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.
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.
I attended Rose and Alex Pilibos my entire life, so you can only imagine my excitement on our first day of Jampar in Askeran, Artsakh, when a young boy came to camp in a Pilibos polo shirt, the same one I had worn for 15 years. My Armenian school uniform made its way to Artsakh and allowed me to realize that in one way or another, all roads lead to the Hayrenik. Growing up in California, in a very tight-knit Armenian community, I learned how important it was to connect to the homeland. In 2011, when I traveled to Hayastan for the first time, I was able to see the land I had learned so much about, but that void of connecting to the homeland on a more personal level was not filled because I was merely a tourist. I didn’t interact with any locals, I didn’t hear their personal stories, I didn’t experience life in Armenia, and while I fell in love with my homeland, I was not able to build my bridge to it. For that reason, I was very interested in participating in the Youth Corps program, knowing that its goal is to bridge the gap between the Diaspora and the homeland. To me, bridging meant having a personal relationship with the locals of the homeland. It also meant getting a feel of living in the homeland. AYF Youth Corps allowed me to do both. I interacted on a personal level with the kids and counselors in Gyumri, Baghanis, and Askeran. For over six weeks, I heard their stories, their fears, their joys, their dreams, and their aspirations. Ultimately, I built relationships in the different regions of Armenia that I know will not fade away.
Throughout the different camps, kids constantly asked me if I was Armenian. It really upset me at first because here I was, in Armenia with the intent of building a relationship with the local Armenians, and they don’t even know that there are Armenians who live outside of Armenia. However, this also created a drive within me; a drive to teach about how there are Diasporan Armenians who work tentatively to help the homeland and to build their bridges to it. Therefore, during educationals about the Diaspora in the different camps, I spoke about the history of the establishment of Diasporan Armenians following the Armenian Genocide of 1915, as well as the historical influxes of Diasporan Armenians throughout the last century. I also discussed the role that has been played by Diasporan Armenians to help develop and sustain our country. Through this educational, the campers began to understand and appreciate the importance of a strong relationship between Armenians living in the homeland and those abroad. Giving the Diaspora educational, my goal was to teach the kids to see me as an equal Armenian; to see how Armenian Diasporans care and work for the homeland even though we are outside the homeland. I wanted them to understand that geographic location does not define one’s Armenian spirit – one’s Hayrenasirootyoon.
Seeing the boy in the Pilibos polo, in a way, served as a physical symbol of my bridge built to the homeland. The polo was piece of my home and a symbol of my upbringing as a Diasporan Armenian. Seeing an Artsakhtsi boy wearing it allowed me to physically see the Diaspora’s connection to Armenia; how the Diaspora and the homeland are intact, bridged. I felt by seeing just how the Diaspora’s help and work to develop the homeland really does play a role in Armenia. It was the first day of camp, I did not know this boy yet, but I instantly felt a connection to him. Somehow, someway, we both wore the same polo. For my bridge built, I am eternally grateful to Youth Corps and everyone and everything, including my family and my Armenian school, which played a role in building the foundation of my bridge to my homeland. And lastly, I ask you to please keep donating to Hayastan and Artsakh, even if it is just old school uniforms, because they honestly get there and they really help the people who may not be as fortunate as us.
A ball and a field. Not anything written or spoken. A ball is all you need to unite people from completely different parts of the world. I have been to many different parts of Armenia with Youth Corps by now. My Armenian is not the most fluent, and I do occasionally have problems communicating with the campers, resulting in less of a bond with them than if I could speak more fluently. However, one thing has remained the same wherever I’ve gone. The children can react differently when you teach them songs, give educationals, or talk to them about different things like men and women having equal rights. However, once I bring out a soccer ball, the same thing has happened in three different camps. The fact that the children and I are from different countries, speak differently, have unique issues in our lives that are polar opposites from each other, and really don’t share much in common other than being Armenian, melts away.
For the children and me, even if only for half an hour each day, once the balls rolls out and the game starts, our worlds change. There is no impending threat from Azerbajian for the kids. There is no war-torn village in our minds. Being from Texas, having been raised around Armenian-American culture, and not having gone to an Armenian school five days a week are no more. What my parents do, what university I go to, and what I’m studying is irrelevant. The details that make up who we are in our lives don’t matter on the field. While we’re out there, the children and I communicate in an entirely different way. A tongue that can bring together anyone in this world regardless of where they’re from or what they do. Something that lets us have no problems understanding each other, unlike something spoken. That language isn’t English, nor is it Armenian. That language is the one of the beautiful game. The language of the ball and the field.
You are about to embark on a journey that will change you forever and I’ll start by telling you that it’s okay to go into this with high expectations – I say this with no hesitation because however high they may be, I give you my word it will exceed any level.
You’ll soon be walking down to camp every morning, greeted with herds of children with pictures they drew for you or hugs that will melt your heart and make your day, or a random fact about America that you’ll pretend to be learning for the first time. Soon, you’ll be yelling at the top of your lungs at your favorite camper because he’s really talkative, but everything that comes out of his mouth makes you crack up, and he’ll still kiss you on the cheek before going home today. You’ll be forming bonds with incredible people, amazing and beautiful kids. I’m already jealous of you and I still have a week of Jampar left.
I am no longer fazed by the fact that I haven’t slept in a bed in about a month, or that I wake up in a pool of my own sweat more than a couple times a week, or that flies wake me up every morning – I can easily laugh about all of this nowadays. The living situations may not always be ideal, but it doesn’t matter at all. It does not take away from this experience – if anything, it adds to it.
I had written in my pre-departure blog about how I was excited to give back to my country because it has given me so much, but the truth is this country never stops giving. I know in my heart I have accomplished and given a lot this summer, to the kids, to the people, to my new friends; but I have received more than imaginable. For starters, I was removed from my comfort zone and lived in a house with 11 strangers who would soon become my family – as I presumed before getting here. I have had the chance to live in my country as anything but a tourist. I got to really taste what it’s like to be a “deghatsi”, a native in my own country. Imagine that.
We are officially in our last week of Jampar in Proshyan, and while exhausted, I think I can speak for everyone when I say we don’t want this week to come to an end – because that means it’s over. As soon as song competition ends on Friday afternoon (and Red Team wins), it all ends. And that’s the last thing we want.
This is an amazing opportunity, if I haven’t already made that clear. You have made one of the best decisions of your life. I’ve fallen in love with this country in a different way – I can’t wait for you to do the same.