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.


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How I Found Out about Birthright Armenia

Sascha Aref
Chattanooga, TN, USA

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For many years, I have heard stories about young people having a “birthright trip” to Israel. The way I understood it, if a person is of Jewish heritage, they are entitled to a birthright trip to their motherland. And I remember always thinking this was so neat, such a wonderful opportunity. And then my thought process would always lead me to thinking about how nice it would be to go to MY own motherland of Armenia.

My exact thoughts were, “Hey, that is not fair there is a Birthright Israel, what about Birthright Armenia!?” So I jokingly googled Birthright Armenia and didn’t really think I would find much. But to my surprise, a sonic happy boom went off in my brain. There it was, Birthright Armenia!!! WOW! Is this for real? Seriously? Why hadn’t I heard of this before? I was astounded to the max. And then studied the web page like a book for several weeks.

I knew that Birthright Israel offers a two week tour of the country which is great. However, I quickly realized that Birthright Armenia is actually an even better experience than that. With Birthright Armenia you can live in the country for up to a year and really experience a deep understanding of the people and culture. I grew with excitement. It was about four years later that I went to Armenia and volunteered with the program. My thrill led me to thinking I have this amazing chance to live in Armenia, and I have got to choose the perfect time to go and stay as long as I can. I finally decided to make my Birthright Armenia trip happen during my graduate program. I lived in Armenia and volunteered at World Vision for five months. I was also lucky enough to coordinate the volunteering at World Vision with my graduate course work. I’m forever thankful for the experience and it all happened because of a joke. It is funny how things work out.

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

In Love

Tatevik Movsisyan
USA, 2013
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This summer I fell in love… with Karabagh
In love with the luscious green interweaving with war torn buildings.
In love with the flowers growing out of concrete.
In love with the view of Stepanakert from Shushi.
In love with the magical jontik wanterfall.
In love with the spirit of its beautiful people.
In love with the kid that sang “karabaghtsi” at Gandsasar with so much emotion and heart that it brought me to tears.
In love with the kids hanging out of their windows at the camp in Gandsasar asking if we’d be back tomorrow.

This summer I fell in love…with Yerevan
In love with purple bus number 28 that arrived at 9:15 every morning with enough standing room to get me to work.
In love with the bus driver that smiled and said “khntrem” (you’re welcome) when I said thank you every morning.
In love with the grandpa and granddaughter who got off the same stop as me every morning and walked together hand in hand, telling jokes and laughing joyously.
In love with the breathtaking view of the city from the top of Cascade.
In love with all-you-can-eat crawfish at Station pub.
In love with girls nights with Vernashen wine and cheese.

This summer I fell in love… with Birthright Armenia
In love with all of the people I met.
In love with the nights we sang and danced like there was no tomorrow.
In love with the hats, paneer, pamidor sandwiches we devoured on excursions.
In love with Sanahin, Haghpat, Ohanavank and every other place I would have never ventured if it wasn’t for Birthright.
In love with the office and everyone sitting in it making the magic happen.
In love with the serious security guard who makes wooden boats behind the counter.
In love with the idea of being reintroduced to a city I thought I knew. Thank You Birthright Armenia for showing me how much there is to love in a country where everyone is looking for a reason to leave. My list could go on forever. 

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.