Retrouvant la Patrie

Le voilà ! Si clairement visible de loin. Si connu et en même temps si insolite. Si grandiose et indescriptiblement beau. Comme si une image de rêves apparaît devant les yeux et devient une réalité.

harut

Ararat ! La première chose, que j’ai vue depuis le hublot de l’avion, en arrivant un vendredi soir à l’aéroport Zvartnots à Erevan. Puis, à travers la baie vitrée du terminal, j’ai pu plus en détail examiner toute la beauté de notre montagne biblique et jouir de son aspect impressionnant.

La prise de connaissance surprenante avec l’Arménie anticipait un séjour aussi remarquable pendant trois mois estivaux dans la patrie de mes ancêtres. Maintenant, à l’expiration de ce temps, je peux dire avec certitude que les émotions et les impressions ressenties pendent cet été, ont surpassé toutes mes attentes. À partir du tout premier jour – la rencontre avec la famille d’accueil, qui m’a accepté, sans exagération, comme son membre et en finissant par la conversation déjà en langue arménienne, avec le chauffeur de taxi, me déposant le dernier jour à l’aéroport, j’étais envahi par un sentiment interne que je suis chez moi. Et c’est étonnant, puisque ce sentiment je ne l’ai jamais ressenti dans aucun pays où j’ai vécu, mais seulement ici, en Arménie, où je me suis trouvé pour la première fois. Un sentiment énorme !

Je sais que sans Birthright Armenia ces émotions seraient incomplètes. Elles auraient été tout à fait différentes car, en effet, cette organisation offre le format idéal pour la perception du pays et de sa vie. A travers les excursions remarquables dans toute l’Arménie et l’Artsakh, les forums avec les représentants de diverses organisations engagées dans le développement du pays, mais aussi la possibilité de rencontrer un grand nombre de personnes différentes, des bénévoles, des Arméniens de toute la diaspora et des personnalités simplement intéressantes. Ainsi, ВА crée l’atmosphère spéciale, la perception vive et émotionnelle de la vie arménienne. Par ailleurs, ВА donne la possibilité de ressentir l’Arménie réelle, en premier lieu par le biais du volontariat, à travers la communication avec ses habitants, la compréhension des problèmes et les complexités de sa société.

Birthright Armenia c’est nous tous : les participants du programme, nos familles d’accueil, les professeurs d’arménien, les guides des excursions, tous qui sont liés à notre séjour ici, dans la patrie. Mais dans son cœur – un petit collectif de personnes sensibilisées et énergiques, aimant leur pays et croyant à son avenir radieux. Moi-même, j’en ai foi et donc je reviendrai absolument pour participer à la construction de cet avenir.

Ayant quitté l’Arménie, rentré dans ma ville, en me rappelant les moments magnifiques passés dans ma patrie, en regardant les photos et en pensant à nouveau à toutes ces personnes que j’ai rencontré: les collègues de travail, les bénévoles de tous les coins du Monde, tous les représentants et les participants du programme, la famille, avec laquelle on s’est vu pour la première fois et même les nouveaux vrais amis, je commence à me rendre compte que ces trois mois étaient, peut-être, la période la plus heureuse dans ma vie. Période de recouvrement de la patrie.

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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

A Student of Armenia

Matthew Nazarian
USA, AVC 2013

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The first thing I learned in Armenia was that, though I’m ethnically 100% Armenian, for all intents and purposes I identify as 100% American. I felt very American, even among Armenian-Americans.  Despite that, I do not feel like my experience was less valuable or less enjoyable. My trip to Armenia became an opportunity to gain clarity on some of the most important differences concerning identity between American and Armenian cultures.  This article will not be a story of an American boy learning what it is to be Armenian but rather becoming a student of the country of Armenia.

At first, I actually had a lot of trouble understanding why people cared so deeply about ethnicity at all.  My own ethnicity had always been something that was in the background. My parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents instilled in me the values of respect, hard work, and hospitality, but the idea that these values might be Armenian in nature rarely entered the equation for me.  My parents chose to teach me these values, and I chose to accept them as my own. Overly simplistic?  Yes.  But during my trip to Armenia I found this focus on the individual to be much more American than Armenian. 

In America, we like to view identity in terms of the individual.  Suggesting that I am one way because I am Armenian and my friend is another because he is Italian is largely discouraged. It is difficult to make generalizations in a public forum without angering people.  We don’t like generalizations here, because we feel they undermine our individuality.  So, if we are being good politically correct Americans, when we talk about a person and the way that he behaves, we will mention how his parents chose to bring him up or how he chose to live his live, but we will not make generalizations about how his ethnicity may have affected his values.

