Coming to Gyumri as an Armenian who was born and raised in Los Angeles, and had never left the United States before, was certainly a unique experience. I had always heard that Gyumri was the second-biggest city in Armenia behind Yerevan – touted as the capital of the country when it came to the arts and culture. So, I was surprised to say the least when I came to Gyumri to find old roads, partially collapsed buildings still in disrepair since the earthquake of 1988, and locals who seemed to be very pessimistic about the future of Gyumri and Armenia as a whole. The Birthright Armenia family formed by the volunteers and the staff in Gyumri was amazing from the very beginning, but my admittedly superficial first impression of the city itself, in the beginning, was definitely not a very positive one.
However, with time came realizations about the nuanced realities of Armenia’s second capital. I began working in my job sites, doing what I felt was impactful work that improved the lives of animals in Gyumri. I met some genuinely compassionate and forward-thinking people through that work. I got to know my host family, who treated me as their own son and helped me expand my Armenian vocabulary not only with words but with anecdotes that I hope I won’t forget any time soon. I spoke at length with Gyumretsis who told me not only about the extreme hardship the city’s people underwent after the ravaging earthquake but also about the glimmers of hope for a brighter future being brought with the work being done by amazing individuals and organizations as well as the new government.
I joined the “Hrayrq” traditional Armenian dance group that works to maintain and tell the stories of the original village dances from all around the country. The people in that dance group were like one family, having little celebrations for newly passed birthdays and even weddings after practices and always joking around with one another. They allowed me to join that close-knit family and treated me like I was one of their own. I attended one rehearsal of the Armenian Ornaments dance group, one of the most technically impressive Armenian dance groups I have ever seen which amazed me with their powerful and diverse choreographies. The dance instructor and his son told me all about the history of the dance troupe and the initiatives the proceeds from their performances are donated to, and I felt like I had known them for years. Listening to the amazing Gohar Ensemble play pieces like Aram Khachaturian’s Lezginka induced goosebumps. Going into the usually-empty Amigo Pub only to find it packed full of people enjoying the Aratta Band’s modern renditions of Armenian folkloric songs was one of many highlights. The plays performed at the Gyumri Theater were a powerful testament to the value put into the arts within the city, and the various museums throughout the city had beautiful statues and paintings – among other works of art – from some of the most well-known names in recent Armenian history.
The bond as a group with fellow volunteers in Gyumri was very strong and a big part of the experience of living there as a Birthright Armenia participant. It became very easy to form a family with fellow volunteers as well as the amazing staff members in Gyumri, which only enhanced the experience. To anyone considering volunteering with Birthright Armenia, I would highly recommend dedicating a chunk of time at the beginning of the volunteering period in Gyumri. Volunteering at and engaging with Armenia’s cultural capital brought me amazing friends, unique experiences, and changed my perspective for the better.
Los Angeles, CA, USA, 2019