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Theia Maldoom
United Kingdom 2019 participant
17 May, 2022

Dancing with Armenia: Volunteering in Vanadzor and Yerevan

8 min read

In 2016, I came to Armenia on a big family holiday. We drove around seeing all the main touristic sites and had a fantastic time together eating sujogh, watermelon, and tasting the delights of Armenia. I left, feeling satisfied that I had visited and did not expect to return anytime soon. However, I knew I was still hungry to know somehow and understand more about my Armenian heritage. My initial idea of how to do this was to read a book, do some googling, and maybe go and hang out around London's Armenian Church, St Sarkis. Then, around two years later, having been absorbed by my degree course and living the normal busy London life, I decided to take a year out of university and sometimes opened up, I started to read the book and was semi-committed, slowly making my way through it when my sister, texted me out of the blue, "you could do Birthright Armenia." This text was amazing. Having had no idea that Birthright Armenia existed, I quickly googled it, read the whole website, and immediately an overwhelming feeling of excitement washed over me and I knew I wanted to leave as soon as possible. So, in a whizz of action, that included turning twenty-one, exactly a month after my sister's text, I arrived in Armenia again.

Volunteering with Birthright Armenia

A general overview of my Birthright Armenia experience is two months in Yerevan and then one and a half months in Vanadzor accompanied along the way by many havaks, forums, and excursions. In Yerevan, Birthright Armenia paired me with Contemporary Choreography Lab Armenia (CoChoLab) to support the development of contemporary dance in Armenia. Having been involved with dance since a young age and being halfway through a contemporary dance degree in London, this placement could not have been more perfect for me. I met people doing exactly the kind of work that I am interested in. So whatever your expertise, however niche it may seem, I'm sure that Birthright Armenia will be able to use your experience and find something interesting for you to do!

I was accompanied to meet my CoChoLab colleagues and after a quick chat in their studio, I felt I could easily connect with them and was excited about where our work together could lead. They were eager to take advantage of the training I had experienced in London, and I was interested to know how this could fit in the context of being in Armenia. After a couple of weeks of getting to know each other and understanding how each other worked, I was absorbed into the fabric of the organization and became fully integrated with the ethos, values, and work; more than that we became great friends. We worked weird hours, sometimes early in the morning, sometimes late into the night, at the weekends; whenever. For Birthright Armenia, this isn't compulsory, the standard request is six hours a day from ten in the morning to five in the afternoon, but I was happy with them, and it did not feel like work.

Dancing and More

Along with teaching classes, developing the website, writing funding applications, social media, and other tasks we ate, we chatted, shared stories, inspirations, opinions, and hopes. We discussed the challenges for contemporary dance in Armenia and what can be done to advance it and broaden the work being produced and experienced by audiences. For me, this is fascinating and now with the support of CoChoLab, I have started a research project contacting artists involved with contemporary dance in Armenia to understand further their experience of working here. The people I was working with inspired and supported me beyond belief and I am happy to now call them good friends; family even, as they insist that I regard them as my aunty and uncle. This was more than a volunteering job; this was my life for the time I was in Yerevan.

I couldn't have been happier with how my volunteering experience with CoChoLab ended. We spent a week together in a remote village in the Gegharkunik region preparing and delivering a four-day community dance festival for over 50 children and the adults of the village. It was so wonderful to be in a village, spending time with the local people, working with them to tailor our dance classes to support them and encourage them to engage and make the most from us. This is not something I could have ever imagined I would be doing and it expanded my mind far beyond the realms of my previous understanding of potential dance work.What is more is that spending time in the village with the local people, who were exceptionally kind and welcoming, their animals and nature; I was surrounded by a simplicity of life that I had never known in London.

I remember attending a havak (Armenian word for gathering) where we talked about the value of Armenia's cultural heritage, how many of our excellent artists were taken away from us with the Genocide, and the long-lasting effect that it had. He continued to talk about the present day and the passionate people who are working to develop Armenia's arts and culture again. It made me realize how groundbreaking and revolutionary CoChoLab's work is, and I remember feeling a wave of awe for the work that CoChoLab is doing and incredibly lucky to be with them, pushing the arts and contemporary dance forward, maintaining and constructing the rich cultural legacy of Armenia.

From Yerevan and CoCoLab I moved to Vanadzor, from one world to another. First things first, when in Gyumri or Vanadzor, every Friday all volunteers participate in a community service project. The Vanadzor group was working in a local village called Tumanyan and assisting with the redecoration of the local school. The work was physical and hard, but very satisfying. The CSP was a highlight of my week as it contrasted with much of my other work. Also, great life skills were gained because now I can plaster and paint the walls. Win!

What a Week in Armenia Looks Like

On the other four days of the week, I worked in four different institutions. In Orran, a children's daycare center, and an Aesthetic Centre, a youth arts center, I taught contemporary dance and movement to children. At Vanadzor State University, I lead the English Language through movement classes. Then, in my final placement, I participated in an exchange with the local traditional Armenian Dance Company, where they taught me traditional Armenian dance, and I taught them contemporary dance.

On a fundamental level, the work experience that I have gained here is invaluable. Each job taught me many different things; I came to understand the skills that I have and developed methods of sharing them. I learned that at the core of my work with others, it is most important for me to offer people skills in how to engage with their bodies, move in different ways, and be confident. I now know more about what I want from my career and what I want to learn more. I am very grateful for how this experience has helped me understand my hopes for my future career- which also now include being in Armenia.

