Simi Valley, CA, United States
For several years prior to applying to Birthright, I heard from various people and friends about their amazing time as a BR volunteer. Seeing pictures on social media of their experiences and realizing the vast network of alumni they became a part of, I saw Birthright as an opportunity to explore Armenia, engage in networking, gain an insight on the work life, all while gaining field-related work experience. Although exploring Armenia and gaining work experience is a part of the Birthright agenda, little did I realize there was so much more to this journey than I anticipated; and for future BR volunteers, know that what you make of your experience is in your hands, and Birthright provides you with the tools to shape your journey.
As a volunteer, I was placed at the Eurasia Partnership Foundation; an organization that engages in civil society development in order to improve the lives and productivity of communities in Armenia. They also engage in cross-border programs with other EPF offices throughout the Caucasus to spread civil society initiatives outside of Armenia’s borders to connect various communities. Long story short, I performed a lot of self-fulfilling work while making extremely valuable connections with my co-workers who became some of my closest friends. They took me on trips with them, they were extremely kind and helpful, always made sure I was fed and full, and of course, inquired several times about when I was getting married. One of my co-workers actually plans weddings as well; he said his services are always available.
One of my biggest goals, when I arrived, was to immerse myself into local life. How I was going to do that was a bit of a mystery to me. But during my time in Armenia, I realized that it’s not that big of a mystery. It’s just like making friends in any other social setting. You seek opportunities that interest you, meet people who you have things in common with, and by the time you know it (which doesn’t take very long in Armenia) you’ve made amazing friends!
Pursuing my hobbies was a very effective way to make friendships with local people, several of whom became the most influential people during my Birthright experience. When I arrived, I decided to advance my Dhol-playing skills (Armenian hand drum) by taking lessons from a local 23-year-old teacher. Subsequently, I began to take lessons for other instruments such as Daf (a frame drum) and Blul (Armenian woodwind instrument). Through my teachers, my network of local people rapidly expanded. I attended my teacher’s performances and spent time with them during off-lesson hours with their friends. When I had my Blul made by 80-year old Varpet (expert) Rubik, I went to his home in Yerevan to pick it up and we both went into his workshop. When I walked in, I immediately felt that I was in a sacred place; just as equivalent to those craftsmen who make Armenian Khachkars (stone crosses). There was dust, wood, equipment, and instruments everywhere. We spoke briefly about his life as an instrument maker for 55 years, and through his demeanor, I knew that he put every ounce of love into his work. I felt extremely happy that Rubik had made my Blul, as I knew that it would carry his legacy as I learned to play. Spending time with these people who encompass such a strong Armenian spirit and knowledge of our cultural philosophy, it fundamentally changed my Armenian identity in the most spiritual way, all because I initially wanted to take Dhol lessons. It was a door that led me to my own awakening.
Through writing, I cannot explain the knowledge and experience I had with these individuals, whether it was with those at work or outside of work. I will always remember them and they will always remain a significant part of my life. It is inevitable that you will meet the happiest, kindest and most influential people in Armenia. It’s a type of warmth you won't feel anywhere else besides your homeland. All I can say is that if you take advantage of what Birthright and Armenia have to offer, you will return home with a greater appreciation for life and a deeper understanding of who you are and what it means to be Armenian.