BY HAIG MANOUKIAN
I came to Armenia with the AYF Youth Corps program, eager to spend time with the local children and to see my homeland from a new perspective. I didn’t expect to become emotionally attached to the children of the jambars at all. In my mind, I was here to do a job: organize a camp for local kids in Armenia. In Artsakh, I did exactly that. I ran morning exercises. I presented an educational about personal hygiene. I taught kids how to make lanyards. I taught the kids heghapoghagan songs. Then, I went back to our house and didn’t think about the kids until the next day of camp. I loved my job, but I kept it separate from my life outside of jambar. I did, however, become close to many of the kids during camp. I was greeted with hugs and high fives every morning, which made me happy to do what I was doing. I loved spending time with the campers and, at the hantes at the end of the two weeks, I was extremely proud of them. However, when we were all saying bye on the last day, I wasn’t emotional like many of the other counselors and campers. I simply took photos with the kids and hugged them goodbye knowing I might never see them again.
During our long drive from Stepanakert to our next camp in Gyumri, I thought about my experience with the kids from Artsakh. I wondered why I hadn’t been brought to tears when the campers hugged me sobbing and begging me not to leave.
The Gyumri camp started out the same: I ran many of the morning exercises by having the kids dance to songs like “Punjabi MC” and “Cha Cha Slide.” I also taught the hygiene educational, organized games, and helped teach songs like “Bank Ottoman” and “Kovkasi Kacher” for the campers to sing during the end-of-the-week song competition.
It was during one of our last song practices when I understood the true impact we, as AYF Youth Corps participants, have on the local children. It was the first time the whole group of about 50 kids heard the songs the older campers were soloing. During “Zinvori Yerkuh,” a song about a young soldier being killed in war and his mother never receiving his letter, I saw one of the younger boys begin to cry. I looked at him and nodded to make sure he was okay. He quickly wiped his tears, tightened his jaw, stood up straight and nodded back at me. After the song practice, a few of the counselors went to the boy to comfort him. He told us about his brother who had just left to serve in the army and how he wouldn’t see him for two years. I realized then that the songs we teach the campers during jambar are very real for the kids in Armenia. Many of the campers have brothers and fathers that are serving in the military or have been killed in war. As I thought more about that little boy, I began to realize the impact we had on all of the campers’ lives.
What moved me to tears, after our two weeks in Gyumri, was understanding how much the Youth Corps participants mean to the local kids of Armenia. Each of us connected with the kids in unique ways that we will always remember.