To be honest, I was a little skeptical of the overall political situation regarding its status. Being Armenian, my devotion to the roots my people defend in this land is a given; as an American, however, it is easy to come across different perspectives that often work to instill doubt. Having done my research on the area, I began to notice the atmosphere of Azeri propaganda prevalent on the Internet. A simple Wikipedia search would bring up the region as a part of Azerbaijan that is under dispute, sources favorable to Azeri claims more detailed in the info menus. Pulling up map applications would show the street names either in their Turkish form or Turkified. Absorbing statements that official political figures made would lead one to believe that maybe the land really does belong to Azerbaijan and that the disputes are tragic for both sides. So how does one reconcile these conflicting sides, especially as an Armenian?
The region is isolated to the rest of the world, the most convenient method of access is by a narrow, dangerous road paved through the Caucasus. To the rest of the world, all Artsakh seems to be is a two dimensional piece of land that is too irrelevant to worry about. It wasn’t until I stepped foot off that bus in Stepanakert that my perspective began to shift once again, this time toward reality. Walking down the streets I noticed all the street signs being Armenian, marketplaces selling traditional Armenian grocery items, with people speaking Armenian in the street corners. I opened up my maps once again to reassure myself I was in the right place: the name of the city showed “Xank?ndi.” Our day continued as we traveled to the day camp center in Askeran. I kept pulling my maps app out once again to track our location, once again coming across Turkish spelling with no indication of Armenian heritage. Yet once again, what I saw as we arrived was an Armenian community welcoming us with warmth, the children meeting us with smiles and curiosity with the backdrop of war as their façade, but that didn’t seem to bother them. In that moment it was clear to me: Artsakh is Armenian. A two dimensional map doesn’t do the reality any justice, if anything, it is counter intuitive and disrespectful to the identities of those who live their lives in these regions.
I needed to take in Artsakh with all my senses to truly grasp the meaning of Armenian heritage being rooted in this land: touching the ruins of Tigranabert, smelling the fresh air of the country side, tasting Armenian cuisine, hearing the vibrancy of the language all around town, and of course taking in the beautiful sight of the untouched nature that despite the atmosphere of war around it still retains its peaceful tranquility to which the people pride themselves in preserving. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what a map or political propaganda says. What matters is what is on the ground, what I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears. From the time of Tigran the Great 2 millennia ago to now, Artsakh is Armenian and always will be.
AYF Youth Corps has changed my life because of the incredible experience I had with living in my homeland and holding day camps for the local youth. I never imagined myself spending six weeks in a country that was some-what so different from America. My whole family is involved with AYF and I wasn’t really that into it until I spend the best six weeks of my life in Armenia. Being able to put a light in some of the locals’ souls was such an amazing feeling for me because I love giving and supporting people no matter what their situation is. I knew it was going to be difficult for me because I’ve always struggled with speaking and understanding Armenian fluently, but it wasn’t as hard as I expected and it really helped me open up my Armenian vocabulary. Just knowing that Youth Corps gives the opportunity for Armenian youth in America to go visit their homelands, tour and do such great deeds is really a blessing! I look forward to the day I get to participate in such an amazing trip organized by one of the best organizations and get to put a light in so many souls again!
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.
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.
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.
GRANADA HILLS, Calif. — The Armenian Youth Federation – Western United States welcomed the inception of the North Valley “Artsakh” Chapter on Sept. 14, 2014.
Twenty-nine activists gathered at the North Valley Armenian Center in Granada Hills and discussed various issues facing youth in the region. The new chapter established their name and discussed their course of action for the upcoming year.
“We are ready,” said Zohrab Kejejian, the newly elected chairperson of the chapter. “We are ready to embrace the name ‘Artsakh’ and work towards our ultimate goal of a free, independent, and united Armenia.”
The AYF has played an important role in the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, also known as Artsakh, since the cease-fire that ended the conflict between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan in 1994.
The AYF was one of the few organizations that implemented a program to rebuild and develop the newly-independent republic’s war-torn villages. To this day, the AYF’s summer volunteer program in Armenia, the AYF Youth Corps, executes day camps throughout villages in Artsakh with underprivileged youth. This year marked the 20th anniversary of the program.
In 2012, the AYF also found the With Our Soldiers program to provide medical aid to war Veterans from Artsakh.
“Mobilizing Armenian youth is our job,” said Arpa Hatzbanian, chairperson of the AYF’s Central Executive. “We are proud that we have created a new hub where active youth can come together to help advance our cause.”
Founded in 1933, the Armenian Youth Federation is the largest and most influential Armenian American youth organization in the world, working to advance the social, political, educational and cultural awareness of Armenian youth.