Friday, June 20, 2014

MUSINGS OF A MATURE AGE VOLUNTEER IN ARMENIA

Dickran Fabricatorian (67, Australia, AVC 2013) 


Dikran at Metsamor Museum and Archeological Reserve
with the director, Ardavazt 
Dickran shares how he decided to come to Armenia as a volunteer with AVC, reviews the process, and tells us about his two-month experience of living in Yerevan and volunteering at the Metsamor and Erebuni museums.

APPLICATION TO BECOME A VOLUNTEER
My first visit to Armenia was in 1979 when it was part of the Soviet Union, but it was more of a formal affair. Everything was regimented and pre-organised with no freedom to do one’s own thing.  The next visit was in 2007, some years after independence when the country was coming out of several years of hardship.  Armenia had certainly changed, people fashionably dressed, free currency exchange, luxury cars and hotels with Yerevan looking more like a small European city.  Unfortunately the cultural institutions showed that the emphasis had altered and they were showing stages of stress.  Erebuni looked run down, museums looked shabby with cracked glass display cases and the labels of artefacts were still in Russian and Armenian when the country was clamouring for international tourism.  I was also lucky enough to visit for the first time Metsamor museum, a small museum not far from Echmiadzin, with which I instantly fell in love. 
I had always liked history and upon my return to Sydney I mulled over the idea of assisting one or more of the museums in some form.  With English being the “lingua franca” of the modern world, I wondered about the possibility of translating the display labels into English. My initial thoughts were to write to the Ministry of Culture or directly to the museums.  Searching through the net I discovered several volunteer organisations but most seemed to cater for younger people and seemed to be interested in re-building or teaching. I then discovered the Armenian Volunteer Corp (AVC) which stated that: “Volunteer placements can be found in the following areas: art institutes, architectural firms, agricultural, business development, community-based organizations, computer training, government structures, international organizations, local NGO’s, law offices, local charities, museums, research, social work, teaching, tourism, universities, youth work, and writing/translations.”

As I drafted and redrafted the letter which I planned on sending to AVC as my application I had two main concerns:

  • Firstly, my professional background.  My training has been as a hospital scientist trained to work in a pathology laboratory, not a linguist or historian/archaeologist. Would the museums accept a novice?
  • Secondly, my family.  I have a wife and two sons in their 20s and none of them could afford to take a 2 month break off from work.  I have always believed in family holidays and it felt a bit strange that I was going off all by myself.  
Fortunately, when I put forward my idea my family were all very supportive. 

After trimming down my initial letter quite considerably to make it fit into the online application format and getting a couple of referrals from colleagues I submitted my application.  I soon heard from Tania Chichmanian who said that I had to go through an interview via Skype.  That took about an hour and within one week I heard that I had been accepted!


VOLUNTEER WORK
I left for Yerevan on the 2nd of September 2013, 9 months after the interview.  The trip to Armenia was the usual route out of Australia these days, direct flight of 14.5 hours to one of the Gulf States and then a connecting flight to Yerevan.  At arrival I was met by an AVC representative, and after my accommodation was fixed up (AVC offers volunteers the option of staying with a family, but I thought I was too old and set in my ways so I opted to rent a flat in Yerevan), I walked to the AVC offices.  Lesson number 1, just because an address states a number and street name, it does not mean that the entrance is on that street!  After pacing up and down Hanrapedutian Street, I found out that the entrance was on Melik Adamian Street. AVC is housed in a very interesting and impressive building.  I was welcomed and in the first week I was put in contact with Erebuni and Metzamor museums with the untiring help of Jenya.  I met Ardavazt, director of Metsamor, and Digin Hasmig at Erebuni.

Accommodation was a one bedroom flat organised through the Hyur service, neat and well furnished with the basic necessities of life.  It was located on Parpetsi Street, very near Sarian/Moscovian.  The main attraction of the flat was its handy location to just about everything that was important in Yerevan and, I later discovered after meeting the rest of the crowd, that it was in the heart of the bar district!  I also discovered on the first day that I was next to St Zoravar Church, a pretty church built in the 1790s.  Not only did they seem to have “Badarak” or Church services every day of the week, but I was amazed at the number of weddings and christenings taking place.  I tried to attend as many of the services as I could, especially Sunday “Badarak” which lasted at least one hour longer than the ones I had been used to in the diaspora.

