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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Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Volunteer's First Impressions

Haig Balian

I’m lying on my single bed in my new room in Gyumri, and my host family is down on the main floor, watching an Armenian soap opera. It’s been two nights since I arrived in Armenia, and I think I may have already beaten my jet lag. Yesterday, I wasn’t very hopeful that I would.

I had the day mostly to myself, and spent the morning wandering the getron – the downtown area – running errands and buying a few necessities. Before I arrived, I’d thought that being in Armenia would be like being dropped into a totally foreign country, but magically having the ability to communicate with the people there.

That’s sort of exactly what it was like.

At the phone shop, I figured out the rates for data plans. At the electronics store, I bought a converter for North American plugs. At a tiny bakers, I ordered two lahmajoon – commonly described as Armenian pizzas – and they were made to order. I’ve had fresh lahmajoon before, but never straight from the oven. They were pretty incredible. I know I could have figured all this out without knowledge of the language. I’ve gotten used to gesturing with my arms, as well as approximating pronunciations in my guide books. But it’s never been this easy.

Not that I’m even close to fluent. I stayed with a family my first two nights in Yerevan. They were, I think, pleasantly surprised by the amount of Armenian I was able to speak, but soon my limitations came to the surface.They asked what I did in Canada; I couldn’t really answer (of course, I have the same problem when speaking with English speakers). They tried talking about politics. Food. Culture. The best I could do was try to understand concepts. The fact is, I stopped going to Armenian school in the fifth grade, so I read and speak at less than a fifth grade level now. That being said, I’m getting by.

In the early afternoon, I made my way back to my host family, but my head down on my pillow, and slept for three hours. I knew it was a terrible idea, and I did pay for it that night when I woke up at four and went back to sleep at 5:30. I’d made plans to meet with another new volunteer later that evening. Meghrig is a recent history graduate from a university in Haleb (Aleppo?), Syria, a city with a large Armenian population. We made plans on the phone. It was the first time I’d spoken Armenian to anyone other than a member of my family on the phone for as long as I can remember.

Yerevan’s main square – which is actually more of an oval – is like nothing I’ve seen. It’s surrounded by five low-rise stone buildings, and at the centre is a large fountain. On summer evenings, the buildings are illuminated and there’s a choreographed water show on the fountain, set to the music of Aznavour, Khatchatourian, U2, Piaf, and Williams, as well as others.

Much more to write, but it’ll have to wait until at least tomorrow. And I’ll have more pictures, too.

A few random observations:

* Armenians – Yerevanites, anyway – are incredibly put together. The women especially seem to spend an incredible amount of time getting ready for the day. The men, too, make an effort to look nice. Yesterday, I wore shorts and a t-shirt, and was awarded with stares; today I wore pants.
* When someone invites you to sit down to eat hatz – bread – you’ll be in your chair for at least half an hour. You’re in for a lot more than just bread.
* Mt. Ararat is completely visible from Yerevan. I went running the morning after I first arrived, turned a corner, and was completely surprised by this.

This post first appeared on Haig's own blog,

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Monday, September 06, 2010

Volunteering and Animation

Jirair Garabedian

So I've been an AVC volunteer for a little over a month now, and there doesn't seem to be an end in sight.

Actually, I've been in Armenia since May. Working at KassArt Studio. We've been scrambling to get ready for ReAnimania 2010 International Animation Film Festival of Yerevan. It's the second annual animation festival being held here.

You wouldn't believe the amount of work that goes into getting a festival going! It seriously couldn't be done without the 60+ staff and volunteers putting their sweat and blood into it every day.

I'm having a good time though, I mean I haven't been on any of the excursions..and I think I only went to 1 forum. But that's just because I'm so busy with work. I can't remember the last time I've pulled this many all-nighters in a row. Hopefully after the festival there'll be time to go on some of the excursions, get out of the city you know? There's only so much dust and smoke I can stand.

But on the upside, I've had pretty much complete immersion into the society, I'm over the whole culture shock thing and Ive picked up enough of the slang to sound local! So there's something to be glad about.

Anyways, there's 3 days to the festival so I should get back to work!

