Why Birthright Armenia?

Ani Nina Oganyan
Los Angeles, USA

994400_10151962604397025_1705602273_nIt has been about a month now that I have been back “home” in America. I arrived in Armenia early August to participate in a volunteer program I had read about online; something I casually stumbled upon as I was researching for a paper. Never would I have imagined that this program would leave such an overwhelming feeling deep in my heart. And never have I been asked the question “why”, so many times by so many people in my life. Why volunteer? Why Armenia? Why Birthright Armenia?

Sometimes these questions are the hardest to answer. No, wait, these questions are always the hardest to answer. The best, and my personal favorite answer, is “why not”, but some expect a better response. For as long as I could remember I have always been a volunteer. I remember volunteering to help my mom around the house and my teachers after school. At the age of ten, I began volunteering at a local animal shelter, and during the holidays I volunteered with local food and toy drives; the list goes on. Every volunteer has their list of reasons for why they choose to volunteer, but one of the reasons many will have in common is that volunteerism is a way of committing social change. Change starts within us, each and every one of us. I believe that in order for us to really see any sort of social change, we need to be the driving force behind it. Throughout the years, I have come to realize that volunteering is not only a form of giving/charity, but rather an exchange. This exchange, though it may sound selfish, keeps me sane and fulfilled. This exchange for me is where I offer my abilities and service in exchange for a challenge. This may sound like the smallest of exchanges, but for me this challenge changes me everyday, this challenge is what makes me, me.

My family moved to the United States when I was just shy of two years old. At the time, Armenia was going through some of its darker days, so my family decided it was best to go away for some time, but little did they know that “some time” would turn into more than two decades. The word diaspora refers to a scattered population with a common origin in a smaller geographic area, according to Wikipedia. As a diaspora Armenian, scattered is exactly how I feel, day to day. There is an intangible presence that I always feel lurking by, that only begins to fade when I am in the presence of a certain people, culture, mountains, food, soil, and this small collection of land called Armenia. It is an unexplainable connection that I have within me; a connection I have heard many others refer to, and for them, it is also sometimes unexplainable. Sometimes it is simpler to just say, “It is THE homeland.”

About a year ago, I began to research for a paper I was writing. Several webpages and blogs later, I was reading an article published by the Women’s Resource Center of Armenia. First, I was excited to learn of such an organization and then I was intrigued by the topic that it covered. Soon after I clicked a link that took me to the Birthright Armenia list of internships page. As I delved deeper, I learned of an internship opportunity with WRCA through the Birthright Armenia program. I completed the online application within the next few weeks and before I knew it, I was in the Birthright office on orientation day. This program is true to all that it states and more. I learned to read and write in Armenian, which my grandfather was beyond excited to hear about, I met and worked with amazing individuals, have made life long friends who in their own ways inspire me, and embarked on weekly excursions that kept us on our toes. Literally, I, a girl who has worn sneakers a hand full of times, was repelling off of a cliff! During orientation, I was told that the office staff would be there for us, but I assumed it was just a common thing that is said in such programs, but to my surprise, this was a fact. The office staff became family and, with newer volunteers, our family grew weekly and when it came time to leave, as sad as it was, it was never a goodbye, always a see you later. I won’t cover all that the Birthright Armenia program offers, because the information is there for when you fill out your application, however from time to time I think of the phrase “the opportunities are endless,” and for me, it took this experience to really bring this phrase to life. When looking for home, a challenge, or an opportunity, I look to my birthright.


Mis conocimientos del idioma armenio y mi abuelo

Cristina Nerguizian
Uruguay, 2012
(For English, please scroll)

Mis conocimientos del idioma armenio y mi abuelo
A la memoria de mi abuelo, Coco…

Es cierto, no soy una experta en el idioma armenio. ¡Qué digo, ¿experta?! Ni siquiera soy un hablante de nivel básico, o tampoco soy capaz de leer  trabajos o notas periodísticas y muchísimo más lejos estoy aún de poder escribirlos.

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Sin embargo, el haber aprendido el idioma en mis meses como voluntaria de Birthright Armenia me ha enriquecido no sólo desde el punto de vista lingüístico, personal, y un largo etcétera, sino que me ha acercado a comprender sentimientos, costumbres, hábitos, que anteriormente veía con simpatía, bien de cerca, pero no llegaba a comprender en su más profunda esencia. El haberlo continuado desde casa a no hizo sino reforzar esta comprensión. A esto le sumo la parte práctica: tengo la capacidad de comunicarme rudimentariamente.

