Life has a way of offering us variety. We mature, acquire values, pass them to succeeding generations and hopefully leave our mark in this world. Mankind was born with free will, but all of us, if we listen, can experience the gentle love of God guiding us through the labyrinth of life. As Armenians, we feel a responsibility to give of ourselves to our faith and heritage…to honor our grandparents and thank our parents for the benefit of future generations. It is who we are and what makes all of you special. As we age, some of our personal dynamics change, affording us new opportunities. We have more time, more wisdom and even more resources. Sometimes, we are even blessed with a guiding light from above that shows us how to apply ourselves. Such has been the experience of our family.
Like many of you, our excitement over the emergence of an independent Armenia and its recent revolution has created a sense of pride and hope. We all desire some personal connection to the homeland. Some of us are lucky enough to have family there. Others have invested in businesses. Thousands have participated in philanthropic activities, while others visit and gaze at the Ararat they were nurtured to love from afar in the Diaspora. All of these experiences have a common thread—to build an identity.
Our family has been affiliated for many years with the Armenia Tree Project (ATP). We were attracted like many others to the simple, yet beautiful mission of rebuilding the lost forested areas of Armenia. It resonated with us as an exciting responsibility. About a year and a half ago, we were asked by the ATP management if we had a preference for the location of donated trees. After some thought, my wife and I decided on a rural border village. We thought it would perhaps afford us an opportunity to meet these people some day and build a relationship. The people of Armenia have always been its greatest asset.
Last year, our family planned a trip to Armenia. We went with our two children, daughter-in-law and our nearly one year-old granddaughter. Joining us was a family of cousins from Chicago, who would be going to Armenia for the first time. We were on our own with a friend from Armenia, so we had a flexible schedule.
ATP informed us that they had selected a village based on our input that we could visit. The village of Paruyr Sevak was named after the iconic poet who tragically died in the 70s. Our plan was to meet with the ATP folks from Yerevan at Khor Virap and drive together to the village. Paruyr Sevak is a small village on the border of Nakhchivan and on the edge of the Ararat Marz. The environment is arid and rocky. We had no idea what this visit would reveal, but we felt this mystical attraction.
Our family arrived at the village mid-day and met with Mayor Edik, a wonderful patriot who works tirelessly for the village. The tree groves planted looked like an oasis amid the rough terrain. With the help of the ATP, an irrigation line had been installed, and a future community park was taking shape. After enjoying some refreshments with the village officials, we asked to see the local school.
The Paruyr Sevak School has about 100 students from grades one to twelve. It was typical of rural schools in Armenia: dedicated teachers, enthusiastic students and a school needing so much. Our hearts were touched by the strong work ethic and sense of humility within this otherwise very modest setting. We felt this new sense of opportunity and motivation. It was clearly a very special moment—the kind that happens quite infrequently in our lives. It was part of His plan for us. We would help—not with charity, but as partners working together for a new Armenia. It began modestly. These are humble people who ask for nothing but appreciate everything.
The next day, we went to Yerevan and brought back athletic equipment. Upon our return, we met with the principal and asked what we could do when we go back to America. After some moments of hesitation, they, almost reluctantly, said they needed computers to enhance the learning capability of the school. A village school is limited to local resources. Technology offers the opportunity to enhance the quality of education with web-based instruction and a new curriculum. We left promising them two things—that we would try our best and that we would come back. I knew our trust level was growing when the mayor said to me, “Many have come here, but you came back.” How could I ever convince him that whatever we can do, is far less than what they have done for us. It was not simply a new connection, but a real grounding in humanity.
We returned to Boston in late June and began planning for the computer room. Through the grace of God and the help of friends and family, funds were raised in eight weeks to upgrade infrastructure, purchase computer systems and customized desks. Everything was purchased in Armenia; pretty soon, the village began to prepare the room with new curtains and carpeting. It was inspiring to see the patriotism of the suppliers, many of whom donated delivery and installation costs.
We returned in early October to see the smiling faces of the middle and high school students. They had organized a cultural performance for us to celebrate the opening of the room. At that moment, I recalled the Biblical phrase I was taught in Sunday school: “It is better to give than to receive.” My understanding was never clearer. After the festivities ended, we met with the mayor and principal and asked a simple question: “What’s next?” We were hooked. We were part of this wonderful village and couldn’t wait to do more. Understandably, the village folks were still a bit overwhelmed, asking rhetorically “Where did these people come from?” Our humorous response was we are just “khent Ameriga hye enk” (we’re crazy American-Armenians). They laughed. We told them that God had brought us together.
The next opportunity was across the street in a mostly empty building in need of major repair. We learned that this building is intended to house the pre-school and kindergarten. In a roughly renovated corner, they ran a small half-day preschool. No kindergarten. No kitchen. Very limited bathroom facilities. We were told that up to 30 children had no place to go this fall. So began the current project: a new kindergarten, a renovated pre-school and a canteen (kitchen). This turned out to be a very ambitious renovation project. Our families once again left in October saying we will do our best and we will be back. We felt that it was in the best interests of the village to partner with an Armenian foundation experienced in rural development. After some research and discussions, we began a relationship in February with the Paros Foundation, an incredible California-based group that has vast experience in this regard. In a few months, we raised enough money to begin the kindergarten project. The work started a few weeks ago and is scheduled to wrap up this summer. We will return in September for the opening and begin planning for the next phases. We thank God every day for this opportunity.
As Armenians in the diaspora, we have choices. We can choose to ignore Armenia. We can choose to help financially. We can also choose to meet the faces who are the recipients of your generosity. I believe that the latter creates life-changing opportunities for all of us. There was nothing special about those of us who went to Paruyr Sevak. It could be any of you. Giving money to Armenia’s needs is commendable. Going to Armenia and building a relationship with our brethren is an incredible experience. Once you meet the people behind the need, no matter in Artsakh, Tavush, Lori or Syunik, your life will take on a new meaning. It is the difference between charity and what I call “sustainable investments.” You become emotionally invested and receive far more than you give. Truly, it is better to give. Every time we go to Paruyr Sevak, there are new ideas on the tables for the future like economic improvements, water supply and employment opportunities. We often ask ourselves in the diaspora, “What is our future and how will we sustain our identity?” When we returned from our first visit to Paruyr Sevak, I noticed a sustained change in our children and their interest and participation in Armenian life. Their interests, their knowledge, their involvement have all been given new life. That opportunity is there for literally everyone. Listen…Armenia is calling.