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.
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.
About ten years ago, after hearing endless stories about Youth Corps from alumni, from Sosé, at AYF Camp and at AYF Juniors meetings, I had given an oath to myself that the year 2016 will be the year in which I will finally embark the journey of AYF Youth Corps. The year has finally come, and the suspense of counting down the days to depart with only a few days left has made me even more impatient.
I feel as though this year, in a strange way, symbolizes the commitment and determination of the Armenian Youth Federation even more tremendously; after the scare of the massive ceasefire violations in Artsakh, many were concerned with the possibility of holding back the Youth Corps program for this year. However, I am proud to say that I will be a part of a group that will continue the program despite such discouraging efforts. It only goes to show that the AYF, in the homeland and in the diaspora, is always consistently on the frontlines for the Armenian nation. I, as a member of the AYF Orange County “Ashod Yergat” chapter, am proud to also be able to be at the grand opening of the Gyumri agoump—since the renovations were made possible by AYF OC’s launch of the “We Are Gyumri Campaign.” There is a symbol that we, as a people, will always continue to build—and rebuild, overcoming obstacles to better our nation.
Despite the excitement, I fear some challenges that I will face: to be away from home for six weeks, the language barrier between eastern and western Armenian, and all the tasks that I will be responsible and held accountable for. However, I look forward to overcoming every single one of these challenges. I look forward to leaving a lasting impact on the Youth Corps campers; I look forward to learning from the campers just as much as I hope they will learn from me and my peers; I look forward to finally understanding the eastern Armenian dialect and to be surrounded by the speech of our beautiful and rich language; I look forward to being in my homeland to make a difference with my ungers by my side. Youth Corps 2016 has finally come, and I cannot wait to start my journey.
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.
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.
First day of Jampar in Gyumri was finally here and so was a camper named Ardo who had trouble written all over him. Within minutes it was obvious he was going to be the obnoxious troublemaker none of us had the patience to deal with. After just a few hours he had disrespected and bothered more than enough campers and counselors and was told to go home and not return for the rest of the week. Of course, he didn’t listen to that either and within a couple minutes of sending him home he magically appeared in the classroom again. He promised to behave and for some reason we believed him and let him stay.
The next day before jampar even started he came up to me and said in Armenian, “Today I will behave, I have even learned all the songs you taught yesterday.” Very surprisingly he was the loudest one during song practice, he even threw his fist up with pride during the necessary times. It had become obvious that he learned respect and was ready to cooperate for the rest of the week. What wasn’t obvious was that he would end up being my favorite camper, the camper who would give me 40 kisses a day, and be the one to give me bracelets and presents every morning.
Thursday morning was a little different than the other mornings – he handed me a best friend bracelet on which he had written, ‘I love you.’ He gave it to me so I would remember him forever and asked for something in return so he could remember me. Thursday night I went to the store looking for something small and appropriate. After a while I saw a dice keychain and knew that it was the perfect gift.
A dice is the perfect way to describe everything that has happened to me on this trip so far. Ardo is one of seven children, his hygienic condition speaks for itself that his family isn’t the wealthiest, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that all seven children have one room to in which to sleep. This is where the dice comes in – Ardo and I both have 100% Armenian blood, but due to “paghd” (luck) he is living in such conditions, and I am living in the States, worried about which 2016 model car I want, when he will soon worry about how he will care for his family and himself financially. The destiny of two Armenians is as random as a roll of a dice; it all depends on luck, whether you end up with a one or a six. I do not deserve the lifestyle in America more than he does, in fact he is the one who allows me to have a homeland to visit, it is someone like me who falls victim to white genocide.
This trip has made me realize that one of my dreams is only just a dream. A dream I would like to make a goal in the future would be to move to my homeland and raise a family. Unfortunately, during a discussion with my campers from Artsakh, I opened up under pressure and realized how different their lives are. These children who come in the morning with the biggest smiles, wettest kisses, and biggest hugs have brothers, fathers, and uncles who have died to keep our land, who are on the front lines to defend our land, and who soon will wholeheartedly join the army to keep our land. Standing in front of these teenage boys thinking I am doing a huge deed for my country while they are the soil and mountains keeping a country alive on a map made me realize the actual sacrifice I have to make. Hearing stories of how all three brothers and a father were killed leaving a mother alone made me ask myself a question – am I, or anyone back in the states willing to sacrifice all the male figures in their family just so we keep our land?
I began to explain to Ardo why I got him a dice but tears didn’t allow me to finish. I watched the troublemaker of camp cry and it wasn’t because of a horrible “badeej”, it was because of an everlasting connection made between the diaspora and the homeland.