BY VINCENT HOVSEPIAN, SOPHIA KARABETIAN, AND TIFFANY YAZMAJIAN
Attending an Armenian school in the heart of Little Armenia in Los Angeles, California, has formed a strong connection to our ancestral lands. Living in the diaspora inspires us to diligently preserve our culture in order to continuously ignite the Armenian flame within us. We have heard from many that when you first step foot in Armenia, the air you breathe carries a pure, serene, and noticeably distinct quality. With this in mind, as we arrived at Zvartnots International Airport, we took a deep breath. The calm, mesmerizing breeze defined our senses. It was as if we could smell Lake Sevan’s crystal blue waters, and though we couldn’t see it yet, observe Mount Ararat’s breathtaking landscape.
The Pilibos Class of 2024 arrived in Armenia on September 15th. During the two weeks in our homeland, Pilibos Scholars visited eight of the ten provinces of Armenia, including Lori, Shirak, Tavush, Arakatzodn, Kotayk, Kegharkounik, Armavir, Ararat, and the capital, Yerevan. In the first four nights in Yerevan, the class enjoyed a sightseeing experience, including landmark monuments such as the Mayr Hayastan statue, Tzitzernagapert Armenian Genocide Memorial, Yerablur, and the Cascade. The senior class was able to spend their evenings together in the festive Republic Square and Northern Avenue. Throughout the trip, the class embarked on daily excursions to other landmarks, such as the Garni Temple, Keghart Monastery, Echmiadzin Cathedral, Khor Virap, Sardarapat, Aparan, Haghartsin Monastery, Sevan Lake, Stepanavan’s Dendropark and Amberd Fortress. The class spent two nights in Gyumri and two nights in Dilijan, both of which were complemented by memorable, yet educational experiences at the Tumo Center and MIT Educational Center in Gyumri, and Barz Lake’s ziplining in Dilijan.
In the weeks before our trip, we raised over $20,000 to give to the families of fallen soldiers from the 2020 44-day war. We knew this sum of money would never heal the lasting wounds of grief and loss, however, as diasporan Armenian students, we felt the urge to support the families who sacrificed their loved ones to protect the sovereignty of our motherland. Visiting the soldiers’ homes was truly heartbreaking, as we saw countless pictures of the martyred and met those injured in war. However, we felt proud and gratified that we could give back to those who risk their lives everyday,so that we can proudly proclaim in Los Angeles that “We are Armenian.” One instance we remember vividly was when we visited a family of a fallen son. The father had developed a mental disorder due to his son’s death, giving him no emotion or reaction to our questions. It truly astonished me how much of a toll one’s death has on a person. The fallen soldier’s twin sister, whom we had also met, forced a smile to cope and emotionally stabilize. It is unimaginable how lucky we are as diasporan Armenians, as we are not accustomed to experiencing such heartbreaking, traumatizing, and life-threatening hardships in the United States.
About a week into our trip of a lifetime, the humanitarian crisis in Artsakh escalated, as Azerbaijan launched a large-scale military attack, targeting various Artsakh cities including the capital, Stepanakert, as well as targeting civilians and their infrastructure. Unfortunately, due to Azerbaijan’s billion-dollar funding, and illegal war tactics, Artsakh’s helpless 120,000 Armenians, who had just endured a ten-month blockade of starvation, were forced to concede defeat. Over 100,000 Artsakh-Armenians fled to Armenia, lacking housing and basic necessities. As the Pilibos Senior Class, we were able to help our people in a time of desperation and catastrophe. Although impromptu, the class was able to unite and raised a sum of $2,500 to purchase basic needs of families forcibly displaced– toilet paper, blanket, diaper, soap, non perishable food, etc. The supplies were transported to a humanitarian aid center in Yerevan in which we were able to distribute directly to Artsakh refugees.
As students heavily involved in organizations such as the Armenian Youth Federation, Hye Hopes, and the Armenian National Committee of America that prioritize Armenians in need, we felt the instinctual urgency to help the countless Artsakh refugees that were displaced from their homes in fear of persecution by the Azeri government.
