My first trip to Armenia was in the year 2000 with my family. Although I was quite young at the time, the trip would leave a lasting impression on me, which would prompt me to visit several times thereafter, for various different reasons – from attending conferences and meetings, to sightseeing and exploration with friends. Although I had visited Armenia many times and contributed voluntarily within the Armenian community of Toronto for many years, I had never been able to volunteer my time and efforts within the country. As I approached my university graduation, I felt as if it was time to visit Armenia for an extended period of time, to give back to my homeland directly – something that I believe everybody of Armenian descent is obliged to do at least once in their lifetime. Luckily, there exists an organization called “Birthright Armenia”, which facilitates diasporan youth volunteerism in Armenia.
I decided to volunteer at the Hrayr Maroukhian Foundation (HMF). Founded in 2009, the HMF is a non-profit Armenian think-tank, committed to the development and advancement of public policy issues that promote the core values of social democracy through education, training, research, and regional and international cooperation. Although a relatively new initiative, the HMF has already began laying the foundations for long-term, systematic solutions to Armenia’s social, political and economic problems, and has contributed to the development of a more transparent, accountable, equitable and prosperous society. Through the HMF, I have been able to take part in several exciting and interesting projects and initiatives. From planning conferences and seminars, to aiding with the day-to-day activities of the foundation, in my short time at the HMF, I quickly realized that Armenia is in great need of such programs, which look to find enduring and practical solutions to the various problems our country faces.
On September 21, 1991, Armenia declared itself independent from Soviet rule, with over ninety-nine percent of eligible voters saying “yes” to statehood. After seventy long years under the USSR, Armenia was once again a free and independent country. While most believed that joy and prosperity would come about, the years immediately following independence would prove to be bleak and disappointing. Ongoing war with neighbouring Azerbaijan, devastation following the major earthquake of 1988, severe economic hardship, unchecked ownership and entrepreneurship and an illegal blockade were just a few of the several problems the newly formed republic faced. The people of Armenia, who had been so optimistic at the ballot boxes, were soon losing faith in the system they had so courageously fought for and, for the first time, feeling a sense of disenchantment toward the idea of independence.
Twenty years have since passed, and unfortunately not much has changed in Armenia’s geo-political and socio-economic situations. No permanent peace has been established with Azerbaijan, hyper-privatization has paved the way for the prosperity of only a few, and Armenia continues to be a blockaded, land-locked country. This visit, however, made me realize one fundamental difference in Armenia – a difference in people’s outlook towards independence.
I happened to be in Armenia during the20th Anniversary celebrations of its re-independence, which was truly a once in a lifetime experience. Seeing tens of thousands of people on the streets of Yerevan with smiles on their faces, stretching ear to ear, made me realize that independence is once again becoming viewed and protected as a privilege in this country. Years ago, many diasporans had been subjected to lectures about how life was so much better under Soviet rule, and how independence has only brought poverty and despair to the country. On September 21, 2011, it became clear to me that after two decades of independence, the people of Armenia are once again ready to realize that that joy and prosperity can come about in a country working towards democracy.
The day-long independence celebrations concluded with a beautiful symphony concert at Yerevan’s Republic Square, and a wonderful fireworks display. As the fireworks went off at midnight, we were all caught off guard and quite scared of the blaring blasts. And it got me thinking…The people of Armenia and Artzakh were hearing similar sounds twenty years ago, under very different circumstances. The exploding sounds of war had now become exploding sounds of happiness and joy, and I cannot explain how proud that can make one feel.
In my short time here, I have been certain of one thing. Armenia is our country and it needs us. It is a young country, full of several social, economic and political problems, and we have to feel a sense of belonging to this land and do our best to actively make a difference here. Gone are the days of Armenia being an ideal in our minds and hearts, represented by a picture of Mount Ararat on the walls of our homes. Armenia is a real country with real problems.
I urge you all, in one way or another, to engage with what is happening in this country, and actively try to be a part of its development and progress. The Hrayr Maroukhian Foundation is just one example of how a dedicated group of Armenians can help achieve and implement real and necessary change in our country. There are several other organizations, groups and initiatives within the country, which strive to make a positive difference in Armenia. It is the duty of all Armenians, regardless of where they live, to keep faith in the idea of independence and to actively try to make Armenia a true and rightful democracy.