I’ve been to Armenia twice with my family (2004 and 2006) and once with my 11 class in 2011. The last time I went, I stayed a couple of weeks extra and volunteered at Orran, a center for atrisk children in Yerevan. Those 2 weeks could’ve been spent back in California lounging by a pool and spending time with friends, but the moment I stepped foot into Orran I knew that I’d return to Hayasdan soon to connect with and help the children of my motherland.
“Soon” didn’t happen as soon as it should have, and I’ve found myself drifting further and further away from my home and my roots. Los Angeles, despite it being a huge city, has always felt small and closeknit due to the presence of such a large Armenian community. I didn’t realize this until I went away for school in Santa Barbara in 2013 and was suddenly dropped in a sea of nonArmenians and nearly nobody to eat kebab and speak Armenian with. Little did I know, that soon I’d be studying abroad in Sweden, where the Armenian population is nearly nonexistent. My contact with anything Armenian has been limited to phone calls with my parents, repeatedly listening to Element on Spotify, and the single time I found grape leaves at a small store and was able to make myself sarma.
Youth Corps is my comeback. And I don’t mean in an “Eat, Pray, Love” sort of way where I find myself and reach nirvana while riding elephants in Thailand. I mean it in a “reality check” way, in a “there are bigger problems than your biochemistry final way”, in a “you are first-and-foremost an Armenian” way. I am thrilled at the thought of immersing myself in my mother tongue and feeling like my 5-year old self again, who didn’t even think twice about using Armenian as her default language. I am impatient to connect with my brothers and sisters on the other side of the world and realize that our lives aren’t as different as we think they are. And I hope I’m able to make them feel as proud of our nation and culture as I learned to be through AYF, whether your thousands of miles away from your roots or are fall asleep at night right at the feet of Mayr Hayasdan.
To say that the Youth Corps program changed my life would be to put it mildly. Every major event changes the course of your life as you know it; Participating in Youth Corps did much more than that. It changed who I am as a person, it redirected my goals and dreams for the better, and it opened my heart to a whole new sense of identity. Connecting with the homeland made me realize where my true home is and where I’m meant to be. Seeing the natural beauties of Armenia, experiencing the rich culture, and creating personal relationships with the natives were ingredients to only one recipe: to move to Armenia one day and build a family there. But this soulful awakening wasn’t even the best part of the entire experience. The greatest, and most rewarding, aspect was being able to do a little good for the future generations – the youth of Armenia. The smiles I saw on the faces of the kids every morning of camp is an image that will never be erased from my mind. From teaching the kids English, to getting competitive in a game of Steal the Bacon, and to heart fully singing Gini Lits, every moment was an impactful one. Connecting with hundreds of bright and talented kids in different parts of Armenia and Artsakh really ignited a whole new passion inside me – along with giving me new friendships to last a lifetime. To talk about every incredible aspect of Youth Corps, I would need a week – with no interruptions. All that can be said about Youth Corps could be better understood through experiencing it yourself. It’s an outstanding opportunity that I relive every moment, wishing I could be back in the wondrous mountains of Artsakh, singing
Life presents us with endless opportunities, and one of the greatest opportunities I was presented with up until now was AYF Youth Corps. When I decided to join AYF Youth Corps, all I knew was that I would be traveling through Armenia and Artsakh for six weeks as a summer camp counselor for children. I had heard stories, read blogs, and watched videos of smiling faces that held memories that would last a lifetime. All of this seemed so far away, but before I knew it I was there.
Deciding to sign up for this program was one of the best decisions I have made so far in my life. Being engulfed in a sea of inspired, grateful, and bright youth of my homeland opened up a side of me that I didn’t know existed. Everyday after camp when I would be relaxing and bonding with my fellow counselors, I had a nagging feeling of wanting to be with my campers, even though I had just spent my entire day surrounded by over 100 of them. Each and every one of their minds sparked new ideas, friendships, and love among each other and among the counselors, and it was a gift more valuable than anything tangible we were able to bring back with us.
I went, I experienced it, and I came back seeing a significant change in myself as a person and as an advocate for our cause of bettering our homeland. It was a trip that I wouldn’t trade for anything, and it is one that you must experience to know how it feels. Six weeks may seem like a long time, but when it is over you will never want it to end.
The memories I made during youth corps are ones I will cherish forever. I can’t tell people enough how much I miss my kids in Artsahk. How I actually miss being confused when one of the kids would try ask me a question, but I couldn’t understand any of it so they’d just laugh at me. I mean, I was hesitant to go in the first place, not being able to speak much Armenian, but now I have a new, special connection with my homeland that I never thought I would. On top of everything else, I had the chance to have about thirty wonderful people enter my life: almost each and every person I went to youth corps with has changed me for the better in one way or another. Youth corps was an experience I’ll keep close to my heart for the rest of my life, and I hope many more will be able to say the same.
