By Elaine Krikorian
YEREVAN, Armenia—One of the unshakeable first questions any newcomer to Armenia has to answer is “Why are you here?” This question is not asked to make small talk, as it might be in any well-traveled tourist destination of the world; on the part of the asker, an Armenian from Armenia, the question comes with sincere curiosity.
Of course, many Armenians from the diaspora come to their motherland to see the church at Etchmiadzin, to visit ancient sites, and to bring their school books to life before returning home, happy to know that Armenia is real and independent and available for future visitation. Others come to stay a little longer and involve themselves in the life of the country.
The Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC), established in 2000, assists in facilitating this deeper involvement and helps some visitors with this question of why they are here. Let’s take a look at some of the current AVC volunteers to construct one possible answer.
Brandon Norsesian, from Rockledge, Fla., came to Armenia in the late summer of 2009 to explore a part of his heritage and to learn about a new part of the world. After spending some time traveling the country, he met an AVC alumnus who was visiting Armenia at the time and who pointed him toward AVC, which placed him as a volunteer at the Zatik orphanage in the Kanaker district of Yerevan. Brandon, 25, spent five years in the U.S. military; he’s been on foreign tours and has spent time in the U.S. performing different military projects, such as building piers in California or diving around the coast of Florida to clean polluted shorelines. He is well-suited to this job which requires flexibility, discipline and a sense to suit the practical needs of the moment.
In Brandon, the children and young adults between the ages of 3 and 18 at Zatik find an older brother and a teacher. They start to come to Zatik after their schools get out, sometimes as early as one o’clock in the afternoon. Brandon tries to direct their energy toward productive activities. He helps the young adults write their resumes and encourages everyone to do their homework. To make Zatik more than a social center and place to eat and sleep, Brandon comes up with projects to engage the kids. One day is devoted to building birdhouses. Brandon sets up and supervises the circular saw, and the older girls and boys have shop class. “The older boys won’t agree to take part in any activity. They’ll stand around and act like they’re not watching until they see you doing something that they want to prove they can do better than you or the next guy,” Brandon points out with amusement. The art room at Zatik is filled with brightly painted birdhouses.
Although he does not speak Armenian, language is not a barrier between Brandon and the children of Zatik. The younger boys run and jump on him affectionately, and when the older boys act over-aggressive, he takes them outside and teaches them wrestling techniques.
Brandon has worked at Zatik for four months. In his last week, he started a project to cover one wall of the art room with the handprints of all the children. He teaches the youngest ones, who are very excited to have paint all over their hands, to stamp their hands evenly then quickly pull them away so they don’t smear the wall. Now Brandon’s large hands decorate the wall of Zatik orphanage beside those of the many children who became family to him.
Tatevik Revazian, born in Yerevan, moved to Denmark with her family when she was five years old. She studies business administration and organizational communication in Copenhagen. Through the Danish NGO Mission East, she is fulfilling a three-month internship requirement at her university. At Mission East she is creating a communication plan to help educate Armenians on HIV/AIDS prevention. She is also volunteering at the Arbes Health Care Center in the child development and rehabilitation area. She works with professionals at the center to take care of autistic children. Tatevik and the children sing, play games, and learn to cook together. “They are mostly learning practical life skills,” says Tatevik. “It means a lot to me to be able to see this side of Armenia. It’s great to be involved with the staff and to be close to these kids.”
Some AVC placements mirror career internships. Edwin Akopian from Maryland received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and is now carrying out research at a design engineering firm, Industrial Technologies Co. (ITC). His current project is designing wind turbines. Of course, interning in Armenia has its unique challenges. “Sometimes there is no running water. And we don’t have all the funds we need yet to complete our work,” says Edwin. But despite these challenges, he respects his team and appreciates their strong work ethic and commitment. Edwin’s family is from Iran and he is pleased to find many Iranian Armenians working alongside him at ITC.
Working in Armenia can require a volunteer to find creative ways of overcoming lack of materials. Both public and private schools need supplies. AVC volunteer Deanna Cachoian-Schanz teaches English at the Macsedan School, a private elementary school and high school that specializes in languages. Soviet-era maps of Armenia still hang on the walls of these classrooms where the students wear their coats indoors during the winter as there is insufficient heating. Deanna brings her laptop to class and the students crowd around it to watch her English-language PowerPoint presentations on topics like slavery in the United States and the Civil Rights Movement. She also initiated a pen pal program with her younger students. Public school students in Deanna’s home state of New York are learning about Armenia, and Armenian students are finding friends in New York.
Since 2001, 275 AVC volunteers have served 118,886 hours in Armenia. AVC has placed volunteers in almost 200 organizations in many of Armenia’s cities and rural areas as well as Artsakh (Karabagh).
Volunteers have to be at least 21 years old. But, there is no upper age limit (and many mid career professionals and retirees have volunteered) and no background is exempt.
This month, four volunteers are arriving from Argentina, including a married couple, a lawyer/singer, and an industrial engineer.
So, why does a person come to Armenia? Some come to visit, and some come simply to be a part of the Armenian nation by contributing their distinct background to the work of developing the country. The benefits are immense.
The AVC’s motto is “come move mountains,” or, as one alumnus put it, “come move pebbles.” All the volunteers will admit that change doesn’t happen quickly or drastically; it’s done pebble by pebble, with the belief that your actions will encourage others to follow. Acting on this belief will move the mountains.
For more information, visit www.armenianvolunteer.org.
Elaine Krikorian is an AVC volunteer from Oakland, Calif.