Los Angeles, California
As my time with Birthright Armenia began, I quickly realized the beauty of the program; it allowed people from all over the world to participate. There were volunteers from America, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, England, Estonia, France, Germany, Lebanon, Russia, and Sweden, with the list only getting longer. The entirety of my seven month stay in Armenia provided the opportunity for me to meet some of the most wonderful people. The weekly havaks, forums, and excursions helped create a permanent bond with the other volunteers. Learning about each other's cultures, families, and traditions from all over the world helped me understand how truly amazing it was to be surrounded by other diasporans in Armenia.
Birthright Armenia wasn't just about having an opportunity to live in Armenia. It was about creating connections with people, whether they were born and raised in Armenia or they had come to volunteer from somewhere else in the world. These connections weren't made simply by talking, however. They were forged through the daily activities and interactions organized by Birthright Armenia. Working with locals on a daily basis and attending weekly forums, havaks, and excursions became a significant factor in creating such a deeply rooted attachment to the county.
I first began volunteering with Green Lane, a local NGO that focuses on self-sustainable living. Together, we would install solar panels to harness sunlight to use for electricity and heating water. We renovated the buildings and also established a proper channel to receive ground water. It was truly amazing to see how efficient locals wanted their life to be. They were accepting to new ideas and integrated them into their daily lives. For about two months, my daily routine was to take the bus toward Masiv and jump on marshrutka #0 to get to Dzoraghpyur, where I’d help with building renovations, equipment installations and the occasional watering of fruits and vegetables. The best part was that our facility was in the mountains at a higher elevation, so I had a perfect view of Mt. Ararat. I would often stop in the middle of my work to gaze at the mountain and think about how lucky I was. That romantic idea of living and working in Armenia and seeing Mt. Ararat every day emotionally empowered me. That was the moment when I realized that doing Birthright Armenia was the best decision I’d ever made.
After two months with Green Lane, I began volunteering part-time at the American University of Armenia (AUA) and at the International Center for Agribusiness Research and Education (ICARE). At AUA, I worked in the Office of Admissions, helping with applications and presentation materials for recruitment. At ICARE, I researched potential new environmental health and safety policies that could be implemented, as well as new progressive methods for the institution’s PR campaign. It was a unique experience to work in such different fields for the remainder of my time in Armenia. It gave me a glimpse into how different daily life was for locals, almost as if they had a completely different definition of what it meant to live.
Apart from my daily volunteering, each weekend with Birthright Armenia brought a different adventure. Our weekly excursions ranged from exploring the caves in Areni, where the world’s oldest leather shoe was found, to hiking through Bjni to reach its ancient fortress. I saw parts of Armenia that most people only dream of seeing. My favorite excursions where the overnight, weekend trips. On separate occasions, we visited Gapan, Meghry and Artsakh with the entire group of Birthright Armenia volunteers. For me, that 6+ hour bus rides were so memorable. Sevan would always go through his routine of stating some fun fact about the village we were traveling through, while Hayk was going out of his way to keep us awake on the bus with games and sing-a-longs. Those were amongst the best times I had throughout my seven-month journey in Armenia.
There was no dull moment throughout my stay in Armenia. This was especially due to the fact that a few of us Birthright Armenia volunteers pitched in and rented an apartment together for the duration of our stay. Garin, Viken, Njteh, Lori and I stayed in a cozy, little apartment on the 3rd floor of a building on Tumanyan 10, right across from Old Beijing. We’d have breakfast together in the mornings before work and dinner at nights before we went out to enjoy Yerevan nightlife. We prepared a magnificent feast for Thanksgiving and decorated our bedrooms and living room for Christmas. We even adopted a cat, Leyla, and added her to our family. Living with new friends that I met through Birthright truly added to the grandeur of my experience in Armenia.
I came to Armenia in July 2016 with many set expectations, yet when I was sitting at Zvartnots Airport waiting for my return flight back to America, I knew all my expectations had been well surpassed. As I claimed my seat in the airplane and waited for takeoff, I couldn’t help but think about my past seven months in Armenia - all the memories, friendships and experiences. The 22-hour flight back gave me the opportunity to reflect upon my life. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, where I attended Ferrahian High School, an Armenian private school. I joined Armenian organizations from a young age and constantly volunteered within the Armenian community. I was always proud to be an Armenian, which ultimately led me to the decision of volunteering in Armenia. I noticed how much Armenia had progressed and how the lives of the locals differed from mine back in Los Angeles. As the plane touched down at LAX, I felt my heart skip a few beats. I was overwhelmed with excitement because I could finally see my family and friends. And yet, at the core of this excitement I knew another reason existed.
I stepped through the arrival gates to see my parents waving with nothing but pure happiness. We greeted each other with hugs and kisses and when they asked how my trip went, I spared no detail in expressing how amazing my experience was. As I told them stories from my adventures, I came to the utter realization that my life in Los Angeles was never going to be same because of one important gift - the most important gift - that Birthright Armenia gave me: The opportunity to see that I could live in Armenia for the rest of my life. From that moment on, I knew that I’d be moving back to my homeland, and hopefully leading by example for others in my community to do the same.