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Thursday, September 02, 2010

Live, Life, Love

Ara Koulayan

Իմ Կեանքիս Մէչ միշտ կուզէի վոր իմ Հայրէնիքիս համար լաւութիւն մը ըննէլ եւ վէրջապէս այս երազս իրականածաւ։ Շատ հէտագըրգիր է որ շատ տարփէրութիւն չկա Ամէրիկայի հէտ Երեվանի մէջ, Բայց ես Կյումրիի մէջ իմ կամաւոր պարտականութիւնս վորոշէցի ընել վորովհետէւ կուզէյի աւէլի համը արնէլ բուն Հայրէնիքին։

Իմ ընտանիքս որ վորոշւատձ էր իմ համար կարձես թէ շուտ օրվանէ ձանօդ էն ինձի։ Շատ մեձ հաճույք է լաւ ընտանիքի մէջ ապրիլ եւ կեանք սորվիլ իրար հէտ։ Աստուաձ տայ որ երկար կյանք եւ միշտ կապուաձ մնանք իրար հէտ։ Արմինէն, Արմէնուհի Նիկողոսեան, որ Փյունիք-ի կէնդրոնին տնօրէնն է իմ գործատէղիս Կյումրիում, կարձես թէ Հրէշտակի լուսապսակ մը անընդատ իր հէտ կը պտըտվի:

Հազար մարդու հաւասար է այս կինը: Շատ մոտ ենք արդէն եւ չէմ գիտէր ոնձ պիտի հէրանամ այս հրաշալի կնոչմէ:

Շատ չէ պատահաձաց որ այսպէս ըզկացերէմ մարդու հոքին. Իր մոտ աշխատիլ որպէս կամաւոր շատ պատվէլի է իմ համար։ Կուզէմ ըսէլ որ ես հավատացյալ էմ լաւ քորձելու մէջ եւ շատ աւէլի կարողութիւն կունէնայ մարդ ամէն տեսքով։ Ապրէս այն Հայէրուն վոր արանձ լէզուն խոսելով եկան որպես կամաւոր բարիք քորձէլու։

Շնորհակալ էմ Դէպի Հայք -ին (Birthright Armenia) որ այս արիդը մէզ համար կայ։

Ara's blog post first appeared on

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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Another Day in Gyumri, Armenia

Shant Mardirossian

This morning I wake up to a traditional Armenian breakfast which usually contains: eggs with beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, yogurt, and lavash bread. I get changed and wait for one of the most interesting rides on the famous marshutkha. This van manages to squeeze up to 20+ passengers who bend their limbs in unimaginable ways to fit on this very inexpensive ride of 100 drams. It’s fun and exciting, yet stinky, crammed, and quite dangerous. Best part is that you can get it to stop wherever you please.

I get off the marshutkha a little early and walk to Gyumri Healthy Center where I carry out my volunteering duties. The Gyumri Healthy Center is a developing NGO organization that has a future mission and vision to establish a Healthy Center that encompasses a wide category of health including: physical therapy, rehabilitation, resistance training, Yoga, Pilates, and sex education. Here I work with my 3 colleagues – Naira, Nune, and Satig. They are a charismatic and optimistic group who have faith towards the future of their developing center. I work hard here to teach these therapists’ the many practical techniques and exercises that I have acquired while earning my B.Sc degree in Kinesiology. We spend long hours practicing on one another so that these skills become sharpened enough to carry out on patients. Also, one of my ongoing goals is to teach Armenians the benefits of regular exercise and diet. For that reason, Naira, Nune, Satig, and I keep active by going for runs together, doing some resistance training, yoga, and stretching.

I leave work awaiting a home cooked meal from my lovely host mother Anahid. This lady can make anything and everything. She makes dolma, harisseh, dried fruits, jams, marubas, pastries, and a whole variety of other tasty meals. I enjoy dining to these flavoursome foods, while listening to Anahid and her husband’s Jora’s unthinkable genocide and earthquake stories. As our time spent together grows, the more I appreciate how genuine Armenian people are. Its fascinating how some people have nothing to give, yet give you everything they have. The local Armenians truly do illustrate the meaning of loving their neighbour as they love themselves. I only wish a fraction of this sort of unity would carry on into western society.

After dinner on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I go to Armenian language class. The other volunteers and I gather with our teacher Anahid, and her three helpers: Lucineh, Rosa, and Armen. Together we strive to learn proper Eastern Armenian language, which for many volunteers is very different. Many Armenians today including myself are Diaspora Armenians. Growing up all around the globe, Diaspora Armenians have accumulated many unique dialects of Armenian language. For that reason, it is quite difficult to fully understand, speak, and decipher true eastern Armenian. Therefore, attending these classes has become very helpful for us Armenian speakers and non-speakers, as we learn to understand, speak, read and write the traditional Armenian way.

After class I walk home to kids playing football, men playing backgammon or chess, and woman chatting with their neighbourhood friends, all while hearing authentic Armenian music being played within the vicinity. I go home to another yummy meal then get changed to gather with all the volunteers down at Azatutian square, downtown Gyumri. Here we sit together like one big family while enjoying the scenery, music and warm presence of the local Armenian community. Some of us choose to drink coffee with Armenian sweets like “gata,” while others “do as the Armenians do” and chirp on raw sunflower seeds all night. As time passes in the midst of Armenian company, I realize that, regardless of where I come from, what traditions I grew up in, or how different I am, I go sleep at night knowing that I have finally found my way back home.

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