This past summer, my wife June and I traveled to Armenia. As I sat to recount this unbelievably rewarding trip, I found myself at a loss. What is the message I want to convey to anyone who reads this story? Is it more important to describe the many differences between our trip two years ago in 2019 or to explain the humanitarian intent of our trip in 2021? Would it be more informative to describe the impact of the pandemic and the Artsakh War on what was a very promising tourism industry just two years prior? Or, should I make a pitch for the organization that we went with that helps build homes throughout Armenia for those in need? Focusing on one topic and disregarding the other would leave the story of this trip incomplete, so I will attempt to do each justice.
Back up two years to 2019 when my wife and I went to Armenia for a vacation. It was my first trip and my wife’s second. She had gone 12 years prior and was so unimpressed that neither of us, up to that point, wanted to waste our cherished vacation time in a place that had so few positive aspects. I felt it would have been depressing to see our homeland at a time when it could not get out of its own way. Every year since my wife’s trip 12 years ago, we would read, but more importantly hear, firsthand from friends and relatives how Armenia was advancing. When my sister Anita went with her family in 2018, they couldn’t speak highly enough of the experience. Newly retired, I couldn’t resist but to see firsthand what was so marvelous.
In 2019, we put together an itinerary from everyone’s recommendations and had the best vacation of our lives. One highlight was our meeting with my cousin Laurens Ayvasian who now lives in Yerevan (originally from New Jersey). In Yerevan during the same time was another cousin Katie Loosararian and her cousins Vlad and Kirk. The latter three were with a group called Fuller Global Builders. They had volunteered to join an organization that would help build a house for a needy family. One day at the job site, Katie mentioned to the leader of the group that she would be having dinner with me and my wife and cousin Laurens. When Katie mentioned my name, the group leader said, “I know John Mangassarian.” Although that was 2019, this is where our 2021 trip really began.
The leader of that group of builders in 2019 was Sona Baroutjian Manuelian. Sona and I were campers at Camp Haiastan together over 50 years ago when we were in our early teens. We had not seen each other in over 50 years. I learned that Sona and her husband Leo have been leading groups to Armenia for the past 18 years, each year working on a different house in a different village.
My wife and I were so impressed with their dedication that we pledged we would join them the next time they lead a building trip. So in 2020 as promised, June and I signed up to go with Sona and Fuller Global Builders. A building trip usually lasts two weeks. The volunteers normally work several days during the two weeks. The balance of the time is filled with visiting the most popular tourist attractions in and around Yerevan. All our arrangements were made and then BOOM – COVID…and then BOOM – the Artsakh War. The trip in 2020 had to be cancelled.
Undaunted, Sona and Leo organized a trip in 2021. Keeping to our pledge, we signed on. We held our breath for months not knowing whether we would be able to go. As the date neared, we monitored the ever-changing COVID situation and regulations and the unrest due to the Artsakh War. We would get advice not to go due to these volatilities. We could not let another year pass, however. We’re not getting any younger. All arrangements were made, and we were at the point of no return. All we needed were negative COVID tests prior to leaving, and we would be on our way. We got our results four hours before takeoff. Nothing comes easy.
We would also be in Yerevan for Armenia’s June election. That is a story in and of itself, but for the sake of this article all one needs to know is that there were 26 political parties vying for votes. That alone tells you that returning Armenia to what we experienced in 2019 will be a long, difficult journey.
Having the available time and knowing we would be with the building group for two weeks, we constructed a three-week itinerary to include visits with family and friends and visits to a bucket list of sites that we missed two years prior. We also knew at this time that we would not be able to include a trip to Artsakh during this visit. This was very unfortunate because the highlight of the 2019 trip was a visit to the ARS Sosseh kindergarten in Stepanakert. We were hoping to find other new places to make memories.
It was not long after our arrival in Armenia that we noticed the lack of traffic at the airport and on the roads. Upon checking in at the hotel, it was also obvious that hotel occupancy was nowhere near the 100 percent we experienced during our 2019 visit. Speaking to the Marriott manager, she confessed that the hotel would only be at 30-percent capacity most of the time we were going to be there.
We had booked a room overlooking Republic Square on the Club level. The view of the Square and its Bellagio-style fountains, as well as social gatherings at the Club, were highlights of our 2019 trip. The Club provides a view of the Square and the daily and nightly vibe, as well as a meeting place for other hotel guests to compare notes on their daily experiences. To our dismay, this year the fountains were not operating, and the Club was closed due to COVID and the low occupancy of the hotel. Disappointments, but not show stoppers.
Undaunted, we ventured out on our first day to the popular Northern Avenue. The stroll was in sharp contrast to our previous visit when the five-block walk was made shoulder to shoulder with both residents and tourists. Not many people were out and about this time. The minimum activity around town had its advantages. We did not need reservations at any restaurant.
