Special for the Armenian Weekly
You may not have heard of Harry Nakashian or his organization, Armenia Assist, and its nearly decade-long endeavor to assist villagers living in poverty. Their humble efforts to sponsor Armenia’s neediest have virtually flown under the radar. Through the website, www.ArmeniaAssist.org, the organization collects money and supplies from individual donors, mostly through word of mouth. Nakashian’s self-described “mom and pop” two-person brigade, which includes Yerevan-based overseer Sona Baluyan, has been sending supplies to villagers in need since 2004. With relatively limited media publication thus far, Nakashian hopes to expand Armenia Assist’s outreach goals. Below, he speaks to the Armenian Weekly and describes the work that this charitable service does—and what’s to come.
Lilly Torosyan: How did the idea of creating Armenia Assist come about?
Harry Nakashian: Well, originally I wanted to visit Armenia and adopt one family. On my first trip there, I had a chance to travel extensively, including Karabagh. What I saw in many villages was very humbling. I met many wonderful families with various problems living in bad conditions. I realized many of these families had no access to help. They were on their own. We got to know them well. I thought I would put the word out, and facilitate assistance through my network of friends, and create a website to put a face on it. It was just an extension of my adopting one family, and a feeling that I wanted to do much more.
LT: Describe some of the work the organization does.
HN: We address emergencies when they arise, but normally, we try to educate the kids and provide basic needs, as there are many.
For education, we have hired tutors and teachers, provided university tuition, school supplies, and some laptop computers. We arranged classes for the kids at a telecommunications company, where they became computer literate. We also made an agreement with an NGO to teach English.
For basic needs, we have shipped many 70-pound boxes over the past 9 years. An Armenian couple in North Hollywood handles that for us. My friends (and also strangers) have given very nice supplies, including clothes and shoes, boots, school supplies, vitamins, toys, blankets, winter coats, handbags, backpacks, socks and gloves, stuffed animals, books, and laptops.
We have also arranged for many field trips into Yerevan from the villages. These include going to the movies, bowling, karaoke, amusement parks, aquariums, and eating pizza. Kids need fun, too. There are also basic needs that require services, such as trips to the dental clinics and hospitals in Yerevan—even a few operations.
We have helped village families that we met in Alapars, Solak, Charantsevan, Vanand, Metsamor, Stepanakert, Norq, Yerevan, Sissian, and Goris. We have also provided much food to many families. They often rely on what their garden yields, and it is often not enough. We get food in Yerevan; sometimes we fill up an entire van, and just take it there ourselves. It doesn’t solve the deeper rooted need for sustainability, but with cold winters and no cash—and in some villages, no stores—this helps them a lot, especially families with infants.
LT: Who makes up the team? What is the status of the organization? Is it a recognized NGO?
HN: We really are a mom and pop operation, an office without walls. I am lucky to have some friends who are very devoted to my effort, both in the U.S. and Armenia. In the U.S., they have been very helpful with collecting things and shipping boxes, as well as making personal financial contributions. They introduce our work to others who often become donors. In Armenia, Sona Baluyan is in touch with all of the village families and disburses the funds she receives. She also takes receipt of the boxes and goes to the villages to personally give the items to the families. She and I are in constant contact, and it works very well. We know everything that we receive is being given to the families we assist, and new ones, too.
So far, that is our only status. Our expenses are almost nil. We are under the radar, but we may reach a point where that might change. The way we have networked through word of mouth has been good. A lot of people want to get involved for no other reason than to help. We will evolve with our status if it proves to be a big benefit. What brings the most help for the kids will clinch the decision.
LT: How successful would you say you have been in accomplishing your mission thus far? Where would you like to go?
HN: Because we do direct help, and have been doing this for nine years, we have the reward of seeing good results first-hand. We are limited at times, due to emergencies and limited funds. Many of the donors trust our judgment of where the funds are directed, and this allows us to serve the greatest need at a particular time. Of course, with so many challenges that we are aware of, it is easy to feel that we need to do more—always. I think it is fair to say we can show success, as this all started as a quest to adopt one family. Now, we have many kids speaking English fluently and attending universities in Yerevan. We also help kids get vocational skills if they don’t attend college. Recently, we had a girl open a small hair salon that she owns. We would like to have more families be sponsored, and we know we have a good system in play.
LT: How do you hope to amass more funding and support?
HN: We don’t receive any help from either the Armenian government or local organizations. I am aware that the government knows about me. We do get discounts from an NGO, and some tutors when they understand what we are doing. I would welcome help if it didn’t come with conditions that changed our way of doing what we do.
I hope to increase funding several ways. Friends here in the U.S. are organizing fundraisers, and another friend will make changes and update my website. We would like people to make direct donations via the site. Also, there has been a growing ripple effect. My friends ask their co-workers, and word spreads fast and far. It has been nice to see this grow. Also, we hope new publicity and print material we want to publish will reach people who like our way of helping truly needy families. A friend in New York has been given free use of a theater in Manhattan for one night, and she is planning a fundraiser there.
