Growing up in Chicago, I have always loved seeing the twinkling lights and colorful decorations in the Museum of Science and Industry’s Christmas Around the World exhibit. The huge array of Christmas trees decorated by 77 ethnic and national groups in the Chicago area feels like a trip around the world, or at least a tour of the city’s ethnic neighborhoods. It’s an almost overwhelming variety, with everything from handmade Bolivian llama ornaments to Swedish dala horses. I always make a beeline for the Armenian tree because I love to see how the decorations change over the years, and, of course, it’s always nice to see our community represented.
This was the first year that I got to be a part of decorating the tree, and let me say, it was a great time and a great excuse to wear a Christmas sweater in early November. As a relatively new AYF member, I am always excited to experience more of our community’s traditions. I have always loved the way that Armenian gatherings feel like groups of friends, bringing new people together and reconnecting with ones you haven’t seen in a while and this one, although with the addition of lights and cookies, was no different.
The group decorating the tree always has to be small (to fit in the hustle and bustle of everyone else decorating their trees too), but this year we combined a group of AYF seniors with other community members, including students from the University of Chicago’s Armenian Students’ Association. I was brought into the AYF by a member of the UChicago community, so I love traditions like this because I know how important inter-group connections can be.
Our decorations were hye-brid like us, including everything from dolls in Armenian folk costumes to Armenian crosses hand-crocheted by one of our community members. This year, we also had a new and exciting set of decorations from a collaboration with a women’s crochet collective in one of the villages under fire on the border with Azerbaijan. The women in this collective make high quality, innovative crochet animals, using creative nonviolence to make a living for themselves in the most dire of circumstances.
I met the women of the Berkaber collective while working for the New Freedom Fighters project in Armenia. My creative collaborator and I had the opportunity to travel through some of the border villages with Anahit Nazaryan. Anahit works as a project manager in Yerevan and spends her weekends and free time working for Sahman, an NGO which provides beneficiaries with equipment and resources to start their own businesses. The organization supports all types of businesses from auto repair shops to small clothing companies. It was started by three Armenians who were upset by the situation they saw on the border and decided to look for creative solutions to support the people living on Armenia’s front lines.
We accompanied Anahit on a monitoring visit where she examined beneficiaries’ equipment, evaluated the progress of different projects, and sat down with business owners for one-on-one consulting sessions dealing with business and marketing strategy. Sahman works in the villages on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, where the firing of Azeri soldiers has destroyed most of the economic opportunities for locals. The NGO has adopted the Berkaber village, doing a variety of projects such as supporting English and Tae Kwon Do classes, a coffee shop and a women’s crochet group. The village is close enough where I could see the Azeris on the other side; Anahit made light of it, saying they call their coffee shop an “extreme café” because of the danger of shooting.
After seeing the bravery of these women, we were especially moved to support them. The result is a set of bears, pandas, giraffes and other animals that display Armenian creativity and resilience on our community tree. This collaboration is amazing to see not only because of the well crafted and frankly adorable decorations, but because it fits so well with the AYF’s goals to unite Armenians and advance the Armenian cause. One of the most important things Armenia needs right now is sustainable development, and so a project like this is an exciting step into the future.
If you’re in Chicago, the tree is up until January 6, and you can see our hard work and the cutest crochet animals for yourself. It is always wonderful to see more Armenian art and collaboration out in the world, and we are already thinking about another set of beautiful handmade decorations for next year!