Category Archives: Birthright Armenia

Youth Corps Memories- Remembering Javakhk

Driving into Javakhk, it seemed as if we had not left Armenia at all, save for the hours-long delay at the border and the admonitions not to mention that we were travelling to the former Armenian state. That did not stop us from getting into arguments at the border though, no matter how hard we tried to remain quietly peaceful. I do believe I had a hand in one particular heated discussion while we were within sight of the border guards.

The terrain seemed only to be an extension of what we had left behind the invisible line that divides Georgia and Armenia. I’m not sure what I had expected, but the peace that settled on me once I realized that I didn’t feel like a total stranger was a welcome feeling. Unsure about what to expect, we finally arrived at the community center that doubled as a headquarters for our integral organizations and ARS programs. The fact that we were still speaking Armenian was definitely cause for awe. Javakhk resembles the villages and open lands of Armenia, where the people are simple, the traditions are deep-rooted and hard work keeps food on the table.

Trekking through Queen Tamar’s fortress was a delightful touristic distraction, followed by a feast and relaxing swim in warm natural waters. The trip was both relaxing and distressing, especially when we were presented with the hardships that our people face on a daily basis and their theories about the government’s plans to repopulate the region with Turks and Azeris. The discrimination Armenians face in Georgia is possibly worse than that in Turkey, actually.

One of the funnest memories hinges on the age-old Armenian tradition of drenching everyone with water in celebration of Vartevar. We had to scramble about and think twice about visiting the store to grab some ice cream, preferring to spend our second and final day in the state cowering indoors. I don’t think any of us would have admitted to being cowards though, of course 😛

Leaving the region was hard, as we had gotten used to spending at least a few days wherever we traveled. Hopefully our suggestions would mean an extra week of camp run in Akhalkalak or one of the surrounding cities in the coming years. Standing on the cliff overlooking the Parvana Lake, it was easy to feel like we were home, instead of a foreign country.

Birthright Expectations- The Host Family

One of the worries everyone has before embarking on the Birthright Armenia journey is about the host family. What will they be like? Will they like me? Will I like them? What if I have no privacy? What if they make me do things I don’t want to? What if they ask me for money? What if they complain about me? What if I hate the house? What if we cannot communicate? What if.. What if… What if…?

There are a lot of “what if” questions that one can ask and it’s really all right to be worried. Except, from what I have found, there is actually very little to worry about. I landed in an amazing family. My host father was extremely kind and intelligent, a reader just like me. He was also working on an Armenian/Turkish dictionary, apparently the first of its kind! My host mother cooked amazingly and spending my nights chattering with her while we watched Armenian soap operas was awesome. Even better was singing along to the patriotic songs that would be sung on different Armenian programs. She was a mother figure in every manner. My host sister was lovely! Though both my host siblings were much older than me, we got along famously. Gayane made me feel comfortable, Yervant brought his work internet stick so I could work on my own mini laptop ad his wife, Susanna, made delicious pastries! I loved coming home and rarely wanted to spend time on my own, opting instead to sit around in the family room and chatter, eat, drink, and watch television. I enjoyed bringing home things that would make them happy, that we can all share in and gobble up and definitely loved debating on all sorts of Armenian subjects. I miss them terribly and can’t wait to visit Gyumri again!

Going in, I was shy and nervous and wondering what awaited me. I got myself an amazing family. My host father even got up early (@5 am) one morning, grabbed a bat and flashlight and walked me safely to the rest of our group, making sure I neither got lost nor attacked by any beast.

I can’t say what kind of family others will be given to, but from the group I was with, no one had any problems and all enjoyed being with their host families.

– Expect to become a member of the family
– Do ask for advise and help where you need it
– Expect to learn all the soap operas by heart
– Do treat them as part of your family
– Expect to face different mindsets and delve into the horrors many have faced
– Do help out around the house and don’t be shy to do or give anything you feel is right (other than money, which you’re not allowed)

The families are great. You do get your own room, you do get a hot shower, and you do get food on the table. For a small extra fee, you also get dinner and laundry. It’s like renting you’re own place, expect more like renting a family 😀

❤ Don’t be worried about the host families. You’ll love them!

Birthright Expectations- The Staff

For any organization to be successful, it requires a staff that is capable, responsible and friendly. When you add fun and hilarious to the mix, you receive perfection. That’s pretty much what I would say describes the Birthright Armenia crew of summer 2011.

Sevan: The first person I met, both through email correspondence and in person, was Sevan Kabakian, the best person to work with. You’ll find that he’s extremely welcoming and does his utmost to help in every situation. he also happens to be head boss while you’re there 😛 At least, that’s how I viewed him…

Vahan: I was actually really scared that I’d gotten on Vahan’s nerves so badly, he’d hate me. I get really nervous when I don’t have as much info as I deem necessary and sometimes things take time to get to you. When you’re used to Canadian precision, Armenian tashkhalla can get frustrating and confusing. You know how we have a saying, “ironing my head”? Yeah… I know I drove Vahan crazy… and then I met him in person and we became great friends! PHEW!

Gohar: I didn’t get to meet Gohar till a bit into my internship, but I can actually say she’s one of the sweetest people you can ever meet. I wish I had more time to spend with her. By the time I was comfortable enough to hang out with the staff in Yerevan, my internship was nearly over, because of the fact that I was generally in Gyumri.