As we finish our second week of Jampar in Gyumri, I can’t help but reflect on the most amazing, life-changing journey I have ever experienced. My AYF Youth Corps adventure has been nothing short of exceptional. In the past four weeks I have spent in Armenia and Artsakh, I have formed unbreakable ties with amazing children, I have made several personal revelations and I have had the privilege of experiencing our beautiful land, culture, and people for the first time. As you could imagine, there have been many people that have contributed to my experiences throughout the past four weeks, and I would like to take the time to thank a mere few of them.
Thank you to my 38 fellow 2015 youth corps participants and leaders, my second family. This trip would not have been the same without every single one of you, and I am beyond grateful to have been a part of such an incredible experience with such incredible people.
Thank you to brothers Gor and Georgie from Camp Astkashen for courageously raising your hands on the first day of Jampar, asking to sing “Akhperus ou Yes” in front of our entire blue group. I will never forget the tears you brought to my eyes that morning when I first heard your passionate voices sing one of my favorite songs. This song will forever remind me of you two.
Thank you to Unger Vahagk from Stepanakert, Artsakh, one of the most generous and inspiring individuals I was privileged to meet. From the second we arrived in Artsakh he made sure our time spent there was unforgettable, and because of him and the comfort I felt throughout my two week stay, I feel as though Artsakh is my second home.
Thank you to Unger Zorig from Astkashen, Artsakh for opening your home to us and inviting us over one of the days after Jampar. While sitting around his table with my fellow ungers, I took a step back and cherished that moment, knowing I would remember it forever. Whether it was because of the songs we sang, the conversations we had, or the friendships we built, that day spent in Astkashen was one of the best days of my life.
Thank you to Larissa, one of my campers from Camp Gyumri, who just so happens to be a four-year returning veteran to Jampar. I have never met a person filled with such energy and enthusiasm. Though I’ve only spent a couple of days with her thus far, I have become extremely attached to my new favorite nine year old. Earlier today while I was braiding her hair, Larissa turned to look at me and said the most special words I have ever heard: “Mernem gyankeed Ungerouhi Talar.” Thank you Larissa for allowing me the privilege to build an unbreakable bond with you that I will forever treasure.
Thank you to my Youth Corps group, the 11 people that I have spent every day with for the past four weeks. Whether it was the many times we fought over who got to shower first or the thousands of times we argued over the rules of Steal the Bacon, this trip could not have been the same without you and I’m so thankful I was able to embark on this journey with you all. There is a special place in my heart for each and every one of you.
Thank you to my motherland, the most beautiful land I have ever stepped foot on. This country and all that it has to offer has taught me to always appreciate all the small wonders around me waiting to be noticed. Having the privilege of walking down the streets of our country and speaking our beautiful language is unlike any other feeling in the world. There is truly no place like home, and I can’t wait to come home again.
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.
“Shad boyov eh, shad boyov eh”, was all the chatter I heard as I walked into the gym packed with eager little campers. It was registration day and I had the glorious position of occupying the campers’ time with games until camp officially began. I was frightened, since I have never worked with kids in my life. Yet I found myself excited to get camp underway in Proshyan. The transition from the practical European city of Yerevan to the village of Proshyan was remarkably easy. I fell in love with village life. The strong sense of community found in Proshyan was unlike anything I’ve experienced. The village has a strong ARF presence. Around Proshyan, the Tashnagtsoutyun is more than just a political party–it’s a lifestyle these villagers religiously follow. Words like “badanee,” “unger,” and “agoump” are held to an extreme I’m not used to experiencing. The strong traditional culture found here is what I want all us participants to extract back home to our own chapters. Wherever I go in Proshyan, I can feel the happiness our presence brings into the community. Children follow me through the streets wherever I go like I am of importance. Little do they know I’m usually just going up the street for some ice cream. On multiple occasions the villagers expressed their gratitude of how the Armenian diaspora has not forgotten about their homeland. They always leave me speechless and overcome with emotion. Nothing brings me more joy than knowing I’m instilling the best of both worlds onto our young generation. Knowing I’m shaping the future of Armenia is the most powerful feeling I have ever felt. From my explorations in Proshyan, it’s very obvious to me how far it has come as a village. It has such a bright future in these children and I personally want to remain a part of it. The hospitality, warmth and strength of the villagers have allowed me to find a home away from home. I love every minute of living here. My name is Harout Pomakian, I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but Proshyan adopted me.
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.