BY BETTY MARKARIAN
No other place in the world compares to Artsakh. Sure, the views of the massive mountains, golden fields, and starry nights are breath-taking, but they pale in comparison to the hospitality of its people. Evidently, as soon as fifteen of us Youth Corps participants and our heavy cargo arrived in Stepanakert, we were greeted by police who insisted on escorting us to the tiny apartment that sheltered us for two weeks.
The same can be said about our campers. When we arrive at our jampar in Askeran every morning, we see the parents’ reflections in their children as our beaming badanees shower us with presents, hugs, and recaps of their hours spent away from us which we mutually claim is far too long. I’ve already become attached to several of my campers but have particularly created a sister-like bond with Arpineh, one of our oldest. After lunch, we hang out on the stairs of the school and connect over conversations about customs in Artsakh and America and our future aspirations. It’s difficult to fathom that seconds before I approached her she had had the most rigged frown on her face but had rapidly transformed it into the brightest smile at the instance of my affable introduction. In all honesty, I could sit for hours beside my new friend and converse with her as if I have known her my entire existence. What hits me the most is that although all the campers and I have just been acquainted, they’re willing to share a piece of their lives and establish the foundation for a lasting relationship.
I must admit however, that the most eye-opening experience thus far occurred yesterday when three of my fellow Youth Corps participants and I went to get our nails done. We soon got lost and by instinct asked a group of tantigs gathered on their porch for directions. The request for directions turned into an invitation for coffee and as the coffee began to bubble in the jazva, multiple extended family members of the household had received the news of the Armenians from America and rushed in with warm greetings. Not long after, Tamara Morkoor (the kind woman that opened her home to us) brought out her family photos to share and it was then that I realized that the peculiar-styled attire which exteriorly differentiated us from the locals was interiorly ineffective because of the ability to bond over similar stories of our family histories.
Towards the end of our unforgettable visit, Tamara Morkoor’s sisters shared how their sons and husbands had devoted their lives to the Four-Day War against the Azeris this past April. As I glanced across the street, the mortuary was in plain sight and learned that around the time of Azeri aggression, every couple of hours a death was announced adding up to 93 fatalities, not including those unreported.
The women personally thanked us as representatives of the diaspora for the Armenian Youth Federation’s ‘With Our Soldiers’ campaign which provides monetary assistance to incomparably compensate for the losses of their loved ones. And amidst our discussion, the widow who had relinquished her husband to the defense of Artsakh lovingly exclaimed, “Mer Artsakhu, Tser Artsakhun e” (Our Artsakh is your Artsakh). Over the first cup of coffee I ever drank, somehow it all came together – we were diasporans in Armenia, creating connections, and learning the true effect of our diligence to progress the Armenian cause.
It is mind boggling to think that one can come half way across the world in fear of being an outsider but instead be recruited as a valuable member of a large network of Armenians willing to welcome you with open arms and hear your story.