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.”
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.