The “AYF Summer 2017” section of the Armenian Weekly’s Youth page will highlight the 2017 summer programs of the Armenian Youth Federation—Youth Organization of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (AYF-YOARF) Eastern United States.
AYF Summer 2017: A Summer of Stories
I Am Armenian—Ungerouhi Chantelle Nasri
I can still hear my father’s voice, “You are Armenian, never forget that.” Since I was born, my family spoke high and proud of being Armenian. We attended Armenian mass without a Sunday being missed. Whenever someone would ask what my background was, I would timidly say “Armenian,” prepared to see a look of confusion spread across their face. I always knew that I was Armenian: I’ve heard the stories from my father, uncles, and grandparents, but I don’t think I ever truly knew what it meant.
It wasn’t until I stepped off the plane and into the jet bridge leading into Zvartnots airport on June 15, with the sun shining directly through the clouds hovering above the peak of Mount Ararat, that I felt Armenian. All the Google image searches came to life. In that moment, I felt prepared to enter my homeland for the first time.
However, what I did not know was that no excursion, history-filled church/monastery, grueling hike, or traditionally prepared Armenian dinner could prepare me for the journey I endured as I learned what it truly means to be Armenian.
Although I had no prior ties to the Armenian community, and didn’t even speak the language, these two months have lit a fire within me. An eternal flame, that will always be reminiscent of those feelings—the first time I said “Hayr Mer” before the altar of Etchmiadzin, or the first time I had a conversation with the waiter at a restaurant entirely in Armenian, or even the painful and sweaty ride to Artsakh.
Every moment spent in Armenia was one that I learned from as I found myself becoming “more Armenian.” Our Diaspora is resilient, our Diaspora is talented, our Diaspora is joyful, and because of Armenia, our Diaspora will continue to survive and prosper.
For Our Soldiers—Ungerouhi Rita Bahnan
Visiting Armenia for the first time, I had painted a picture in my head of what to expect. Although almost everything I had expected turned out to be far from reality, visiting the Republic of Artsakh for the first time was more than I could have expected.
Growing up with the Armenian Youth Federation as a major asset in my life, I have been privileged to learn the dense history of Artsakh. From the massacre of the Armenian population of Sushi in 1920 that left the Armenian quarter in ruins, to ongoing liberation efforts, Artsakh has been through a lot in recent history. As we made many stops on our way to Artsakh, almost every site left me emotional and thinking about the fights our nation has endured to proudly stand where we are today.
As an AYF intern, my perspectives have drastically expanded with each experience granted to me. However, nothing was more impactful than walking through the fallen-soldiers museum in Stepanakert. The museum was opened by Galya Arustamyan as a tribute to her son, who was killed in battle at age 21, and the rest of the fallen soldiers. Devastatingly, Galya passed away about three years ago, but the hotel is still a renowned site of Stepanakert. Entering the museum, your eyes cannot escape the 3,000-plus portraits of the fallen soldiers, leaving not a vacant inch on the wall. The museum displays endless cases of homemade weapons constructed out of the minimal resources they had.
I felt entirely taken aback as I walked through the museum envisioning the unimaginable difficulties that our soldiers had lived through to earn self-determination for Artsakh. Fighting with disadvantages—being outnumbered and outgunned, facing large tanks with small weapons—our heroic soldiers accomplished the impossible. The massive impact that this small museum had on me is indescribable. I felt overwhelmed with pride.
Two quotes in the museum spoke volumes to me, and will forever be etched in my mind. One quote appeared at the top of a picture of mountains: “What we did during the war, we won’t tell anyone. Ask our mountains. They are the only witnesses.” I found this quote exemplary of how humble and resilient we are as Armenians. Regardless of how hard we fight, we were not placed on this earth to receive recognition but rather for justice. Another quote was painted on the wall with the words, “Your Bravery Is Immortal,” next to a painting of the Mother Mary cradling the limp body of her adult son. This quote had me realize how fearlessly we live and fight for our fallen soldiers every day.
Our aspirations as a nation will never die, nor will the flame lit in each of us to fight for what will forever be ours. The somber mood of the museum, because of all those affected by the fight for Artsakh, is a tangible feeling that I will never let go. This museum portrayed the reality of Artsakh: Our soldiers bled for us, and that is irreversible, but our fight doesn’t end here.
The Spirit of Music and Dance in Javakhk—Unger Alek Surenian
During the first couple of weeks in Armenia, I went to the vernissage to purchase a dhol (Armenian drum). I have spent most of my life playing Armenian music and wanted to have one with me when I went to Javakhk at the end of the summer to play for the kids participating in the Armenian Relief Soceity’s (ARS) Camp Javakhk program.
Throughout the years, I’ve had the privilege to play at various AYF events, such as Junior Seminar and at Friday-night dances at Camp Haiastan. There is no better feeling than doing something you love while bringing joy to young Armenians. I wanted to bring the same joy I have given to young Armenians in the United States to the campers in Javakhk.
I arrived in the city of Akhaltsikhe, Georgia, for the second week of Javakhk Jampar (camp) with excitement and curiosity to discover this new place. When I first stepped into the agoump (club) to look around, I noticed that there was a dhol already there. After we greeted the campers on the first day of Jampar and they saw me play, they would regularly approach me to ask to jam along and take turns playing the dhol from the agoump. During the week, we would also teach Armenian dance to the kids, and I would play along and watch the smiles on the campers’ faces. It was such a fulfilling feeling.
