By Kyle Khandikian
Following the long-held Ferrahian tradition of sending each graduating class on a trip to the homeland, this year my eleventh grade class made its long anticipated journey to Armenia.
The trip, which was organized by Armenian teacher Miss Ani Bertizlian, lasted two weeks and included a three-day visit to Nagorno-Karabakh. Departing from Los Angeles International Airport on May 16, 2009, we headed first to London, England, finally arriving at Zvartnotz International Airport in Yerevan, Armenia, the next day.
After two weeks in Armenia, I was supposed to return home with the rest of my class on May 30; however, three of my good friends and I decided that we would remain in Armenia one extra week in order to volunteer and offer any help we could to our homeland.
After our class departed from Armenia, the four of us were left on our own in Yerevan. An awkward loneliness fell upon us all. With all of our peers and teachers gone, we weren’t sure what to do next. But before going to Armenia, we decided to volunteer at Orran–a Benevolent, non-governmental organization based in Yerevan helping families in need. Mr. and Mrs. Raffi and Armineh Hovannisian founded Orran in April 2000; moved by the plight of the street children in Yerevan, the Hovannisians founded the institution with the initial intent of assisting sixteen vulnerable street children. With five children of their own, one of whom is graduating from Ferrahian High School this year, the Hovannisians took on this daunting challenge, and today Orran caters to nearly fifty at-risk elderly and almost eighty children, ranging in age from five to sixteen years.
When we first arrived at Orran’s headquarters, we were surprised to find a three-story building nestled into the center of Yerevan. Located at Pushkin Street and Saryan Street, the Orran building is not far from Republic Square.
That day, June 1, was Children’s Day in Armenia, and so to fit the occasion, there was a special event being held at Orran. We were greeted openly and warmly the minute we arrived by the children, Mrs. Hovannisian herself and her staff, and took part in the event that the children had prepared, for which guests, friends, beneficiaries, and press had all come out to watch and enjoy. The children danced, played, and sang wonderfully. They were all very talented, bright, and full of enthusiasm.
At the event we met Mr. Hovsep Arzumanyan, Orran’s Education Coordinator and full time volunteer, as well as Ms. Sona Malkhasyan, receptionist and volunteer for Orran. We discussed what we would be doing that next week at Orran. I offered any help that they might need, but there was one thing that all the children needed: friends.
Orran has a fully operating staff, complete with social workers, a pediatrician, dentist, and psychologist, teachers, vocational trainers, cooks, and cleaners. Although the children have all of these helpful resources and services at their disposal, they have no one to interact with, to talk to, or to play with, and that’s all they really needed and wanted. We left Orran that day excited and ready to get started as soon as possible.
The next morning we set out for Orran bright and early. When we arrived there, we met once again with Mr. Arzumanyan, who gave us a general tour of the building and explained to us Orran’s main purpose and goal, which is to divert children from the streets and engage them in academic, cultural, and extra-curricular activities.
According to Orran, “there are more than 14,000 children who do not attend school in the Republic of Armenia because their families are unable to meet the basic costs of their education. Social vulnerability and economic deprivation in families have also contributed to an increase in the number of unaccompanied children and children living and working on the street. Some of these children have resorted to begging, others to selling flowers, and some to simply picking food out of the garbage This problem is becoming more serious every year.”
But Orran is trying to reverse these problems by providing children the opportunity to break away from poverty by offering various services, such as tutoring in differing subject areas, vocational training in arts and crafts, pottery, and wood engraving (which the children enjoy and are excel at), as well as medical and psychological assistance.
We spoke to Mr. Arzumanyan about the many challenges Armenia faces today, and he said that the “system” itself is wrong, of course referring to Armenia’s current government some twenty years after the Soviet Union. He said that he believes the only way real change will come to Armenia is through revolution. I thought about his statement, and wondered: could Armenia change only through revolution? Is there no other solution?
Later on, we sat down with Ms. Sona Malkhasyan and other volunteers and discussed various pressing Armenian matters, including Genocide recognition, the opening of the border with Turkey and the Armenian Diaspora. It was very interesting to talk about these issues with natives of Armenia, and not with people outside of the country. These people actually live there and have to deal with these things every day, and are affected by any decision the government makes in regard to these issues. We got to hear different sides of the various issues, one of which was the controversial opening of the border, which I listened to carefully and with great interest; I have yet to decide my own opinion about that matter, but for now, the border between Armenia and Turkey remains closed. But aside from politics, we also spoke of our stay in Armenia, what we thought about the country, and the next couple of days at Orran.
By the end of our long conversation, our glasses of apricot nectar were empty, and the elderly from the surrounding neighborhood were slowly arriving at the center. To our dismay, we were told that the children don’t arrive until 1:00 p.m., at which time they are released from school. We couldn’t wait to finally meet the children, and waited impatiently until the next day to begin our work with them.
The following day, at 1 p.m., we found ourselves at Orran, ready to meet the children. In the third-level of the complex, with curious little faces looking back at us, we met some of the younger Orran children, who seemed so happy to see us there, as if we were long lost friends. They graciously welcomed us and quick friendships were formed. They were eager to begin playing their favorite board game: chess. As I sat down to play with a boy who was about ten years my junior, I was shocked by his proficiency. All the children played the game strategically and with great skill. Armenia is harboring a couple Grand Masters, I thought to myself.
But chess was just one of many talents and skills that the kids had to offer. I thought to myself how unfortunate it was that they don’t have the opportunities that I had been afforded, for they are so bright and have so much potential, which must unfortunately go to waste. Luckily Orran is there to help them out.
