My Experience with Armenian Volunteer Corps

Here I am back after one of the most enriching and rewarding volunteer experiences I ever had…. It all started with an article in the local bi-lingual magazine “Echo” – “Արծագանգ”, published in Geneva and in which it was mentioned that a former volunteer with the Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC), Maral Ceulen Assilian, who after volunteering, came up with the idea to set up a pilot project whereby she, as a diaspora Armenian, would sponsor/mentor a local unknown business in Armenia such as to secure financial security to the homeland. Collaborating with few artists who create hand-made jewelry, she set up the project, the artist(s) hence became known to a larger public and their work can be ordered online. I was thrilled by the idea and while ordering few of this unique Armenian jewelry for my sisters and me, I contacted Maral who told me about her rich volunteer experience: I believe that contact with Maral was contagious! I got in touch with AVC soon after and in a few months’ time, I learned that I was accepted as a volunteer. Preparations started immediately and soon I had my flight booked to travel to Yerevan between 6 and 21 October 2018.

When I say preparations, I would like to emphasize the professionalism of the AVC staff in all the contacts I had since the beginning, starting from the handbook and guide explaining all the process, the budget needed, options of placements, choice of accommodation, even the list of what-to-bring and not-to-bring, what-to-do and not-to-do! It was obvious that AVC had put a lot of effort and time to elaborate such detailed information to make the stay of each volunteer as fruitful and comfortable as possible. I knew hence that I was in very good hands, and my experience later proved that I was right!
It is now Saturday 6 October, and my adventure as an AVC volunteer has just started. At Geneva airport, my first impression was that the airport was half empty and I was surprised that the new and modern counters for bag registry were all empty, except for one young man sitting on a high-chair next to a high-table more often used in bars than at airports, who was guiding passengers towards machines to have their boarding pass printed. I felt a bit sad and couldn’t help but ask the young man whether he is not scared that those machines would soon take his job completely?? He answered: “no”, but I felt some hesitation in his answer….
The time to catch my corresponding flight at Vienna airport was quite short and I had to run to make sure I don’t miss my flight to Yerevan. As I got closer to the gate mentioning flight OS641, I started hearing a very familiar language which made my heart jump: passengers in front of me in the line were speaking Armenian and from their singing accent I guessed that they were from Iran! It reminded me of my Armenian friends from Tehran whom I had met 35 years ago when I was in Yerevan the first time. We were students then and lived in the same dormitory, in Yerevan’s Massiv neighborhood. We became friends immediately and I loved their joyful spirit and generosity. I have to admit that I spent most of my time when at the dormitory in their room, talking, laughing and eating the delicious food they prepared!

Once at Yerevan Zvartnots airport, I got my luggage and came out looking for someone holding a paper with my name on to take me to my host family. My surprise was great to recognize someone among the name-holders (not mine though) who was waiting for members of his group: it was Aramaïs, our cultural guide when we visited Armenia some 7 years ago with the Ornithological Group from Basel!! I couldn’t help but give him a big hug and was touched when he remembered me by name as well as that of my sister Sossie who was part of the group as well…. I had tears in my eyes to have found not only a familiar face but also someone who recognized me….
The driver holding my name-tag soon appeared and I had to get myself together to make it to my new temporary home, in Yerevan. The drive was nice and comfortable (remember it is only 03.30 in the morning!?) I was surprised to see so much publicity with Charles Aznavour’s photos in black and white, wearing his typical black shirt and trousers with braces/suspenders! Charles had passed away just a couple of days earlier and the shock and sadness were felt everywhere… Later in Yerevan, I was listening to his songs everywhere on the streets, in public transport, in taxis, on terraces…. There was even a petition circulating to have the name of the Yerevan Zvartnots airport changed to Aznavour!