Puedo pecar de reiterativa con el tema, sin dudas tengo a más de uno bastante cansado de escucharme hablar sobre Armenia. Si, Birthright Armenia me dio muchas posibilidades que yo supe aprovechar, y por eso las comparto. Pero hay algo que tengo guardado conmigo que quiero compartir: mi experiencia al regreso, de intercambio con mis abuelos Coco y Alicia, y en particular, mi conexión con mi abuelo en sus últimos días.

Mientras el abuelo estuvo internado hablaba conmigo en armenio. Es más, no me respondía cuando le hablaba en español: “abuelo, ¿querés agua?…Agua, abuelo, dale, tomá un poquito…” y no se movía ni asentía. Hasta que en un momento le dije ya como último recurso, y como con insistente desesperación: “Abuelo, ջուր… մի քիչ… չես ուզում? ջուր?” y recibí su respuesta mediante su asentimiento. ¡Fue un logro!

También hablaba sobre el sanatorio y las enfermeras y estas por supuesto no lo entendían. Ese hecho nos transformó en cómplices  y nos transportó a una dimensión, a un lugar en el que estábamos sólo nosotros, y solamente por haber podido acompañarlo con mi complicidad, me hizo pensar en cómo valió la pena haber aprendido armenio. Fueron días difíciles y tristes también, pero estos recuerdos siempre me arrancan una sonrisa.

Y cuando llegó lo más triste, a pesar del dolor, sentí una paz y satisfacción al saber que él hubiera estado orgulloso de mí, porque las palabras que dijeron sobre su persona el Arzobispo y sus compañeros, mal o bien, las comprendí. Comprendí que fueron muchas las personas que vieron en él a ese hombre maravilloso, incansable trabajador, referente para muchos, incluida yo. Y todo lo dijeron en Armenio, y yo lo comprendí. Sí, lo comprendí como pude.

Hoy Coco se volvió invisible, quizás esté tomando un oghí con más de uno por ahí ahora…

Sólo quiero compartir que, mi aprendizaje del idioma armenio fue más que un aumento de nomenclatura en mi cabeza… Me hizo mejor, porque me hizo más cercana a mis abuelos. Y de ellos sólo pueden surgir cosas buenas.

Montevideo, octubre de 2013.

My knowledge of the Armenian language and my grandfather

In memory of my grandfather, Coco …

Admittedly, I’m no expert in the Armenian language. What am I saying, what expert? I’m not even an entry level speaker, I can’t read journalistic work and I am very far away from being able to write fluently.

However, having learned to speak the language in my months as a volunteer with Birthright Armenia has enriched me not only from the point of view of grammar or vocabulary but I have come to understand feelings, customs, habits, that I previously viewed with sympathy, but did not understand in their deepest essence. To this I add the practical part: I have the ability to communicate on basic level.

I can be too repetitive with the subject and sometimes I am tired of hearing myself talking about Armenia. And if Birthright Armenia gave me all these opportunities, then these are meant to be shared. But there is something that I have kept with me and I want to share now: my experience of  return—the exchange with my grandparents, Coco and Alicia, and especially my connection with my grandfather on his last days.

My grandfather was determined to speak to me in Armenian. Thus, he did not respond when I spoke in Spanish. “Grandpa, do you want water? … Agua, abuelo, dale, tomá un poquito” and he wouldn’t move or nod. Then as my last resort and with insistent despair, I asked, “Պապիկ, ջուր … մի քիչ … չե՞ս ուզում: Ջու՞ր” and then I received his confirmation. It was an achievement!

He also spoke about the hospital and the nurses and most of these I could not understand. That time we were transported to a new dimension, to a place where it was just us. Being able to share my compassion, made ​​me think about how much having learned Armenian was worth. Those days were difficult and sad too, but these memories always bring tears and a smile.

And it was the saddest thing, despite the pain, I felt peace and satisfaction knowing that he would have been proud of me, because the words that the Archbishop and his companions said about him, rightly or wrongly, I could understand. I understood that, like me, there were many people who saw him as that wonderful man, a tireless worker. And everything was said in Armenian, and I understood. I understood as I could.

Today Coco has become invisible…

Just want to share that learning the Armenian language for me is more than new words in my head… It is a bigger thing, because it made me closer to my grandparents. And of them only good things can arise.

Montevideo, October 2013.

I came, I saw, I conquered

Nairi SharabNairi Sharabkhanian
Canada, 2013

He scrunched his nose and raised one eyebrow.

