Armenian Volunteer Corps

Welcome to the Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC) blog. Here our volunteers and alumni reflect on their experiences living and volunteering in Armenia. For more information about our programs, visit our website, follow us on Facebook or drop us an email: .

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

See the Ararat and Stay

Diego Benning Wang,
New York, NY, United States

"I have cultivated in myself a sixth sense, by the name of 'Ararat': it is the sense of belonging to the sacred mountain. Today, wherever my fate would take me, this sense will be dwelling in me and remaining with me for the eternity." - Osip Mandelstam

“Inchu es yekel Hayastan ashkhatanki? Aystegh pogh ch’ka!”
This is by far the most frustrating question I have ever been asked by people in Armenia.
The statement per se, however, is evidently flawed.  The convertible racing through the glittering streets of downtown Yerevan, the glamorously dressed women waltzing through the main pedestrian streets with equally dazzling lapdogs in their hands, the young people in upscale cafes dexterously flipping their fingers over the glossy touchscreens of their gadgets, and the magnificent palace-resembling condominiums lining up the highways leading to Ashtarak all defy the notion that Armenia is a country where the economic prospect is nowhere beyond gloomy. More importantly, illusions of the extravagant lifestyle of Armenia’s oligarchy that by all means contradicted the country’s fiscal statistics led to one of the most equivocal misperceptions I had of the country during my first visit.
Another less equivocal but more heart-aching perception I had of Armenian society was the ethnocentric intolerance, which I hereby prefer not elaborating on.
Despite the obvious incorrectness in all the above-stated perceptions, their corresponding phenomena do exist in today’s Armenia, and sometimes even prevail at the surface level. My first sojourn in the country, which lasted three months and was by and large confined to Yerevan, was far from enough for me to gain a comprehensive and unbiased insight into this newly independent country that is so strikingly full of contrasts—extreme affluence of the upper class vs. the sheer poverty of the rural poor, wholesale embrace of the culture of globalization by the young generation vs. staunch nationalism that often tramples upon the national esteem of neighboring peoples, Western-oriented political aspirations vs. profound nostalgia of a recent Soviet past, etc.
It would be extremely difficult to find a country where people are more eager to showcase their culture to the rest of the world than in Armenia. The true appreciation of the greatness of this nation, nonetheless, rests not simply in sightseeing or museum visits, because no monuments could recount the bittersweet stories of such a trouble-afflicted nation that has a glorious past and is struggling to regain its foothold on its ancient homeland in spite of the unimaginable traumas and upheavals of its recent past. The backbone of this nation is and has always been borne by its people whose spirit affects outsiders like me only through the stories they tell, both by words and through actions.
Unlike the vast majority of transient visitors who set foot on this ancient land for an array of purposes, I deeply feel attached to this country. And my attachment to Armenia all started with an arduous desire to behold the graciously snow-capped Ararat and my fellow Christians living underneath.  Due to the complexity of my backgrounds that most people in this long-isolated and ethnically homogenous society would find it difficult to comprehend, normal communications with locals were virtually implausible during my first visit of the country. Loneliness and alienation dominated my feelings alongside a never-fading fascination with the country’s culture.

Fortunately, thanks to the joint efforts of AVC and Birthright Armenia, I found a platform to truly integrate into this country that I now consider my second home. An intense working schedule that deprived me of at least three ours of sleep daily, challenging Armenian classes, daily rides on crowded and suffocating minivans, and regular visits to poverty-stricken towns and villages paradoxically kept me enthusiastic about my every second in Armenia.  My voluntary renunciation of the material wellbeing I had always taken for granted in America turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
During the two months of my second visit of Armenia, I met a myriad of brilliant people, some of which are friends worth cherishing for a lifetime. My homestay experience is particularly worth sharing:

