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.
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.
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.
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.
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.