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.
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.
As I sit in this van, leaving Gyumri and Digin Lilig’s home, I look out into a rainy scenery, with a few tears of my own streaming down my face. I come to realize at this moment how much my outlook on family and that concept of home has changed within these last five weeks.
I’m thousands of miles away from home and yet still feel so at “home” with a strong sense of belonging, right here in this very moment in Armenia. Home isn’t about where you reside but more so the emotional ties and bonds that bridge the gap between you and a place or your relations with people. This last month I’ve learned just that, from Stepanagert, to Gyumri, to Javakhk, not once did I feel like an outsider, like I didn’t belong. In each one of these locations I formed a family, a home, somewhere I knew I could go whenever I wanted to, without even calling days ahead of time to see if it was even ok to come over. Family accepts you with open arms, their home is your home.
Something we were asked here a lot was, “Hayasdanuh tser turneen yegav?” Roughly translated to, “Did you like Armenia? Are you satisfied?” Our answer every time was yes, we couldn’t have asked for more. In Armenia, even if you aren’t family by blood, you will become family by association. The people here will open their homes to you, offer you everything they have, even if they can’t afford it. To them, your presence in their home is worth more than a table with gold laid upon it. This was evident in Gyumri when we went to visit one of our campers at his home, which you wouldn’t consider a house. He lived in a “domik” which is a small tin shack, the size of a small garden shed. Many people in Gyumri live in these domiks due to the massive earthquake in 1988 that tore the city down. Domiks were built as temporary housing, just until some rebuilding could be done, but 23 years later people still live in them with hopes of one day being able to move out and afford proper housing.
So as I mentioned, we were visiting our camper, which brings us to my concept of home and belonging. As soon as we sat down, little Khachik’s grandma took our her finest sweets, offered us fruits, and prepared the typical Armenian coffee that we’re all accustomed to drinking when we visit friends and family. With a smile on her face, standing in a living room no bigger than a janitor closet, she exclaimed, “Our house may be small, but our hearts are big, welcome to our home.”
Whether it was at Digin Lilig’s house in Gyumri, Babo’s house in Stepanagert, the agoump in Javakhk, or the little domik, it was considered a home. You can have a million dollar mansion for all I care, but it will never have the luxury you get from a home like the domik if there’s no love, selflessness, and the feeling of belonging and reassurance. Armenia will always be accepting with open arms, no matter when, no matter what.
In the words of Coldplay, “Home, home, where I wanted to go.”
A fifteen hour car ride is not something to look forward to, especially when you’re in a van that hardly works and is filled to a point where people are laying on the floor. Gyumri to Shushi means driving from one end of Armenia to the other. With a few scenic stops on the way the trip was expected to take at least 12 hours.
We left Gyumri at 7 am on the dot. All of us were dead tired, and annoyed to be leaving our Gyumri family. The men tied the luggage to the roof that was actually slippery from rain. One by one, we walked out of the house and cuddled Unger Gevork, our pseudo-father in Gyumri, until he made us get in our bus. Obviously I snatched shotgun, and we were on.
I was really not looking forward to stopping a trillion times on the way, because I had been to Armenia several times. Each spot on the way had a memory that would never be replaced. Our first stop was Khor Virab. Although this is a very special place for Armenians, seeing it more than most locals, I had no interest. I knew the spot for pictures with Ararat in the background would take two hours, because everyone would want that romantic picture with Armenia’s occupied treasure. I decided not to take the ladder to the pit where Krikor Lousavoritch survived 13 years. Pretty much I was being a princess, thinking I’m the coolest person in the world because I had been to Armenia before. Then the Armenia first timers walked out and through their emotions I remembered my first time there. Slowly I became excited for them. I was no longer rushing to get out of there; I just sat to myself for a while and remembered all the memories I had throughout the years. Finally we all boarded the van and took off to my favorite place in Armenia.
So I’m going to pause here and say a short story about our van. The GAZELLE became a mascot to our trip. With its signature scorpion stickers and Russian writing that looked like what we assumed said gazelle, it was easy to get attached. Every so often, actually at every incline, the car would overheat, we would collect our bottles of water that the driver would pour onto the steaming radiator. Every so many kilometers we would have to all get out of the van and refill our natural gas. This van was a disaster! Luggage + fifteen adults + our mountainous country = There was no chance Gazelle would make it to Shushi. Okay let’s get back to my favorite place in Armenia: Noravank.
