AYF Youth Corps @ 15: From Rebuilding Shattered Buildings to Reviving Broken Spirits
BY ALLEN YEKIKAN
HOLLYWOOD–With its majestic architecture and storied past, the city of Gyumri is a living museum to Armenia’s greatest catastrophe following the Genocide. The devastating earthquake in 1988 killed some 20 thousand and nearly leveled Armenia’s second largest city. Yet, the people of Gyumri are an inspiring example of how Armenians have the unique ability to look beyond disaster and despair, to come together, regroup, and work toward a better and brighter future.
Although Gyumri’s pre-Soviet structures still stand, many parts of the city still remain in ruin. It’s hard not to feel the pain this city has endured when walking through its dilapidated streets. Little economic development has occurred here since the earthquake, and Gyumri’s people continue to struggle to survive. They live much more modest lives than their counterparts in Yerevan and lack many of the amenities capital city residents have enjoyed during the last few years. Employment opportunities in Gyumri are limited and sometimes the prospects for change seem bleak. Only recently has the Armenian government become serious about rebuilding what was once the industrial center of the Caucasus.
Despite the adversities they face, the people of this storied town posses an uncanny sense of humor. They turn despair into laughter and sorrow into cheer. This becomes all the more apparent when looking at its energetic youth. Their future may seem gloomy and their material possessions may be as meager as the third-hand clothes they wear, but these children and teens find joy and excitement in the most modest of things.
This summer nine young diasporans from California traveled to Gyumri to set up a day-camp for the city’s youth—to live among them, share in their experiences, and make a small but positive impact on their lives. They were not surprised that dozens of boys and girls flocked to the camp, excited that Armenians from abroad had come to their hometown to spend the summer with them.
A mission for the youth
Youth Corps began in 1994 as AYF’s response to the desperate needs to rebuild war-torn villages in Artsakh. The program sent groups of young Armenians from the Diaspora to the Homeland every summer to help in reconstruction efforts throughout the region. In 2008, the program changed its focus from rebuilding shattered buildings to reviving broken spirits.
Gyumri was therefore chosen as the pilot location for what is becoming an entirely new archetype for Diaspora-Homeland relations.
“It’s easy to blindly send money, but the impact and real value in rebuilding our people’s confidence in the Armenian nation is priceless,” explains Sose Thomassian, the Director of the Youth Corps program. “The Youth Corps camp has given us an opportunity to interact with the children and youth of Gyumri, to build bonds with them, to teach them and learn from them, and show them that people outside Armenia have a vested interest in their future.”
Fifteen-year-old Arax Manoukian was among the 150 children who attended the camp this summer. Seeing first-hand how much her Diasporan brothers and sisters really care about her existence and future was inspiring, she says, describing her feeling about the group in her winning entry in the camp’s essay competition.
“The Youth Corps group is really inspiring the kids here,” says Arax. “Their love of nation is motivating because they show us how supreme the fatherland is for them, even from thousands of miles away.”
That love of nation, and the invisible bond connecting young Armenians in the United States with their peers in the Homeland is evident in the effort Youth Corps volunteers make year-round to make their projects in Armenia a reality.
AYF members worked tirelessly, year-round, to raise the money needed to execute their visions for the Youth Corps program. Their work enabled them to connect Armenians regardless of distance, borders, and financial obstacles.
“Fundraising for the program began early in the year,” explains Sose. “AYF chapters worked with the Youth Corps committee to organize events in their communities, and they raised money for the program. Chapters worked with the Youth Corps committee to sell merchandise. They organized car washes, breakfasts, dinners, and bowling nights.”
Alongside the fundraising was a thorough effort to plan the camp’s day-to-day activities. Camp Gyumri’s curriculum, schedule, and mode of operation were adapted from the program used by AYF Camp Big Pines for the past 32 years. The schedule consisted of morning exercises, breakfast, English lessons, song and dance practice, Karate lessons, lunch, art & crafts, and group activities.
Touching down in Armenia
After months of hard work and preparation Serop Chalian, Levon Abrahamian, Berj Parseghian, Kevork Babayan, Kevork Kebabjian, Sanan Haroun, Arianna Deleon, and Nora Injeyan arrived at Yerevan’s Zvartnotz airport on July 11 to begin their mission in the Homeland. They were joined in Yerevan by Manuk Gerbinyan, a local AYF member who volunteered to work with the group during their stay in Gyumri. A few weeks later, an anxious and jet-lagged Alex DerAlexanian landed in Yerevan, hopped on the first bus to Gyumri and also joined the group.
In the days leading up to the flight, Asbarez Newspaper established a blog page for Youth Corps to let the participants chronicle their adventure and share it with the community back home. It was through this blog that Youth Corps volunteers shared their experience of being in Armenia, many for the first time.
