BY NAIRI PARSEKYAN
From the moment I stepped foot in Armenia, I felt a rush of emotions overcome me. A whirlwind of sentiments filled my heart, yet this sense of belonging came with it, and it would stay with me for the next three weeks. Although I had previously been to Armenia, I was beyond thrilled to revisit and explore the country which had originally captivated me. However, this time I had a greater calling—to serve and give back in my own capacity.
Meeting my Service Armenia group was the first step on this endeavor. I was introduced to a dozen young participants, all from various backgrounds and from different parts of the United States. We were all brought together by our common Armenian identity and an unquenched desire to serve our people in our ancestral homeland.
A typical day with our Service Armenia team lasted long hours and our volunteering excursions were set in a wide variety of places, ranging from the bustling capital city of Yerevan to the remote towns in the outskirts of Armenia.
Upon arrival at each work site, we would meet the friendly locals eager to greet us. They would give us a tour of the area and explain the purpose of what the specific institution was designed for. They would then identify the areas that needed improvements and instructed us on ways we could help.
Working on “Groceries for Gyumri” one of The Paros Foundation’s main projects, was one of the most evocative parts of the trip. Following the devastating Spitak earthquake in 1988, numerous cities in Armenia, including Gyumri, were destroyed. Thousands were killed and countless families were left homeless and, as a result, they resorted to finding shelter in old, rusty shipping containers called “domiks.” These makeshift shelters were no match for the harsh summer and winter conditions of Armenia. Although three decades have passed since then, there are still numerous families in Gyumri stuck living in this situation. These families remain in domiks with little to no access to water, deplorable living conditions, and overcrowded spaces.
In order to provide momentary relief to these families, The Paros Foundation created the “Groceries for Gyumri” project, which would help these impoverished families gain access to everyday necessities and to place families into new homes, one household at a time, by fundraising throughout the year.
Upon our arrival at Gyumri’s Moving Forward (Դեպի Առաջ) Children’s Center, we began to pack groceries including household essentials. Our Service Armenia group traveled by bus to visit each domik and delivered hundreds of boxes to the affected families. The locals were incredibly grateful for their care packages. Their gratitude was evident with each warm welcome and smile.
As I walked away from each family, I gained a greater understanding of how even the smallest contribution can have such an enormous impact. Not only did this experience make us all realize just how blessed and fortunate we were, but also grateful to have had the opportunity to connect with and serve the people of Gyumri.
Other projects in Gyumri included teaching the children how to play American football, along with other sports and activities. We sang Armenian folk songs, worked on arts and crafts, and even had the opportunity to teach them basic English. It was so fulfilling to be surrounded by our younger brothers and sisters and hearing their stories and laughter. The rooms of the children’s center were filled with ecstatic children, and seeing each of their joyous smiles was truly unforgettable.
With each and every project we completed, we felt a profound sense of accomplishment. Renovating the rooms of preschools and educational centers in villages such as Paruyr Sevak were particularly memorable. It was truly comforting to spend a day outdoors painting the playgrounds where I knew children would be able to play. Aiding in the betterment of these learning environments for children made us all proud to be a part of The Paros Foundation.
In addition to the humanitarian projects, there was plenty of sightseeing to accompany the physical work. Our guides gave us a tour of Armenia’s most significant cultural and historical landmarks, allowing us to become familiarized with every aspect of the country. We visited countless churches and monasteries, and traveled from one region of Armenia to another. We were able to experience the nation in a completely different light. We also had the opportunity to explore the city of Yerevan in our free time. Walking through the bustling streets was such a surreal feeling, and hearing our mother tongue on every corner was like music to our ears.
Participating in this program made a lasting impact on each and every one of us volunteers, and I can wholeheartedly say that it was a truly unforgettable experience. Not only did we each make lifelong friends inside and outside of Armenia, we were able to do our part as devoted members of the Diaspora. Providing direct and immediate help to the people of Armenia proved to be tremendously effective, one small project at a time.
Attending an Armenian private school for fifteen years, Ferrahian has instilled in me a strong cultural connection and undying passion for my motherland. This passion has led me to immerse myself in the broader community and take action for our brothers and sisters in need. Ranging from attending AYF-organized protests commemorating the Armenian Genocide, helping organize school-wide fundraisers for Artsakh, volunteering at organizations providing medical and military aid, and working to supply immediate relief to impoverished and post-war families, Ferrahian continually encourages and creates opportunities for its student body to be involved and incite change.
As far back as preschool, I remember crafting Vartan Mamigonian hats for assemblies celebrating Vartanants, performing plays of Hovhannes Tumanyan’s “Մի Կաթիլ Մեղր”, and reciting Paruyr Sevak’s “Մենք Քիչ Ենք, բայց Հայ Ենք.” Our devoted Armenian teachers provided a strong foundation for knowledge of not only our nation’s ancient history, but also a grasp on current affairs. From celebrations of May 28th on Armenian Independence Day to dedicating the month of October to Armenian culture, our school continuously unites to reingrain this sense of identity within its students. Every step of the way, my journey at Ferrahian has been marked with vivid memories fostering the love of Armenian heritage and culture within my peers and me.
As an Armenian in the Diaspora, being able to revisit Armenia and make a personal contribution to our people was remarkable, and seeing with my own eyes just how much impact an individual can make in their own way deeply resonated with me.
The fervent sense of community never faded in the three weeks we spent in Armenia. Wherever we traveled, a sense of belonging always followed. Though we lived oceans apart, we connected with our brethren and never did we feel foreign. Armenia was home, albeit over 7,000 miles away from home.
Nairi Parsekyan is a senior at Holy Martyrs Ferrahian Armenian School.