After a few rounds of chess with the young ones, I got to meet the older Orran children, who were busy playing “Mafia,” a game that took us quite a while to learn and understand, but which we were soon enough playing with them excitedly. The older children were so eager to speak with us, learn about us and our lives in America, and we too, shared the common interest. The exchange of information that took place between us so overpowered any language or cultural barriers that it was remarkable. I later joined the young ones again for some
games in the courtyard outside. But soon enough, it was time for all the children to go home for the day. Five hours passed by so fast with those kids, we were reluctant to leave the center. But we would see them again tomorrow, so all was good in Yerevan.
The following day, I had a blue shirt on which had a very famous and beautiful quote about Armenia printed on the back, the first line of a poem written by Armenian writer Baryur Sevak. It read, “Me for my sweet Armenia.” When we arrived at Orran, one of the children, Dikran, who introduced himself to us as Dikran Mezdn, alluding to the ancient Armenian king of our Golden Age, asked me if I knew the rest of the poem. I didn’t. Unsure if I should tell him, out of embarrassment, I brushed it off, but soon found all the children sitting around me reciting the poem, from begging to end. Once again, the children surprised me with their immense knowledge and understanding of so many things that I, a seventeen year old, cannot even begin to comprehend with my limited knowledge of Armenian. The kids then proceeded to teach me the poem. I am ashamed to say that I still have not learned the poem, but absolutely promise myself that I will.
That day, the children were treated by a visit by an American couple from New York, who work in performing arts and theater, and were there to share their love for theater and acting with the children. “Americans!” we all thought to ourselves, “English!”
The couple began various activities with the children, which we participated in. The activities the Americans asked the children to do were not what they were used to, which included acting silly, yelling, screaming, jumping, acting, and just playing and having fun. To see these adults acting like children was different to them. I heard the occasional, “stupid,” remark from the children, but soon enough, they were all playing and laughing, and singing, and dancing, and having genuine fun, acting childlike, how they are supposed to act.
It was a memorable bonding experience. After the activities were done, we spoke with the couple. They were absolutely relieved to see other Americans. We found that they were both part Armenian, and had come to Armenia for the first time to visit and to offer their services, kind of like us. They were leaving that night for Turkey, where they were going to take a tour of historic Western Armenia. With them was a translator who said to us, “I knew you guys were different.” We spoke to her again about the condition of Armenia and the people.
Any opportunity I got to speak with natives there, I jumped for it, for those are the times when I truly learned. We spoke about Armenians living in Turkey, and mentioned how many were changing their Armenian last names to Turkish names, to escape hate and discrimination. Tjpakhdapar I said to her in Armenian; “Unfortunately.” She later stated how proud she was to see young Armenians from the Diaspora who are so patriotic. She said that she has hope in for the future. We exchanged email addresses with the couple before departing. I have yet to hear from them.
Our last day at Orran and in Armenia was somber. That morning, we woke up early, to see our Yerevan one last time. We climbed to the top of the Cascade (Gasgad), something that I had wanted to do for the past three weeks, and enjoyed the amazing view of the city from the top. It was a bonding experience for the three of us that I will never forget.
I am so glad that I got to stay with my friends that extra week, and am in debt to one of them whose mother gave us the opportunity to stay with them. Following the beautiful but exhausting climb up the Cascade, we prepared for our last visit to Orran. Before going there, we decided to buy all the children bonchiks from the Bonchikanots.
We arrived at Orran with three big boxes full of sweet, delicious bonchiks and passed them all out to the children, who ate them quickly and with great delight. That day, the children were treated to more visitors, this time singers from an Armenian performing arts company. The actors sang traditional and contemporary Armenian folk songs for the children who joined in many times in singing and dancing. We even joined in on the fun and danced with the kids and volunteers.
Following their performance, the actors took a tour of Orran and learned a bit about the foundation. We got into conversation with them, and explained to them what we were doing there at Orran. They seemed so moved by what we were doing. One young woman said, “You are angels from the sky that have come to the aid of Armenia and her children. Thank you.” I thought to myself, that what we were doing was not very significant, at least not in my mind, but I could be wrong. It also showed me the appreciation and gratefulness of a people, and how they recognize even the smallest and simplest of things.
After they all departed, we organized a mini chess tournament with the children, seeing as how they all loved the game. I was out of the competition immediately, of course, but the kids advanced onwards, playing the game competitively and with great confidence. Soon, however, it was time to depart from Orran. The children and the staff presented us with little gifts, necklaces made by the children themselves, with the first initial of our names on it.
I will never forget the farewell speech that Ms. Malkhasyan gave to us, saying that, “being hayrenaser doesn’t only mean lifting arms and giving your life for your fatherland. This is hayrenasirootyoun,” recognizing us. We shared one last memory with the children, singing and dancing together shourch bar, but then we had to go.
We were so surprised to see how attached the children had become to us, after only one week with them. They genuinely did not want us to go. We joked about snuggling a few of them in our luggage. We took some pictures with the kids before departing. The children made us promise that we would visit them again very, very soon. “Absolutely,” we said. We stayed as long as we could, saying our last goodbyes. I distinctly remember most of the children having to leave, for they had to be home on time. But while sitting in our taxi going back to our hotel, we saw them standing at the corner of Saryan and Mashdotz. They saw us and ran up to the cab, pressing their little hands and faces to the window. But the light turned green and the taxi had to go. We watched them disappear into the traffic from the window of our cab.
It’s the little things that I cherish the most from my experience at Orran. The people I met, the friendships I made, the life-long bonds that will always exist, no matter how far the distance between us all may be. I can honestly say that staying that extra week in Armenia was one of the best decisions of my life. No memory can compare to that last week. Now, I find myself nostalgically revisiting my time in Hayasdan, waiting quietly and patiently for the next opportunity to go back.
I will never know for certain if my promise to the children at Orran–my promise to visit them once more–can be fulfilled. But I do know that I will make every effort to see them and my Armenia again. Very, very soon.