The Power of Birthright Network: Connecting Through COVID-19

When I first set foot in Armenia, I never imagined I would be working in Gyumri two years later as a new citizen... and navigating my first ever fundraising position during an international pandemic. 


I have to thank Birthright Armenia for a job that I love. My volunteer work led directly to my full-time role as Communications and Development Director for Emili Aregak and Aregak Bakery & Café. But more so than that, Birthright has given me an invaluable network of fellow alumni. And those alumni have expanded the amount of good I've been able to accomplish in my professional capacity during this roller-coaster year. Here's how. 


When COVID-19 first came to Armenia in March, my colleagues and I were nervous. Our business, Aregak Bakery & Café, depended on summer tourists. 


At the end of the month, we were forced to close our doors and send our staff home for an indefinite period. We didn't know how we'd pay them. If the quarantine continued for weeks on end, Aregak might even go out of business.


I couldn't imagine my colleagues losing their jobs. Aregak isn't just any café; it's the first inclusive café in Armenia. Two autumns ago, as a Birthright volunteer, I had the privilege of contributing to its historical opening. And since then, as a full-time member of the team, I've been able to play a role in implementing our café's mission: employing people with disabilities and moms of special needs kids – two groups who have been traditionally excluded from the labor market.


So, I couldn't just sit and wait to see what would happen as COVID-19 continued to spread through Armenia. While my boss and I were contemplating what to do, we realized that others in the community would also be facing difficulties.  


Turning Obstacles into Opportunities


In early April, we found a solution to address both of these problems: a project we dubbed "Our Daily Bread." While our café remained closed, we opened on a delivery-only basis. Then, we initiated a big fundraising campaign. Our goal was to bake and deliver free bread to those in need in our community. At the same time, we would be able to keep our staff employed. 


When our campaign had been running for three weeks, I received a Facebook message from a Birthright alum in Switzerland named Kevork Altanian, who had volunteered in Yerevan together with his wife for six months. The newly created AGBU Young Professionals (YP) chapter in Zurich, he said, was looking for various ways to support Armenia during the pandemic, particularly for a trustworthy project to support. Birthright Armenia Excursions Coordinator Hayk Vardanyan had pointed him to us, as an organization with a sustainable mission and meeting an urgent need. 


You can't imagine how touched I was to read the closing sentiments of Kevork's email: "We believe exactly these are the times where we have to stay united as Armenians and as always looking towards our motherland Armenia to make it prosper."


After speaking on the phone with Kevork, I learned that they (the YP Chapter Zurich) also had turned pandemic-related obstacles into opportunities. 

Kevork and a friend had spearheaded the idea of creating the YP chapter at the end of last year. After identifying other interested people, the chapter was founded by a steering committee of Armenians from Switzerland, Uzbekistan, France, Italy, and Armenia, all living in Zurich. When the venue had been reserved for the chapter's launch event, and the invites had already been sent, COVID-19 struck Europe, and it had to be postponed. 


Instead of waiting out the pandemic to begin the chapter's activities, Kevork and his team decided to shift their focus to Armenia. We were the lucky recipient of their generosity.


The AGBU YP Zurich Chapter leveraged their connections with the Armenian Association Zurich, and they agreed to lead a GoFundMe campaign in partnership on our behalf. Kevork wanted not only to help those in need but to open the eyes of Diasporan Armenians who haven't been so heavily impacted by the pandemic. Many people in Armenia depend on each day of work to put food on the table for their families. 


Over the course of a month, their team raised just over $3000 to support Our Daily Bread. That sum goes a long way in Gyumri. 


Don't Speak, Act! 


In May, my dear friend Noor Varjabedian, a Birthright Armenia employee and alum with whom I had volunteered in Gyumri, coordinated an email campaign to inform Birthright's contact base about our project. This put me in touch with many other alumni from multiple countries. 


It was thrilling to connect with them. I was inspired by their creative approaches to supporting our campaign – compelling social media posts (special shout-out to BR alum Ani Marganian!), personal donations, birthday donations (special shout-out to BR alum Ararad Nar), large corporate donations (special shout out to BR alum Armineh Babikian!), and crowdfunding campaigns (special shout-out to BR alumni Jon Campbell and Lenna Ohanesian).


Financial gifts flooded in from the Diaspora. I can't be sure which of them were a direct result of Birthright Armenia efforts, but I can safely say at least $15,000. That blew me away.


Since April, we've been able to deliver more than 10,000 loaves of bread to thousands of people in need and pay the salaries of our 16 staff members. And our campaign is still going strong.


As we recently reflected on the success of our partnership, Kevork shared an important mental shift he had experienced through his months of volunteer work in Armenia. While he had initially identified his Armenian community as the Diaspora, he began to see the country of Armenia as his motherland. 


"If that doesn't exist, Armenians won't exist in the long run," he told me. "So [Armenia] is ours, let's do something for it. Especially if you're on the privileged side—don't speak, act." 


Both Kevork and I want to thank everyone in the Birthright community who has taken action during this crazy year. And if you haven't, guess what? Many of the needs in Armenia will remain after COVID-19 (hopefully) becomes a bad memory. 


I fully agree with Kevork's advice: "Be active, be proactive… partner, talk to people, brainstorm. Don't be discouraged by failing. If you fail, you tried."


And here's my final thought. While I can't guarantee you'll be successful in whatever project you aim to implement, I will say this: every experience I've had working alongside a Birthright alum has proved fruitful and inspiring. So, take advantage of the huge network we have been gifted through this amazing program! I'm excited to see what you'll accomplish. 


Sarah Stites

The United States, 2018-2019

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