When war broke out in Artsakh, I was glued to every development from my home in San Francisco. My cousin Aram Parnagian (a member of the AYF Manhattan “Moush” Chapter) was doing the same from his home in New York; we would talk for hours about the war during our frequent video calls. Everything else in our lives seemed irrelevant compared to the devastating attacks on Artsakh. We both felt compelled to be with our people and in our homeland during these emotional times, to do whatever we could to help them survive and stay in Artsakh. When the trilateral agreement was signed, it was the last straw for me. When I expressed this feeling of urgency to Aram, he agreed, and off to the homeland we went on December 20, right after our schools went on winter break.
We had previously reached out to many humanitarian organizations before our departure to learn about their work in Artsakh. Shortly after arriving in Yerevan, we met with Tufenkian Foundation director Raffi Doudaklian and joined him on the journey to the towns of Martuni, Karmir Shuka and Her Her. We helped distribute large sacks of flour and wheat, packing them into each family’s car. I was overwhelmed with compassion as I witnessed the difficulties of these families, but at the same time, I felt some relief simply by physically being with them. Unfortunately, since Raffi was returning to Yerevan for the holidays, we found ourselves back there, too, on the hunt for other organized efforts we could join in Artsakh.
After a frustrating and unsuccessful week making calls and visits to Yerevan-based organizations looking for work, we unexpectedly found an opportunity while visiting my aunt Arevik Makasdjian, who had just arrived in Yerevan from San Francisco. She is the founder of Kids of Karabakh, which connects families in need to sponsors from the diaspora who directly donate money, clothing and other goods. At Arevik’s apartment, we met her sister Rita Balayan, an Artsakh native. She and her family were forced to leave their beautiful home in Hadrut like so many others. She said she was returning to Artsakh by bus the next day and would be staying in Stepanakert. My eyes lit up, and we immediately asked if we could join her. We packed our backpacks and took a six-hour bus ride to Stepanakert. When we arrived, we were so moved by the embrace, respect, generosity and hospitality we received from Rita, her husband Vova and son Pavlik.
We worked with Artur, a Kids of Karabakh representative, who was very helpful in identifying the households most in need of essential goods, as well as businesses offering reasonable prices and generous humanitarian discounts.
We started modestly, offering money we had saved up to help a few families with funeral and living expenses. We quickly realized we would need much more money in order to have a greater impact. So, through Instagram, we called on our friends in the diaspora to contribute to our efforts, and we received an overwhelming response, raising $5,300 in less than two weeks. This helped us make a significant impact during the rest of our time in Artsakh.
Stepanakert became our home base; we met dozens of families and understood their needs. We made a handful of donations to struggling and grieving families. We quickly realized the difficulty of everyday household activities and needs: cooking meals, washing clothes, keeping warm, childcare. As donations came in, we were able to purchase and distribute appliances to help alleviate these difficulties. We donated a toaster oven to the Lalayan family, a refrigerator for the Hariyans, baby food and diapers to the Stepanians, a washing machine and oven for the Ayrabedyans, a sewing machine and oven for the Sahakians and winter shoes for a refugee family from Hadrut. We also set up a small business loan for a refugee from Shushi so she could reopen her nail salon in Stepanakert. We also donated to the woodworking program at the Yeznik Mozyan Vocational School; it’s a professional college in Shushi that re-established operations in Stepanakert. It’s led by my French Armenian cousin Haroutioun Aydabirian. I was beginning to feel hopeful that our nation will survive if we all chip in to help in any way we can.
After helping repair the electricity of a house in Martuni that got bombed during the war, we received word that soldiers in Harav village were in need of supplies. We took them a chainsaw, a few dozen flashlights and six high-magnification binoculars. We also filled bags with fruits, dried food, candy bars, coffee and cigarettes and delivered them to six military posts on the frontline. Our soldiers were so happy and appreciative of our support; they even offered us a piece of chicken and a shot of homemade mulberry oghi.
While we were proud and grateful to be with our soldiers; the sight of Azeris manning their post got our blood boiling. We started wondering about the future of Artsakh. Our men used their new binoculars to spot two enemy soldiers crossing into Armenian land. We were glad to know we made a difference, but we also saw our soldiers’ desperate need for basic supplies.
Back in Martuni, the village of Nor Shen was using unreliable electricity, so we made arrangements through the Tufenkian office to meet with the village mayor and purchased three substantial power generators. The families of Nor Shen welcomed us with many thanks and a delicious homemade meal.
Unreliable utilities are also a problem for our military. During a visit to the Martakert army base, which had been severely damaged due to enemy shelling, we noticed terrible working conditions for our soldiers. Out of three restroom facilities (each with about seven urinals and toilets), only one was still functional. The base houses more than 500 soldiers and service personnel. We sat down with the commander who discussed how hard they fought to protect Martakert. We asked how we could help, and he told us they could use a chainsaw and a powerful generator. We were glad to have another important project to fulfill, so we quickly returned to Stepanakert to purchase a 5,000-kilowatt generator and heavy-duty chainsaw. That night, the commander came to meet us, and we helped him lift the new equipment onto his truck. He extended his deepest gratitude and allowed us the honor and privilege to take a photograph with him.
These are only some of our contributions to families and soldiers after the war. The most meaningful part of our project was spending time with our compatriots, sitting down and sharing food, paying respects to their family members, listening to their stories, and being able to feel we were able to help in some way. I was also very pleased to encounter a few other volunteers in Artsakh, including my cousins from LA (Haig and Raffi Dadaian) and other friends from the AYF. We are now planning the next stage of our work in the summer of 2021. With more help from our friends, hopefully we can go above and beyond what we accomplished in the winter.
For those interested in supporting our humanitarian relief efforts or if you would simply like to share advice or encouragement, please email [email protected]