I am not championing this philosophy or saying it is exclusively western.  I am not even claiming that most Americans refrain from making these generalizations; however, I think it is hard to deny that from an ideological standpoint the focus on the individual and individual liberty is as pervasive in the United States as it is in any other country on the planet. In America we have, above all, a shared belief in the value of individual freedom, and this ethos is used as the justification for virtually every movement in the United States.  Whether it is gay rights, the right to own guns, the outlawing of guns, or a justification for war, there is always the argument made that the initiative will in some way preserve or improve the freedom of this country and its citizens. 

Economically, this ideology manifests as a culture of capitalism and on a micro level, a culture of supporting oneself.  For the most part, it is looked down upon in America to live with your parents after your early twenties, while in Armenia it is acceptable even into your thirties. Personally, I always thought that this difference was due mainly to the lack of opportunity for people in Armenia, and I think that it largely is, but what I found interesting was that the young native Armenians were much less forgiving of their own people for this phenomenon.  Almost across the board, young Armenians with whom I spoke seemed to have tremendous respect for the idea that Americans were expected to live on their own.  One even told me “many people [in Armenia] are too lazy to do this.”  Whether the charge of “laziness” is justified or not, I believe that Armenians I met envy this type of financial independence and the individual freedom that comes with it.

 The other side to this argument is that there are many things that Armenians find unappealing about the United States because such radical individuality has its price.  In Armenia, students I taught would express shock at the amount of drug use and violence in the US. They also seemed to generalize Americans as cold and selfish, and on some level they are right.  In America we often neglect the notion of community and of family.  There are strong communities in America to be sure, but the feeling of national kinship in Armenia is much stronger than it is in America.  To understand what I mean, one must look no further than the Armenian sense of hospitality.  While a group of twenty-something Americans quibble over dividing the bill evenly amongst each member of the group, making sure that nobody pays a cent more than they owe, a young Armenian, financially poor by American standards, is happy to treat the group to dinner.  It is no exaggeration that an Armenian will quite literally give you the shirt off his back.  I have seen it happen. 

The many possible reasons for this difference in culture are beyond the scope of this essay, but I believe the power of Armenian fellowship should not be underestimated.  Yerevan, despite being the largest city of a developing country, is a much safer city than most US cities, and I saw far less homelessness in Yerevan than I see in New York or Philadelphia.  Though it is just my own conjecture, I don’t believe it far-fetched to suggest that these observations derive from the tight-knit community in this small country. 

Armenia is a young country with many problems, but it has the benefit of a vocal young population and a diaspora who is invested in its survival.  The younger generation seems to long for their nation to enjoy the same economic and social freedoms as the west, while maintaining their Armenian identity. The question is: What is to be preserved and what is to be improved? In order to answer this question, one must first decide what is central to the Armenian identity—what it means to be Armenian.  In the diaspora we have so many, often conflicting, ideas about this definition.  Therefore, I believe that going forward, the answer to what it means to be Armenian must ultimately come from Armenia itself.

As an American from the suburbs of New Jersey, I do not believe it is my place to be a part of defining what is important to the country of Armenia. But as an Armenian it is my job is to be a student of the issues that Armenia faces moving forward and to use this framework to inform my Armenian identity and the ways I can be a part of Armenia’s growth.

Being a Part of My Homeland

Meghrig Jabaghchourian
Syria, AVC 2012-2013

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I know that I was enough lucky to get a chance of becoming a volunteer with Birthright Armenia and Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC) for the second time. That means sharing more experience, learning new things, meeting different people.

This time I didn’t want to stay in Yerevan meet some tourists because Armenia is not just Yerevan; it is all the places from Gyumri to Martakert.

My First night in Yerevan

I arrived at 2:00 am to Yerevan, the driver told me that I had to go to Gayane’s home. When we arrived there, we knocked the door but no answer. After a few minutes a young man and a boy opened the door. That was Araz, another volunteer and he said “We didn’t know about you” Gayane woke up and said “Oh who are you?” I said I am a volunteer too and she was surprised… Anyway she was a very nice lady, and, after all, this was the first night after a long time, that I fell sleep with no voice of bombs and arms.

Gyumri

So my first step was to go to Gyumri. It is a very nice and ancient city — you touch the culture, the history, and also the pain and unforgettable sadness caused by the earthquake. I had to do something I have never done before working in an NGO called Youth Initiative Centre (YIC). I can’t forget the first day when I had to go to my work place all I knew is that I had to stop the Marshoutka in front of the old town hall. All the people in the marshutka knew that I was a newcomer and that I wanted to go to the old town hall, because I was keeping on asking the driver where we were and whether I had to get off there. In the end, he refused to take money from me. He said, “Du Hyur es estegh, patk chi vjares”

Nelly, Arthur, Gurgen, Anni, Tamara, Kert at YIC… we used to spend all the day together having lunch together which I will never forget, especially eating watermelons.  I learned so many things from them: I learned how to make others smile, how to bring joy and happiness to others, I learned how to help and love,  to create things with  small opportunities, I learned how to give while I had nothing and to feel that happiness and the satisfaction inside when you feel the people you feel their pain and bring a piece of smile to them.

