BY AREK SANTIKIAN
Absolutely. In a heartbeat. No question. I’ll be better prepared, knowing what to expect and how to better handle certain situations. I’d get to live in Artsakh for two weeks (who wouldn’t want that?). I’d get to hear more stories from azadamardiks (freedom fighters) and their families. I’d get to meet and bond with hundreds of kids that are the future of our country. I’d meet fellow youth from my region as well as regions from all over the world. Of course I’d do it all again.
Sure, being away from family and friends for 7 weeks is tough, but the more I think about it, the question that needs to be addressed is, why aren’t my loved ones there with me? I can’t speak on their behalf, but would love to have that discussion soon.
There’s just something about this program. It’s not something that I can easily explain. The country, the people, my fellow volunteers have all moved me. During Jampar (camp) I didn’t realize it because I was too busy making sure everything was organized, kids were behaving, the food was on time, and the educationals were engaging. That daily grind consumed all my energy, physically and mentally. But on our last day in Shushi, when we gathered in the open area at Naregatsi Art Institute to do our final closing ceremony and effectively conclude the 2013 Youth Corps camps, it hit me hard. Very hard. Suddenly, the daily grind I experienced every day was forgotten. The problems and decisions I faced didn’t matter. At that final moment nothing mattered, except the lasting impression that the program will leave in every region we went to.
That day I had to fight back the tears in order to avoid crying in front of hundreds of children. I had to take my time addressing them for one final time, speaking about how happy I was with the camp in Shushi. The truth is, I wasn’t just thinking about the kids from Shushi, as amazing as they are. I was thinking about the kids in Gyumri, the kids in Proshyan, the families of Artsakh heroes we met along our journey, the breathtaking environment in Shushi, the 24 people in our group, my fellow group leader, Sanan, the 3 AYF members that joined us from Holland, the group of AYF members we met from France, the 3 AYF members we met from Kuwait, the youth we met in our respective regions, my family and loved ones back home that I’d see very soon, my two role models and friends, Sosé & Allen. All of these memories, bundled up into one single experience, came rushing at me like an avalanche. Emotions that I couldn’t ignore.
So, I took my time, asking the kids to say their ganches (group calls) loudly one more time, then asking them to sing Mshag Panvor for the last time, then proudly repeat the ganch we had created in memory of Sosé & Allen. That gave me enough time to gather my thoughts and regain my composure. When the ganches and singing ended and the kids waited for me to speak, I couldn’t think of anything. I just told them that they needed to remember to take their water bottles and books home. I couldn’t say anything else. Then our day, and the camp, ended. But a strange thing happened…the kids didn’t leave.
They each ran to their favorite counselor(s) to give him/her a hug and ask for a picture. They asked for phone numbers, and made us promise we would be back next year.
When I came down the steps I saw my favorite camper, Aram, the leader of the best ganch I’d ever heard in my life. He ran up to me and gave me the biggest hug. That alone would make me want to do Youth Corps again next year. Tears started to come back again. Then two of the older campers came up to me and said they are looking forward to getting involved with the Artsakh Yeridasartagan (youth) now that they are too old for Jampar. That was enough to make me want to start another session of Jampar right then and there. More tears. Then I saw two of our younger campers who had just finished singing one of the cutest and touching duets ever. I hugged them like they were my little sisters, not knowing when I would see them again. That made me want to never leave Shushi. Even more tears.
This sentiment stuck with me the final couple days of Youth Corps. I wasn’t excited to return to Yerevan. I didn’t care about a stronger WiFi connection. I didn’t care about the cafés or restaurants. All I could think about was that inexplicable attachment. That thing that made me love the program so much. I just didn’t want to leave.
Suddenly, I find myself back in Los Angeles. The last two nights in Yerevan were a blur. The flight to Moscow was a blur. The flight to Los Angeles was a blur. When we landed, we saw our family and loved ones. All that became a blur. Then someone asked me, “So, would you do it again?”
The answer was crystal clear, “Yes I would.” Only next time, I hope my family and loved ones will be with me in our homeland, so I wouldn’t have a reason to leave.