This summer, I had the privilege of participating in the AYF Internship Program in Armenia, where I volunteered at two incredibly impactful organizations in Yerevan: Orran Children’s Center and the Women’s Support Center.
The goal of Orran is to help families in crisis by diverting vulnerable children from the streets and engaging them in cultural, extra-curricular and academic activities. At Orran, I worked with children ages 10 to 17 years old. I taught them English and how to play the guitar and basketball.
The Women’s Support Center is a non-profit organization that combats domestic violence in Armenia. It’s where I spent time researching gender equality and domestic violence cases in Armenia.
Throughout my summer in Armenia, I not only gained professional experience in my field of study, but I was also able to connect on a deeper level with my Armenian culture. We visited important places in the region and explored historic monuments, churches and memorial grounds. We also went to Camp Javakhk. All of these excursions were unforgettable, but the one with the greatest impact on me was our journey to Artsakh.
My most recent trip to Artsakh was with my family back in 2018. The Artsakh I fell in love with had changed drastically with the addition of six checkpoints, each guarded by Russian peacekeepers, all in place for us to be able to step foot on our own soil. This long and unpredictable process was not only nerve-racking, but incredibly upsetting.
We first drove through the village of Aghavno in Artsakh’s Berdzor region; we saw the homes that were created by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) through the ACAA Artsakh Fund and community members who helped with its overall infrastructure. We took note that the peacefulness in the small village was continually interrupted with a sad truth: all Armenians inhabiting this region would soon be forced to evacuate, to abandon the lives they created for their families, to pack up and leave behind their home of many memories, all to survive Azerbaijan’s takeover. More recently, on August 25, the families of Aghavno were displaced, except those who courageously pledged to stay and defend their land.
The fifth checkpoint in Shushi was the most unsettling. We anticipated similar interactions like the previous checkpoints, but my uneasiness intensified as we approached. Mocking us from above, the once Armenian Shushi sign was replaced with what now says “Shusha.” Azeri and Turkish guards stood by with their heads high, looking proud to be among land that is rightfully ours. I will never forget the looks on their faces, acting as though they have accomplished something heroic, when in reality all they did was commit countless war crimes and heinous acts against our people. Although the region of Shushi may be documented as Azeri territory, we Armenians know and will never forget that Shushi is and always will be ours.
In Stepanakert, we visited a memorial for fallen soldiers of the 2020 war: a banner with hundreds of names and faces who had perished for the protection of our holy land. Park benches facing the memorial were all occupied by grieving family members and friends who had lost a loved one, or likely, multiple.
I assumed that all of Stepanakert would be quiet and somber. Though the people of Artsakh will rightfully continue to mourn the loss of their loved ones, I was wrong to anticipate that these emotions would consume the liveliness of the city. When exploring the heart of the city, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Stepanakert was in fact alive. It was not entirely like I remembered it in 2018, but it was alive. It was alive with the laughter and the joyful squeals of children, running around and playing with one another. Stepanakert is a pure testament to our determination and perseverance as Armenians. The trauma we face will never weaken our strength. The people of Artsakh brought me hope and optimism with their determination to move forward, a sign of the failure of those who have tried to continue to strip this away from us.
We continued our week in Artsakh with a visit to the small village of Martuni to help renovate their agoump, since it was targeted and damaged during attacks by Azerbaijan in 2020. While cleaning and painting, we made connections with the children from the village and occasionally migrated over to the soccer stadium across the street. We played for hours with the AYF members, along with other village children who wanted to join. It wasn’t until after we had left that I realized the stadium we had been playing in was bombed during the 2020 war. While walking through the streets of Martuni, we saw bullet holes running along the walls of homes. This all goes to show what the Azeri agenda really is—destroying lives and places of play.
The AYF Youth Corps was in Artsakh at the same time, running a camp in the village Vank. We joined in helping them for a day. The energy of the children was unmatched; they were ecstatic to see us. We spent time listening to their stories and learning about their lives.
This summer, I was exposed to the challenges of our nation, while creating a strong emotional connection to my homeland. I am grateful for this opportunity with the AYF Internship in Armenia program. There is nothing I would love more than returning to Armenia.
On skimming through Tsoline Ghevorgian’s text on her internship experience in Armenia and Artsakh – Great- Here is a Thought.
All Armenians from all around the world – Daspora millions, Armenia and other militants, politicians from all over the world should communicate, converge and peacefully OCCUPY Artsakh against Azerbaïdjan occupation. Force a peaceful encounter and negotiation by staying as long as … on the occupied territories. UN and the international community would intervene. I doubt though, that Azeri/Turkish solduerss would shoot on organized civil society members. A major world-wide happening to distilling and clariyfing accountability and the legitimate rights of involved l parties.