A Journey to Armenia: Dreams, Legends, and Reality
June 17, 2012 – Air France Flight-1060 departs Charles-De-Gaulle en route to Zvartnots. A 29-year-old me, eager to see Armenia for the first time peers out the window. I haven’t slept in nearly two days but the excitement overtakes me. Growing up in Toronto I had seen at home a painting of Mount Ararat overlooking green pastures, beside an oil-painted picture of Antranik, our brave General who led our people through its darkest hour. Beneath those green pastures, I imagined my ancestors living a peaceful agrarian life for millennia. There I imagined my nine-year-old grandfather playing, and there where his world came crashing down one unexpected day as the Turkish army slaughtered everyone he held dear, forcing him to flee, an orphan of the night. Being so close to seeing this place was unreal. Did it truly exist, or was it just a legend told by Armenians in lands they could never feel were home? The Boeing-737 reaches 37,000 feet cruising altitude and soars. Most of the passengers are now sound asleep, I too begin to doze off. I’m woken with a nudge by a chic flight attendant in a navy-blue suit and bright-rouge lipstick:
“Monsieur, you asked to be told when we were over Ararat. The Captain has informed me it is beneath us now.” Doused by ice, I jump towards the window, my nose touching the glass. Clouds and night, beneath which I imagine Ararat, is all I see. This way I stay until touch-down.
And so begins a whirlwind of moments, woven together as if with fine, ornate thread. The Holy Khor-Virab where St. Gregory was held captive for preaching Christianity, fresh apricots on the road-side, the daunting pagan temple of Garni and lulling pastures of Lori, a spinning-mountainous drive in a clunky Soviet Lada through fog to the formidable fortress of Shushi, the beautiful daughter of an oligarch I’m “told” I cannot know, a friendly sparring-session in a local boxing gym which goes overboard, the palatial steps at Cascade decorated with boujee-cafes, and then more truth…Gluttonous, tightly-dressed oligarchs; stomachs hanging out of their black Armani shirts, eating steak and sipping champagne with caviar, flaunting jewelry to a slave class who could never in their wildest dreams afford any of it. Desperate people, famished and hopeless. Stray dogs are hungry and left for dead on the road. Unnerving indifference expelled by road rage, “Chee garelee” and frustration pacified with “Voch Inch”, pervasive at every turn. An anger soon enrages me. Down for the count, I return home, having seen all this in just two weeks. Round one is utter defeat.
Round Two – enter AVC. What starts with a hesitant email turns into a video call, to a flight to Yerevan just one month later. I teach English at the library and boxing to disadvantaged kids. Mostly, I’m placed in an orphanage in Kharberd to work with children with disabilities. There I discover horse therapy and “Archo”, the white Gampr who keeps me company during breaks. One month flies but with Archo and the horses I imagine an Armenia where dogs are taken from the streets to provide children therapy – a dual solution for strays and orphan kids. Orphans and Their Dogs is born – a foundation that rescues dogs and rehabilitates them to use for therapy at Orphanages. With AVC, I return next Spring. This time on the Dog business. Round two’s a win.
Round Three – AVC connects me with Centaur, a sanctuary up in the Aragats Mountains. Together, we begin rescuing strays. With trained dogs, we visit orphanages and conduct dog therapy, a novel concept in Armenia. With AVC’s network, I organize the Yerevan-Dog-Feeding-Crew, where with volunteers we collect restaurant leftovers and walk the city feeding dogs. That summer we save over fifty dogs and reach three-hundred children with therapy. I return to Toronto ecstatic, with big plans for project expansion. We’re ahead in rounds.
COVID-19 and its Impact on Armenia
Then BOOM! COVID hits and the world goes crazy. Orphanages close doors..then September 2020… For weeks Azeri Grad missiles and cluster bombs, manned by robotic drones, rock the Republic of Artsakh, south of Armenia. An unknown number of dead are brought to Yerevan to be buried. Unprepared for war, people scramble in uncertainty. The Armenian losses result in political turmoil as various parties fight while a coalition of opposition parties demands the resignation of the government.
Powerless, I organize a Christmas party for fifty kids affected by war with support from the Orphanage. Next Spring I return, this time to volunteer with those affected by war. AVC places me at the Soldiers Home. They connect me with the Hadrut Centre for displaced kids where I teach boxing and distribute food/clothing to refugees with AGBU. Months later I go home but the following December I’m back with money raised in Toronto. My family network in Toronto of lawyers and journalists assists. With AVC’s help, I run the Christmas party again, this time for 140 kids. And again I return the summer after and again next December for yet another party for 203 kids.
Gratitude and Uncertainty: Ties to Armenia and Future Endeavors
Three weeks ago I returned with AVC and to Armenia for the fourteenth time. As I reflect I can’t help but notice that eleven years after my first visit, today marks 365 days I’ve spent in Armenia. Now forty, I look back at when I first came and all that changed. At times I felt I achieved exactly what I set out to here. At other times, like Don Quixote chasing windmills, I felt myself pursuing the absurd. Three-hundred-and-sixty-five times I danced around the sun these last eleven years and now as I think of everyone I met, the things that went well and the things I utterly failed at, I find myself at peace and without regret. With gratitude, I thank AVC for giving me the institution to fulfill all I needed as a young man coming here for the first time. A Canadian home-away-from, with friends in every corner, I find myself inexplicably tied to this country, though what’s next remains unknown.
Written by Ardem Tutunjian (unedited), AVC volunteer
Ardem Tutunjian is from Canada. He joined AVC for the first time in 2018 and has returned seven additional times. During his service over the years, Ardem has worked with kids struggling with disabilities at orphanages and subsequently launched his own foundation: Orphans and Their Dogs, through which he rescued strays and rehabilitated them. He then visited orphanages for dog therapy. An accomplished Finance Professional, he assisted ArmBionics: a local prosthetic-arm producer in its budgeting. He taught English at the public library. A boxer in his youth and later a coach in Toronto, he taught displaced kids from Artsakh boxing to help build their confidence and heal from the posttraumatic stress of war. In 2020, he launched the Annual Christmas Party for Children Affected by War and has returned each Christmas since to run it.