School kid: “Hi! What’s your name?”
Me: “Suh-vah-nuh Bag-duh-ser-yun.”
School kid: “What’s that? What kind of name?”
School kid: “What’s that? Are you Iranian? Do you pray to Ayatollah?”
In the 1970s, I was inundated by this question on the playgrounds of my school without knowing that the answer would to grow to be a larger, more detailed response, because of what I learned at Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) Camp.
Today, as I drive up the saguaro laden arid beauty of Pearblossom Highway onto the dusty driveway of Route N14, my nostalgic musings are muffled by the ecstatic screams of my daughters—AYF Camp Big Pines is here.
Exiting the car, unloading a variety of L.L. Bean sleeping bags, and hearing the zipping rolls of suitcases by my ecstatic girls, I am hit by the beautiful, dusty pine scent of our little Armenia. The smell of this dust immediately takes me to my first year at camp.
It was 1981. The kids wore Lightning Bolt shoes, dolphin shorts, rainbow tees, and listed to REO Speedwagon and Rush. Our favorite counselor, Moushig Andonian, drove in with a yellow pickup truck. I remember my first counselor—her name was Lucy. I remember my first friends, Sunday and Dawn. They were crying and I tried to comfort them, explaining that my parents were all the way in Armenia and my sister and I were happy, so they should be too. I remember the campfires, singing “Haratch Nahadag” in the morning and the “Bunag Union” kitchen workers marching down with pots and pans in their morning march. The “Armenianness” has had not kicked in at this point in my development; it was just a fun place with fun people who had names like mine—where you woke up with shaving cream in your hair and sang songs about battles and fedayees from long ago.
Every year we slowly developed, as the Armenians of America during the Armenian Liberation Movement and the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, the Lebanese Civil War, and the slow beginnings of Armenian nomenklatura moving to LA. It was this dust bowl in the mountains of Los Angeles that created a generation of activists and professionals to which I proudly belong. We were a conglomerate—kids born and raised in the United States, Lebanon, and Iran, and somehow, we all meshed and connected with each other through the beauty of this camp. We all became teachers, lawyers, doctors, psychologists, business owners and professionals. We all took those afternoon educations to heart and morphed them in our university and professional lives.
It was a camp of firsts: first friends, first crushes, first understanding of hayapahpahnum (preserving the Armenian culture), first pen pals, first zaatar hats, first dances, first makeup. My first attempts at being a writer were as the editor of the Daily Dolma. I remember my first article was about the egg toss “Blue Team Scrambles its Way through a Hard Boiled Competition.” I proudly printed the paper on a ditto master in the infirmary and passed it to campers who giggled at the title of the article. Camp gave everyone an avatar—a way of fitting in and being. If you were the athlete, you shined. If you were the rebel, you rebelled. If you were the nerd, you wrote articles. And we did all this all with the common thread of being at a two week utopia called AYF Camp.
As we grew into adolescents, we began to understand the meaning of being members of the Diaspora. My first best friend had just arrived from Lebanon, a country I had only heard about from my Dad, who said it was the most beautiful country he had ever seen back in 1958. We were first time counselors—she had sweatpants with French writing and I wore American Chuck Taylors. The first night, we counselors hung out at the fire pit and some of the boys began tossing cans of Barbasol shaving cream into the fire to hear the explosions. She began shaking and asked that they stop. When I asked her why she said it scared her and sounded like the bombs in Lebanon. That was the first time I understood the magnitude of what she had experienced. I explained to her the difficulty of going to American schools during the Iran Hostage Crisis, and the constant barrage of correcting people. We have been inseparable ever since. She even introduced me to my future husband, so I guess I can say, though my husband never attended camp, I (indirectly) met my husband at AYF Camp.
It was our guide, confidante, and big brother, Moushig Andonian, and our AYF adviser, Helen Daigian who would brave the seven-hour drive in a busload of boisterous kids to take us to this utopia.
Because they knew. They knew the power of the network and the spirit of this camp.
I have tried other Armenian camps for myself and for my children. They all have their worth and structure and they all play a similar role. They all are filled with wonderful Armenian children from all over the nation. Some of my lifetime friends are from AYF Camp Haiastan near Boston, another camp that has a deep-rooted understanding of the Armenian spirit.
The difference between AYF Camp and others is the structured pathos of the Armenian spirit. This is palpable in my experiences and now in my daughters. When they go to AYF Camp they know who they are, what their purpose is, and why it is crucial to their own identity to understand the power of the network of roots they have established in the replanting of the Armenian Diaspora.
Many will argue with me and say they feel strongly that going to Armenia is more effective than AYF Camp. I am not arguing that going to Armenia for a couple weeks or even a couple months is not important—it is absolutely important. My husband and I often fondly remember our first trip to Armenia through Land and Culture in the early 1990s. But for the Armenians who are born in the Diaspora, like myself, it is imperative that they establish a strong, deep rooted, understanding of their roles as Diasporan Armenians, and to understand their role in helping Armenia while also developing a network of friendships and connections that will inevitably last a lifetime—like the friendships and network I have had the great fortune of developing as an alumnus of the AYF and as an attendee of one of the most effective Armenian camps in this country.
Unger Moushig Andonian, an alumnus of the camp, a legend, and the kindest most dedicated leader for our kids, continues to sing songs like “Pit Pashtbanem” in a circle with a new generation of campers. He fills them with hope, makes them laugh harder than any Dad around, teaches them the power of the circle of friends, and loves these kids unconditionally. Thank you Moushig. Thank you for taking us to camp in the 1980s, thank you for driving us around off-roading in your yellow truck, thank you teaching us the power of the circle, and thank you—most of all—for passing this on to our children, the new generation of the Armenian nation.