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, January 13, 2011

Volunteering in Gyumri - Armenia's Second largest city

Haig Balian
Toronto, Canada

Armenia’s second city – tucked up in a high valley north of Mount Aragatz - tends to get very cold, very quickly. The streets of Gyumri, already empty by the late evening when I first arrived there in September, were now dark and deserted by 8:30pm. The marshutkas were bursting with bundled up commuters, packs of dogs prowled the streets, and domigs – the temporary metallic shelters distributed in the wake of the Spitak earthquake – were still in use by a significant minority of the people here.

Gyumri in November did not seem like the happiest of places.

The latter half of my time in Gyumri was spent with Armenian Caritas, a pretty incredible organization headed by Anahit Mkhoyan. I’d gotten in touch with her because I wanted to organize something – anything – to acknowledge the domestic murder of a young Armenian woman named Zaruhi Petrosyan. Anahit asked why I wasn’t volunteering for Caritas. I didn’t have a good answer.

I’d been placed with Gala TV, an independent television station whose journalists and technicians I have an immense amount of respect for. On paper, this seemed like a great fit, but things just didn’t click. I can offer a couple of excuses: I’m not that comfortable with the medium of television, and my Armenian language skills are just not developed enough for reporting. The parting was an uncomfortable one, but at least I had alternatives.

At Caritas, I was tasked to work with Ophelia Minassian, easily my favorite colleague during the volunteering term in Gyumri. In early November, we went out to meet some of the beneficiaries who Caritas works with; seniors who, for the most part, live solitary lives and who rarely leave their homes.

Their desolation was striking. A few couldn’t take care of themselves, and it was common for some to burst into sobs, wondering why they’d been burdened with such a long life. Ophelia and her colleagues offered smiles, hugs, gifts, and a promise that they would return.

There were other projects. Work with children, work with teens, work with families, and women, and the homeless. With each project, the people at Caritas brought a sincere yearning to improve the lives of the people who lived in their community. I was very happy to be a part of it, and I hope my presence in some way contributed to their goals of making Gyumri a happier place.

Note: Haig Balian has since transitioned to Yerevan where he is volunteering with the National Competitiveness Foundation.

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