At the end of the week, we had a small hantes (presentation) for the parents to showcase what the campers learned. One of the parts of the program was to perform a dance. The campers formed a circle and I played the drum around them as the Armenian flag was being waved in the air by one of the older boys.
At that moment, I was beyond proud to be Armenian and to have the privilege to be part of such a rich and beautiful culture. After the hantes, we packed up the van and headed back to Yerevan. I left my dhol to the agoump so the kids can play it and pass on the same joy and passion to others.
That drum is a part of me that I left with them, an example of how we as Armenians can do our part to preserve our identity and culture, one small step at a time.
A Lifelong Dream Fulfilled—Unger Nareg Mkrtschjan
As someone who had been to Armenia four times, I thought this past summer’s excursions would simply be just the same things I had seen a million times already. This year’s trip to Khor Virap with the AYF Internship program, however, was much different this time around. As we walked up the steps, I could feel everybody getting more and more excited to be as close to Mount Ararat as you can get. The monastery itself is perched in front of one of the most scenic and beautiful landscapes in the entire world. These however, were all things I had seen before. What I had not seen before was what happened following our walk up.
The moment that made this trip to Khor Virap so special was watching all of my fellow interns who had never seen this amazing sight, and witnessing their honest and touching reactions. I watched as I saw my fellow ungerouhi Rita Bahnan gaze upon Mount Ararat in all its beauty as tears started to fill up her eyes and roll down her cheek.
As someone who does not cry very often, I will never forget the overwhelming feeling I had to also cry as I realized how emotional and important it was to her to finally see this view in person: a dream that she has had her entire life. Although she had seen the same setting millions of times in pictures or paintings, I understood how meaningful it was to finally see it through her own eyes. Her dream was fulfilled: to be back in her true homeland and experience it for all that it is.
It is moments such as these that convince me that every Armenian should go and visit Armenia at least once, as there will likely never be another unforgettable experience like that in their lifetime.
I have no doubt that ungerouhi Rita will return to Armenia someday, along with all of the other interns, including me.
Expect the Unexpected—Ungerouhi Theresa Jelalian
Going to Armenia had always been a dream of mine since growing up in the Armenian community and AYF. Many have told me Armenia is a place like no other, so I had to see it for myself. Talking to my fellow ungers about the AYF Internship and their experiences, I thought, “What a perfect way to see the homeland while still being able to give back to what this country has given me.”
I will be honest: Going into this summer I was a little apprehensive about going to a country where I did not know the language and did not know what to expect from the experience. From JFK airport to Zvartnots, so many thoughts were running through my head—whether I would be able to give back to this country or adapt to the culture around me.
Those thoughts were running through my mind until I met everyone at 42 Isahakyan, where it all started. From being 11 Armenians who didn’t know much about each other, we turned into a family right from the minute we all united. When I met everyone, I soon felt at ease with why I was here, and I could not wait for the amazing experiences that we all were going to live through together.
From our countless excursions in a Soviet-era van that we all thought would break down on the side of a cow-filled road, to having separation anxiety when we had to split up for Camp Javakhk, it is this group that added to a summer that I will never forget. The moments we all experienced together felt like we were one with our country. The feeling of giving back to this beautiful country and the amazing people of Armenia was something that I never thought I would experience.
Even though many in Hayastan are very confused why we were there, they are more than grateful to share this culture with us. As much as we want to learn about them and what they are doing, they want to learn just about us and why we are in the homeland. After this summer, this country has given me more than I could ever ask for.
From the beautiful views and sights of Hayastan that are engraved into my mind, to the amazing people I met along the way, I could not be more grateful for this nation and all the experiences that exceeded all expectations.
Experiencing Armenia from a Different Perspective—Ungerouhi Ellen Khachatryan
As a native-born Armenian, I’ve always considered Yerevan my home. I was extremely familiar with the city, the friendly people, and (so I thought) all aspects of the rich culture. I thought I knew all there was to know about spending two months in Yerevan, since it was the eighth summer I’ve spent there ever since I moved. However, this summer, I realized I had not been exposed in prior years to nearly half the beauty that our country has to offer, specifically in the cities outside of Yerevan.
Doing the AYF Internship gave me the opportunity to do what I’ve always wanted to do: explore Armenia outside of Yerevan. During one of our first excursions, I quickly fell in love with the Geghard Monastery and the Garni Temple. What astonished me most was that parts of Geghard are carved into solid rock; it was art that our talented Armenian people had created.
The following weekend, we made our way to Dilijan and spent the night in treehouses in Lastiver. The scenery was beautiful, the hike was rewarding, and the waterfall near the site was worth it all. As amazing as those two excursions were, nothing compared with the sights I saw during the four-day excursion to Artsakh. The nature that Artsakh had to offer was breathtaking, and I know that I would not have had the opportunity to visit Artsakh without the help of the AYF.
Aside from finally being able to explore Armenia outside of Yerevan, this Internship gave the opportunity to live in a house in the best location with 11 people who started off as strangers and ended up as family. This was especially different from the past summers I’ve experienced because I would always spend my days with my family as opposed to meeting other diasporans my age.
I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to figure out that not only the city of Yerevan is my home but also the entire country of Armenia. And I couldn’t have thought of a better group to have had this experience with.