Where were you born? And where do you currently live?
I was born, raised, and currently live in the Greater Toronto Area.
When you were a volunteer, how old were you, where did you volunteer and for how long?
Back before the rules had changed, I arrived in Armenia for the first time when I was 18. I completed a four month volunteer term at the renewable energy lab at the Engineering Research Centre of the American University of Armenia from May to August 2005. For part of that time, I was seconded to a company called H2ECOnomy, which produced hydrogen fuel cells for the academic market. The experience also counted as a coop term towards my engineering degree in Canada.
What did you do after you finished your volunteer service?
Haha...You mean the last third of my life?
1. Became involved in the Armenian Youth Federation, especially with the smaller communities of St. Catharines, Hamilton, and Cambridge
2. Helped to coordinate Armenian Student Associations throughout Southern Ontario
3. Represented AYF at meetings in Santo Domingo, Yerevan, California, Sydney, and throughout Canada. Spearheaded an overhaul of its constitution.
4. Helped start the AYF Camp Vanatsor based off the Camp Gyumri model
5. Graduated from electrical engineering at the University of Waterloo with Distinction at age 21, Masters 18 months later
6. Was elected to the Board of Trustees of Canada's largest school board, where one of my focuses was on promoting genocide education.
7. Hosted public speaking workshops for middle and high school students through Toastmasters International
8. Visited my family roots in Syria and Lebanon in 2009, and then in Western Armenia in 2015
9. Led the Toronto chapter of the Armenian National Committee during the Centennial year
10. Earned a few promotions at my job
11. Jumped out of a plane, jumped off a bridge, stood over the edge of Canada's tallest building, took off from the side of a mountain with a parachute, and won an axe archery competition.
12. Started a blog: freeandfaircanada.wordpress.com
What are you currently doing?
Right now, I'm taking a commuter train downtown to where I currently work at Hydro One, the largest electricity transmitter and distributor in the Canadian province of Ontario.
How has Birthright Armenia’s experience played a role in your life, and when choosing your life’s path?
It reconnected me to my Armenian identity, which has been a dominant part of my life since then.
Have you been to Armenia since your volunteer experience? What year and for what purpose(s)?
Yes, I came back for six weeks in 2007 to independently study the Armenian electricity sector, 2 weeks in 2010 for an AYF conference, 4 weeks in 2011 to run a summer camp in Vanadzor, and 3 weeks this past summer in 2015 for the Alumni Heritage Tour of Western Armenia.
What is the biggest change you’ve had in your life since you were a volunteer?
Realizing that it's ok to fail at some things and that it's actually necessary if you want to achieve something worthwhile.
Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?
Աստուած մեծ է: Maybe in a free Kurdistan, looking after Armenian heritage sites.
Additional thoughts you might want to share with the readers:
My experience volunteering in Armenia truly changed the course of my life. I had gone to Armenian school when I was younger but by the time I started university, my Armenian identity had taken a backseat in my life's priorities. Birthright Armenia reset that.
I had the honor of going through the experience with three Armenian friends from university: Ara Hasserjian, Armen Bakirtzian, and Eddy Davidian. We were friends before, but going through Birthright together gave us a much deeper bond.
I remember first landing at a pre-renovation Zvartnots, with dim lighting, armed Russian guards, and a scramble of taxi drivers swarming the arrivals area inside. We arrived at our apartment at some ungodly hour of the morning, when the street lights were turned off and had trouble getting our suitcases up the stairs (I had a broken toe at the time). My first impression was nervousness about how patient I would have to be over the next 4 months. But then....as we couldn't sleep, the sun finally came up. We went to the balcony and I saw the real Mount Ararat with my own eyes for the first time. Suddenly, everything was right with the world. Any nuisances would be inconsequential. I was finally home.
We spent our second weekend on an AVC trip to Artsakh. It was like diving into a fairy tale about a beautiful land threatened by an evil sorcerer. I thought a leprechaun might pop out from behind a rock at any moment. We made some lifelong friendships over that weekend and Nareg Seferian still starts a group email every year to celebrate the anniversary of the trip.
I learned a lot from my Birthright experience. I went from not understanding a word of Eastern Armenian to being practically fluent and literate (though, the taxi drivers can still tell the difference). We met with major business players, saw every corner of the country (except Meghri), and explored what the future might hold. The most valuable thing I gained, however, is the new friendships.
It's a special kind of person that applies for this program (I should know) and bringing them all together makes for cool results. Cheers to the Birthright team for creating that magic.
I also want to comment on how much Armenia has changed in 10 years. I was there when VivaCell launched and broke the mobile monopoly, when streets were not marked in Yerevan and traffic lights regularly malfunctioned, when you could eat out for under $2, when it was almost a crime to wear a seatbelt, before there was a cable car to Tatev, when Artsakh's front was peaceful, and when it was a novelty for someone to repatriate. It was two Birthright offices ago. I wonder what the next 10 years will bring.