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.


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.