The first week was settling in, orientation and meeting with the people I was going to work with. The following week was when I stared work.  I met up with Ardavast at the unofficial taxi rank, next to the Museum of Modern Art, to go to Echmiadzin and form there we made it to Metsamor by bus to Taronig and then walked the remainder of the way.  All in all, the entire trip took about 45 minutes.  Ardavast had been appointed as director of the museum early in the year and he explained to me some of his ideas to revamp the museum, one of them being to revamp a disused water mill, next to the museum but now in a dilapidated state, into a guest house for visiting archaeologists.  At the museum I met Mary, the English guide, and Ashod, the Armenian/Russian guide, as well as other staff members and was given the tour of the museum and the surrounding areas.  Most of Metsamor dates back to the Early Bronze to Late Bronze Age (3000 -2000 BC).  It was a walled settlement specialising in making bronze implements with residential and funerary sections.  During my time there a group of Polish archaeologists from Warsaw University came for a 2 week archaeological dig and a large number of potteries and ceramics were discovered, with the highlight of the finds being a perfectly preserved skeleton of an adolescent girl buried in foetal position dating to about 200 BC.  I was offered a chance to become a practicing archaeologist but declined (too dusty!), although the offer was taken up by my son Diran when he joined me later.


Metsamor Museum and Archeological Reserve
My work at Metsamor was working with Mary translating a new script for the English speaking tourists.  I cannot say work was strenuous but the company was fantastic.  All the staff, except for Ardavast and Ashot, were from the nearby village of Taronig, and lunches were cooked on the spot from home grown and prepared ingredients.  Lunch was a mixed bag of salads; “abught” with egg; “Ghapama”; fruits; meats; fish and home baked “lavash”.  Lunches were also sometimes fortified with a glass or two of Vodka!!  During my period there I was also involved in the preparation of an “open day” and helped in setting up the displays and entrusted with moving ceramics that were several thousand years old.  My last day was the saddest as the staff had prepared a banquet meal which lasted over 2 hours and they were very generous with their gifts.  Yes, it did make me cry with joy and sadness!!! 


Erebuni Museuam and Archeological Reserve
My work week was made up of 2 days at Metsamor and 2 days at Erebuni Museum (museums are closed on Mondays).  My work at Erebuni Museum involved translating their Armenian web page into English.  I worked under the supervision of Digin Hasmig.   Erebuni is situated in the middle of Yerevan and is the original site of the settlement of Yerevan.  It dates back to the same period as Metsamor and celebrated its 2995th birthday that year.  It is bigger than Metsamor, has a larger contingent of staff and is busier due to its more central location making it easier for tourists to visit.  Work here was more formal and once again I was given a fond farewell at the end of my period there. 

THE ORGANISATIONS
AVC and Birthright Armenia are run from the same office, the difference being that the latter catered for diasporans under the age of 33 while the former was for older volunteers [and non-Armenians of any age].  The bulk of the contingent, with what looked like an average age of 25, were with Birthright Armenia, mostly from America, with others from Canada, South America, France, Russia,  Lebanon/Syria, Germany and Austria,  with a few in the AVC group. In my first week I felt a bit awkward as it seemed that I was the only one in my age group and the rest were the same age as my two sons, but I need not have worried as we were all there for the same purpose, and before I knew it I was accepted amongst the youth as “one of them”.    The centre of activity was the main office where we had access to computers, internet and email. Evening classes of Armenian were offered twice a week for those who did not speak Armenian.  On Wednesday nights we had a weekly Forum either visiting places like Tumo IT centre, AYB School, or having interesting guest speakers.  


Excursion to Noravank
Week-ends were for excursions to places like Areni (Festival and Caves), Odzun or Karabagh.  We also attended a couple of World Cup soccer games with the Armenia/Bulgaria match being the highlight as we won and the whole of Yerevan erupted in euphoria lasting all evening.

MUSINGS 
I stayed in Yerevan for 2 months, the months of September and October.  When I first arrived the temperature was about 35 C but as it was dry heat it was quite bearable.  By the time I left it was starting to cool down with some morning showers.  For the first two or three weeks, everything was new and I felt like a tourist but as time went by, surroundings became familiar and I realised I had settled in and I was feeling like a local.  My Western Armenian did cause a couple of minor misunderstandings, as did my use of Australian English idioms.  

Yerevan is a relatively small city and most amenities are within walking distance so if one lives near the centre then just about everything is easily accessible.  There is a trend to modernise the city, and unfortunately many historically important buildings are disappearing, especially on Abovian Street.  While there seems to be a surfeit of modern sculptures and fountains sprinkled round the city, others built during the Soviet era seem to have fallen into disrepair.

