interacting with the local people and getting to really know them, since all the individuals I am familiar with are a part of the diaspora. I presume that everyone in Armenia is kindhearted and hospitable, especially those who, during our camp sessions, will be preparing meals for and housing fifteen individuals they have never met.
Some have asked why I chose the Youth Corps program for my first visit to Armenia. I do not wish to stay in a luxurious hotel in Yerevan and solely visit the monumental sites of my country. I would much rather make a child smile or assist them in making a lanyard. The making of a lanyard enables them to learn a new skill, and is an item they will treasure as part of the many memories they make at camp. Knowing that I made a child smile reassures me that they are genuinely enjoying themselves in that moment. Although the children are young, I’m certain the memories they make will be landmarks in their childhood.
I am thankful to have been chosen to be a participant of this years Youth Corp family and am excited for the journey that lies ahead.