Asqanaz: Asq is a whirlwind.. that’s probably the best way to describe him. Some said that the day they met him, he was all serious while working. I met him on a day he was a total tashkhalaji. It was the Armenia vs Russia Euro qualifiers soccer game day and the Birthrighters were going to face off against some local Yerevan players before heading to Cactus for the real one on TV. It seemed that everyone loved the guy and didn’t take me long to understand why… Asq is hilarious! if he’s still around when you go, you’d know exactly what I mean 😀

Shogher: ❤ Shoghig is probably my fav person in Armenia at the moment, not to mention the most beautiful in my eyes. She’s got a heart of gold and an extremely generous nature. God knows she was my GPS half the time and her office holds a lot of great memories. She made my Gyumri experience perfect 😀

There are others who worked there that I didn’t get the chance to get to know very well like Mane, and those who were from AVC like Sharistan.

The Birthright crew will become your family. They are there at any time you need them to help in any way they can and encourage you to drop by the office any time you like. The free internet access at the office is definitely a pull factor as well 😉

Those who have met other staff members working there, feel free to add to the comments section about your experiences with them 😀


Birthright Expectations- The Initial Decision

Last night a friend very much interested in trying out Birthright Armenia contacted me with a few questions. Fresh out of the program myself, it was easy for me to answer much of what she was concerned about. While I was getting her excited about doing this trip, I was once again reliving my own experiences with a huge grin on my face. It occurred to me that I could definitely be able to help others out by giving them a taste of my own experiences and to what they might expect to find and see.

Birthright Armenia is different from other organizations. It’s unique in almost every manner. It’s a place where you become a part of a huge family and your understanding of the homeland takes on a new twist. There’s a lot to see in Armenia, and MUCH that is not available for a tourist’s eyes and ears. Actually, there’s also much to experience that is not available for the common Hayasdantsi either. Birthright Armenia is a medium. You are more than a tourist but not exactly a local either. The best way to describe it is to say that you are technically in a better situation than anyone else and have a much wider perspective to work with. You are literally living there for a minimum of 2 months (and I heartily recommend longer… once you get there, you’ll understand what I mean), breathing the air of your homeland, making a difference and using your skills for the common good of your people, and enjoying the country in a way a tourist cannot do so. You live with a host family and become a part of it, you meet friends from all over the world and run into people from your own city that you so rarely see normally but now are hanging out with on a daily basis. Birthright makes it easy on you as well! You get reimbursed for your flight and your bed n breakfast is all paid for! In truth, for a budget conscious student, it is an amazing opportunity.

3 years ago, a friend of mine that I had met on an MSN Armenian group chat (which included the Birthright Alum’ Cristina Manian Rakedjian) mentioned a volunteer organization that I would find very enjoyable. I searched around the site for a few days after that but I was too young to participate so I left it aside. 1.5 years ago, a friend of mine from Toronto decided to do the AYF Youth Corps volunteer program (the one I also took part in this past summer) and told me about another volunteer who had combined Birthright with Youth Corps. This planted an idea in my mind, urging me to look closer into the organization. I found out that many people I had known and worked with in the community had actually participated. Over the years I had heard the name from time to time, but never really paid attention to what people were saying. Over the course of the few months before my final decision to take part in this, I did pay attention. I asked around and heard many stories. I read the Birthright blogs and watched all the Youtube clips. I did the same for Youth Corps. And then, Exactly a year ago, I decided to take a leap and actually do it. None could change my mind at that point. The hardest part was actually waiting for an answer. Youth Corps took forever, as their deadline is late April. By early May, I was frustrated and wanted to get the show on the road. Between receiving my confirmation and buying my ticket there was a total of a couple of hours. Between that and actually landing in Armenia was a total of 3 weeks! Whereas everything was happening way too slow in the beginning, now it was one thing after the other!

Expect to be nervous. God knows I was freaking out until the moment I walked into that office and was met with a hug of welcome. Expect to have to wait a lot. In Armenia, the pace is 100x slower than that of the life we know in North America. Expect to have questions and never hesitate to ask. Whether you’re asking those working at the Birthright office or the past alumni, everyone would be more than happy to give you direction. Expect to see and hear things that are not exactly pleasant. The mentality of the people is always leaning towards the negative side, especially the cab drivers, and much of the country is not exactly rich. Expect the unexpected. You will find that you are stronger than you thought and better equipped to take on the world than you believed.

The organization is an amazing one. This was simply an overall caption of my own experiences. I’ll zoom in on certain aspects of the Birthright experience in the coming days.

Good Luck!!

Baby Boom to Help or Hinder Development?

On December 10, 2011, the New York Times published an article called “The National Womb”, presenting the de facto independent state of Artsakh’s newly established policy of encouraging the birth of multiple children per household through monetary incentives.

“Since its introduction four years ago, the “birth encouragement program” has been credited for an increase in births, to 2,694 in 2010 from 2,145 in 2007. The program pays each couple about $780 at their wedding, and then an additional $260 for the first baby born, $520 for the second, $1,300 for the third and $1,820 for the fourth. Families with six or more children under the age of 18 are given a house. These payments are quite substantial in a region where the average monthly salary is $50.”

However, there are many problems that could arise from an increase in population without first strengthening the country’s economy, raising the standard of living and providing for the education and health care of these children. While it’s apparent that the capital, Stepanagerd has been going through a boom itself, with constant construction and renovations of necessities and/or aesthetics, the surrounding towns, villages and smaller cities have yet to see their own rapid progression to the better. New transportation systems have been introduced in the capital that rival that of what I see here in Toronto, let alone in the mother country of Armenia, but the expansions end there. Jobs do exist in the capital, but for the most part, that’s where it ends. In truth, I believe that the two countries, Armenia and Artsakh, are progressing rapidly, compared to the initial 15 years of their existence. However, there is much to be done and the damage caused by the loss of the able youth will be felt for another generation, even if most of the current children end up staying within their homeland.

New York Times source: