International Co-Living Builds Bridges on the Shore of Lake Sevan

With a cello in hand and an appetite for adventure, Anna Boding Kildetoft traveled to Armenia this past spring to learn Armenian music. 

Coming to Armenia would never have occurred to the Denmark native if she hadn’t stumbled upon the co-living project Cilicia Living on social media. “In Denmark, we don’t learn much about Armenia, so it was very interesting for me to discover such a different country,” she explained. “You share so much energy when you work and live together.”

Upon her arrival, she met Jeppe Strands and Severin Schirmer, founders of the co-living community on the shore of Sevan Lake. The two are United World Colleges (UWC) graduates who decided to turn their gap years into a communal experience. “It’s been very inspiring to come here and meet people my own age who are so ambitious and passionate about what they do,” said Kildetoft of the duo.  

Strands and Schirmer launched Cilicia Living in February 2019 after insulation problems forced them to call an end to their first co-living project, Collective Dilijan. Fortunately for Strands and Schirmer, Hrachya Aghajanyan, the former Armenian ambassador to Denmark and a part owner of Port Ayas on the shore of Lake Sevan, saw the potential to expand and collaborate. 

Cilicia Living houses in Port Ayas

Located on the shore of Lake Sevan, the harbor of Port Ayas has its own fascinating nautical history. The harbor is in development to become a tourist destination and resort, but it’s also now home to Cilicia Living. “I am sure that Jeppe’s charisma, social entrepreneurship, talent, dedication and leadership will turn Port Ayas into one of the most contributing communities in the world,” said Aghajanyan.        

Named after the Cilicia sailing ship docked at Port Ayas, Cilicia Living is the sequel to Collective Dilijan. Whereas Collective Dilijan was modeled after the Danish folk school and primarily intended for recent high school graduates, Cilicia Living is much less narrowly tailored. Gap-year takers are still welcome, but so are entrepreneurs, digital nomads, volunteers, creatives of all sorts and anyone else who would like to participate. 

Kildetoft’s original musical plans changed once she started a community outreach project called ARTanish. It’s a month-long art program in the village of Artanish for fifth through tenth graders, designed to help them transform their gray, Soviet-era campus into a more colorful and vibrant learning environment. “I found that there was another kind of urge to create new things,” said Kildetoft. “I want to get the kids to create and have ownership of the school they spend so much time in,” she explained about the effort inspired by a similar initiative in Tsaghkung village led by teachers from the Hakob Kojoyan Art School in Yerevan. 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Kildetoft said she was always surprised by the community’s readiness to support her unconventional ideas. “I wouldn’t expect people to trust me, but they do! It’s very heartwarming to experience,” she shared. “Even contacting the headmaster… ‘Hey, you don’t know me, but can I come and paint on your walls?’ Without even knowing me, he just said, ‘Yes, come!’” 

Cilicia Living’s network played a crucial role in making ARTanish a success. Kildetoft was able to raise funds to buy the art materials, and she also received donations from graduating UWC Dilijan students and Yerevan business owners. 

“In Denmark, if you want to start things they ask what makes you qualified—age, education. You really have to push yourself even before you get started,” said Kildetoft. “In Armenia, I experienced an incredible amount of hospitality even in terms of doing work here. People want to help you.”

ARTanish also found manpower from Yerevan’s Hakob Kojoyan Art School and UWC Dilijan, where students traveled to the village every weekend to support Kildetoft. The students from Yerevan, in particular, bridged the language gap between Kildetoft and Artanish students, supplementing a recently developed English/Armenian club. “The participants from Artanish are, in a way, our main links to the village. We can learn from them and connect to the community…and hopefully, we can also inspire them a bit,” said Strands.

“Anna’s project really changed my understanding of what education is,” said Strands. “Education doesn’t have to be formal. It doesn’t have to be in a class.” Strands said Kildetoft’s project has left an indelible impression not only on the local community, but also Cilicia Living. He said it has the qualities to outlast her time in Armenia. “Our members come and go, but we really want the programs to say fixed, so that no matter how many people are here, or who is here, the programs will run often and be active.”

Though volunteering with projects like ARTanish is not mandatory, Strands encourages all Cilicia Living participants to take on some social responsibility. “We wish, through social projects initiated by the volunteers living with us, to help develop the villages we live next to and to collaborate on strengthening certain factors of life in the region.

Running a social enterprise, however, has presented its challenges, especially for Strands whose responsibilities run the gamut from advising personal projects to stocking restrooms with toilet paper. But he says he’s learned too. “I’ve become better at pushing people into doing things without teaching. I don’t like teaching,” he says. “I learned how to dig into each person’s uniqueness to try to scoop out their potential and incubate it.” It seems as though, so far, he’s been successful. 

With a unique perspective on entrepreneurship, Strands and Schirmer have cultivated a familial atmosphere in Sevan. “It’s important to learn how to make something from nothing, especially if you’re doing it to help people,” explained Strands. “You don’t have to know a lot of things. If you feel like you can do it and have a supportive environment with people who are willing to lose a night of sleep to help you, you can do anything.” 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Shared meals, skill-sharing workshops, weekly game nights and the occasional beach day are routine activities. When there’s time, participants explore Armenia in their minivan, nicknamed “The Loaf.” “You get to know each other in a different way when you live together, rather than just working or being friends,” said Kildetoft smiling after three months at Cilicia Living. She admits, however, that she may have outpaced the learning experience in hindsight. “I should have taken the time to get to know Armenia, talk to more people, meet different people, learn the culture and the language, before jumping head first into planning. It would have made some things easier.”

All in all, the future seems bright for Cilicia Living. Strands and Schirmer hope to continue developing their space at Port Ayas with a vegetable garden, a greenhouse and an operational bar and restaurant; of course, they also look forward to welcoming more creative minds who are ready to start their own project or take a leading role in an existing one. “It’s been a big personal experience being reminded that I can create and gaining confidence in creating,” reflected Kildetoft. “I have so many more ideas that I want to go ahead and do now.”

Maya Adivi

Maya Adivi

Maya Adivi is an Israeli-born Torontonian who has been living in Armenia for the last two years. She has worked for many years in the beauty industry, as a writer, makeup artist, and cosmetologist, but she also has a keen interest in politics, sociology, and social change. If you manage to find her when she’s not working, she’ll probably be engaging in fierce debate or strumming her ukulele.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.