My host family is a household of two—a widowed woman in her late 50s and her 18-year-old son (whose names will not be disclosed). The husband deceased because of an undetected brain tumor when the child was only 10. In order to avoid her son’s conscription into military service, the mother obtained a certificate of disability through her personal connections and thereby lost her job as a teacher of Russian language at a local public school. Unemployable because of the burdensome certificate, the family subsists largely on the mother’s meager subsidies that amounts to roughly 60 US dollars per month, help from her grown-up daughter who lives only two blocks away, and by hosting AVC and Birthright volunteers. The son is studying to be a masseur at a local vocational college on a partial scholarship (that compensates one-third of his tuitions) thanks to his skills in boxing and athletics.  Like many families on Baghramyan Street, the family is bilingual in Russian and Armenian. The mother, who attended a Russian school and finished college through a predominantly Russian-language curriculum, has a more proficient command in Russian than her native Armenian. Despite the economic hardships the family has been doomed into ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the mother still considers herself a true member of Yerevan’s Soviet-educated and remarkably erudite elite. The vintage but grandiose furnishing of her apartment still bears testimony to a materially abundant life during Soviet times. Moreover, unlike most of her former neighbors who have left Armenia for good, owing to her unrelenting love for her country, she has not only remained in Armenia, but also made dedicated efforts in promoting Armenia’s culture by hosting volunteers. I was even amazed at myself for being able to sit at a kitchen table talking for several hours every single day with a woman almost ten years older than my parents.
And such is the story of one morally exemplary Armenian. It is this kind of inspiring story, which you can expect to encounter on a frequent basis once you immerse yourself into this country that not only motivates you to make your own contributions to this country but also sheds light upon a future of a remarkable nation that is destined to withstand all future challenges to its sovereignty.
I have no Armenian origins whatsoever.  But I would wholeheartedly encourage you to volunteer in Armenia with AVC. No matter whether or not your roots can be traced upon this land of antiquity, the experience you will have here will definitely be life-changing.

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Thursday, September 12, 2013

Expecting the Unexpected

Nina Talverdian
USA, 2013

I am part of a generation that has tough stereotypes to beat with the many technological distractions it seems we always busy ourselves with. And it is true that at home, we have life's complications to settle along with staying on top of the hot new buzz circling the internet. However, having traveled to Armenia and volunteered with the help of the Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC) for about 6 months, I learned that the lessons of life lie not behind the computer screen but in the interactions with people face-to-face in a world very different from ours.

Having never traveled to Armenia before, I felt joining a volunteer program was not only a good way to see the country but the best way to learn about its culture and people. I stepped in without any expectations and left with such pride. What lay ahead was a blessing because it was unexpected and enlightening yet emotional and challenging.

I was fortunate to have volunteered in and out of Yerevan in a number of different places. Almost everyone I had the opportunity to work with was pleasant, hard working and respectfully curious. I learned as much from them as they did from me. From the adults who had families to the kids trying to find their way in the world, they offered me an inside look into their lives that I have yet, even after 6 months, to fully grasp. And what made it all the more sweet was I was extending a hand to help which they appreciatively took. Even if I made a fractional difference at placements that stretched from assisting college classes to training former street dogs, the help was graciously accepted. This is not to say this experience came without its trials. Working behind the scenes shed light on their challenges with money and work and everything else in between. I experienced starkly different situations like students comfortably going to university while other families, not too far from the city, lacked the basic necessities to sustain themselves. However, even with all that considered, the positive conditions instilled a sense of hope for the progress in this young country and the negative a sense of how much work lies ahead for her.  

Although 6 months may seem like a lot of time, I left feeling my hand needed to be extended even further for even longer. However, I can safely say I had a very well rounded experience with the guidance of AVC. They offer a chance to immerse into this politically passionate yet calmly warm pool of people who will humble you at almost every turn. Armenia's conditions, societal values and cultural norms prove either to be blessings for some or hurdles for others. In my opinion, AVC gives you the chance to decide for yourself while you are ultimately in control of your own experience.

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Thursday, July 18, 2013

A Summer in Armenia

Griselda Ceballos
United States, 2013

“Im anoone  Griselda e: Hay chem: Mexikoohi em, bayts amoosins hay e”:  As soon as I hesitantly whisper these words the reaction is priceless, an instant connection. I can read and write in Armenian, but I understand and speak very little. The idea of spending a summer in Armenia was something I had been contemplating, yet having it materialize is something completely different. It was a tough decision, as my better half would not be joining me, but I believe the cause is unquestionably worth the sacrifice. My dream is to one day be able to communicate with my husband’s grandparents and share our stories. Without a doubt, an adventure of a lifetime and by far my craziest!
I arrived in Yerevan June 22, 2013 and absolutely love it! This experience so far has been filled with many unforgettable moments as well as a few challenges. I am currently volunteering with AVC at FAR's children support center full-time. I am teaching the older children English and Spanish, and the little ones the Armenian alphabet. The staff is such a great pleasure to work with and the children are equally amazing. So far, I have been meeting many wonderful people and visiting beautiful places along the way. My host family welcomed me into their home with open arms, and from the very first moment treated me like a daughter. If I would have to describe this trip in two words they would be: unforgettable and inspiring. I am so blessed and grateful for the opportunity to not only learn the language, but to also get a comprehensive picture of Armenia itself. If given the choice again, would I choose to do it?  “Yes! In a heartbeat.”

