Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Gyumri. What can I say about this beautiful city? Actually, how can I sum up everything I feel about this city? When I applied to Birthright Armenia, Gyumri was not even a year-round location. Truth be told, I had never even heard about the city. So, when the email came asking if I wanted to start my Birthright experience in Gyumri, everyone in my family and my closest friends were all worried because they had no idea where I was potentially about to go. On one hand I understood their concerns, on the other I was totally up for the adventure. So, I packed my bags and I was off to a city I didn’t know to meet the family I didn’t know I was missing.
I got to Gyumri January 26th, 2018, at around 9 pm. It was a Friday night, I met the family I was staying with, for the time being, we talked for a little while and then I was off to bed. Even though I had barely slept in over 72 hours, I woke up early Saturday morning eager to discover the city. I spent a couple of hours walking around, talking with whoever I came into contact with and by that afternoon, I knew that Gyumri was the place for me.
On Monday, I had my Gyumri orientation which included a mini tour of the city and then I went to meet my first job site, the Armenian Lawyer’s Association. There, I met Vika. Within two days, she was family. Even though our Armenian dialects are different, we both did our best to understand one another. She took the time to explain herself to me and if I ever had questions about anything, she was there for me. I come from a background in political science and human rights so a law isn’t necessarily my area of expertise but I definitely wanted to experience working in a law office to see if it was the career path for me. I learned so much about the legal system, how to create legal briefs, when and how a case would go to court, and so forth. This also gave me the chance to really look into the Armenian constitution and laws of the country. I will admit, my first week on the job I had a hard time understanding the conversations that were happening in the office. I speak western Armenian and at work, it was such a quick eastern Armenian I couldn’t even make out the words that were being said. Within a couple week, all that was changed.
My second job site was so similar to the first in that it was an instant connection with the staff. From my first day there, I felt as though I have known my coworkers for years. We spoke so openly about our lives and ourselves. I was truly welcomed with open arms. But that is Gyumri. No matter who you meet, as long as you treat them with respect, you are automatically part of their family. It doesn’t matter where you are from, what level of Armenian you speak, how old you are or anything, you can meet someone on the street and start talking to them about things you’ve never told anyone before. At this job site, one of my tasks was teaching an English club. I wanted my students to speak as much as possible so they could practice the language. Thus, I would bring up subjects that I knew were a bit controversial in Armenia because it meant they would have a lot to say. This was a win-win for all of us, they practiced English language and I got to learn so much more about the Gyumri culture. My other task was working with their projects on human rights and helping translate a lot of their material from Armenian to English. This was great for me because it showed me the advances in human rights of the country and it gave me an idea of where things are going.
When I was still new to the city, I saw other volunteers who were stopped in the streets by Gyumretsis they knew and I was in awe because it was an incredible thing to see: to have moved to a new city and literally be part of the community is so beautiful. When the same started happening with me, I knew I had made it, not only had I accepted Gyumri as my home, but Gyumri had accepted me as part of them.
Also, have a mentioned the dogs yet? If you love dogs this is the city for you. THERE ARE DOGS EVERYWHERE. Yes, when I came here they said oh these dogs are so dirty don’t touch them. This was so hard for me being a major animal lover. However, in just a couple of weeks’ time I just couldn’t resist anymore, I found the cutest black puppy on the streets, carried her and just walked the streets. After that, I learned that as long as you are willing to give these pups a chance, they have so much love to give. I also had the opportunity to foster two sister puppies who came from a village and were abandoned by their moms. Once we helped them get over their separation anxiety, they came into their own and any volunteer who came over loved our little girls. I say “our”, because one week into my volunteering, I met a lovely AVC volunteer from France and after a few weeks she moved from Yerevan to Gyumri, we moved in together, and made a decision to help these dogs! Our little family in Gyumri was complete!
I know I have only said good things about Gyumri and even this part has a good ending. For anyone interested in volunteering in Gyumri there is just one thing you need to know. It might be the second largest city in Armenia but it is nothing like Yerevan. In the capital, there is always something to do and the nights never end. However, in Gyumri, the cities lights get turned off at 11 pm at the latest. You can take that as a bad thing but to be totally honest, it was probably the best part. This meant that we, volunteers, spent more time at each other’s homes, just talking and getting to know one another. Through these cosy nights in, I got to know people that I will forever call my friends! Relationships form very quickly through this experience meaning that I found people to confide in, people to have fun with, and a support system like no other. We all just understood each other because we were going through this experience together! Gyumri is truly a family. Everyone you meet, be it people from Gyumri or Volunteers, it is a family environment. Plus, there is actually a lot see in Gyumri. The city has a rich history and there are so many museums and sites to see. It is also a city rich with humour and the theatre is an important part of the city. There are so many parks and festivals. Once the weather warms up it is truly a very festive and lively city!!!
Now, after having spent two full months in Gyumri, I can say that it was the best decision I could have ever made. I have said this to anyone who has asked about my experience and I will say it again, Gyumri changed my life and I wish everyone the same experience I had. Gyumri has my heart, Gyumri is my home, and I know I will be back to Gyumri very soon. One last thing, I was recently reminded of something my priest has always said, “Armenia doesn’t start and finish in Yerevan. Please dedicate your time and capital to all of Armenia so that the country can rise as a whole.”