Growing up I was only vaguely aware of being Armenian. My grandfather would refer to it on occasion and sometimes we would eat dolma and tabbouleh at home, but I had no real understanding of my heritage. I didn’t know the language, knew very little about the country, and knew almost no Armenians in the Diaspora. I felt privileged to grow up in diverse communities and to be exposed to so many different cultures, and yet ironically, I had very little exposure to my own.
Fast forward a couple of decades. Over a year ago I was attending graduate school in London, when I happened to make a new friend in a random encounter during a fire drill. Coincidentally, she was my first Armenian friend. She was really the first tangible connection I had to this country, the only person I knew who had lived in Armenia, let alone having been born there. Getting to know her and getting to know more about the country simultaneously truly opened up a new world to me. She will always be important in my life, and the life of my family, because she was the one who told me about the Birthright Armenia program.
Months later, as I was finishing my Master’s degree and desperately looking for work, I was hitting wall after wall. I kept thinking the right job would come along, the right fellowship, perhaps the right PhD program. I felt like I was stuck, like I was waiting for my life to begin again. Then one day I remembered the Birthright Armenia program that my friend had told me about. It had seemed impractical at the time; I was married, paying off student loans, looking to get back on the career track. But as the months passed I also was starting to open myself up to new possibilities, to ideas that weren’t in my five year plan so to speak. It turns out that taking that leap into the unplanned and the unknown was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
My time in Armenia exceeded any expectation I might have had. My graduate studies focused on international development and gender issues, and my time in Armenia afforded me the opportunity to build on those academic foundations with hands-on work and study. I found the volunteer work incredibly interesting and fulfilling, but I also fell in love with the country itself. I adore my host family and truly consider them part of my family now. I learned more than I could have imagined, in terms of the language, the history and the people of this country. I saw some of the most beautiful landscapes I have seen anywhere in the world; did some of the most exciting hiking, caving and exploring I have ever done; ate well, laughed often and felt moments of profound peace.
I am now grateful that I didn’t find a job right when I thought I wanted to; I am grateful for this exquisite detour in my life. My experience with Birthright Armenia fit so perfectly with my own academic and professional background, and fit so well in my own life story, that I almost believe it was meant to happen this way.
I left Armenia not only with a wealth of knowledge, but also a better understanding of where I come from – a better understanding of my family and of myself. And while it’s a cliché, this experience is a gift that really will keep on giving. I have established a connection to Armenia and many of its people that I know can last a lifetime, and that I hope will lead to many more of life’s detours.