“Why would you leave your rich life to come volunteer here?”

I was shocked. No one has ever referred to my life as “rich” and besides that, this was the first time someone was questioning my decision to come to my homeland for a 14-week volunteer service.

I sighed and replied, “Why not?”

One of the greatest difficulties in my life has been my identity. I am an Armenian living in a non-Armenian country, how could that be? I have devoted my entire life to teaching my Canadian “odar” friends about my culture and my people. I feel like it is my duty to return to my homeland and share my skills and talents with my own people.

“Are you getting paid?” he asked. “No,” I said. “You’re crazy for working here and not getting paid.”

Did this man really think I would only come here to get money?  “I understand life is difficult here,” I replied. “But every country has its issues. I’d rather live, with some struggles, in my homeland than in any other country. “

I volunteer because I care, because I’m human, and because this was the idea that I was brought up with in my household. I didn’t come here to change the country or the people. I came here to change myself, change my views of Armenia. The best way to understand Armenia is to live here. That’s why about 8 months ago I decided it was time for me to come and learn about my country and applied to Birthright Armenia, which ended up being an experience of a lifetime.

I CAME to Armenia to be with my people. By the end of my stay, I SAW Armenia from a completely different perspective than when I initially began my journey. Furthermore, I CONQUERED my fears and did something that only few Armenians have done in my community.

My four months in Armenia has been a journey. Feelings of confusion, frustration and being overwhelmed almost all the time became commonplace. I conquered another fear that I discovered in Armenia, my own journey of self-discovery. Although I was in that taxi for only 5 minutes it felt like hours. A million emotions were triggered by this man’s comments and soon I found myself wanting to tell him to keep driving me around so I can continue to tell him how lucky he is to live in a country that belongs to him.

Nairi Sharab_2

Changing Ideas and Realities

Karine Vann
USA, 2013

My ideas of Armenia before this summer were informed by a picture that was far from complete. In this picture, Armenia was a small, socio-economically disadvantaged country that 100 years ago suffered a terrible and devastating genocide, but despite it all celebrated a rich cultural heritage. Other than that, the ideas I held were fragmented and vague.

But the funny thing about ideas is it doesn’t take a lot for one to propel you to action. I think even just the existence of a program like Birthright Armenia is a testament to the fact that for most diasporans, regardless of their involvement in the community, their idea of Armenia – however vague – is quite powerful.

Pre-Birthright Armenia:

My sister and I, despite being given very Armenian names, grew up in a household where Armenian was never spoken to us. But the idea of my Armenian-ness remained a part of my identity as a child largely due to my mother, having been born and raised in Yerevan, realizing on some level that it was important not to let us forget we’re Armenian.  But I lived (like many diasporans I have met since my BR experience) a dual cultural reality.

Growing up, I had on one hand Armenian summer camps, Armenian Sunday School (where I learned a little about the language and a lot about the genocide), and Armenian family gatherings. On the other hand, I had my completely American school and social life, where homogeneity and ‘American-ness’ is kind of key to fitting in. In the end, my American reality won the cultural tug-of-war and once I grew old enough to make decisions for myself about how I spent my time outside of school, Armenian-related activities and events faded into the distance. It wasn’t until the confusing and soul-searching gap years after graduating college that I seriously revisited the Armenian idea and after much internal debate, purchased a one-way ticket to Armenia.

The few weeks before I left, the reality of my decision set in. I started to recognize that my ideas about Armenia were shaky and ungrounded and I became filled with anxiety. I tried to prepare myself for the real Armenia by asking others what it might be like.

Most influential was source #1, my mother. Logically, she should be a reliable source – she grew up in Yerevan. Though my mother’s work keeps her involved in Armenian events and politics, it has been decades since she lived there and the ideas she expressed to me about Armenia failed to prepare me for the reality – I might even say some of her ideas set me back a few steps (a prime example being her assurances that lacking any language skills whatsoever wouldn’t “really inconvenience me that much,” and Armenian “isn’t that difficult to learn”).

Another cause for anxiety came from source #2, my cousin.  At the time, I wasn’t aware of this small, but very important fact, that she has never actually been to Armenia. Not only did listening to her ideas about Armenia not prepare me for my trip, but her negative perceptions on what life would be like contradicted those conveyed by my mother and I was left confused and unsure what/who to believe.

And then there’s source #3, my sister, who did a 4 week Habitat for Humanity program 6 years ago and, to the horror of my mother, came back with a tattoo of the Armenian flag on her chest. I think this one speaks for itself.

