Thursday, September 30, 2010

Beyond the Stereotypes


Nora Injeyan
USA

My work experience in Armenia, in Gyumri, was molded and influenced the greatest by my boss, an elderly woman named Julietta Eganyan. She has come to represent, to me, everything Gyumri is, and everything it has the potential of becoming.

On my first day in Gyumri, a few other new volunteers and myself went to our jobs and got acquainted with our site. Upon my arrival, Julietta had Shant baghbagag waiting for me and soon enough, the awkward, first-meeting conversation ensued.

“Vor deghatsi es?”
“Ameriga”
“Eenchoo Gyumri es yegel?”

I didn’t provide her with any substantial answer as I honestly wasn’t quite sure why at that point. After a few minutes of uncomfortable chit-chat, she finally said, “Ari mi pajag gini khmenk” and my complicated love/hate relationship with her, with Gyumri, began.

Julietta lost both her son and daughter in the devastating earthquake in 1988, she in fact has a personal survivor story that is so unbelievable you would think it was written by Hollywood screenwriters. However, I am not going to delve into the specifics of her story, only to reiterate that it is safe to say, this woman lost everything to the earthquake. But as the days passed, our relationship slowly progressed and she began trusting and depending on me more and more. I think our relationship reached a level that few of the other AVC volunteers got at their job site. In fact, on my last day in Gyumri, she took me to visit her children’s graves. As we approached the grave, it became obvious that 22 years had not healed her wounds, 22 years had not eased the pain of losing her children any more. Julietta proved that the people of Gyumri are still living in the aftermath of the earthquake. Although the world, even the Armenian diaspora seems to have moved on, the Gyumretsis are still living, day to day with the reality of the earthquake in their minds and this reality has created an amazing set of contradictions that I would have been completely oblivious to had I not worked so closely with this woman. Despite being devastated by an earthquake, a subsequent lack of aid and being forgotten by the world soon thereafter, there is a desire and an attempt here to rebuild or create an even greater community. Julietta, having nothing, is still willing to give everything to her NGO “Margartatsaghik.”

This attitude is what lives underneath the top layer of cynicism most people are accustomed to on their trips to Armenia. This is not to say there is not a deep rooted anger and disappointment among the people, however, anyone who dismisses this as the primary motivator among the people has not made the attempt to understand that anger. I refuse to accept the common perception that the Armenian people are stuck in this bubble.

In my short time working in an NGO dedicated to helping those affected by the earthquake, it became obvious that these effects are still being felt every day. However, there is a strong desire for change permeating throughout Gyumri. People are becoming fed up with their living conditions and have decided to create change by getting educated, nurturing discussions aimed at solutions, and opening up institutions of change such as NGOs like Julietta did. This is where the inherent contradictions lie, contradictions people tend to mistake as simple pessimism and hopelessness. Yes, Gyumri is filled with people who are backwards, angry and hopeless, but the times are changing indeed and trends of modernity, optimism and change are spreading. It is now up to the Gyumretsis to foster that change and the diasporan to aid and support them by coming to Armenia, living there, working there, talking to the people and simply trying to understand life in Armenia, in Gyumri, beyond the stereotype, beyond the negativity.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Volunteer's First Impressions

Haig Balian
Canada

I’m lying on my single bed in my new room in Gyumri, and my host family is down on the main floor, watching an Armenian soap opera. It’s been two nights since I arrived in Armenia, and I think I may have already beaten my jet lag. Yesterday, I wasn’t very hopeful that I would.

I had the day mostly to myself, and spent the morning wandering the getron – the downtown area – running errands and buying a few necessities. Before I arrived, I’d thought that being in Armenia would be like being dropped into a totally foreign country, but magically having the ability to communicate with the people there.

That’s sort of exactly what it was like.

At the phone shop, I figured out the rates for data plans. At the electronics store, I bought a converter for North American plugs. At a tiny bakers, I ordered two lahmajoon – commonly described as Armenian pizzas – and they were made to order. I’ve had fresh lahmajoon before, but never straight from the oven. They were pretty incredible. I know I could have figured all this out without knowledge of the language. I’ve gotten used to gesturing with my arms, as well as approximating pronunciations in my guide books. But it’s never been this easy.

Not that I’m even close to fluent. I stayed with a family my first two nights in Yerevan. They were, I think, pleasantly surprised by the amount of Armenian I was able to speak, but soon my limitations came to the surface.They asked what I did in Canada; I couldn’t really answer (of course, I have the same problem when speaking with English speakers). They tried talking about politics. Food. Culture. The best I could do was try to understand concepts. The fact is, I stopped going to Armenian school in the fifth grade, so I read and speak at less than a fifth grade level now. That being said, I’m getting by.

