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: .

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Beyond the Stereotypes

Nora Injeyan

My work experience in Armenia, in Gyumri, was molded and influenced the greatest by my boss, an elderly woman named Julietta Eganyan. She has come to represent, to me, everything Gyumri is, and everything it has the potential of becoming.

On my first day in Gyumri, a few other new volunteers and myself went to our jobs and got acquainted with our site. Upon my arrival, Julietta had Shant baghbagag waiting for me and soon enough, the awkward, first-meeting conversation ensued.

“Vor deghatsi es?”
“Eenchoo Gyumri es yegel?”

I didn’t provide her with any substantial answer as I honestly wasn’t quite sure why at that point. After a few minutes of uncomfortable chit-chat, she finally said, “Ari mi pajag gini khmenk” and my complicated love/hate relationship with her, with Gyumri, began.

Julietta lost both her son and daughter in the devastating earthquake in 1988, she in fact has a personal survivor story that is so unbelievable you would think it was written by Hollywood screenwriters. However, I am not going to delve into the specifics of her story, only to reiterate that it is safe to say, this woman lost everything to the earthquake. But as the days passed, our relationship slowly progressed and she began trusting and depending on me more and more. I think our relationship reached a level that few of the other AVC volunteers got at their job site. In fact, on my last day in Gyumri, she took me to visit her children’s graves. As we approached the grave, it became obvious that 22 years had not healed her wounds, 22 years had not eased the pain of losing her children any more. Julietta proved that the people of Gyumri are still living in the aftermath of the earthquake. Although the world, even the Armenian diaspora seems to have moved on, the Gyumretsis are still living, day to day with the reality of the earthquake in their minds and this reality has created an amazing set of contradictions that I would have been completely oblivious to had I not worked so closely with this woman. Despite being devastated by an earthquake, a subsequent lack of aid and being forgotten by the world soon thereafter, there is a desire and an attempt here to rebuild or create an even greater community. Julietta, having nothing, is still willing to give everything to her NGO “Margartatsaghik.”

This attitude is what lives underneath the top layer of cynicism most people are accustomed to on their trips to Armenia. This is not to say there is not a deep rooted anger and disappointment among the people, however, anyone who dismisses this as the primary motivator among the people has not made the attempt to understand that anger. I refuse to accept the common perception that the Armenian people are stuck in this bubble.

In my short time working in an NGO dedicated to helping those affected by the earthquake, it became obvious that these effects are still being felt every day. However, there is a strong desire for change permeating throughout Gyumri. People are becoming fed up with their living conditions and have decided to create change by getting educated, nurturing discussions aimed at solutions, and opening up institutions of change such as NGOs like Julietta did. This is where the inherent contradictions lie, contradictions people tend to mistake as simple pessimism and hopelessness. Yes, Gyumri is filled with people who are backwards, angry and hopeless, but the times are changing indeed and trends of modernity, optimism and change are spreading. It is now up to the Gyumretsis to foster that change and the diasporan to aid and support them by coming to Armenia, living there, working there, talking to the people and simply trying to understand life in Armenia, in Gyumri, beyond the stereotype, beyond the negativity.

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