Noravank is significant to me for a few reasons: first off the church and its surroundings are of the most beautiful in all of Armenia; secondly, a few years back my mom and stepfather married there; and lastly I know once you reach Noravank you are very close to the river I am named after. As soon as the Gazelle stopped I ran to the back church to light a candle, and right after went to my spot and chilled. As we took the cliché picture on the steps of the first church, I remembered being a little girl in a flower girl dress climbing as everyone was looking at me like I’m crazy… Once everyone was through taking pictures, we reentered the van and took off. It took us 25 minutes to exit the parking lot because “This Is Armenia” and everyone had their own mission. We had one more spot, Datev Vank and then finally we would arrive in Shushi. Unfortunately, the aerial trail tram, the longest in the world, which had opened recently was closed for the day. Bummed we got back on the Gazelle. But we’ll be back to Datev soon enough.
The Artsakh border was so relieving.. Finally we made it. The drive from the border to our house was filled with songs and fun, and from the first glance our house looked awesome. We unloaded the van and claimed rooms. The house was great and the family was cool! Finally we were done with the Gazelle. 16 hours had passed, our butts had flattened, and we were all relieved to finally say we’re HOME!
Երկու շաբաթ եղաւ որ մենք հոս ենք: Ամէն երկու օր անփոյթ բայց կատաղի յանդիմանութիւն կ’ստանանք մեր խմբի ղեկավար Վաչէէն որ «պլոկ» գրենք: Օրէ օր, խումբի անդամները կը նստին ու կը գրեն, եւ տակաւին ես գաղաբար չունէի գրած նիւթիս մասին: Միայն գիտէի որ կ’ուզէի Հայերէնով գրել որովհետեւ տասը տարիէ Հայկական դպրոց գացած էի, եւ նաեւ Ամերիկա մեկնելէս աոաջ, իբր հա մալսարանի դաս ալ արի: Անկէ զատ հոս ըլլալս երաւակայութիւնէս աւելի հայրենիքիս կապած է: Իմ աոաջին գալո ւս առթիւ ամէն ծանօթներս ինծի ըսին ուր երթամ եւ ինչ ընեմ եւ որքան գեղեցիկ է ամէն ինչ: Հիմա որ հոս եմ, գիտեմ ճիշդ ինչի մասին կը խօսէին որովհետեւ սպասումներս գերազանցած են: Ուր որ երթանք ամէն կողմ գեղեցկութիւն կայ եւ հրաշալի է գիտնալով որ դալար դաշտերը եւ լեոներով որ շրջապատուած ենք, ամբողջութեամբ մեր հայրենիքին բնական գեղեցկութիւնն է: Վեոադարնալով Ճաւախքէն, մեր խումբը պիտի վիճաբանի որովհետեւ աոաջին անգամ ըլլալով լոգանքի կարք չունինք, եւ ամէնքնիս պիտի նստինք Տիկին Լիլիկին տունը եւ վստահաբար նոյն գաղաբարը պիտի անցնի մեր մտքէն – Ինչպէս այսքան շուտ անցաւ աոաջին շաբաթը: Կարծես թէ դեո նոր Կիւմրի հասանք, բաժնուելով մեր միւս խումբէն որ արդէն մտերմացած էինք իրենց հետ, գալով օտար շրջանի, եւ հիմա արդէն եկրորդ շաբաթն է: Դժուար պիտի ըլլայ բաժանուիլ ամէն այս պզտիկներէ որ կ’ուզենք մեր հետը տուն բերել եւ մեկնիլ մեր տունէն: Սակայն, պիտի ձգենք գիտնալով որ ճիշդ բան մը ըրած ենք եւ այս պզտիկներուն առիթ տուած ենք որ ամառնին վայելէն: Շարունակել մեր յաջորդ քայլին, պիտի կրկնենք նոյն ծրագիրը գիտնալով որ այս նոր Շուշիի պզտիկները ինչպէս պիտի ըլլան, բայց գիտենք որ անմիջապէս պիտի սիրահարուինք ամէնուն հետ, եւ շատ հաւանաբար նոյն բանը պիտի պատահի Պրոշիանի մէջ ալ:
Ուր որ երթանք կը կապուինք պզտիկներուն հետ, եւ որովհետեւ կ՝ընենք բոլորս մէկ միասին եւ մէկ նպատակով մեր գործը աւելի դիւրին կ՝ըլլայ: Պզտիկներուն ժպիտները տեսնելը եւ ամէն օր իրենց հրճուած ձեւով մեզ դիմաւորելը մեր բոլորին սիրտը կը հալեցնէ եւ կ’անդրադարձնէ օրէ օր որ ճիշդ որոշումը ընտրած եմ Youth Corps-ին մաս կազմելուն եւ ամառս Հայաստան անձնելը: Քանի մը շաբաթէն երբ մեկնինք ու երթանք մեր Ամերիկայի տուները 1Յ նոր ընտանիքը անդամներէս պիտի բաժնուիմ եւ նորէն կեանքս մինակս պիտի շարունակեմ ու մինակս որոշումներ առնեմ նորէն:
We have been here for about two weeks now. Every other day we get a nonchalant yet wrathful scolding from our group leader, Vache, to write a blog. Day by day, every one in my group has been sitting there writing their blogs, and yet, I had no idea what to write about. I just knew that I wanted to write in Armenian because aside from going to an Armenian school for ten years of my life and taking a college course Armenian class the semester before coming to Armenia, being here has linked me to my homeland more than I could have ever imagined. I kept getting told how beautiful everything was and where to go and what to do, it being my first time here. Now that I’m here, I know exactly