Finding Hope in Armenia

Serda Ozbenian
(Takoma Park, MD, USA)

From day one in Hayastan, I had such a range of emotions, feelings, thoughts that the task of formulating them into coherent words for others to understand seems daunting but it’s been over a month since I left Armenia so I will try….

Looking back now on my time in Armenia, I think about my life there and the people I met, how it changed me forever and how it will shape my future. I think about the great empire that once was and why some refer to Armenia as the “cradle of civilization”. I think about the beautiful landscapes with its rolling hills and scattered villages, the ancient ruins and many monuments dedicated to Armenian heroes, the long, rich history of this little country and its daunting current challenges.

Adjusting back to my life in the States has not been easy. It’s been challenging to blend my experiences there with the life I have here. It’s been challenging to know that I have another “home” so very far away and make sense of what this really means.

My decision to go to Armenia was very spur of the moment. I had heard about the Birthright Armenia years ago and always planned on going but hadn’t really decided on when. A few months ago I decided there was no time like the present and took a leave of absence from my job at an animal protection organization to volunteer with the Armenian Volunteer Corps at a non-profit environmental organization in Armenia, the Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets (FPWC). I was on a mission to learn and to soak up as much as I could in 2 months.

I had a variety of reasons for going to Armenia and I found what I was looking for and so much I didn’t expect to find…  I had a feeling I would fall in love with the natural landscape – I had seen photographs and was very familiar with the variety of unique and beautiful landscapes in the country. What I did not expect was to fall in love with the people.

As a full-blooded Armenian raised in a very traditional Armenian family, I often felt suffocated by my culture. The traditions, the limitations, the gender expectations, so I definitely didn’t expect to gain a new appreciation for the culture but spending time there and meeting locals, observing their way of life, I really did. The hospitality, warmth and closeness of my host family, the staff at FPWC and perfect strangers is something that really touched me. In Armenia, I really felt as though I was a part of a large family. Where people share an identity, look out for you, are open to helping you, whose doors are open to welcome you and whose tables are ready to seat (and feed!) you. In Armenia, the pace of life is slower, more meaningful, more real.

When I arrived in Yerevan I was shocked and disappointed. The flashy capital was not at all what I pictured when I thought of Armenia. I was even more disappointed when I learned more about the city. How old historic buildings were demolished to make way for modern structures. Green spaces cleared to make way for cafés (which there are more than enough of…). Even more disturbing is the difference between the glitzy, polished city in comparison to the modest villages throughout Armenia. Two starkly different and disproportionate worlds…

I rode public transportation to and from work everyday. Though there were plenty of cabs available, I would ride the marshrutka (a van that sits about 10 people but gets packed with 20 or so people and is usually standing room only) and I became quite fascinated with the marshrutka culture. I’ll never forget the first time I saw a woman who was seated grab the purse of a woman who was standing and sit it on her lap. Such a simple gesture but one that really spoke to me on so many levels. I was taken aback by the thoughtfulness of the seated person and the trustfulness of the person standing to allow a complete stranger to hold something so personal and valuable as her purse. I came to see this same encounter day after day and it took me a few weeks to take part in it and allow someone to hold my own purse.

As the Executive Director of the Armenian Environmental Network, an organization dedicated to raising public awareness among the Diaspora about Armenia’s environmental problems, one of my reasons for going to Armenia was to learn more about the specific environmental challenges Armenia faces, to see them firsthand and meet those working to protect the beautiful and unique environment there. I got my wish…  I saw the lack of waste management, the polluted water, overgrazing, the lack of political will to protect the environment and historical treasures, etc…

It was heartbreaking to learn that most of Armenia’s natural resources are now foreign owned and are constantly exploited. For the right amount of money and connections, it’s possible to hunt highly endangered species or clear an ancient piece of forest for construction without any input from Armenian citizens.

Though I was disturbed to hear about all of the environmental problems, I was inspired by the environmental activists I met that were determined, willing and able to fight the good fight to protect Armenia’s beautiful wildlife and natural places. Though the challenge is great, what’s to be gained (or lost) is also great. For such a small country, a vulnerable and isolated country, Armenia’s natural resources are necessary for it’s survival and ability to function as a self sufficient, independent nation. The rarity and beauty of the natural treasures in the country are breathtaking. Armenia still has a chance to develop sustainably and learn from the mistakes of other nations that are backtracking to fix their environmental damage.

Call me an optimist, call me naïve, but in many ways I see Armenia as a success story. The little landlocked country surrounded by mostly antagonistic neighbors has seen many wars, suffered through a terrible earthquake, faced economic collapse and is still surviving. Sure, it’s easy to dwell on the negative: poverty, unemployment, emigration corruption, etc… but I believe there is still hope. Things are changing in Armenia. People are waking up. Grassroots movements are growing. It’s vital for those of us Armenians living outside of the country to not give up hope, to foster hope and not only help keep Armenia afloat but to help it develop and prosper. Where there is a will, there is a way and I witnessed the will in many people in Armenia. Armenia has great potential for growth and I’m excited to participate in its development from both outside and from within Armenia. The opportunity is there and I invite other Armenians to do the same.

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