“As we arrived to Zvartnots it hit me like a bag of bricks,” says Levon Abrahamian. “I was in my Motherland for the first time. The only thing I wanted to do at this point was step out of the plane and say ‘Parev’ to everyone that I saw. I didn’t know what to expect of Armenia once I got there, but I had a feeling this would all be worth it.”
The group spent its first week in Armenia touring the sites they had read about growing up.
“We wanted to experience it all,” says Levon. “From the hectic trek across Yerevan’s streets to find a 24 hour grocery store, to the exalting feeling of standing at the foot of the Sardarabad monument.”
Along the tour through Armenia, the group made stops at the National History Museum, where the 4000-year history of the Armenian people resides. A visit to the Holy Sea of Echmiadzin left the group breathless. The volunteer were in awe at the vast sea of Armenians gathered from across the world at the soul of Armenian Christianity.
“The designs and details and size of each of the buildings are truly unbelievable, especially after you find out that the churches were built around 600 AD,” says Serop Chalian, vividly recalling the red and blue colors and unique imagery of the religious icons. “I know I might sound generic when I use words like ‘amazing’ and ‘unbelievable’ but it’s impossible to find words in any language that can describe the places we’ve seen. They really are places that you need to see for yourself.”
At Yerablur – the final resting place of Armenia’s heroes – Serop laid flowers for fallen soldiers who had died for home and country. The cemetery is nestled a top one of three hills located immediately outside Yerevan. With its name meaning three mountains, Yerablur is a shrine for family, friends and strangers, who make regular pilgrimages to remember and pay their respects for men and women who put their lives on the line to fight for freedom and justice.
“You walk around and you read each tombstone,” Serop says. “Some names you recognize from songs and stories, and some you don’t recognize. Some died when they were only 19-years-old. But, you realize that each made the ultimate sacrifice for our people.”
The weight of that sacrifice was all the more amplified for the group as they trekked across the mountains of Artsakh and visited the proud city of Shushi. The fog shrouding the fortress city – once the cradle of Armenian culture in this isolated region – was a breathtaking sight for most who had only seen this ancient place through photographs.”Be it a statue, a symbol, or a grave, nearly every corner of this mountainous republic serves as a testament to the soldiers who fell while fighting for freedom,” says Berj Parseghian. He is at an internet cafe in Karabakh’s capital, Stepanakert, ready to update his blog and write about his many encounters during the trip.
Here, amid the lush forests of Artsakh, Youth Corps volunteers spoke with locals and witnessed first-hand the limitless strength of the Armenian people, their determination to struggle against the odds, and their embrace of life and freedom.
After the volunteers’ visit to Stepanakert, the group began its journey to Gyumri to start a project that many in group say has changed their lives forever.
“Imagine your summer filled with breath-taking landscape, food that entices your senses, monumental structures, endless laughter, meeting locals that will offer everything in their household to you, and taking on the responsibility of being a mentor to a group of children thousands of miles away,” says Sanan Haroun, describing her first few days in Gyumri. “Reality transcends imagination when you find yourself in Gyumri.”
Camp Gyumri opened its doors on July 22 at 10:30 AM. By 11:00 AM, the the run-down Armenian Relief Society (ARS) center used for the camp site had been flooded with more than 80 kids. “They were overwhelmed with excitement,” says Sanan, recalling how the campers couldn’t sit still in their seats. “The smiles on their faces and eagerness to start the camp session was absolutely priceless.”
The first few days of camp were difficult for the group. Though most had served as counselors at AYF Camp, nothing could have prepared them for the kids of Gyumri. The campers were unrestrained and full of limitless energy.
“The kids in Gyumri are like AYF Camp kids, but on steroids,” says Alex DerAlexanian. “They are constantly moving at 100-miles-an-hour, and they have no brakes or any intention of slowing down. However, they are the most humble and the sweetest kids I have ever worked with. They joke with us, they pick us flowers, and they never complain.”
Alex, who participated in Youth Corps through the Birthright Armenia Program, landed in Armenia a few days after the camp began its operations. He says recuperation from jet lag would’ve been a waste of time, so he set out to immediately experience Armenia.
“It took us all a few days to get the hang of the whole thing,” recalls Kevork Babayan. It’s past midnight, and he hovers over an authentic wooden backgammon board at the Youth Corps house. In this moment of meditation and reflection, he says, “the hardest part of it all was coming up with daily agendas and work for the kids. But we eventually grew into our jobs, and it became sort of natural.”
The next morning Kevork holds up flash cards of images for the children to identify during English class, while Sanan Haroun and Nora Injeyan write down the words on a giant piece of paper for the kids to copy down in their notebooks.
