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.
Typically, one would say, “I had no idea what to expect” when embarking on such a unique experience such as the one Youth Corps offers; however, I can’t lie, I thought I had an idea of what I was getting myself into. Having years of experience with kids being a Homenetmen scout for 7 years and participating in multiple AYF camp trips, I thought I was a veteran when it came to running a day camp for the children of Armenia. I was wrong, in the best way possible. Day one of jampar in Proshyan has commenced, and I have already learned so much, in such little time. These kids, in one word, are rejuvenating. So full of life and energy, so eager to learn and play, so excited to meet new people and make friends — qualities so rarely found amongst adolescent children nowadays. They are not interested in the latest gadget or the coolest game application, but rather enjoy the simple joys of playing Steal the Bacon or ‘futbol’. On the first day, kids were already learning all our names quicker than we could learn theirs, and volunteering to help us get the younger kids in a straight line for flag ceremony. During our morning exercise, virtually all hands were flung up into the air when the kids were asked if any of them had an exercise they wanted to share and demonstrate for everybody. They would all soulfully sing ‘Mer Hayrenik’ and ‘Mshag Panvor’ without reluctance during song practice. These demonstrated qualities of eager participation and helpfulness may seem expected or standard, but if you have had any experience with young children at all, you would know they are hard to come by in this day and age. These young kids show so much promise, it’s inspiring. My most treasured moment from the first day was meeting a young lady named Aida, who is 13 years old. She has the most advanced English speaking skills from the group, which she told me she learned on her own during her free time. She has successfully taught all three of her younger siblings English to the best of her abilities. Throughout the entire day she continued to speak to me in English, regardless of the fact that I was responding in Armenian. She later confessed that she wished to have conversations with me only in English to further advance her English speaking skills. This kind of ambition and hard work was absolutely astonishing for me. It wasn’t that I expected the kids of Proshyan to be lazy or incompetent; I expected them to be energetic and clever, yet they’ve exceeded all my expectations. I thought I had come here to help give these children life and knowledge, yet that’s exactly what they’ve given me. They’ve given me life in showing me that our Armenian youth shows great promise and potential, and knowledge that our culture’s future lies in the great hands of these aspirational, enthusiastic, and intelligent young adults. I thought I had come to Armenia to change lives, but they are changing mine.
Honestly what can I say? I am living one of my life long dreams; I’m home! By now you know that we have already toured Yerevan and my group is in Stepanakert for our first week at camp.
I came on this trip knowing there was going to be a language barrier, but I knew we could overcome it. I knew that there would be behavior difficulties, but by working together we can learn to understand each other. What I wasn’t prepared for was the emotional aspect. Every time I speak to one of the children at camp, I am amazed more and more. Today, there was one camper in particular that stood out to me. A twelve year old girl named Lilit. During free time I was walking around with a few of the other campers getting to know them. Suddenly, with much excitement, Lilit walked up to me and asked if she can speak English with me. Feeling confident and in my element I agreed. For the next twenty-five minutes we had a full conversation in English. Lilit kept asking me questions, as if she liked hearing me speak. Finally, I stared asking her questions to which she answered with short but sweet answers. I knew that something about the way I was speaking was very interesting for her.
Lilit asked me if I had been anywhere else in the world other than Armenia. I told her that I had been to Mexico but nowhere else. I reiterated the question to her. She told me she hasn’t been anywhere else but it’s been a dream of her’s to go to France and America. She told me that her father had promised her that for her sixteenth birthday he was going to take her to France. What she said was very heartbreaking to hear. She continued to say that even though her father promised her, she didn’t have much hope because of her family’s difficult economic conditions. All I could do was say encouraging words and I try to spark a bit of hope about her father’s promise.
Dear sweet Lilit, keep faith and hope in your father and keep dreaming. One day your dream will also come true. Keep that amazing smile on your face and continue to shine bright.
I can’t wait to meet the other children and get to know them. I could travel the world and never find another place like this. I’m 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.