 This experience has taught me so many things, but the one thing that resonates the most is a quote on the wall of one of the AVC offices, “Be the change you want to see in the world” Gandi.

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Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Hi, I’m a random European

Jessica Massucco
UK, 2013

Well Armenia, what to say. I volunteered because I had two months to do something and the Caucasus looked interesting. I was curious.
At least six people in Yerevan told me I look Russian. My Slavic friends will find this hilarious. Sometimes I felt uneasy in Armenia. It is so small, so homogeneous and so isolated. It’s so preoccupied with its past and with ethnic pride. I am not familiar with any of these things. Other times I felt very comfortable in Armenia. I stayed with a lovely host family, easily navigated myself around and met some wonderful activists.
Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC) placed me with the ArmenianEnvironmental Network (AEN), an NGO directed by two former AVC volunteers based in the USA. This was a great place for me. I’d done similar work before and AEN introduced me to brilliant people. Activists in Yerevan are well connected and regularly support each other’s campaigns. This seems essential for a society attempting to balance serious environmental problems with social and political priorities. I learnt a lot about poverty, domestic violence and corruption in Armenia and this reminded me that not all societies can ruthlessly prioritise recycling. It was the reminder I needed and had come to receive.
The Caucasus is a biodiversity hotspot and Armenia’s environment is extraordinary. I was already concerned about Armenia’s environment before I arrived – a detached environmental concern. Now I understand that this land is a Homeland to millions. So much has been sacrificed to protect it; even now soldiers continue to die along the Azerbaijan border.  Having survived so many tragedies it is impossible to imagine that mere plastic bottles and chemical waste could ruin Armenia forever. I hope this can be prevented and I would recommend any curious reader of this blog to volunteer with AVC and support the work yourself.
Thank you Armenia for treating me kindly and teaching me something new.


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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

« Osez, ça en vaut la peine! »

Anait Bagramyan, Canada, 2012

C’est en tant que future psychologue en quête de soi que j’ai embarqué dans l’avion pour l’Arménie. Ma valise était remplie d’ambitions, d’anticipations, d’attentes mais également de peur et d’incertitudes.  Mes études était devenues trop théoriques et travailler au premier front me semblait une nécessité pour ne pas oublier pourquoi j’ai choisi cette vocation.

Le travail
Ma première destination fut une école spécialisée pour enfants en difficulté. Malgré le peu de temps que j’y ai passé, je me suis attachée aux enfants et eux à moi. Une fois la barrière culturelle brisée, l’expérience devint très instructive. J’ai constaté qu’une école reflète l’image de la société dans laquelle elle s’insère, une société aux problématiques variées, en l’occurrence. M’est apparu alors le rôle important d’une équipe administrative dans le système d’éducation, outre la compétence des professionnels et du financement.