“We check their notebooks at the end of every class, and whoever has it all right gets a sticker. They really loved this,” says Sanan. “We have review sessions at the beginning of every day and have a quiz mid week on the words they have learned.”
In a white-walled classroom furnished with school desks, the campers looked toward the future, working on essays about the Homeland. The essays will be entered in a composition competition at the end of the session.
The campers also help design the logo for next year’s camp t-shirt during arts and crafts. Between these activities, campers spend half-an-hour every day learning Karate with Berj, who holds a third degree black-belt. Berj says his goal for the trip was to instill discipline into the kids.
Donning their white AYF camp t-shirts, the eager students form lines in the center’s courtyard. Behind them is the picturesque ravine with an ancient church on the other side. In the patio, the campers stand firm in a defensive position taught to by their sensei. They wait for Berj to shout commands, orders, and names of moves they should perform during their martial arts lessons.
“Everyone needs to know how to defend themselves, so they don’t get taken advantage of or hurt,” explains Hovo, a 10-year-old camper. Hovo says Karate lessons were his favorite activity and that “those people who know how to defend themselves need to take care of the weak, who don’t.”
“You could really see how much they loved the Karate lessons,” says Berj. “It’s as if they have a natural inclination for learning how to defend. Maybe this comes natural to Armenians.”
To keep the campers organized and involved, they were divided into tri-color groups–red, blue, and orange–with each group working together to prepare for a final song competition at the close of each of the two sessions.
The blue team twice took first place in the song competition with enthusiastic performances that incorporated music and fast-paced dance compilations, explains Kevork Kebabjian. The groups also squared-off every day competing in short quizbowls on Armenian history and trivia.
After jumping up with joy for answering the winning question for the blue team in a quizbowl competition, 14-year-old Rouben Abrahamian darts toward Kevork, his group leader, and thanks him. “I would be sitting at home, bored, and doing nothing if it weren’t for you,” Rouben says. But because of camp, Rouben was able to learn new things, meet new friends, and spend his time “in a much more enjoyable way than at home.”
“Our schools don’t teach us the things they teach us here,” Rouben explains. “They don’t go deep into Armenian history, about the Fedayees or their victories and struggles. But here, we have fun learning about our heroes and their stories inspire us and make us proud.”
Early on, it was apparent to the entire group that these kids never experienced a summer like this before.
“Every game, every song, every activity we do, the kids genuinely enjoy,” says Serop. “Seeing their looks of amazement when they watch Sensei Berj do some karate moves and the giant smiles on their faces when they do the chicken dance during morning exercises are all we need to let us know that the kids are loving the camp.”
The beneficiaries of this summer of fun, however, weren’t just the kids of Gyumri. On any given evening, one would find the Youth Corps crew reminiscing about memorable moments throughout the day as they walked down Gyumri’s brick-laden streets to their home-away-from-home in the Turki Mayla neighborhood.
“I have been a counselor at AYF Camp for quite some time now, but it is different here,” says Sanan. “It is very hard to explain with words, but there is this self-satisfaction you feel here. Because you realize that you are truly making a difference in these kids’ lives.”
Late one night, Sanan jots down notes into her journal, so that she will know what to post in her next blog entry. “Needless to say, this is worth more than anything in the world, because you know that it will shape your own life, and you will carry it on with you for the rest of your life.”
A group becomes a family
Strangers and acquaintances who participated in Camp Gyumri this summer quickly became a family. Two weeks into the trip, they had come to see this city – with its genuine people and picturesque surroundings – as their newfound home and the campers as a regular part of their lives.
“The nine of us have gotten very close,” Serop says. He’s sitting at the patio table of the Youth Corps house, slowly sipping a muddy brown mug with dark Armenian coffee. “We spend a lot of time in our living room just hanging out. We do a lot of talking. We play backgammon, chess, and different card games. And we joke around a lot.”
The home they stayed in was atypical of Gyumri–a pre-Soviet two-story structure of mismatched rooms, with old rusty pipes and walls lined with pealing wallpaper and chipped paint. The house belongs to a family of five, who survived the earthquake of 1988 thanks to its 19th century Armenian-built home. The Youth Corps group rented out the top level of the house, sharing the kitchen and only bathroom with the family below.
“Deegeen Lillig, our host, was incredible,” says Serop. “Everytime we saw her, she greeted us with a huge smile and always asked if we needed anything. He remembers ventured into Deegen Lillig’s garage to discover a mini bread factory, complete with an Armenian tonir and a crew of bakers. “She cared for us like we were her own, working nonstop in the kitchen, taking care of the house, her husband, her three kids, and our group, all while smiling and giggling at every little funny or interesting occurrence.”