During my period in Yerevan I was lucky enough to be present for several national activities. The first was Independence Day, followed a couple of weeks later by Yerevan-Erebuni celebrating its 2795th birthday, 2 soccer matches with one win resulting in great euphoria.  All were celebrated with great enthusiasm.
    
IN SUMMARY
With my son Diran, outside the National Gallery of Armenia 
I stayed in Armenia for 10 weeks, with my younger son Diran joining me for the last 3 weeks. One of my aims was to immerse myself into the local scene and not feel like a tourist and I think I achieved it.  Diran also found himself in the middle of a large group of his contemporaries, resulting in him extending his contacts with Armenian friends throughout the world and appreciating Armenia more and more.  As for the highlights, every day was a highlight; the concert in honour of Gomidas, listening live to Rupen Matevosian at the Concert Hall, the camaraderie of the group, the trips to ancient Armenian monuments, the roadside bakery bread, the museum finds, the delicious “sujuk” and fresh fruits, the “lahmajin”, bus rides, hearing and seeing Armenian, to name but a few.  
Would I go back for further volunteer work?  Most definitely!  The next time I will probably not be alone as Diran, a Structural Civil Engineer, wants to emulate his father and during his stay in Yerevan already had discussions with AVC/Birthright Armenia to see how he could contribute.  I will probably drag along the rest of the members of the family too.
   
THE EFFECT OF THIS EXERCISE ON ME AND MY ADVICE TO OTHERS
Physically, I lost some weight as I did a lot of walking and sometimes skipped meals and specially sweets and chocolate.  The best thing was that prior to my departure my Cholesterol level had risen to above normal levels and it had come down quite considerably on my return. All the walking was just the thing for it and I did not have to cut out “sujuk” from my diet.

Spiritually and mentally it was an experience that is hard to explain.  I left Armenia at peace with myself and the world.  I had grown up and lived in 4 countries and in each of them I had felt as an outsider.  In Armenia I felt I had come home.  People spoke MY language (may be slightly differently), religious holidays were MY holidays, culture was MY culture, history was MY history, churches were MY churches, buildings were built by MY people, the land, mountains and natural beauty were MY lands, mountains and natural beauty.
  
As for AVC (and Birthright Armenia), I found it to be very well organised with an extensive network enabling it to organise volunteer placement and guest speakers.  While there was a large number of young people offering their volunteering services, most seemed to be in their university “gap year’ and all full of enthusiasm and keen to work.  I cannot say there were many of us in the so called “mature age” group.  This latter group have years of career experiences that can be useful to Armenia and I strongly encourage people in their twilight years to make the effort and volunteer. I guarantee you that it will give you enormous pleasure and satisfaction. Interestingly, when I announced my plans to our group of friends, all said that they would “love to do it also, but sometime in the future”.  

As the ad says: “Just do it!”

Picking grapes during excursion to Armavir.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Today Sounds Like Blue

Meline Topouzian, USA, 2013

While I was fortunate to have multiple placements from AVC, one of those placements, I believe, truly embodies why the Armenian Volunteer Corps finds value in volunteering. The International Child Development Center, or ICDC, is a center for autistic children located in the center of Yerevan.  The center has many therapists working with the children there, and autism is a spectrum disorder; kids come to ICDC during their normal school day, and when they are old enough or at a certain functioning level, they are able to alternate going to school and spending time at a center.  The goal is to make them as independent as possible.

So anyway, my initial job at ICDC was to do art therapy sessions, and after a while I was doing a social program with other therapists; it involved any and all activities in public areas outside of the center.  Doing art therapy was interesting at first because of my background and interest in art.  While I already understood the process of doing art, prior to this experience I hadn’t truly focused on such large scale, one-on-one work like this.  Since I had already wanted to understand more about autism, this was a great opportunity for me to volunteer in a field that actually interested me.

Over the first few weeks I quickly realized that this kind of work was not an “instant gratification” kind of job; I certainly did not leave every day with a tangible product or guaranteed progressed child.  There were sessions where a child would simply come in, grab the paintbrush and just paint, without even acknowledging my existence, and it was amazing to watch them. But sometimes I would work with a few different children who, over the course of a few days or weeks, would seem to be improving and I would be very happy for them; without warning then they would come back to point A and it was frustrating and confusing.  I found myself spending a lot of time asking questions and for help, just so I could understand what was happening and become a better worker for the child.  On those days, I didn’t always feel like I was contributing.