J’ai également été envoyée aux ateliers du langage des signes à la fondation franco-arménienne. Entrer dans le monde des sourds était pour moi comme de découvrir l’Atlantide. Ma connaissance de 4 langues et ma formation universitaire ne m’étaient d’aucune utilité. Pour comprendre ces personnes, il faut écouter avec vos yeux et votre cœur. Leur isolement, voire leur invisibilité parmi la population, mènent à l’ignorance, qui donne naissance à la méfiance, aux préjugés et à l’injustice. Pourtant, les seuls réels problèmes de communication dont j’ai été témoin ont eu lieu entre des personnes dont l’ouïe est intacte. Ce que j’ai appris pendant mon bref passage est sans aucun doute précieux.
Ma dernière destination était une clinique privée, un centre sophistiqué avec des ressources financières, une vision avant-gardiste et des contacts. La discussion des sujets encore très tabous dans le pays y est soulevée et des projets de toute envergure y sont montés.  L’orphelinat d’enfants avec des déficiences sévères est un endroit en Arménie que je n’aurais pas connu dans d’autres circonstances. En somme, les trois établissements que j’ai fréquentés avaient des valeurs, des moyens financiers et des clientèles variées. Ces expériences ont été très différentes les unes des autres, mais chacune très enrichissante tant sur le plan professionnel que personnel.    
Le voyage fut rempli d’émotions, c’est le moins qu’on puisse dire.  L’AVC était présent pour m’orienter sur le bon chemin, m’encadrer par moment ou m’ouvrir aux possibilités. Il n’y a pas meilleur moyen de découvrir un pays que d’y vivre et d’y travailler. L’Arménie est une magnifique possibilité à laquelle les gens ont cru et pour laquelle les gens se sont battus, malgré les guerres, l’instabilité, le tremblement de terre et la crise économique. Ce voyage m’a permis de comprendre et d’y croire.
Je ne vous cacherai pas, beaucoup de choses me fâchent en Arménie, mais ce n’est pas parce que je vis et pense comme une canadienne.  C’est  parce que j’aime ce pays du fond du cœur et je ne lui souhaite rien de moins que le meilleur.
Le volontariat en Arménie, c’est plus qu’un travail à l’étranger. C’est une expérience de vie qui va forger votre caractère, c’est une aventure folle dans laquelle vous embarquez avec des volontaires comme vous. Les liens d’amitié se tissent, les découvertes se fondent, les endroits et moments marquent à jamais notre mémoire.  Les fous rires et même les larmes sont au rendez-vous.
Mon expérience en Arménie m’a sans aucun doute appris beaucoup plus que ce que j’en anticipais: sur mon métier, sur mon pays, sur l’amitié et la vie.   
Osez, ça en vaut la peine!

Votre Alumni de Québec, Canada

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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Building a better society

Vana Urartu Agopian
(USA, 2012)My volunteer post was off the hook! I was placed at Ghoghanj Childrens Center… AMAZING! The center helps children from broken homes gain higher educational skills, social skills but more importantly, they assist children/adolescent expand a sense of self-worth which in return help them become positive and productive members of society.  The organization was started by two women, a mother and her daughter; they began the project out of their apartment on the outskirts of Yerevan. Overtime, the two ladies were able to collect enough funding to open a small center in the heart of Yerevan. The children come to the center after school and receive the attention they may not be able to receive in their homes. As for my own personal volunteer work… I joined the children on excursions, took them on field trips and really connected with several of the staff. However, the real work had started by a volunteer before me, she had started a program called Side By Side (a mentor ship program) a replica of Big Sister Big Brother in America, but tailored for Armenia. Side by Side assists in bonding young educated professionals with children from the Ghoghanj center. The goal of the project is to connect for example: a child who may be overly egotistical with a mentor of a more humble character, but share the same interests. Overtime the two begin to bond and balance while the child begins to grow with positive individuality. The program has shown wonderful results for the center. I helped them cultivate this particular program. I visited several businesses in Yerevan fund raising for the program; specifically, I met with owners of café's and restaurants, presented them with the goals of the mentor ship collecting gift certificates for the mentor/men-tee couples to use when spending time together. Side by Side mentor-ship program is a wonderful example of the difference a chain of volunteers can make when picking up where one left off. But I’ll leave you with this…The work being done at Ghoghanj Children’s center is absolutely angelic and through the chain of volunteers from Armenian Volunteer Corps. we can do our part and help them reclaiming a sense of social progress and build a wonderful healthy society for our planet. I hope you will get the opportunity to get to know these ladies and the kids.

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My Armenian experience...

Vanya Garabedian
(USA, 2012)

When I completed graduate school in May I found myself with a gap in time before I started my new job. I realized, Armenia, now is the time. I knew I wanted to go for an extended period of time and learn as much as I could. I wanted to spend my time with the locals and experience every day life. I started researching online and found Armenian Volunteer Corps. I read the website, filled out the application and the process began. The date was set, the ticket bought, I was going to Armenia for two months! I couldn’t believe it.

The first week was a whirl wind, being taken, literally by hand, from one place to another. My fears of getting lost and not being able to communicate with locals came true. All of it was exciting, exhausting and good. I was placed at Prkutyun, a day treatment facility for developmentally disabled young people. I was asked to train their staff in Art Therapy.

My goal: To teach them the skills of how to find their own solutions, to think outside the box and recognize nothing is concrete, everything is fluid and subjective. How to help the individuals learn about themselves and express themselves to facilitate their own growth. Needless to say my goal constantly changed and evolved to be more in line with the Armenian culture and ideas.
My first training was exciting; I met a group of young women who were excited and open to learn what I had to teach them. My second training, not so much; it was terrifying. I was in a room with older women who were arguing in Armenian for 20 minutes. I did not understand what they were saying, but understood they were not happy that they were in this room with me. When I asked my supervisor what was being said she simply said. “I told you they would be difficult, they are being difficult.” 

My supervisor tells me to share what I know and not worry about what they learn or do not learn, what they believe or do not believe. She believes they will come around. This comes up against my own belief system of wanting to work within their system and beliefs. I am not an expert, I do not know more. They are more knowledgeable about what will work and not work within their own culture. Then I realize how much of this is another opportunity to practice overcoming my own challenges.... Assertiveness and self confidence are constant challenges for me. How to be assertive and not shrink away or force things. How to stand in self confidence and trust what I know. So I kept moving forward, doing my best to find a balance between my desire to help and understand Armenia.
Right when I believed I was not making progress one of the women makes sure that I have bread at lunch. Another woman goes out of her way to say hi and another makes sure I do not miss out on the coffee break. My supervisor shares with me “They do not want you to go back to America, we will find you a husband so you can stay here. We will lie about your age, no one will know you are 40.”
Then it happened, I let go, I relaxed. I got to know the other volunteers and the women and beneficiaries at my work. Language no longer seemed as big of a barrier. I learned how to be quiet and more attentive on a deeper level than ever before. I discovered that the more I relaxed and trusted the more everything worked out. My relationships deepened, I was only getting lost once or twice a week instead of everyday. I began to understand some Armenian and was able to communicate a litte. I began to connect with people and barriers began to dissolve.

Success does not look like what I thought it might, me bringing new knowledge to Armenia.  Instead it looks like me being stretched outside of my own preconceived ideas and being challenged on professional and personal levels that I have never been challenged on before.

I can honestly say I can not imagine coming to Armenia any other way than through AVC. It was the perfect combination of support and independence. It is the most challenging thing I have ever done, both personally and professionally. I had the unlimited support of the staff of AVC and Birthright Armenia. I would recommend, and have recommended, this as the only way to see Armenia to everyone I know and meet.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Avec AVC

Marie Khatchikian

Expérience formidable de 3 mois qui à débuté en mai 2012, avec Arménian Volunteer Corps. Grâce à AVC j'ai pu réaliser mon rêve de petite fille : travailler dans un zoo !
Ce travail fût le premier, pour une période de 2 mois ou j'exerçais mon volontariat à Erevan. Une rencontre inoubliable avec l'univers des animaux et avec Alla, Kevork, Yulia, Manuk et d'autres... des arméniens locaux que j'ai eu le plaisir de côtoyer tout ce temps.

A partir du mois de juin, je partageais mon temps entre le Zoo et un "mangabardez", comme une école maternelle pour les enfants âgés de 3 à 6 ans. Le travail avec les enfants est pour moi quelque chose de fantastique. Ce sont des êtres curieux, ouverts, dynamiques et souriants. Les enfants sont très bien éduqués et malgrè leur jeune âge, déjà un grand savoir de la langue française. Ils parlent aussi l'arménien, certains l'anglais et le russe.
L'accueil était parfait. J'ai aussi fait 2 belles rencontrent avec une institutrice et une assistante qui sont devenues mes amies.

Après cela je suis partie 4 semaines sur Gyumri ou j'ai travaillé avec un organisme Suisse : KASA. Ce travail m'a permis d'être autonome et de vraiment me sentir utile. Chaque jour j'animais des débâts en français avec des étudiantes de l'université française de Gyumri. Il a été très interessant pour moi et très enrichissant pour elle de discuter de sujets plutôt inconnu de leur part telle que la maltraitance faite sur les animaux, la fourrure, l'abolition de la peine de mort, la sexualité, les risques des ondes, l'égalité homme/femme et la place de la femme dans la société Arménienne et Française... Les comparaisons entre les 2 pays furent nombreuses.

L'accès au travail en Arménie était pour moi le moyen de me sentir intégrer, de me sentir indépendante, de me sentir... Arménienne.

Merci au staff de AVC et à Tania.

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