Additionally, across my job sites, I met, many different people. As I only started learning the Armenian language whilst in Armenia my language skills are basic, sometimes it could be difficult to make contact with local Armenians but I feel very lucky to have been able to work, interact, meet and develop relationships through my dance work. I loved dancing with fellow Armenians and sharing this culture with them. This helped me to feel integrated into the community and meant that, particularly in Vanadzor, every time I walked down Main Street I was greeted by my colleagues, students, and friends.

More of Vanadzor!

There is a different feeling when you leave Yerevan, the city shrinks, and the noise decreases. Although this could be daunting as you are further away from the big Birthright Armenia group and the constant activity of Yerevan, it offers the experience of getting to know people at a deeper level and building those relationships to be stronger. It also means that you can integrate with the local people on a more personal level. One way I can explain this is through the havaks that I experienced in Vanadzor. I found them to be more intimate; because there were fewer people, we often had the opportunity to make something, such as a carpet or pottery, and we could visit artists' homes and have personal conversations with them. Also, a key part of my experience was my host family in Vanadzor. They showed me a kind of love that I had never experienced before from anyone but my own family. They cared for me with all of their hearts and drew me in whenever I fell back on my tendency to be alone; I had no choice but to love them dearly. I felt deeply loved and protected by them. I can only thank them for welcoming me with such kindness, I will miss them and I hope to return to visit them with my parents and sister.

One of my favorite places in Armenia is the markets. They are just so interesting! So full of color, characters, and life. Walking through them is a feast for the senses, and I love it. Every nook and cranny is full of detail and stories. Apart from seeing stalls with the fresh fruits pilling up and enjoying stuffing my face with the seasonal apricots, I am also fascinated by the jars of preserved goods, stacked up in beautiful displays of muraba (preserved fruits), dgem (jam), and compote (fruity syrups). I was so happy when I got to watch and assist my host family, in making their batches of compote this year. It is such a fundamental and regular activity that people have been doing for centuries; it is so simple but so full of love.

"I am happy that I made the decision to also live in Vanadzor"

Another vital part of my time in Armenia has been nature here. It blows my mind! I love Yerevan a great deal for its social activity and the museums and everything else, but I was most happy amongst the mountains, and for this reason, I am happy that I made the decision to also live in Vanadzor. It is a city surrounded by greenery and mountains. I have been overwhelmed by the beauty of this land and the nature that flourishes here. That is where I have felt truly at home, touching the land and being amongst the mountains, I can't explain it, but I feel complete peace. Armenia amazes me and feels very lucky to be able to call this my motherland.

I cannot say that it has been easy; it's been a challenge facing up to my Armenian heritage and making an effort to engage actively. Learning the language, history, emotions, experiences, traditions, and behaviors were all pretty new to me. Although my family maintains many Armenian cultural traits and characteristics, I wasn't raised in a traditional household. Working out how much I associate with it, where I sit on the imaginary 'Armenianness' scale pushed me to be pretty frustrated, tired, and feel illegitimate sometimes. The idea of proving my Armenianness was frustrating. It has required me to build conviction in being Armenian. What helps me the most is remembering how many great friends that I have made through Birthright Armenia, how they accepted me and how we share our culture together in our own ways.

This leads me smoothly onto the topic of friendships. Here I have met some of the most wonderful people I think I will ever meet. Generally, I am cynical when people regard groups as their family, but I can confirm; I have been convinced. It is a unique situation that Birthright Armenia conjures, drawing people from many corners of the earth to engage with their culture; we are vulnerable and we need friends. The fellow volunteers that I have met here have shown me love and care and have made this experience for me. They have taught me and shared with me their experiences, and through them, I felt connected to Armenian culture. Even the fact of having so many Armenian friends now is a big change for me. Whether we meet again here in Armenia or in any far and distant corner of the planet, I know that we will meet. I have learned an unbelievable amount about not just Armenia but the whole world from them.

I have so much to say and so much to share, my mind and soul are full of images and feelings and thoughts and reflections. I'm grateful for all the notes and photos and shared memories that remind me of all the small and large things that happened over the last three months. I can't say that I understand it all just yet, but I have started. For me, this is a decision, an active process of learning, developing, and changing. I need time, and I need help, and this is what Birthright Armenia offered me.

It's a rollercoaster, scary and unknown; full of ups and downs and unexpected turns. It was challenging on a practical and personal level but it has been three of the most amazing months of my life, and I am so grateful that I had this opportunity and so grateful that I am Armenian. Honestly, I am very proud of myself and how much I have learned and developed from my time in Armenia. From not really having any understanding of personal connections with Armenia, I am now leaving, knowing that I will come back, knowing that this is a country and people that I love, and knowing that I am Armenian.

I want to say a huge thank you to all of the people that I met on this journey, I have learned so much from each of you to the Birthright Armenia staff who are always the most supportive people, and to my host family.

I dedicate this to the Armenian women in my life, my friends, my sister (I cannot wait for you to participate in Birthright Armenia too!), my cousins, my aunties, my mum and my granny, who I never met, and wish I could have shared this experience with.

I wish you the best of luck with your experience, make it your own. Birthright Armenia offers so much!


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