LT: On your website, you say, “I wanted to do something that was direct, and something that I could be involved with, rather than just donate something to a group that may not represent my wishes.” How would you suggest other diasporans who are looking to make a fulfilling change in Armenia go about doing this?
HN: I would first say come to Armenia if you need to be convinced how bad conditions are, and how wonderful the people are. I would add, don’t come as a tourist. You would miss much.
If you are already of the mind that you want to do something, you can contact Sona (through my website) in Armenia and she would be happy to meet with you, listen to your ideas, and answer questions. She would want to make your ideas a reality.
At this time, there is a crisis for Syrian-Armenian refugees who have been displaced on account of war and are now in Armenia. They have many urgent needs and their future looks bleak, given the current war status. I can’t say enough about becoming involved first-hand. To know these people and enable improvement in their lives is a great reward. You would not be disappointed.
LT: What lies ahead for you and Armenia Assist?
HN: We want to continue to grow while maintaining our hands-on and direct giving approach. One of the great rewards has been to watch the kids grow up and lead much better lives. We have some programs in the works to enable the village kids to adjust to urban living after they graduate from university. I am working with a professor at Yerevan State University on this idea.
For myself, I have been to Armenia 16 times (I pay my own airfare) and Karabagh 5 times. I am hoping to return in late spring 2014 for an extended stay. My friends in the U.S., and on the internet, make this a good arrangement. Besides, I just like living in Armenia.
For more information about Armenia Assist, visit http://armeniaassist.org.
I felt goose-bumps all over my body reading this article about Harry Nakashian, and his wonderful work of helping the needy of our country.
He is doing something that i have dreamt of doing all my life and never had the funds to do it,Harry may god bless you, and your team of volunteers, and helpers for being on such a blessed mission of helping our nation, i will definitely be looking forward to contributing to our cause of helping our nation.
Աստուած քեզ օգնական ըլլայ եւ վարձքդ կատար եղբայր.
I join Mr. Mashoian in wishing Mr. Nakashian:”Աստուած քեզ օգնական ըլլայ եւ վարձքդ կատար եղբայր”, and thank Ms. Torosyan for this informative article.
Now for the advice Mr. Nakashian gives:
“I would first say come to Armenia if you need to be convinced how bad conditions are, and how wonderful the people are. I would add, don’t come as a tourist. You would miss much.”
This is extremely good advice, and I speak from experience. There are many things we, diasporan-Armenians, can do to help our nation become one that we can be proud of belonging to. The most important thing we can do is “be informed”, know your nation, and this is why I subscribe to the Armenian Weekly. It is when we are informed that we can make informed choices. But even on the Armenian Weekly we often get second-hand information. The kind of second-hand information I had received in the 90’s that had caused me to be disgusted with our Hayreniq, not even wanting to set foot there. It is not until I had a near-death accident that I decided to volunteer for one year there with AVC (www.armenianvolunteer.org) and get first-hand info about the situation and hence, know what “I” could do about it. Everyone, even non-Armenians can now volunteer with AVC, but youth of Armenian heritage between the ages of 21 to 32 have a very unique possibility of financial support by volunteering through the Birthright Armenia (BRA) program (www.birthrightarmenia.org).
Everyone can do it and is welcome, from students to working professionals, and retirees. There really is something for everyone when it comes to volunteering in Armenia, and AVC and BRA can customize an experience for you!.
It is worth noting that AVC and BRA are non-partisan, non-denominational entities financed by a great Armenian philantropist and by donations from people like you.
I am from “ice-cream kids”.We loves Harry Nakashian very much.Because he doing for us everything.We have have gone together to watch movie,playing bowling,We went to a pizzeria and karaoke,and we have a lot of pictures together. He gave us many present every year every moth.We had a computer classes and i can say many good things Harry Nakashian.I also know that he has helped many poor families in Artmenia.already 6 years that I know him and I’m happy for it.He is our big friend,Harry jan we love you very much and miss you..return as soon as possible….BLESS YOU GOD.
Thank you Harry, it’s always great to hear how some of us strive to educate and improve future generations of homeland.
I am very proud of you Harry jan! THANKS for everything you do for us!
Hurray for Harry! I contribute to a family in Solak, a small village, that Harry referred me to. I send boxes and money directly to them, via MoneyGram. They don’t have internet, but they do have a cell phone, so after I send the money in the mom’s name, I email Sona the MoneyGram number, and she phones the mom, and reads it to her. Then the mom takes the bus into the city to pick it up, using her I.D. It’s really, really great. I’ve also sent them lots of boxes of clothing and home furnishings, etc. over the years, getting donations from workmates, friends, and whoever. The boxes go to Sona, and then she and her husband drive them to the village. Sona often takes photos of the family opening the boxes, wearing the clothing, etc. What fun! I have known Harry for 35 years; he is an absolute hero. So is Sona, for that matter. This is a great way to make a difference in the world, however small. And it has given me great pleasure.