Houstonian Volunteers Pave Way for Others

There are no official sister-city or exchange programs that bring the youth from Texas and Armenia together. Yet, this didn’t stop three enterprising young Armenians, who through community word of mouth and outreach by former volunteers, connected with rewarding professional internships half way across the world. Birthright Armenia, their sponsoring organization, is making sure their experiences are all about immersion, allowing them to serve the homeland in their fields of interest while sharpening their resumes and strengthening their Armenian identities.

Adrik Grigorian, Melania Melikian, and Sofia Mnjoyan are proud to be trail blazing for other young Armenians like themselves in Houston, to ensure this personally enriching opportunity they are living will be experienced by many more for years to come. In fact, these three new ambassadors agree that 100 percent participation by all 20-32-year-old Houston Armenians should be the goal for their small, tight-knit Armenian community. They will team up with community leaders, local media outlets, and their churches to cast a wide net and get the word out to others.

In the northern regional hub of Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city, Grigorian and Melikian, both 21, are finding their community service assignments extremely rewarding. They are volunteers signed onto the Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC), a non-profit organization modeled after the U.S. Peace Corps, and both are receiving full sponsorship of their airfare and homestay living expenses—provided by Birthright Armenia, in exchange for their two months of volunteerism.

With a business degree and years of computer work as a hobby under his belt, Grigorian is working at the Gyumri IT Center (GITC). “I was asked to teach computer courses in web design, search engine optimization, and PHP, but there is a larger problem at hand,” Grigorian explained. “After students would finish their two years at GITC, a large percentage of them were not able find work. So I am teaching a class on how to find work, where to look, and how to present and package themselves. This was the most rewarding work, since the graduates are eager to find work and are successful. It is definitely a moral boost for the past and future graduates,” he added.

Melikian is glad to have two very different kinds of volunteer work placements at the Houys Orphanage as well as the Shirak Competitiveness Center (SCC). “My key responsibilities at Houys are to interact with the children, ages 6-19, whether it be playing games with them or organizing different activities, and at SCC, I do market research and act as a sort of ‘marketing consultant.’ The work is incredibly rewarding, especially at Houys. While SCC gives me the opportunity to see how the business sector functions in Gyumri, working with the kids at Houys gives me a chance to really make connections with the new generation here,” she explained.

Mnjoyan, 23, is part of the Armenian Assembly of America’s internship program, volunteering her services at Hoffman La Roche and Armen-Pharm, two pharmaceutical companies in Yerevan, as well as with the Ministry of Diaspora’s “Ari Doon” program. She was born in Armenia, but moved to Houston, Texas with her family as a young teen. “At Hoffman La Roche, I help translate material from Russian and Armenian to English, and also help edit their English correspondence. Recently, Actemra, Roche’s new drug for rheumatoid arthritis, was brought to Armenia and I am working on the Russian-language brochure for it. With the help of one of the other volunteers, we published an informative article about Hoffman La Roche in Armenia, which explains this new medication and how Armenians who have financial difficulties can get help by contacting a free hotline for Hepatitis, and how they can have free blood work done,” Mnjoyan said.

In addition to their busy, 30-hour work week, the volunteers attend weekly seminars led by historians, economists, architects, and other experts; they learn about Armenia’s history and culture via guided educational excursions; and they meet with Armenian youth, so they can better understand how their counterpart peers live. “The weekly forums Birthright Armenia setup for us enlightened and inspired me to form a business of some kind in the future, anything from production to service,” Grigorian said. “To me Armenia is untouched land, there is so much to expand upon. There are great and resourceful people currently in Armenia, but it is up to us volunteers from the diaspora to help and show leadership.”

Grigorian and Melikian are part of a larger group of 20 diasporan volunteers in Gyumri, who all refer to the tremendous “southern” hospitality of the Gyumri residents, as well as the admirable resilience of the city despite its tragedy and resulting hardships.

“I always knew I wanted to come to Armenia for an extended period of time and truly integrate with its people, so doing the combination of Birthright Armenia and AVC was the perfect fit,” said Melikian. “Everywhere feels like home here in Gyumri, and everyone treats you as if you’re family. Coming to Armenia, living in Gyumri, traveling around the country, meeting Armenian youth just like me from around the world, all in two months, is something I can honestly say I am never, in my entire life, ever going to forget. I have made lifelong friends and incredible memories that will shape my life from this point forward. Not to mention, my experience here would be inconceivably different if I wasn’t living in a homestay. My Gyumri family has made this entire immersion experience one that I can set apart from those of many others who have come to Armenia to visit or even to work. I have connected with my family more than I ever thought possible and I know, upon returning to Armenia in the future, they will always receive me as their daughter and sister,” she added.

Grigorian seconds her sentiments about the living arrangements in Gyumri. “My homestay family enhanced my overall experience greatly. It only took a day after I went from being a guest to a member of the family. I refer to the members of the family as Mom, Dad, brother, and sister. It basically all comes down to that, we are family. My host Mom always says I am her lost son, we look out for each other and help each other in whatever way we can. The family I stayed with will always be in my memory and my heart. They are people who I have gained more than just trust and respect for—they are truly family.”

That these three Houston-based young adults chose Armenia over many other opportunities or options for the summer is admirable, but should not be seen as a sacrifice by any means. In the majority of cases, these internships in Armenia carry far more importance in terms of their future careers and opening of doors.

Mnjoyan explained, “As a student at the University of Texas College of Pharmacy, I had an option to do an internship at a hospital or a pharmacy to strengthen my knowledge of the medications and provide some necessary experience in the field of hospital or retail pharmacy. However, I decided that it would be very exciting and interesting to intern in pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies in Armenia, as I also wanted to see if I could ever live and work in Armenia. Even if I became a pharmacist in the U.S., my knowledge of Russian and Armenian would come in handy. If I have Russian or Armenian patients, I need to have an idea about medications used in Russia, Armenia, and Europe. So my experience was not only exciting, but also very useful for me in the future. Participating in the program has given me hope that Armenia is in the period of its rebirth. And as a future pharmacist, and as an Armenian who loves her land and people, I know that I will be able to play a role in the future of Armenia.

For more information about Birthright Armenia or to make an online donation, visit www.birthrightarmenia.org.

1 Comment

  1. It’s great to have a report featuring the good work of Birthright Armenia/Depi Hayk and the Armenian Volunteer Corps. Excellent job, Adrik, Melania, Sofia. And kudos to Birthright; it is truly a worthwhile endeavor.

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