Izabel Sarkissian (Birthright Volunteer from 2015 to 2016)
Kuwait City, Kuwait
I came to Armenia in 2013 as a student for my bachelor's degree in architecture, and after two years in Armenia, I decided to join Birthright Armenia. Back home in Kuwait, I was always doing volunteer work in my community with our church and school, and decided to dedicate I have always been volunteering back in community in Kuwait, at my church and school.
I volunteered in Armenia with Birthright for 365 days, and did many things for the first time in life. These are just some of those things.
1. Job experience
When I started Birthright, I was not sure what I wanted to do, how long to do it and where to dedicate my volunteer service, as I had no work experience. In a year’s time, I worked with the National Museum-Institute of Architecture after Alexander Tamanyan, Gyumri Project Hope, DZ Architectural Design Studio and Impact Hub Yerevan. I gained valuable work experience and learned how things get done in Armenia, working with a diverse group of professionals from different fields.
2. Artsakh excursion
I got to visit Nagorno-Karabakh for the first time as a Birthright volunteer, and it was an amazing trip. On our way to Karabakh we visited Tatev Monastery and rode the world’s longest ropeway. We also visited Zorah Winery, a small but successful winery run by diasporan Armenians like myself. We arrived in Shushi in the middle of the night and stayed with host families, making the experience extra special.
The next day we visited a military base in Askeran where we met with soldiers, even eating in the mess hall with them. Later, we stopped at Gandzasar Monastery and enjoyed delicious jingyalov hats, playing games and laughing as the sun set. On our third day in Karabakh we hiked to the Mamrot Kar waterfall, also known as the Zontiks, which means “umbrella” in Russian because of their round, umbrella-like shape. When we reached waterfall and pools everyone immediately jumped in the water; we had a really wonderful time. Later, we saw the famous Babik and Tatik statues, followed by the fallen soldiers museum, which was very emotional for all of us. In the evening, we took part in the Birthright tradition called a “wine mob” where we knock on strangers’ doors in Stepanakert and offer a bottle of wine to share—it was very special. The part continued into the night in with a big Birthright kef. I never thought I’ll be so sad and so happy in one day.
On the morning of our last day, we hiked to the Jdrduz cliffs, which Armenian soldiers climbed up to reclaim Shushi, followed by a visit to the iconic Ghazanchetsots Monastery.
3. Meeting people
During my time with Birthright, I met people from around the globe, from Australia to Canada. We had wonderful times together, walking the streets of Yerevan, working, studying, dancing together, and going on many trips. I made lifelong friends, who change my point of view and from whom I learned a lot.
I also met people I never thought I would see and hear speak, like Ralph Yinikian (General Manager of VivaCell-MTS), Garo Armen (founder and chairman of COAF), Seyran Ohanian (Minister of Defense), Edgar Manukyan (CEO of Idea Foundation), and David Babayan (spokesperson of the President of Nagorno-Karabakh).
I was asked to be a part of several video shoots for Birthright. I had never been involved in video shoots, let alone featured in any, so being a part of these for Birthright was very fun.
Sebu Simonian - The River Change Course
With Birthright I discovered the rich culture of traditional dance in Armenia, first by going to watch Bert Dance Ensemble and State Dance Ensemble perform. In April Birthright organized a forum with a dance instructor from Karin Dance group who taught us four dances. After that forum, five other volunteers and I decided to continue learning dance with that group. I learned papuri, kochari, dzaghgatsori, shoror, and qertseri dances. Now when there is a kef I’m ready to dance Armenian shurchbar.
As I was born and raised in Kuwait, I had never experience Thanksgiving before, but the Birthright volunteers from the US organized an amazing Thanksgiving dinner, complete with a delicious turkey. In that moment, I realized that I had made a big family here in Armenia.
7. Saturday excursions around Armenia
I visited 28 monasteries, hiked on the hottest day of Armenia through Hell’s Canyon and one of the coldest day to Teghenyats Monastery, under the rain in Dilijan, rode a horse, visited wine, chocolate and carpet factories, skied in Tsaghgatsor, explored the Areni cave, saw the Vanatsor windmills, ate gata from Geghart, took the train to Gyumri, saw the Trchkan waterfall, and danced with a host family in Tavush, all with Birthright.
8.Flower picking at Tsitsernakabert
As volunteers we helped in recycling the flowers left at the Tsitsernakabert Armenian Genocide Memorial in the days after April 24, the day of commemoration for the Armenian Genocide. The flowers go on to be made into paper. Before the commemoration on April 23rd, the city marches together from the Opera House to the memorial, which is a wonderful experience to participate in.
9.Forum and Havak visits
With Birthright Forums and Havaks, I had the chance to visit to visit Tumo Technology Center, the Ayb School, One Armenia, Little Singers of Armenia, the Komitas Museum and the Opera Theater.
What I learned from Birthright will stay with me forever; it has shaped who I am.
I lived in Armenia as a student and as a volunteer, and now I am excited to continue living here as a Birthright alumni. I will leave Birthright but Birthright will never leave me.
On our first day with Birthright during orientation, we were told that opportunity is what lies ahead for us in Armenia. And they were right: Birthright means endless opportunities. Everyone has different experiences, and mine was unforgettable.