Deegen Lillig would make regular phone calls to Youth Corps volunteers’ parents, ranting and raving about how sweet they were and listing, in colorful detail, every single positive quality she noticed in each member.
Having become a family over the course of the 6-week program, the participants often spoke regretfully of the day they would have to part from Gyumri to return to their lives in the States.
During late night conversations, Arianna Deleon recounts the “awesome times” she’s had with her co-counselors, about the jokes, the laughter and the adventures she shared with her new family.
The defining moment for the group, however, came on a rainy day deep in the mountains of Ijevan, at a mysterious site by the river known by the locals as Lastiver.
“On that day we all began what would become a treacherous hour and a half hike in the mountains, through extremely muddy terrain, over slippery rocks, and underneath the constant downpour of a heavy rain,” Nora recalls.
The group was guided on the high-altitude trail by a man Nora describes as a “lumberjack-esque man,” dressed head-to-toe in camouflage. “He was carrying a multitude of seemingly unnecessary weaponry, and would effortlessly sprint through the narrow passes on the cliff-side”
“The hike really took a lot of teamwork, with each of us rotating turns carrying boxes of food and supplies down the slippery slopes of the mountains,” she says. “The experience did wonders for our bonding as a group, especially at night when we had to huddle together under a tarp to keep warm under the rain.”
Laying the foundations
For these young Diasporans, Youth Corps was more than just summer fun; they were in Armenia for a specific purpose, and each of them knew exactly what that was.
“The AYF sent us to Armenia to set the foundation for a new generation that will take ownership of its homeland and look forward to a future living on the land of their forefathers,” explains Berj.
The Youth Corps program, from its inception, has sought to close the artificial gap created by the Genocide and widened by decades of isolation during the Cold War. The program exists to encourage Diasporans to take on a more direct role in the nation building process in Armenia.
“The homeland is very distant, and you can’t fully comprehend what the situation is like here from watching it on television,” says Artak Avedisian, the Chairman of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s Central Committee in Shirak. He is also a volunteer counselor at the camp, and he says it’s hard for Diasporans to understand how people live in Armenia, what their needs are, and what are things that are to be cherished and preserved without Diasporans seeing them and experiencing them first-hand.
Sitting at a table at Camp Gyumri, Artak talks about his experience with the campers. He talks about working as a teacher and principal at a local school, and he sifts through a bucket of colorful beads, assembling tri-color bracelets for his campers.
“Through Youth Corps, the AYF volunteers experienced first hand what it is that Armenians here struggle with,” says Artak. The volunteers also saw the country and met the people they work to promote, protect and empower through their unique position in the United States. Armenia became real for them here. It became more than something they read about or talk about or a dream they work toward. I believe this experience will inspire them to work much harder for their ideals.”
Artak is 35-years-old, and he is a veteran of the Karabakh liberation struggle. He has been working for years with his fellow ARF members in Gyumri to establish regular Sunday schools and day camps for youth in the area. There’s a desperate need for it, he says, referring back to his own experience in the school system.
“Quite frankly, the schools here don’t instill love of country in the kids early on,” he says with an air of concern while preparing supplies for his Arts & Crafts class at the camp. “There is no school here that starts off the day with the singing of the Armenian national anthem, and no book that animates for them the achievements of our people throughout history.”
Camp Gyumri is a welcomed change for Artak and may parents who sent their children and teenagers to the Youth Corps program. It gave dozens of kids in Gyumri a completely different experience.
“Here the children sing the national anthem with pride every morning,” says Artak. “They learn national and patriotic songs, and about our greatest moments like the establishment of the first Republic of Armenia, the Battle of Sardarapat, and the liberation of Arstakh. These are historic moments they can be proud of.”
He flips through the pages of an elementary school history book that only allocated two paragraphs to the liberation war in Artsakh. “These are things they learn very little about in their schoolbooks.”
For Artak, and the families touched by the camp, these nine Diasporans who came to Gyumri from California had more of an impact than they may ever truly realize.
“Youth corps has laid the foundation for the ARF in Armenia to set up Sunday schools and regular day camps not just in Gyumri, but throughout the entire country,” Artak proudly states. “At the end of the camp we had over 30 children sign up for the local ARF youth club. This would have taken us years of difficult work to do that without Camp Gyumri and the Youth Corps project.”
AYF Youth Corps volunteers promise that extending this impact will be the mission of the program in the coming years. Upon their return home, volunteers quickly began planning for a second camp in another one of Armenia’s less developed regions.
Editor’s Note: This article is featured in the Winter 2010 issue of Haytoug, a quarterly publication by the Armenian Youth Federation. The upcoming issue is set for release in late January. It will be available, free, at community centers, schools and local Armenian book stores. You can also download it in PDF or sign up to receive a free copy in the mail at http://www.haytoug.org/subscribe/