Nearly six weeks ago, one of my closest friends asked me, “Gareen, why are you wasting your summer in Armenia working on a day camp?” and I didn’t have an answer. To be honest, I was completely going back on my decision of joining the program. I had just finished my freshman year of college and began having doubts because the typical college student would be spending their summer creating fun memories with friends and family. I had never spent more than a week away from home, and I don’t like being put into uncomfortable situations like sharing a small space with a large group of people. To sum it all up, I began having strong anxiety about my decision and started to doubt my ability to spend six week with strangers, working with kids and taking care of myself in another country so far from home.
My summer has passed and I am now confident in my reasoning for joining AYF Youth Corps. I knew in my heart that this was an opportunity for me to grow, but my definition of growing up has completely changed. I had imagined that growing up would mean changing who I was, becoming a serious person, with more responsibilities and less sense of humor. But now I know that growing up means many other things, lessons that I couldn’t have learned anywhere else, doing anything else.
Growing up means putting another’s needs before your own. I used to feel like my problems were so large and so overwhelming, as if it were the end of my world. Who was I kidding? The kids in Artsakh are facing a potential war in their backyard, which could change their entire lives. There were kids in Baghanis who could hear gunfire at night but came to camp every day with a smile on their faces, and suddenly my problems seemed irrelevant. I may have problems close to the heart, but these kids are full of resilience. In the six weeks I have spent with local Armenian kids, not one complaint and not one tear.
Growing up means being able to not only trust yourself, but others as well. Our campers open up to us with so much, and believe in us to teach them about Armenian pride. They express their vulnerabilities, talking about fears and dreams, and trust that we will take care of them and befriend them no matter what. They have taught me to trust myself in giving them all that they need, because they have never expressed anything other than gratitude.
Growing up means accepting yourself and feeling comfortable in your own skin. Six weeks ago, if I had seen one of my campers back home, I would not have been able to see past their exterior. In Armenia, I have learned that it takes time to see people’s true beauty, inside and out. Not only were the kids comfortable in their own skin, but also my co-counselors and I have learned so much about the value of people and the definition of beauty.
Growing up means having more responsibilities and learning how to adapt to certain environments, and I have definitely gained that experience. But one important realization that was taught to me by my campers was that growing up and maturing has nothing to do with changing yourself. The children in Armenia and Artsakh brought back the child in me and I have been reliving my childhood with them. The happiness in winning a competition, the anger and disappointment in losing to a better team, the sympathy when someone gets hurt, the excitement of learning new English words, and finally, the innocence in feeling and being completely carefree.
Now I know that growing up means appreciating the beauty in life and being grateful for everything we have. I feel different than the person I was six weeks ago and am content and truly happy, in a mature kind of way. If someone were to ask me the same question now, I would have so many reasons to give and so much to say as to why I joined AYF Youth Corps.
Yesterday, I walked into the Askeran school and was greeted by “Trcheyi Mdkov Doon”. I stood there mesmerized, listening to one of the campers sing with such passion, and could not keep my tears under control. I closed my eyes, silently singing with her as I, too, flew to another place, another time, back to 1994 to a small village in the Martuni region called Ashan, where I had been a Youth Corps participant.
Although the Youth Corps program has changed from a rebuilding program to a Jampar, from the looks on the faces of the counselors, I knew that everything we had received as participants 20 years ago is still the same today: a lifetime of memories with a special group of Armenians. We had participated in the program believing that our mission was to help the villagers, help the schools and guide the children, but later realized that in fact, it was us who had things to learn. We learned about the resilience of our people, about the bright future of our country, and about the importance of building bridges with our homeland. These lessons can only be comprehended through programs such as Youth Corps, where participants have the opportunity to experience to real lives of locals, and truly experience the joys and wonders of Armenia and Artsakh.
Today, I visited the AYF Youth Corps group, went from classroom to classroom watching the campers making lanyards, listening to educationals about the lives of fedayees, and watched counselors connecting with the campers as they wrote about their hopes and dreams, fears and worries. Witnessing the counselors interact with the campers, I was overcome by a sense of immense pride – pride that I have been fortunate enough to belong to a great youth organization, the Armenian Youth Federation; pride that I have had the opportunity to participate in the best and most meaningful summer program, the AYF Youth Corps; and extreme pride that after 20 years, we are still able to impact the lives of hundreds of Armenian youth, put a smile on their faces, and continue to give them hope, as we ourselves better understand the true meaning of life simply by listening to a magical song.
— Dzia Vartabedian
Dzia Vartabedian was one of the first participants of AYF Youth Corps. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the program, which began after the cease-fire of 1994 by Armenian-American youth whose mission was to help rebuild their homeland.
In the early hours of the day, you hear the sounds of the crowing rooster. In the distance, the firing shots.
In the early hours of the day, you hear the sounds of the mooing cows. In the distance, the firing shots.
In the early hours of the day, you hear the sounds of the old creaking wood floors. In the distance, the firing shots.
In the early hours of the day, you hear the sounds of the ticking clock as time stands still. In the distance, the firing shots.
This is the bittersweet symphony of the village of Baghanis.
Baghanis is found in the northeastern Tavush region of Armenia, bordering Azerbaijan. The village is small, the population number is low, the stores are scarce, and there are no restaurants in sight.
One may wonder why anyone would voluntarily visit such a place. Every time I spoke about our Jampar in Baghanis, I received two different responses. The first was people not knowing anything about its existence. The second was concern as to why 25 young Armenian Diasporans from the United States would want to visit such a remote, and at times dangerous, village so near to the border of Azerbaijan. My response was always the same: we were going to bring happiness to the children of the village.
Upon reaching Baghanis, I began realizing the validity of the responses I had received. The life of Baghanis was very simple. The food was gathered daily from cows, pigs, and chickens who roam the fields of the stone buildings. Water was boiled by wood fire, if it were even available. And at least once a day, from a distance, we heard the sounds of Azeri shots being fired.
The scenery of Baghanis was unlike any other. We spent many hours each day in the school field playing soccer, a favorite pastime of the campers. And each day, my co-counselors and I took a moment to appreciate all the nature of our homeland, the green of the mountains, the clear blue sky, the shining golden sun and the bright smiling faces of over 100 local children that attended our Jampar – the true beauty of Baghanis.
Even in such poor conditions, the children were always full of joy, hope and happiness, something I had thought we would be bringing them. Instead they brought it to us – the mere joy, hope and happiness in befriending the future generation of our resilient people.
Although we were merely one mile from the border, we were never in danger of the enemy. The only real danger we ever encountered was falling deeply in love with the children and knowing that after only five short days, we would depart, and sadly, never see them again. The danger was in our devastation and heartbreak.
This is the bittersweet symphony of the village of Baghanis.