Dickran Fabricatorian (67, Australia, AVC 2013)
Dickran shares how he decided to come to Armenia as a volunteer with AVC, reviews the process, and tells us about his two-month experience of living in Yerevan and volunteering at the Metsamor and Erebuni museums.
APPLICATION TO BECOME A VOLUNTEER
My first visit to Armenia was in 1979 when it was part of the Soviet Union, but it was more of a formal affair. Everything was regimented and pre-organised with no freedom to do one’s own thing. The next visit was in 2007, some years after independence when the country was coming out of several years of hardship. Armenia had certainly changed, people fashionably dressed, free currency exchange, luxury cars and hotels with Yerevan looking more like a small European city. Unfortunately the cultural institutions showed that the emphasis had altered and they were showing stages of stress. Erebuni looked run down, museums looked shabby with cracked glass display cases and the labels of artefacts were still in Russian and Armenian when the country was clamouring for international tourism. I was also lucky enough to visit for the first time Metsamor museum, a small museum not far from Echmiadzin, with which I instantly fell in love.
I had always liked history and upon my return to Sydney I mulled over the idea of assisting one or more of the museums in some form. With English being the “lingua franca” of the modern world, I wondered about the possibility of translating the display labels into English. My initial thoughts were to write to the Ministry of Culture or directly to the museums. Searching through the net I discovered several volunteer organisations but most seemed to cater for younger people and seemed to be interested in re-building or teaching. I then discovered the Armenian Volunteer Corp (AVC) which stated that: “Volunteer placements can be found in the following areas: art institutes, architectural firms, agricultural, business development, community-based organizations, computer training, government structures, international organizations, local NGO’s, law offices, local charities, museums, research, social work, teaching, tourism, universities, youth work, and writing/translations.”
As I drafted and redrafted the letter which I planned on sending to AVC as my application I had two main concerns:
- Firstly, my professional background. My training has been as a hospital scientist trained to work in a pathology laboratory, not a linguist or historian/archaeologist. Would the museums accept a novice?
- Secondly, my family. I have a wife and two sons in their 20s and none of them could afford to take a 2 month break off from work. I have always believed in family holidays and it felt a bit strange that I was going off all by myself.
Fortunately, when I put forward my idea my family were all very supportive.
After trimming down my initial letter quite considerably to make it fit into the online application format and getting a couple of referrals from colleagues I submitted my application. I soon heard from Tania Chichmanian who said that I had to go through an interview via Skype. That took about an hour and within one week I heard that I had been accepted!
I left for Yerevan on the 2nd of September 2013, 9 months after the interview. The trip to Armenia was the usual route out of Australia these days, direct flight of 14.5 hours to one of the Gulf States and then a connecting flight to Yerevan. At arrival I was met by an AVC representative, and after my accommodation was fixed up (AVC offers volunteers the option of staying with a family, but I thought I was too old and set in my ways so I opted to rent a flat in Yerevan), I walked to the AVC offices. Lesson number 1, just because an address states a number and street name, it does not mean that the entrance is on that street! After pacing up and down Hanrapedutian Street, I found out that the entrance was on Melik Adamian Street. AVC is housed in a very interesting and impressive building. I was welcomed and in the first week I was put in contact with Erebuni and Metzamor museums with the untiring help of Jenya. I met Ardavazt, director of Metsamor, and Digin Hasmig at Erebuni.
Accommodation was a one bedroom flat organised through the Hyur service, neat and well furnished with the basic necessities of life. It was located on Parpetsi Street, very near Sarian/Moscovian. The main attraction of the flat was its handy location to just about everything that was important in Yerevan and, I later discovered after meeting the rest of the crowd, that it was in the heart of the bar district! I also discovered on the first day that I was next to St Zoravar Church, a pretty church built in the 1790s. Not only did they seem to have “Badarak” or Church services every day of the week, but I was amazed at the number of weddings and christenings taking place. I tried to attend as many of the services as I could, especially Sunday “Badarak” which lasted at least one hour longer than the ones I had been used to in the diaspora.
The first week was settling in, orientation and meeting with the people I was going to work with. The following week was when I stared work. I met up with Ardavast at the unofficial taxi rank, next to the Museum of Modern Art, to go to Echmiadzin and form there we made it to Metsamor by bus to Taronig and then walked the remainder of the way. All in all, the entire trip took about 45 minutes. Ardavast had been appointed as director of the museum early in the year and he explained to me some of his ideas to revamp the museum, one of them being to revamp a disused water mill, next to the museum but now in a dilapidated state, into a guest house for visiting archaeologists. At the museum I met Mary, the English guide, and Ashod, the Armenian/Russian guide, as well as other staff members and was given the tour of the museum and the surrounding areas. Most of Metsamor dates back to the Early Bronze to Late Bronze Age (3000 -2000 BC). It was a walled settlement specialising in making bronze implements with residential and funerary sections. During my time there a group of Polish archaeologists from Warsaw University came for a 2 week archaeological dig and a large number of potteries and ceramics were discovered, with the highlight of the finds being a perfectly preserved skeleton of an adolescent girl buried in foetal position dating to about 200 BC. I was offered a chance to become a practicing archaeologist but declined (too dusty!), although the offer was taken up by my son Diran when he joined me later.