In the early afternoon, I made my way back to my host family, but my head down on my pillow, and slept for three hours. I knew it was a terrible idea, and I did pay for it that night when I woke up at four and went back to sleep at 5:30. I’d made plans to meet with another new volunteer later that evening. Meghrig is a recent history graduate from a university in Haleb (Aleppo?), Syria, a city with a large Armenian population. We made plans on the phone. It was the first time I’d spoken Armenian to anyone other than a member of my family on the phone for as long as I can remember.

Yerevan’s main square – which is actually more of an oval – is like nothing I’ve seen. It’s surrounded by five low-rise stone buildings, and at the centre is a large fountain. On summer evenings, the buildings are illuminated and there’s a choreographed water show on the fountain, set to the music of Aznavour, Khatchatourian, U2, Piaf, and Williams, as well as others.

Much more to write, but it’ll have to wait until at least tomorrow. And I’ll have more pictures, too.

A few random observations:

* Armenians – Yerevanites, anyway – are incredibly put together. The women especially seem to spend an incredible amount of time getting ready for the day. The men, too, make an effort to look nice. Yesterday, I wore shorts and a t-shirt, and was awarded with stares; today I wore pants.
* When someone invites you to sit down to eat hatz – bread – you’ll be in your chair for at least half an hour. You’re in for a lot more than just bread.
* Mt. Ararat is completely visible from Yerevan. I went running the morning after I first arrived, turned a corner, and was completely surprised by this.

This post first appeared on Haig's own blog, www.haigbalian.com

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Volunteering: A Give and Take Between Peers


Alexandra Achkarian
Canada

It’s my last day in Armenian and I as I sit down to write this I feel at a loss of where to begin. Perhaps it’s the desire to pretend that this adventure is not coming to an end or pure lack of ability to sit down and write anything after a month of vacation; either way this is becoming a struggle for me.

I am not going to pretend otherwise, I came over to volunteer with AVC as an adventure for myself. I grew up volunteering within my community at home in Toronto where my mother would constantly be signing me up for random volunteer events: school fundraisers, canvassing for charities, bake sales…you name it, we did it! It became second nature to me and when I got to high school I was signing myself up to volunteer and taking initiative within my neighbourhood to create volunteer opportunities for myself and my peers. This continued on in a similar fashion throughout University where I eagerly sought out new opportunities to learn from volunteerism and found myself pursuing a Certificate in Corporate Responsibility while working towards my Bachelor of Commerce degree. There was something in me to always want to help others but as I grew up and started to learn more about the world I lived in and my place in it, I found myself “volunteering” in different ways.

Often when people hear of volunteers going off to foreign countries to volunteer they think of building schools in remote villages or teaching English. My experience was much different and although I was volunteering it was a work experience as well as a cultural one.

I was placed at Armenian Caritas (you can follow them @ArmenianCaritas), a division of the International NGO Caritas, and was working under the supervision of the PR Manager who also doubled as the Volunteer Coordinator. I was thrown into work on the very first day and asked to write a Press Release. I studied brand management in University and did not learn anything about writing Press Releases. The challenges began. It was a blessing in disguise as I found a skill that I held and previously did not know about: writing. When I handed in my first press release my boss praised me and continued to pile on the work. I was overwhelmed while at the same time gaining confidence in my abilities and feeling pride in the work I was accomplishing.

Work continued on like this for the duration of my time at Caritas. Although our office hours were 9-5 and we had 15 minute coffee breaks and 45 minute lunch breaks, work is nothing like at home! I was constantly being taken away from my desk for celebrations outside in our courtyard – the last one we had was to celebrate our co-worker’s daughter being accepted into University! Can you imagine? Something that we take for granted as an assumed next step in life is cause for celebration at the workplace (celebrations include brandy and chocolate at 10 AM). Another day I was dragged out of my office (kicking & screaming of course…) to be taken to the fish farm (a well known fish restaurant in Gyumri) to say goodbye to a co-worker who was off to New York to continue her studies. You see, work in Armenia is not as cut and dry as it is at home, it is more than about getting the job done. People truly get to know one another, and genuinely want to be involved in each others’ lives.

