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.