My work at Metsamor was working with Mary translating a new script for the English speaking tourists. I cannot say work was strenuous but the company was fantastic. All the staff, except for Ardavast and Ashot, were from the nearby village of Taronig, and lunches were cooked on the spot from home grown and prepared ingredients. Lunch was a mixed bag of salads; “abught” with egg; “Ghapama”; fruits; meats; fish and home baked “lavash”. Lunches were also sometimes fortified with a glass or two of Vodka!! During my period there I was also involved in the preparation of an “open day” and helped in setting up the displays and entrusted with moving ceramics that were several thousand years old. My last day was the saddest as the staff had prepared a banquet meal which lasted over 2 hours and they were very generous with their gifts. Yes, it did make me cry with joy and sadness!!!
My work week was made up of 2 days at Metsamor and 2 days at Erebuni Museum (museums are closed on Mondays). My work at Erebuni Museum involved translating their Armenian web page into English. I worked under the supervision of Digin Hasmig. Erebuni is situated in the middle of Yerevan and is the original site of the settlement of Yerevan. It dates back to the same period as Metsamor and celebrated its 2995th birthday that year. It is bigger than Metsamor, has a larger contingent of staff and is busier due to its more central location making it easier for tourists to visit. Work here was more formal and once again I was given a fond farewell at the end of my period there.
AVC and Birthright Armenia are run from the same office, the difference being that the latter catered for diasporans under the age of 33 while the former was for older volunteers [and non-Armenians of any age]. The bulk of the contingent, with what looked like an average age of 25, were with Birthright Armenia, mostly from America, with others from Canada, South America, France, Russia, Lebanon/Syria, Germany and Austria, with a few in the AVC group. In my first week I felt a bit awkward as it seemed that I was the only one in my age group and the rest were the same age as my two sons, but I need not have worried as we were all there for the same purpose, and before I knew it I was accepted amongst the youth as “one of them”. The centre of activity was the main office where we had access to computers, internet and email. Evening classes of Armenian were offered twice a week for those who did not speak Armenian. On Wednesday nights we had a weekly Forum either visiting places like Tumo IT centre, AYB School, or having interesting guest speakers.
Week-ends were for excursions to places like Areni (Festival and Caves), Odzun or Karabagh. We also attended a couple of World Cup soccer games with the Armenia/Bulgaria match being the highlight as we won and the whole of Yerevan erupted in euphoria lasting all evening.
I stayed in Yerevan for 2 months, the months of September and October. When I first arrived the temperature was about 35 C but as it was dry heat it was quite bearable. By the time I left it was starting to cool down with some morning showers. For the first two or three weeks, everything was new and I felt like a tourist but as time went by, surroundings became familiar and I realised I had settled in and I was feeling like a local. My Western Armenian did cause a couple of minor misunderstandings, as did my use of Australian English idioms.
Yerevan is a relatively small city and most amenities are within walking distance so if one lives near the centre then just about everything is easily accessible. There is a trend to modernise the city, and unfortunately many historically important buildings are disappearing, especially on Abovian Street. While there seems to be a surfeit of modern sculptures and fountains sprinkled round the city, others built during the Soviet era seem to have fallen into disrepair.
During my period in Yerevan I was lucky enough to be present for several national activities. The first was Independence Day, followed a couple of weeks later by Yerevan-Erebuni celebrating its 2795th birthday, 2 soccer matches with one win resulting in great euphoria. All were celebrated with great enthusiasm.
I stayed in Armenia for 10 weeks, with my younger son Diran joining me for the last 3 weeks. One of my aims was to immerse myself into the local scene and not feel like a tourist and I think I achieved it. Diran also found himself in the middle of a large group of his contemporaries, resulting in him extending his contacts with Armenian friends throughout the world and appreciating Armenia more and more. As for the highlights, every day was a highlight; the concert in honour of Gomidas, listening live to Rupen Matevosian at the Concert Hall, the camaraderie of the group, the trips to ancient Armenian monuments, the roadside bakery bread, the museum finds, the delicious “sujuk” and fresh fruits, the “lahmajin”, bus rides, hearing and seeing Armenian, to name but a few.
Would I go back for further volunteer work? Most definitely! The next time I will probably not be alone as Diran, a Structural Civil Engineer, wants to emulate his father and during his stay in Yerevan already had discussions with AVC/Birthright Armenia to see how he could contribute. I will probably drag along the rest of the members of the family too.
THE EFFECT OF THIS EXERCISE ON ME AND MY ADVICE TO OTHERS
Physically, I lost some weight as I did a lot of walking and sometimes skipped meals and specially sweets and chocolate. The best thing was that prior to my departure my Cholesterol level had risen to above normal levels and it had come down quite considerably on my return. All the walking was just the thing for it and I did not have to cut out “sujuk” from my diet.
Spiritually and mentally it was an experience that is hard to explain. I left Armenia at peace with myself and the world. I had grown up and lived in 4 countries and in each of them I had felt as an outsider. In Armenia I felt I had come home. People spoke MY language (may be slightly differently), religious holidays were MY holidays, culture was MY culture, history was MY history, churches were MY churches, buildings were built by MY people, the land, mountains and natural beauty were MY lands, mountains and natural beauty.
As for AVC (and Birthright Armenia), I found it to be very well organised with an extensive network enabling it to organise volunteer placement and guest speakers. While there was a large number of young people offering their volunteering services, most seemed to be in their university “gap year’ and all full of enthusiasm and keen to work. I cannot say there were many of us in the so called “mature age” group. This latter group have years of career experiences that can be useful to Armenia and I strongly encourage people in their twilight years to make the effort and volunteer. I guarantee you that it will give you enormous pleasure and satisfaction. Interestingly, when I announced my plans to our group of friends, all said that they would “love to do it also, but sometime in the future”.
As the ad says: “Just do it!”