Narine, my host sister, was a mother of two children, Hagpig and Ashotig — my host nephews. They were amazing! It was Hagopig’s birthday when I took him to the kinder garden with Narine all the children there knew about me. Narine and I used to sit at nights and share our issues, our dreams and traditions.

Artsakh

During my childhood Artsakh was inside me. All I remember about Artsakh is a video of the Armenian Soldiers who were fighting in Artsakh war and the songs of my Ante (she used to sing patriotic songs). I also remember how everyone used to joke of me when I was telling them I would become a soldier in the future to keep my homeland safe…

August  2012

I was told I would work with a lady called Susanna Petrosian in Artsakh Youth Development Center and live at her house. Susanna was a nice lady; I used to teach English and organize round tables discussions. I met many young people there. Susanna had three children — Valero Maria and Ovsana, who were all  so kind! Marian, who was 7 years old, used to teach me Russian words.

After 10 days I met Liliane de Cermadec , a producer from France and her work team. She told me they needed a translator and invited me to work with her. While I worked with her I had the chance to visit every place in Artsakh and be closer to my homeland. I will never forget Elada when she told me that they lost their three sons during the war. They were soldiers and the first one died in the prison in Baku. I don’t know if crying or shouting or even whining was enough to explain what I felt inside. Continue reading

TIA – This is Armenia ~

Araz Boghossian
(Canada, AVC ‘12)

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The reason I took months to start writing my first blog was because I simply didn’t know where to begin; I’m completely lost for words and at the same time I feel like I’m going to burst because I have so much to say, so many stories to share; it’s a strange feeling. My experiences were brilliant, unique and unforgettable (These words are such understatements). I’ll simply say that those 18 weeks in Armenia were the best times of my life. I took some 22,000 photos and over 500 videos, which I go through partially everyday, so I could re-live my time in Armenia and be able to bare the distance until I can return again soon.

Having said that…I still don’t know where to begin.

11 April , 2012…

I was very excited to be coming back to my fatherland for the second time; I remember sitting in the plane thinking about Gayane and Avetis (Avo), my homestay mother and brother to be. I was thinking about how it would be to live with total strangers for months. What if we don’t get along? May be I should have gotten my own place? Then I started thinking about my work placement. I got so excited; I couldn’t wait to see what they had in store for me. I was assigned by Jenya at the AVC office to work with Professor Artak Hambarian, the dean of the Engineering Department at the  American University of Armenia (AUA). I started thinking about the different type of projects that they might have for me and what kind of work I would be doing during the four and half months. My mind started to wonder away; I started day dreaming about all the adventures that I’m going to have with my friends, Saro and Tigran whom I had missed so much. I thought of visiting Artsakh for the first time and my heart immediately started to pound; little did I know, I would be visiting Artsakh twice during my 18 week stay in Armenia. I thought of how it would be and painted a picture in my mind, when suddenly I felt my chest being pushed back into my seat and short moments later the plane was off the ground. Half way through the trip I was overwhelmed with strange feelings. At first I was excited about landing in hayrenik, but my excitement slowly dissipated.  It felt like I wasn’t going away to Armenia, it felt like I was returning home from a faraway place. I was puzzled. That wasn’t how I felt the first time I travelled to Armenia. What had happened? Where has all the excitement gone? I didn’t find the answer to that question until I actually arrived in Armenia. Still no excitement, I was “just happy to be home” is what I responded to the question “how do you feel?” from my childhood friend of 19 years,  Saro, who was picking me up from the airport. I didn’t know at the time why, but I never have a higher sense of belonging than when I am in Armenia. I don’t feel that way about any other place, not even for the country in which I was born and raised, nor the place I currently live in, which I’ve been residing in more than half my life.

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Ten hours after I landed, I had to wake up by no choice of my own. It was 5:00AM and I was heading to a military base with my friend Saro. I promised him that I would take photographs and videos of him parachuting out of a helicopter. We got to the base at 7:00AM. It was a bit chilly and rainy, so I had my winter jacket on. We stepped out of the car and the first thing I saw was mount Ara staring back at me. It was rather wide and had several peaks, I closed my eyes and I took a deep breath. The fresh smell of thyme (uorts) filled my lungs; that was my first nostalgic moment in Armenia since 2008.

Later that afternoon, Continue reading