We found ourselves immersed in a profound moment of compassion and humanity as we lent a hand to the volunteers and sat down with the displaced Artsakh refugees. This leg of our journey cut much deeper into our souls, for it was here that we witnessed the heart-wrenching reality we had only seen on the news come to life before our very eyes. The vivid memory of a poignant encounter we had with an Armenian grandmother named Nour, a name that bears the symbolism of a pomegranate, a tribute to her fight for survival. As she recounted her harrowing story, tears streamed down her face, and she clung to my shoulder, seeking solace and understanding. Her story was etched in pain and loss. Tragically, her son was martyred during the 2020 Artsakh war. However, during the recent outbreak of ceasefire violations by Azerbaijan, the unimaginable occurred: her sanctuary, her son’s legacy, was mercilessly bombed into oblivion. She stood there with her heart shattered, robbed not only of her son but also of her home, and with it, her very dignity to live. We held her frail form close, offering what comfort we could, yet our words felt inadequate. We were left, much like her demolished home, in a state of profound speechlessness. This encounter changed our perspective forever. The privileges of our life in Los Angeles had veiled our eyes to the harsh realities faced by our brothers and sisters in Armenia. They were not merely surviving, but navigating a life marked by perpetual uncertainty. The chasm between our experiences and theirs became all too evident, a stark reminder of the gratitude we had overlooked for so long.
Another moving and emotionally heavy aspect of the journey was the visit to Tsitsernagapert, the memorial honoring the 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide. The moment our class stepped onto the monument grounds, we were enveloped with sadness, reminded of the traumatic experiences our forefathers endured to protect their Armenian identity. This beautiful monument we have merely seen through pictures since first grade, now stood before our eyes. Upon laying a flower in front of the eternal flame, we were reminded that though the occasion was somber, the everlasting flame symbolized our existence—survival against a plot of complete cultural erasure. As our classmates stood in a circle around the Tsitsernagapert, holding hands, praying, and crying, we expressed our solicitude and fury about our past; but we remained hopeful to lead a future with our best foot forward. The valiant Armenian fighters who were martyred for their country awakened the young, fiery souls of diasporan Armenians and inspired them to vow to continue their legacy of defending the Armenian identity. The memorial unites Armenians around the world and acts as a potent symbol of the past, a testament to resiliency, and an emblem of hope for a world in which such tragedies never take place again.
The Armenian landmarks we had learned about in our Armenian History and Hye Tahd classes were undoubtedly magical to see in person, however, most remarkable of all was the Yerablur Military Pantheon in Yerevan. Since 1995, here the martyrs of the Artsakh wars lay to rest. Notable figures include: Monte Melkonian, Andranik Ozanian (General Andranik), Sose Mayrig, and Vazgen Sargsyan are also buried at the Yerablur Pantheon. As we wiped away tears and followed retired general Mr. Alber Arakelian on an emotional tour through the sacred cemetery, the class silently united in honoring the courageous lives that were lost to protect our nation. Following the tour, the class had the opportunity to freely roam the cemetery. We chose to visit Robert Abajyan’s grave. Although we did not know him personally, we were familiar with his story. He was a nineteen-year-old Armenian hero, who during the 2016 four-day Artsakh war, motioned to surrender, then pulled out a grenade and detonated himself along with ten Azeri soldiers. We were truly inclined by his heroic deed and pledged to dedicate ourselves to the Hye Tahd in his name. On the return to our bus, we were approached by a middle-aged lady who asked about our large group. We told her we were from an Armenian school in Los Angeles, and asked her if she had any family buried here. She hesitantly replied that her twenty-year-old son, a martyr of the 2020 44-day Artsakh war, is buried at Yerablur. We accompanied her to her son’s grave, prayed, thanked her for gifting her son to our country, and assured her that our class of fervent Pilibos Scholars would be sure to continue her son’s legacy to give back to our homeland.
This journey, a sacred journey to our ancestral homeland, imprinted a duty upon our heart that cannot be ignored. We now carry with us a solemn obligation to fight fiercely for our homeland and to champion the cause of our people. We are resolute, and unyielding in our commitment to preserving our precious Armenian culture, a torchbearer for our heritage. We bear the weight of spreading awareness about the ongoing heinous actions perpetrated by Azerbaijan against the Armenian people. The memories of this life-altering journey are stitched into our ethnic soul, and while the ache of returning to Los Angeles still lingers, there are many ways we, Armenians in the diaspora, can offer our unwavering support and make a difference.
Pilibos’s Armenia trip cannot simply be called a class trip. It was a pilgrimage, a rite of passage, a must-do for us, and the diasporan students of an Armenian school in Little Armenia. And most of all, although the class was on the ground during such an apprehensive circumstance for the Armenian people, the students proved one thing—when the motherland calls for help, Pilibos students, though thousands of miles away, are always ready to unite to come to the call for our homeland. As the wise and renowned Armenian poet, Yeghishe Charents once said, “O Armenian people, your only salvation lies in the power of your unity.”