BY ARMINE KALBAKIAN
The first time I heard about the Armenian Youth Federation Youth Corps program, I was only ten years old and the concept of homeland was still a mythical one to me. Years later, I found myself stepping foot in Armenia for the first time. It was as if all the love I had harbored for the country was swiftly re-defined.
After a lifetime of displacement in the Diaspora, suddenly finding myself immersed in a land whose inhabitants shared my onerous history — juxtaposed with an undying resilience, a beautiful native tongue (in all its disparate regional utterances), and a striking joie de vivre — took me aback. As I traveled from one ancient church to another, I felt like an infinitesimal being in the face of mammoth history. However, the feeling was not disheartening. Rather it was an empowering one, unique to those belonging to something larger than ourselves.
During my trip, I made a conscious effort to speak to the local people. I listened as they told tales of economic strife filled with contempt or apprehensive love. I could not watch my compatriots suffer silently, and longed for a means with which to help; I found the answer in Serjulik, an eight-year old boy in Artsakh – who amidst all conflict and hardship – proudly proclaimed that he loved his country “million dogos”. I then understood that in order to help Hayasdan, I must join a grassroots movement that largely looked upon this hopeful cadre of Armenian youth as a driving force for progress.
My name is Armine Kalbakian and I am an incoming sophomore at Cornell University. I am a prospective anthropology major with minors in global health, business, and archaeology. I consider myself a writer, activist, and idealist. My quixotic optimism was born out of my hometown of Little Armenia — notably my alma mater, Pilibos Armenian School — so immersed in diverse solvent, yet so resistant to a loss of self. It was fed and further fueled by Raffi’s “Khentuh”, the dusty nineteenth century novel I once spontaneously laid my hands on at my local library. It opened my eyes to the importance of self-determination and it turned my attention to those around me. I found one too many Armenians, both young and old, overtaken by indifference and apathy about our country. Many maintained a spiteful love for Hayasdan, still asserting that “Yergiruh yergir chi”, while others tried to distance themselves from this part of their identity entirely, welcoming assimilation with open arms.
I decided that the best course of action would be one that engaged rather than dissociated with the country.
I am certain that my participation in AYF Youth Corps will provide me with an immersive experience of living in Armenia that will allow me to form meaningful relationships with local people. I hope to leave an impact on the young campers, but I am also aware that these campers will undoubtedly leave an impact on me. Through this six-week program, I also hope to strengthen my teaching, leadership, and Eastern Armenian language skills. I believe that living alongside Armenians in various regions of the country will give me first-hand exposure to problems and opportunities that I may otherwise overlook as a member of the Diaspora. As a result, I wish to do my best to draw awareness around these issues and become a better advocate for their resolution, and the subsequent establishment of a stronger, united, and more prosperous Armenia.
AYF Youth Corps is a six-week program in Armenia, of which five weeks is dedicated to directing a summer camp for youth (ages 9-16), and one week to exploring and discovering the hidden treasures of Armenia and Artsakh. The camp program allows campers to learn basic English, Armenian history, patriotic songs, arts and crafts, and participate in sports and other competitions. Participants also visit Javakhk, various parts of Artsakh, Lake Sevan, Echmiadzin, Dzidzernagapert, Sardarabad and Tatev Monastery. Since 1994, hundreds of volunteers from around the world have spent summers in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabagh to better the foundation and build bridges to the homeland.