I was lucky enough to also work with the volunteers who work at Caritas’ various programs. Caritas recently created a network for their volunteers called the Armenian Caritas Youth Corps (ACYC) as a means of providing the youth in the community who want to be involved in volunteerism a support organization to initiate various events. I spent a lot of time with the youth learning about their experiences, collaborating with them to develop the first ever large-scale fundraiser in Gyumri and mentoring them. They showed a great deal of interest in the fact that I was from Canada so I decided to make a presentation on it for them. As you can imagine, a presentation on Canada could be a little bit broad, but I am pretty sure I did a good enough job and lightening the mood (No, we do not live in igloos and it is not snowing all year round…)

My work experience was not just about gaining skills in my area of expertise and lending a hand to my workplace but it was a give and take between peers who were learning about each others’ culture and way of life. Some of my fondest memories of my time at Caritas include lunches when Tatjana would come and visit me and we would eat in the courtyard (a new trend I started) and chat with my co-workers, and visiting the various programs Caritas offers.

My experience was more than I expected and could have asked for. It was humbling and rewarding while it also changed my view on volunteerism at the same time. There need not be a material outcome from your efforts as a volunteer; it may show itself as a change within you, a change within someone else or simply a learning experience. Mine was a bit of all of those.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Volunteering and Animation


Jirair Garabedian
Canada

So I've been an AVC volunteer for a little over a month now, and there doesn't seem to be an end in sight.

Actually, I've been in Armenia since May. Working at KassArt Studio. We've been scrambling to get ready for ReAnimania 2010 International Animation Film Festival of Yerevan. It's the second annual animation festival being held here.

You wouldn't believe the amount of work that goes into getting a festival going! It seriously couldn't be done without the 60+ staff and volunteers putting their sweat and blood into it every day.


I'm having a good time though, I mean I haven't been on any of the excursions..and I think I only went to 1 forum. But that's just because I'm so busy with work. I can't remember the last time I've pulled this many all-nighters in a row. Hopefully after the festival there'll be time to go on some of the excursions, get out of the city you know? There's only so much dust and smoke I can stand.

But on the upside, I've had pretty much complete immersion into the society, I'm over the whole culture shock thing and Ive picked up enough of the slang to sound local! So there's something to be glad about.

Anyways, there's 3 days to the festival so I should get back to work!

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Live, Life, Love


Ara Koulayan
USA

Իմ Կեանքիս Մէչ միշտ կուզէի վոր իմ Հայրէնիքիս համար լաւութիւն մը ըննէլ եւ վէրջապէս այս երազս իրականածաւ։ Շատ հէտագըրգիր է որ շատ տարփէրութիւն չկա Ամէրիկայի հէտ Երեվանի մէջ, Բայց ես Կյումրիի մէջ իմ կամաւոր պարտականութիւնս վորոշէցի ընել վորովհետէւ կուզէյի աւէլի համը արնէլ բուն Հայրէնիքին։

Իմ ընտանիքս որ վորոշւատձ էր իմ համար կարձես թէ շուտ օրվանէ ձանօդ էն ինձի։ Շատ մեձ հաճույք է լաւ ընտանիքի մէջ ապրիլ եւ կեանք սորվիլ իրար հէտ։ Աստուաձ տայ որ երկար կյանք եւ միշտ կապուաձ մնանք իրար հէտ։ Արմինէն, Արմէնուհի Նիկողոսեան, որ Փյունիք-ի կէնդրոնին տնօրէնն է իմ գործատէղիս Կյումրիում, կարձես թէ Հրէշտակի լուսապսակ մը անընդատ իր հէտ կը պտըտվի:

Հազար մարդու հաւասար է այս կինը: Շատ մոտ ենք արդէն եւ չէմ գիտէր ոնձ պիտի հէրանամ այս հրաշալի կնոչմէ:

Շատ չէ պատահաձաց որ այսպէս ըզկացերէմ մարդու հոքին. Իր մոտ աշխատիլ որպէս կամաւոր շատ պատվէլի է իմ համար։ Կուզէմ ըսէլ որ ես հավատացյալ էմ լաւ քորձելու մէջ եւ շատ աւէլի կարողութիւն կունէնայ մարդ ամէն տեսքով։ Ապրէս այն Հայէրուն վոր արանձ լէզուն խոսելով եկան որպես կամաւոր բարիք քորձէլու։

Շնորհակալ էմ Դէպի Հայք -ին (Birthright Armenia) որ այս արիդը մէզ համար կայ։

Ara's blog post first appeared on networkedblogs.com.