I can say with certainty that there are very few people who I would be comfortable calling my family aside from those who are actually related to me by blood. Before arriving in Yerevan, I knew that my Birthright Armenia/Depi Hayk experience would be different than anything I had ever been through before and perhaps the most difficult step would be acclimating to living with a host family. Like most volunteers who have never been to Armenia, I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I landed in Yerevan. I knew that our quality of life would be vastly different than what I was used to back in New Jersey and of course I realized that there would be a new language challenge. When I arrived at my host family’s apartment around 4:30am, my mom was hanging out our top-floor window, waving the driver down with a scarf. The driver was shockingly unfazed by her behavior and in that moment, I was a little bit concerned. We drove into the darkness, right up alongside the apartment building I would call home for the next eleven weeks. My mom, Naira, and sister, Shahane, came down to greet me, offering to lug my bags up the four flights of steps.
Once we got inside and set my things down, I saw my first example of Armenian hospitality—they had stayed up all night baking me a cake that had the word “Welcome” written on it in English. It was such a thoughtful gesture and in that moment I knew that this was a special family. About two days into my stay, I met my host brother, Ashot, who works crazy shifts, so he was only home every few days. Over the course of my first week, everyone still treated me like a guest. Naira and Shahane knocked on my door before entering, lowered the volume on the television so it wouldn’t disturb me, and absolutely insisted on preparing all my meals and cleaning up after me. While I was flattered by their treatment, I desperately wanted to be self-sufficient and even wanted to contribute to the family, buying groceries once in a while and washing my own dishes. Eventually, I gained daughter/sister status in my family, with my mom calling me her “medz aghchig,” her “big daughter.” I knew my place in the family was sealed when we were in the village for New Year’s and a family friend told Ashot he should marry me. Let’s just say that didn’t go over too well with my brother.
While I became good friends with the other volunteers in my program, I spent most of my free time with my family. I watched Russian soap operas on the couch with my mom while we peeled potatoes. I had movie and ice cream nights with my sister and was an enthusiastic audience when my brother played piano. We began preparing for my departure weeks before it actually happened because we knew it would be very difficult for all of us. It was a complete stroke of luck that I got placed with my family, especially considering they were a new host family for our program. I am positive that they changed my experience in Armenia for the better and that whenever I travel there again, I will always have a home and family to go back to.