What I began to understand was that there was an underlying communication barrier between these children and I, and it went beyond our verbal communication.  There were times when we were frustrated during sessions – the child didn’t want to paint, or was unresponsive, and I in turn couldn’t grasp why.  Quite frankly, if someone asked me to come play with clay, or paint all day, I would never say no – but these children didn’t have my same logic, or process the world in the same was that I did, and there came a point; I can’t remember why or how this happened; where I had started to realize exactly that.  For example, to explain; many of the children, when they came in to the art room, would come and just grab the water bucket that the paint brushes were in, take the brushes out, and just get their hands wet in that bucket. It was as if they all loved how water felt, as if that motion and the water calmed them down; there was a little girl who, when she was frustrated, we sometimes were able to calm her down by putting her hands in that bucket. And as odd as that may sound, it was actually kind of amazing.

Sometime after I started truly noticing that these kids process sensory information differently, I went into my boss’ office during a break, and decided to poke her brain a little bit; I started to ask her what got her into this sort of work and, well, why she stuck around. I guess after being here for only a couple of months, I hadn’t truly understood why or how everyone could come and work so hard with each child, when there was never a guarantee for improvement; I didn’t understand her in the same way the workers couldn’t understand my coming overseas to work for no pay.  Anyway, I asked her, and she looked up at me almost surprised but at a loss for words and simply said, “well, I don’t know, I love them.” And she began telling me about how she had been with nearly half of these children for years; at first as their therapist, and over time she’s seen them grow physically, emotionally and mentally.  At first I thought, “did it take that long to see growth?” But I was quite mistaken – she knew what to look for. Like I said, this is a baby steps sort of a job; a child’s improved behavior or speech may not be the first thing I’d notice… but if I could see those children and the experience I’m trying to give them as one I’m doing simply out of love, like my boss had been, then I would see what everyone else was seeing. Couldn’t be more cheesy, right?

Well, everything came together after that point, and I used a family analogy to process it. When we’re a part of a family, it’s not that we have to, but we usually get to a point where we unconditionally love our parents and siblings, or at least that’s my case, and it doesn’t really bother us if they dress funny, or say weird things, or eat dinner for breakfast and so on.  And I guess the same can be said for close friends; eventually we just enjoy being around them so much that the quirks don’t really stand out so much anymore.  So, to compare to the children at this center, I realized when I spoke to my boss that the staff here does unconditionally love these kids, it’s just not the “happy-go-lucky” love we may expect with kids, or are accustomed to seeing when we enjoy being around others. Because we do not always see the positive side of children right away with autistic children, we have to train ourselves to look for it; these workers have done that and are able to love these kids everyday as they are.  What I eventually discovered was, as goofy as this may seem, I had been and was able to continue to love these kids unconditionally, despite my frustration, or heightened sense of protection for them.  I had always held their hands tightly when I crossed the street with them outside, I was encouraging and happy even if they managed only one paint stroke during art therapy, and always gave a good hug to whoever was up for one.

None of that changed… I simply got to a point where I was aware of how I felt, what I was doing; I mean, on paper I guess I was just a volunteer for this center, but I didn’t feel like one.  I was an older sister to all of these kids, (even though half of them were taller and stronger than me).  By the end of my time there, I knew almost every child’s gait, painting patterns and strokes, how they would react to certain music, and so on.  As that pseudo older sibling… it was almost like we were using our ability – as therapists and so on – to understand their world, in order to help these children navigate in our world.

There was an adorable, little boy whom we worked with in art therapy, and we focused on his speech development.  I always hugged him, and played with clay with him, and it took him weeks to even start repeating my name.  About three months in, I came into the center in the morning, and he was walking through the hallway, when he stopped and saw me; as he peeked his head around the corner I waved to him like I always did, except for the first time in he ran to me and hugged me!  And every day until I left he did the same thing; it warmed my heart to no end.  So, as my parting thought, as small of a gesture, or improvement as that may seem, it was absolutely the opposite.  Those three months of work had built up to that moment, and that was the best part of my day; that was what I learned to look for. A little, five-second detail was what I needed to learn to see and understand.  Everyday has, and has always had, those little details.

And this is the beauty of volunteering.  We will not always come or leave with something tangible or improved.  But we will have always learned something incredibly valuable, and we will have been given an opportunity to act out of passion to serve others.  These were not tangible things I discussed, and yet the best parts of my experience. The Armenian Volunteer Corps has facilitated these hundreds of opportunities because there is a value in people learning from and giving to each other.  As volunteers, we are giving ourselves away; in love, in labor, in creativity and thought, and in good attitudes out of our desire to better the world in any way possible.

Monday, December 23, 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.

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.

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.

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.




 

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.    
L’expérience

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!
 

Sirov,
Votre Alumni de Québec, Canada