A RETROSPECTIVE ON 2023
As of this essay’s publication, I am quickly approaching the end of my term as a Birthright Armenia volunteer. The end of the program snuck up on me very, very quickly; as if I’ve sneezed, my four-and-a-half months of volunteer service have passed in the blink of an eye. And reflecting back on the days leading up to my volunteer service this spring, I find it hard to believe that I prepared to board my flights to Armenia expecting much of the status quo of my life in Boston to effectively continue—solely in a new environment. I was expecting to have the same stability, routines and experiences of life in Boston while paying for things in Armenian drams.
I could not have been more wrong about my prior expectations of the experience I would have as a volunteer. I am immensely grateful for having been proven wrong, as my experiences while working here in Armenia have been transformative; these four months have contributed strongly to engagement with my diasporic identity, a strengthened sense of purpose in my professional trajectory, and the establishment of warm friendships within Birthright/AVC and across Armenia.
WHAT DREW ME HERE—A FAMILY LEGACY
The driving force of my travels to Armenia and the work I’ve pursued has been the survival story of my great-grandmother: Varter Boghosian. Varter was born and raised in the Western Armenian village of Körpe—a small frontier village on the fringes of Kharberd (Kharpet). As a little girl who survived the Armenian Genocide, her journey through the deportation caravans and eventual escape to Marseille while shouldering the burden of losing nearly her entire family was one which has humbled me and touched me in ways I am still discovering. It informed my interest in Genocide Studies and the work I would engage in at the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute, and it would help facilitate connections that ushered several members of my family who grew up under Varter’s embrace to travel to Armenia and find a degree of closure on an intergenerational trauma surrounding her journey from Körpe to Worcester, Massachusetts. Having been invited into the memorial by Director Harutyun Marutyan and Scientific Director Edita Gzoyan to tell Varter’s story and enshrine it at the institute, the experience was a cathartic one for us all.
My time here has been marked by professional growth and the discovery of a deep sense of purpose in my career goals. The work I've done with the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute has allowed me to pursue a passion of deep importance to me: chronicling the stories of victims of atrocity and preserving them in the hopes of helping preventing their repetition. The chance at Tsitsernakaberd was the tangible draw for my voyage to Armenia; departing as the institute's first official "Ambassador of Memory" is a deep honor that I will cherish for years to come as I continue as a staff member of Tsitsernakaberd's research division from the United States. My additional work experiences at the Armenian Project have strengthened my legislative research skills under the supervision of talented scholars and researchers who specialize in Armenian geopolitics. And furthermore, the opportunity to work with my twin brother at the Embassy of Artsakh in Yerevan has given me the opportunity to make connections with the Foreign Minister's office and complete work of meaningful purpose to assist Artsakh in its quest for political recognition in the post-2020 geopolitical landscape. The enduring professional connections I have made with scholars who’ve offered their mentorship, researchers who’ve shared their passion and expertise with me and government officials who’ve treated me as a protégé will be ones that undoubtedly have changed my professional trajectory.
FRIENDS MADE AND NOT FORGOTTEN:
My time spent volunteering here in Armenia has been marked strong friendships made within both Birthright Armenia and the Armenian Volunteer Corps. I have been lucky enough to have found a community of warm, kind and thoughtful friends and peers who have made me feel accepted from the day I landed at Zvartnots and continued to do so as I adjusted to life here in the Republic. Between group picnics at the Azat Reservoir, reflections on life while riding the train to Gyumri or reminiscing on nights spent dancing in Yerevan’s discotheques, I truly felt that I've been along friends while here in Armenia through the ups-and-downs of the volunteer experience. Their support has helped to define this experience for what it has been: transformative.
These connections have not been limited to intracommunity friendships, however: I have been humbled by the warmth and hospitality that Armenians have universally offered me as a traveler and volunteer here. Being invited into someone's home for coffee and being treated as a member of their family within an hour of my arrival, I have had my outlook on the world broadened through these last few months. I've become more saliently aware of my background as an American national and Armenian diaspora member. Between the kindness extended by my host family in Yerevan, the endless dried fruit and homemade wine offered in the canyons of Vayots Dzor or belly-laughing while telling stories with families who span generations in Aragotsotn, I end my volunteer service fondly reminiscing of Armenians who embody the principles of "Armenian hospitality” and treat guests with warmth in a manner that’s truly humbling—and has challenged me to pay that warmth forward to others.
LOOKING AHEAD TO THE FUTURE:
With questions on my mind during these last several weeks of my volunteer service as a diasporan, I joined Sevan, Birthright’s Country Director, for two invited lunch meetings with a few like-minded friends here. Having reflected on my own experiences as a diasporan and the inclusive nature of Birthright/AVC, I asked him about the relationship that many volunteers ultimately have with Armenia. He noted that the mission of both Birthright and the Armenian Volunteer Corps. is to provide a sense of “ownership” to one’s connection with Armenia and the means through which to nourish it. That comment resonated with me immensely, and I find myself thinking about my future as it relates to Armenia; not simply one that is connected to my diasporic identity, but one which is chosen for reasons beyond ancestry. At a junction where I’m preparing to depart from Armenia and return to New England to continue my studies and work, I feel a sense of confidence in having committed to a choice to engage in work that provides a deep sense of purpose and supports the indispensable work of Armenians who are fighting to chronicle and preserve memory, better understand the geopolitical environment of the South Caucasus and fighting for justice and the political rights of civilians under siege.
With this in mind: the end of my volunteering period will not mark the end of my engagement with the professional relationships and enduring friendships forged during my volunteer period here. As of the Summer of 2023, I will continue to work with the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute as a researcher from Boston, and I hope to return to continue academic research here on-site next year. Be it to further the work I have started on-site with my positions in Yerevan, reconnect with dear friends and valued colleagues I've had the joy of crossing paths with—or to simply discover more corners of the Republic and feel the hospitality of its people, I have no intentions of this initial voyage and volunteer period being indicative of my "one trip" to Armenia. Regarding the next trip to the Republic: it's less a matter of "if" and more a matter of "when."
To offer advice for anyone considering volunteer work with either Birthright Armenia or the Armenian Volunteer Corps: regardless of your identity, it truly is a life-altering experience to set foot on the ground here in Armenia. It will challenge your perspectives on the world and broaden your horizons; it will offer you a sense of enduring community with like-minded folks of all ages; it may very well provide you a sense of “ownership” in the work that you take on here. And if your experience is anything like my own: you will depart from Zvartnots as a truly changed person.