Growing up in Los Angeles, I had been fortunate enough to be raised around a large Armenian community. There are many ways someone from the diaspora can enjoy Armenian culture in L. A., from schools to cultural festivals, delicious restaurants, and more, one would think they would be getting a real Armenian experience. But I always longed to see the homeland and see if what I thought was “the Armenian experience” was the real thing. Three years ago I came to Armenia for one month and did the usual tourist things—Garni, Geghard, Khor Virap, and Tatev, as well as hung out in Yerevan but it just felt like more of the same touristy things. One month doesn’t really give you much time to experience enough so I decided that I would return.
Volunteering in Vanadzor
Once I graduated from university, I decided to travel back to Armenia. I discovered Birthright Armenia and chose to take part in the program. I arrived on 24 May 2016 with the intention of staying 4 months. However, I soon discovered that was not going to happen. I was fortunate enough to spend my first 3 months in Vanadzor, Armenia’s third-largest city. Here I worked with the Children of Armenia Fund (COAF) and the Little Prince “Poqrik Ishkhan” Educational Complex. Over the course of my time with these organizations, I jumped into the culture and lifestyle of the people of the Lori Region. While working with COAF, I was given the opportunity to work with children in the villages around Lori. This was by far the most beloved part of my Birthright Armenia experience. Working in the village showed me another side of Armenia that very few Diasporans get to experience. The kids were always ready to learn and experience new things.
On numerous occasions, I worked in Dsegh, the birthplace of the famous writer Hovhannes Tumanyan. The lush scenery and the wealth of history made my experience that much more fruitful. Near many villages ruins of medieval churches and monasteries could be found and explored. During lunch, we would constantly be invited into villagers’ homes and given delicious meals. The hospitality I experienced during my time would be unheard of in America, even in Diasporan communities. I felt that in these isolated communities the lifestyle was much more raw and untouched by international influence. For this reason, I considered this visit to be an authentic Armenian experience. Working with the kids in the villages and Vanadzor gave me hope for Armenia’s future. These kids were smart, curious, and ready to learn new things. Also, it made me proud to see how much effort the diaspora was putting into the communities throughout Armenia, not only monetarily but also through volunteering.
While in Armenia
While I was in the Birthright Armenia program I saw Armenians from all over the world come together and work for Armenia. This diverse and unified community of Armenians all came here to discover Armenia and to help make life here a little better. I made lifelong friends with people who without Birthright might not have had the opportunity to visit the homeland. While in Armenia, I was able to do many things that I wanted to. However, what left me with such a positive experience was all the things I did that I didn’t even think about doing while in Armenia. Climbing the highest peak of Mount Aragatz, participating in the largest water fight during the Vartavar festival, making new Armenian foods, drinking wine at the Areni wine festival, and camping in treehouses in Lastiver to name a few. I, like most people, had this idea of what Armenia would be like and had a notion of what to expect. Armenia is a place one should come to with an open mind and open heart. It’s a place where everything should be tried, tasted, and experienced. In the end, I fell in love with my homeland and chose to extend my stay for a total of 7 months. In my time, I clocked in more than 800 hours of volunteering, went on over 14 excursions, traveled to practically every part of the country, traveled to Artsakh, and lived like a local. In the end, I return to America with a new outlook on the homeland and eagerly await my return to Armenia, a place where we all feel at home!