“The feeling is quite strange when you stroll down the street and realize that anyone who passes by might be your blood relative,” says David Duell while recalling his first visit to Armenia. Born and raised in a completely non-Armenian environment, Duell, a man of Armenian descent, embarked on a journey of self-discovery upon retirement. Above all, he got more than he had bargained for.
Fleeing from Karin during the Armenian Genocide, Duell’s maternal grandfather found shelter in the US and tried to start his life with a clean slate. As a response to his trauma, he distanced himself from his Armenian heritage. Throughout his adulthood, Duell used to hear that they had to leave Armenia behind and live an American life. “No Armenian. Everything should be American. I am American now,” he constantly repeated.
Yet, blood is thicker than water, and Duell never completely gave up on the idea of returning to his roots. In 2015, at the age of 63, he bought a one-way ticket to Armenia and set off to reconnect with the homeland. “I chose 2015 because that was 100 years since my grandfather’s escape from the Ottoman Turks. It was my way of honoring my grandfather,” he says. That year, Duell experienced Armenia just as a tourist, which didn’t allow him to fully explore his heritage. He felt the urge to experience something more — to live a real Armenian life, just like a local would do.
The following years were very different from his first visit. Duell applied to the Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC) program and found volunteer opportunities in the field of his expertise. A biologist by profession, he volunteered with the Armenian National Agrarian University (ANAU), the American University of Armenia’s Acopian Center for the Environment, Habitat for Humanity Armenia and more. Through various forums, discussions and excursions, the AVC program also helped him immerse into daily life in Armenia and experience what he was yearning for. Yet, a restless thought overwhelmed him every time he was standing in the crowd: “Maybe that’s my relative standing over there.”
One day in 2018, Duell decided to take the wheel into his hands. He took everything he had — some pictures and a little piece of paper with an address on it — and embarked on a journey to discover his roots. “No, I am not your relative,” he was told after briefing the host on his story. What was more confusing, he had lived there since the building was built, so the address surely had to be wrong. At the post office, Duell would learn that building numbers had changed a few times since the 1950s, which returned a glimmer of hope to his heart.
Finally, with much effort and inquiry, Duell stood in front of the door he had strived to knock on for over 60 years. “Unbelievable…after over 100 years, our families have found each other. They have been looking for me. I have been looking for them,” notes Duell with excitement.
Now as he looks back on what he set out to do, Duell simply feels fulfilled. In a five-year period, he reconnected with his homeland, found his family, volunteered in his field of expertise and contributed his skills to Armenia. When highlighting some rewarding moments from his time volunteering, Duell places special importance on the training he led for the ANAU staff during his last visit. “They had a special type of microscope for over a year, but weren’t able to use it based on some circumstances. It was of a new brand, and I didn’t realize in the beginning that it wasn’t even put together. After doing some research, I assembled it and ran training for the staff, helping them to make use of it. I think that was the most rewarding moment, when I saw their excitement and appreciation,” remarks Duell.
Earlier this year, before leaving for the US, Duell expressed his wish to repatriate. He joked that he is not sure how far he could go with the idea to persuade his non-Armenian wife to buy a house in Armenia, but he seemed quite determined to try his best. “One thing is sure. Next year, I will come to volunteer, too, and it’ll be my sixth time. I still have a lot to share with my homeland,” assures Duell.