We arranged to have a car and guide take us to Datev and Khndzoresk. Both are close to the Azerbaijan border. We were cautioned that it may not be the best time to make this trip. I really can’t say whether it was stupidity, bravery, stubbornness or wonder that pushed us forward. The journey proved to be safe. The only disruption was the hundreds of sheep that blocked the highway at several locations. The journey was long, but worth every minute. The Datev Monastery along with the cable car that takes you there are both marvels. The trek to the Khndzoresk caves with its Indiana Jones-style bridge was also outstanding. With the lack of tourists, there were no lines or traffic to navigate. Good in one respect, but the experience did seem a bit hollow.
The time had come for us to meet the volunteers in our builder’s group. What a great bunch of characters. After all, would you expect differently from a group of individuals who denied themselves a vacation on a beach in the Caribbean to go to a faraway land to help people they did not know? There was Natali from California; Haig , Leo and Sona from New Jersey; Walter and his son Robert and nephew Tyler; Kim from Minnesota; Jane from Chicago; and June and I from Rhode Island. We ranged in age from 18 to 70. Not all were Armenians…which was a surprise. A big respect for those who were not. They could have chosen any country to help, but they chose Armenia. Why weren’t there more Armenians in the group? Hopefully this article will encourage more Armenians to participate in this type of trip to our homeland.
The Fuller Center bus picked us up at our hotel and brought us to the town of Marmarashen, 10 miles south of Yerevan and 10 miles from the Turkish border.
Our first day on-site was an eyeopener. The view from the property was of Mt. Ararat – so close you could touch it. It was an inspiring view each day we were there.
We met a beautiful family that was living in a metal-type container called a domik. This type of “home” is not uncommon. They were in the process of building a brick home on the same property with the help of Fuller Global Builders. Bijan was a hardworking, no nonsense husband. His wife Nune worked alongside us and made sure we always had snacks (freshly picked fruit) and lunch. They had a nine-year-old son Erik, who would help us when he returned home from school. And then there was their beautiful three-year-old daughter Nare. We also met the family’s fun-loving grandfather Ararat. Before the work even began, you could feel that they appreciated our presence. It was like we were the cavalry coming to the rescue.
The house was at a stage where the walls were up and the cement floor needed to be poured. The crew jumped right in on the first day and began to pour the cement floor – one bucket at a time. That’s right – one bucket at a time. Every day was a treasure seeing the progress and the hope in the eyes of the family. They would soon have a proper home for themselves. After the floor was complete, we headed up to the roof. There was some cement work to do up there as well. One bucket at a time we lifted cement to the roof using a simple pulley. We then spread red tufa volcanic stone about a foot thick to insulate the roof. That’s right, the stone was lifted to the roof – one bucket at a time. Once the roof was insulated, we lifted 25-pound tufa building blocks up to the roof for construction of the roof’s gable ends– yup, one brick at a time.
If the work I described seemed simple, it was. There was very little skill needed, but it took a lot of sweat and grit. The temperature was in the high nineties, so we all lost a few pounds, that’s for sure. If you add the man hours that our group put in, we were able to shave over a month off the family’s building schedule. When we were finished with the building days, you could see the progress we had made, but there was so much more to be done. In a few weeks, another group of Fuller volunteers would come to help with the plaster and painting of the interior walls. Every week or so, Nune sends me pictures of the advances. The plan is to have the house complete this fall.
I must confess that there were some moments when I felt guilty that we had not gone on this type of trip sooner. I guess we fell into the trap and let ourselves be defined and consumed by Armenia’s past. It is only now that we choose to give whatever time we have left to help Armenia’s future. Better late than never, I guess.
Every few days, we would take a break from work and travel to the most popular tourist attractions in and around Yerevan. We visited Etchmiadzin, the Genocide memorial and museum, Garni temple, Geghard Monastery, the Matenadaran, Cascade and Vernissage. We rode the subway, and of course we went to dinner every night…each restaurant better than the next. There is so much to take in by just walking around Yerevan. We took advantage of every minute we were there to experience all the city had to offer. As time went by, we saw more and more activity in the streets. Yerevan has so much promise. It needs to fight its way back.
One noteworthy side excursion was to a battered women’s shelter run by Lighthouse, a group out of Seal Beach, California. The facility was outstanding. It helps women and their children who have been abused or abandoned. It helps them transition to independence with skills while providing a safe structured environment. There is schooling on-campus for the women, as well as day care for the children. This visit provided an opportunity for June to donate knitted garments that a group of Armenian women in Rhode Island had given us to distribute abroad. There are so many people in need in Armenia whether it be appropriate housing, clothing, etc.
Our building project was not unique. Fuller always has projects happening in Armenia. I regret not knowing about Fuller prior to my chance meeting with Sona two years ago. Fuller does build in many different countries. After seeing the need in Armenia, there really is no choice for us but to return there. Fuller does charge a fee to join a group. The fee covers hotel, meals and excursions throughout the visit. You are only responsible for your own airfare and incidentals.
I am sure some who read this article may wonder, “Where have you been? People go to Armenia all the time to help.” After this latest experience, I am sorry that I let life get in the way. Would it not have been great to go with a group of friends or family and experience this together? How much more we could have done. The best we can do now is go again when building trips are offered and let everyone else know what a perfect way to introduce themselves to our homeland – a perfect mix of helping out our countrymen along with experiencing the wonders of Armenia.