Essentially, I realized that while it’s important to take others’ accounts into consideration, listening to or reading about others’ impressions and ideas is no substitute for real experience. Armenia is made up of much more than the ideas of its inhabitants and visitors – it’s a very real place, with real beauty  to be admired and real issues to be confronted. No idea can fully prepare you for the reality, the reality you make for yourself.

During and Post-Birthright Armenia:

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My first few weeks living in Armenia were incredibly humbling. I won’t even hesitate to say that not speaking the language was the main reason. One example: Every day on my way to and from the metro station, I walked by a large shookah where vendors sold fresh fruits and vegetables. Every day, I wanted to buy a bag of fresh strawberries on my own to bring home to my host family (who was absolutely wonderful, by the way). It wasn’t until day 17 that I gathered the courage to do so — believe it or not, this was a huge milestone for me.

Another milestone occurred much later and much more gradually, when, to my pleasant surprise, getting ripped off by taxi drivers became a less frequent occurrence. There were plenty more milestones — far too many, in fact, to list in this blog.

By the time I left Armenia, Continue reading

No más un cuento de hadas… Una realidad……

Image— Kevork Micael Nalbandyan,
Uruguay, 2012–13

Para los armenios que nacen en la diáspora dentro de una comunidad armenia la pregunta “¿Qué es Armenia?” es muy fácil de responder. Armenia es el Ararat, es el General Antranik, Kevork Chavush, Serop Ajpiur y todos sus fedaís. Es Gars, Sasún, Sepastia, Mush, Van,  Alashgerd  y Ardahan, son el millón y medio de mártires de 1915. Es el Lehmeyun, kefte, humus, Dhol, zurna, duduk y bailar kochari.

Pero, ¿Qué es la Armenia actual?.  Ah, la Armenia actual es el Lago Sevan, el Dzidzernakapert, Hor Virap, Mer taghe, la ópera y la plaza de la república, un lugar para pasarla bien.

Ir a Armenia fue algo que siempre tuve en mente. Sabía que algún día iba a ir, aunque sea a participar del campamento Hama-homenetmenagan de scouts que se hace una vez cada cuatro años. Pero por febrero de 2012, un amigo me hizo recordar la posibilidad de ir a través de Depi Hayk (Birthright Armenia) y estar en Armenia un par de meses como voluntario. Luego de unos meses y de varias charlas con amigos que ya habían participado del programa, tome la decisión. Es así que un día sin pensarlo demasiado, me senté en la computadora y llené los formularios de la página de Depi Hayk. Casi sin darme cuenta el 24 de Mayo de 2012 estaba sentado en un avión rumbo a Yerevan.

De esta forma desembarqué en una gran aventura que en un principio iba a ser de 3 meses y terminó siendo de casi 8. Es que cuando uno está ahí no puede dejar de absorber cosas y nunca es suficiente.

Mi experiencia cuenta de al menos dos grandes etapas: la primera en Gyumrí y la segunda en Yerevan.

Al llegar a Armenia me sucedió algo muy raro, sentí como que no hubiera llegado a ningún lugar especial. Esa sensación de extranjero o de turista no la sentí en ningún momento de los 8 meses. Desde un primer momento sentí como si toda mi vida hubiera vivido ahí, fue algo muy extraño pero muy lindo a la vez.

Gyumrí…

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A los pocos días de llegar me llevaron a Gyumrí. Ésta es la segunda ciudad en importancia de Armenia, queda al noroeste cerca de la frontera con Turquía.

La experiencia en esta ciudad fue increíble por la sencillez de su gente, su amabilidad y su hospitalidad. Los voluntarios que conocí allí nunca los voy a olvidar, varios de ellos son grandes amigos míos ahora. Nunca olvidaré los momentos compartidos en los viajes en mashutka o tren a Yerevan, los atardeceres que veíamos al final de la calle Paruyr Sevak, las tardes de guitarreada compartiendo historias y unos oghi. Tener la oportunidad de charlar con la familia que te alberga, escuchar sus anécdotas, sus experiencias y la forma en la que ellos ven a Armenia. Es difícil mencionar una anécdota en particular el conjunto de todo lo que hacíamos ahí lo hizo especial.

Yerevan…

A partir del cuarto mes me radiqué en Yerevan, y puedo decir que es una experiencia totalmente diferente a Gyumrí. 

Está muy bueno estar en la capital. Continue reading