(Berkeley, CA, USA)
I had been to Armenia five times prior to the last time my plane touched down in Yerevan this past July. I thought I knew what to expect from the country I had grown to love during my past visits. But this time around, I saw Armenia in a way I had never seen her before – raw and uninhibited. I saw the best and the worst she has to offer, and developed an understanding of life in Armenia I never imagined. Indeed, I came as close to being a “deghatsi’ (local) as possible for a 21 year old girl from Los Angeles. There were times that were very difficult, but there were also times that were the best of my life thus far. Combined, these experiences comprise the most incredible and meaningful summer of my 21 years.
I have a family in Gyumri: a mom, dad, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, amazing neighbors, and a nephew. The ties that bind us might as well be made of blood. I didn’t think that I would become as attached to them as I did. Their joy was my joy. And their pain was my pain. So when my host father was diagnosed with cancer, the family’s worries became my worries. Waiting to see how Baron Khachig would be treated and what would happen was agonizing. As soon as our neighbors and extended family found out about the disease, there was an immediate and encouraging outpouring of support, thoughts, and prayers like I had never before seen in the US. The sense of community, the unprecedented kindness and generosity, and the unconditional love seemed unreal. But as the weeks came and went, there was no end, and I realized that this was the way of life in Gyumri: the walls partitioning families in an apartment building crumbled in the face of strife. There was an air of hope and genuine compassion strengthening people take on their problems head on. I was inspired beyond expression.
During the course of my summer in Gyumri, I worked at Healthy Center NGO, a non-profit organization dedicated to rehabilitation services and health promotion, and the Gyumri Sanepid, or local health department. At Healthy Center I translated and wrote grants and taught English. I connected deeply with Naira, Satenig, and Nune, my coworkers, who treated me more like a long-lost sister than a temporary volunteer. They took me to a nearby village for an overnight stay where we ate carrots straight from the ground, napped on mounds of just-harvested grain, and made khorovadz in the tonir. As soon as our bus dropped us off, the children of the village came running to greet the “American.” Most of the adults of the village had gathered in a courtyard, and as we approached, they ran toward us shouting greetings and invitations to have coffee and watermelon at their homes. Before I left the village, Nune’s mother in law shared an old family credence with me, words of wisdom many of the villagers lived by: “Smile, and life will smile back at you.” Simple as it seemed, she promised it was true.
Working at the Sanepid, the local health department where hygienic, sanitary, and epidemiologic services are coordinated and monitored in Shirak Marz, was a very interesting experience. I now have a bit of insight into Armenia’s health system. As educational as working at the sanepid was, it also gave me hope for Armenia’s future. I worked with many young epidemiologists and health professionals who were optimistic about their role in Armenia’s development. They felt it was their duty to work in a government setting and change its legacy of corruption. My coworkers felt a sense of responsibility and dignity for their work, and knew consciously that their jobs were meant to improve the health of Shirak’s population. To see and feel the sense of duty they brought to their jobs made me want to work with them forever.
And last but not least, there were the Khachatryans, my neighbors. Valer, Rusanne, Lusine, and Narek were my second Gyumretsi family. I couldn’t get home soon enough to go up to their apartment and see Valer and Narek’s new paintings (yes, they were artists), to go to the field with them and watch them paint, to climb up to the roof and stargaze at night, to laugh at each other’s jokes even though we didn’t get them, or to sit with a basket of apricots and contemplate the current state of the world and our lives. They called me their second daughter, and treated me as such. One night, while working on an art project, Lusine even wrapped me in sheets of tin foil in a failed attempt to make a dress out of recyclable materials (yes, she was a designer). I often left their apartment with pains in my ribs and tears streaming down my face – all because I laughed too hard.
The Gyumretsis I was surrounded by MADE my experience, whether they were the wonderful BR/DH volunteers I met there, my host family, or coworkers. I am going to go back to Armenia. Back to Gyumri. I owe it not only to the friends and family I left behind in Gyumri, but to myself as well. Because I don’t just want to be the closest thing possible to a local…