Philadelphia, PA, United States
I’ve been to just about every summer camp, retreat weekend, or event that the east coast Armenian community has to offer. I participated in AGBU’s New York Summer Internship Program (NYSIP) and even spent four weeks volunteering at the Our Lady of Armenia Orphanage in Tsaghadzor in the summer of 2009. From these experiences, I thought I had about as good of an understanding of “what it means to be Armenian” as one can have. I have to admit, I couldn’t roll my eyes hard enough at the idea of Birthright Armenia being a “journey of self-discovery,” but I’m happy to say I couldn’t have been more wrong and that this experience gave new meaning to being Armenian.
Having relatives involved with the program, volunteering through Birthright Armenia was always an inevitability for me. After 3 years of working in Boston post-graduation, I decided this fall was the perfect opportunity to see what Yerevan is all about for the first time; have a good time making some new friends, see all the sights and villages there are in Armenia, and eat every lahmajoun, koufta, and boreg in sight.
Having gone through the program now, I see many similarities between Birthright Armenia and AGBU NYSIP (and I’m sure the other programs that various organizations host throughout the world). You’re part of a group of anywhere from 20 to over 100 Armenians from all over. You have an internship relevant to your experiences or educational background. There are numerous networking and social events organized for you. However, I believe Birthright separates itself from these other programs in two significant ways that make it such a unique experience worth trying out.
The first distinction is that there are constantly volunteers starting and ending their respective stays. With people coming and going, the program kind of forces you out of your comfort zone and you find yourself interacting with new people on a daily basis. To illustrate this point, my first few days in Armenia went something like this:
· Friday night: got in around midnight and immediately* passed out at my homestay (*not until I finished a dinner made for a family of 4, of course)
· Saturday: dragged me to the Birthright Armenia office bright and early for excursion and started meeting people, some also brand new others that had been here for months and were getting ready to leave
· Sunday: spent the day at Lake Sevan with a couple of people from the previous day, but mostly an entirely new group (highly recommend checking out Wishup Shore if you get the chance)
· Monday: watched the Armenian national soccer team beat Lichenstein (I promise I didn’t just make this country up) with a mix of familiar faces and new people
By the end of my first three weeks, some of the volunteers I found myself spending the most time with had either already left or were getting ready to, and I found myself in new situations making new friends.
The second distinction ties into the first in a way because with everything constantly changing, it’s only natural to want to find structure or a certain level of comfort in your days. The best way to accomplish this is to immerse yourself in the local life. While I eventually decided to move out of my homestay after a month, that time will be one of my fondest memories. I was surprised with how welcoming my host family, and honestly, the local population in general, was and how excited they were to share their stories and traditions after asking all about me, my family, and what the Armenian community in America was like. Fair warning, have an answer prepared for why you’re not married; otherwise, you may find yourself being set-up with Ani or Vaghan during an excursion lunch in whichever village you’re in that day.
My coworkers at the Entrepreneurship and Product Innovation Center (EPIC) at the American University of Armenia were also very welcoming. Between what they’ve shared with me and the people I’ve met at various conferences and events, such as the HIVE Tech Summit, I feel as though I’ve gotten a much better understanding of the current economic outlook in Armenia and where the best opportunities for growth are in both the near future and long-term.
To try to tie this up neatly, all of these interactions with diasporan and local Armenians that Birthright Armenia organically creates helped me realize that there is more to “being Armenian” than just being active within your community. I feel more connected to my Armenian heritage than ever before now that I have a better understanding of local life, the history of the country, and the current political and economic outlook. It’s certainly an exciting time for the country, but there is still a long way to go in the continued development of Armenia.
I look forward to making a meaningful contribution, whether that be through projects of my own or by encouraging family and friends to visit Armenia and create their own experiences and connection to their heritage.