what everyone was talking about because everything has exceeded my expectations. Everywhere we go, there is beautiful scenery all around- and its heartwarming knowing that the greenest fields and all around mountains are all a part of our country’s natural beauty. As we return from our wonderful weekend in Javakhk, we’re going to fight over our for-the-first-time-unscheduled shower list and sit down at Digin Liligs house and I promise you the same thought is going to go on in every one of our heads – how did the first week fly by so quickly ?? It feels like just yesterday that we arrived in Gyumri, splitting away from those we had gotten so close with in Yerevan, and coming to an unfamiliar city, and now it’s week two. We are going to have a hard time separating from all the kids we want to bring home with us and leaving what has become our home. However, we’re going to leave knowing that we have done something right and made a part of all these kids’ summer. As we move on to the next step of our program’s journey, we are going to repeat the cycle by being nervous about what these new kids in Shushi are going to be like, but know that we are instantly going to fall in love with every single one of them, and the same thing will probably happen in Broshyan too.
Everywhere we go we are getting attached, but it’s easy to move on to the next step because we do it as a whole group – we do it as a family. Seeing the kids smile and having them run up to you to give you the biggest hug just makes our hearts melt and makes me realize over and over every day that I made the right decision by wanting to be a part of Youth Corps and spending my summer in Armenia. Now once we leave Armenia and go our separate ways it’s going to feel weird knowing that each and every one of us now has to adjust to what comes next on our own.
Every evening, Melanie, Margaret, Sevana and I sit down and plan what to do with our Advanced English students the next day. We had already talked about family, school and hygiene with them, and were starting to run out of ideas when Sevana suggested we ask the students what they would change and what they would keep the same if they were president of Armenia. We were worried about whether or not we could help them with political terms or if they would even be interested at all, but the responses we got helped us see the changes needed in Armenia through a child’s eyes and the simplicity of most of their suggested changes showed some of the roots of the troubles Armenia faces.
Many of our students had worries that we would have expected to hear from adults. These children are so much more aware of their surroundings than we had expected. They share the household stress with their parents who are struggling to make ends meet. Hasmik Hovasepyan says,
“If I were president of Armenia, I would create more jobs because I want to help people. I shall create more buildings because I want people to have homes.”
Hasmik is 12 years old and has worries that I have never seen in an American preteen, who would have been more worried about the latest video game or trendy outfit.
Trash has never been a problem for us in the two weeks we’ve been in Gyumri because there is a dumpster located about two blocks away from our temporary home and we produce very little trash since we don’t cook our own food and don’t clean much, but our students showed us that trash is a huge problem for Gyumri’s smallest citizens. 13 year old Jenya Hovhannisyan says,
“I would create a law forbidding trash cans in the streets.”
While Jenya wanted fewer trash cans, 14 year old Gor Hovhanisyan
“would eliminate trash.”
We had seen trash on the streets of Gyumri, but began noticing it more after reading our students’ responses. As Unger Gevorg explained to us, there are no laws about trash on the streets, and people do not care to find a trash can, instead choosing to dump whatever trash they have on the streets.
The innocence of the children really showed in some of their responses. 13 year old Angela Apriyan would
“build parks for children and… give money and clothes to orphanages… and establish flowers and trees in streets.”
12 year old Alina Mkhoyan wants to
“eliminate criminals” and “have world peace.”
11 year old Marian Nahapetyan would
“eliminate money because people commit crimes for money and it is not needed.”
14 year old Andranick Khachatryan
“would buy wonderful footballers for our country because today football is not good in Armenia.”
But some of the most memorable responses were the most serious ones. 14 year old Gor Hovhanisyan wants
“to help for women and and laws that prevent parents from hitting their children.”
Hearing that from Gor, who is usually bouncing off the walls in our classroom was incredible. It just emphasized the fact that we learn something new about our students every day. I personally had always underestimated him and am sorry it took so long to realize his true colors. 11 year old Roza Simonyan wants
“Ararat to be ours again,”
but she had trouble explaining how she would reach that goal if she were president.
12 year old Arpi Antanyan
“would build skyscrapers and change every building [and] keep the same only the natural beauty of Armenia.”
Like Hasmik and Arpi, many of our students wanted better, newer buildings in Gyumri, which brought to light that over two decades after the 1988 earthquake, there are still buildings that need to be rebuilt and the ones that survived the earthquake are deteriorating over time. Arpi also wants to
“create a law about not smoking”
because she wants people to be healthy. In a country where smoking is accepted in almost every location, Arpi’s response gave me hope that there are still those who care about the health and wellness of the people. The final sentence of Arpi’s response was most memorable:
“I would beautify my country so well that nobody would want to leave.”
As children of Armenian emigrants, we know that the conditions in Armenia are unbearable for many people, but it was beautiful to see that there are still those who believe that Armenians should stay in Armenia.
At the end of it all, Andranick said it best, “my country Armenia is the best in the world.” It is these children with their big ideas and innocent outlooks on life who will grow up to be the changes that Armenia needs in order to live up to its full potential. I’m so proud that we were able to see the beginnings of it.
For the past three years every time I heard the song Yelek Hayer I would remember Patil Aslanian as my counselor at AYF Camp Big Pines going crazy, yelling and screaming for the blue color to remember the words to this simple song. From today on, the most striking memory of Yelek Hayer will forever remain from July 18, the seventh day of Jambar in Gyumri.
When our group leader, Vache asked us what the mandatory song for 2011 Gyumri Jambar should be, Patil and I looked at each other and said Yelek Hayer. The rest of the group quickly agreed because it is an upbeat song and easy to learn. The second day of Jambar we started song practices and as the only counselor in my color familiar with the song I automatically became the crazy song teacher, who would yell at 40 innocent faces when they would forget a single word. Throughout the week I became more and more competitive always fearing that these kids would hate me. I made one girl cry for an hour, had the mischievous boys sent to all four corners of the class and even had to start using corners in the hallway. Every day after song practice I would think to myself, why am I doing this… these kids are on summer vacation, and look forward to Jambar all year. I am being the counselor I always hated.
Today I walked into song practice with a big bottle of water, ready to yell my lungs out. To my count of yerek, chors (three, four) the classroom shook. The kids amazed me. Not only did they sing loud, but it finally sounded like they understood the song. They not only had extreme passion for the song, they also had a will to impress us. You could feel the words resonated in their lives. Following Yelek Hayer, they sang Sardarabad and Kini Litz like I had never heard before. At the end when I turned to them and smiled they started to cheer, because finally I approved. If I knew my approval meant that much I would have given it much sooner. I will remember many things from the summer of 2011, but this will definitely have a different place in my heart.
Back home, I am just a college student who makes little to no difference to my surroundings, but here, I am able to influence our youth. The future leaders of Gyumri, Armenia can be shaped during their participation in Jambar. These kids are far from ordinary, they are smart, talented and energetic beyond belief.
Before Jambar started, I really underestimated the influence of our program. These kids are not only having a good time at camp for a couple weeks, then going home to their usual lives. They are molding into better, more open-minded, and Hayrenaser versions of themselves.
My experiences thus far this summer, have already shown me that my career choice is the right one for me. As a teacher, I would give up anything to have this type of effect on my future students.
As my parents and I sit and wait for my “travel buddies” to arrive, I think to myself “what have I gotten myself into?”
What if I don’t fit in with our group? What if the kids at the camp don’t like me? How will i survive without my parents for 6 weeks?
Then I speak to the AYF members who were there at 3 am to make sure we are okay and I realize all the nervousness is probably for nothing. We’re in this together and all the changes and new things we will experience will be together.
I’m not worried anymore. Maybe a little sleepy, but not worried.