Arriving at 66 Arakelian Street, my host-mother was already waiting for me, waving from the balcony! What a warm welcome at 04h00 in the morning which meant that Marianna Gevorgian didn’t have much sleep that night… I will never forget this…. At home, she showed me my room, the house in general and where lights are and how things function. I was particularly touched by the vase of white flowers on my bedside table….
After organizing my stuff in the room and filling the empty space specially allocated for my clothes, I managed to take some nap until 10h00. I woke up looking forward to getting to know Marianne and re-discovering Yerevan. First thing I noticed was a frame on the wall opposite my bed with an old frame with an etching of a town that sounded familiar and as I scrubbed my eyes and looked closer I realized that the etching is that of Nyon, the town close to where I live in Switzerland and where I lived for 3 years prior to moving with my partner to the village of Givrins!! What a coincidence, isn’t it? Asking Marianna, she said that this was a photo her father had given her years back and she simply liked it and hence hanged it in that room….

After a nice cup of Armenian coffee, my first visit was to the Armenian Genocide Memorial at Tsitsernakaberd. Marianna’s home was only 10-minutes’ away (on foot) from the Memorial and the Hamalir Complex, the latter being prepared for the XVII Francophonie Summit which was to take place in Yerevan between 10th and 12th October 2018. It was decorated with the flags of all the member countries participating in the summit. Lots of volunteers were in action cleaning the paths and removing the dried leaves from the streets. It is autumn after all and the trees were starting to change color turning to yellow, orange, red and brown: the beautiful colors of nature in autumn!
Then with Marianna we went downtown as she wanted to show me where the AVC office was and how to get there, not forgetting to make a stop at the Charles Aznavour Square, which was full of flowers, candles and people paying respect to their beloved singer, artist, comedian and most of all Ambassador of the Armenian culture worldwide.
The first day in Yerevan as a volunteer was Monday 8th October and I had my induction at the AVC office almost all day. First with Tania J. Chichmanian, AVC Executive Director for a general introduction about the programme and its history, etc., then with Lilit Nahapetyan, AVC Programme Coordinator and Sona Martikyan, AVC Programme Assistant. Later I met with Gohar Khachatryan, Birthright Armenia Host Family and Language Coordinator; Hasmik Hayrapetyan, AVC Director, Social Media, and Marketing; Nina Baghdasaryan, Birthright Armenia Social Media Specialist.

Among the AVC obligations I had to abide by, the one thing that I dreaded most and was the most uncomfortable with was to have a mobile phone … So far I had resisted for ecological and ethical reasons… I had now to adjust to this new situation and get me a mobile phone at least for the period when I am in Yerevan in order to be reachable at all times as requested by the AVC rules. I did feel ridiculous having to learn to use this engine at the age of 54 when it is a simple
game for 5 and 6 year-olds!!!! Now that I have one, my first message was to my friend Zarouhi Odabashian who was one of my references and a childhood friend from Ramallah, Palestine. I was thanking her and telling her that I am happy to be in Yerevan when her immediate answer was: “I am here too! Shall we meet at the Francophonie village?” What a great surprise!! Working with the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) in Paris, it was normal for Zaroug to be in Yerevan now! Tuesday noon I ran to the Opera premises and discovered a wonderful village with lots of tents representing the various francophone countries such as Canada / Quebec, Belgium, France, Lebanon, Switzerland, etc. The rest of the afternoon I spent at the Art and History Museum where there was a temporary exhibition of an artist I haven’t known before Minas Avetisyan! What an amazing discovery this was!!! This artist is so brilliant – I was very touched by his paintings describing life in his village in particular and Armenian rural life in general. One of his paintings which was saved in Gyumri (former Leninakan) after the earthquake in December 1988 was restored and now placed at the main hall in the Yerevan Zvartnots airport…. That evening with Zaroug we enjoyed dinner and a great Armenian Cognac in one of the nice restaurants not far from the Opera.

My first work placement was at the Specialised Children’s Home of Kharberd. I was guided by another volunteer, Richard Crooks: he is British-Canadian and has been volunteering at the Kharberd Home for a few weeks. Although during my interview and in my application I did mention that I would love to work with old people or kids to change from the routine work I have been doing in an office for several years, the idea that I was about to actually be dealing with kids, touching, talking and taking care of them was starting to frighten me. I have never been around kids before, let alone children with special needs, mainly with physical and/or mental disability…. However, once I arrived at the Home and after the formalities, I was taken to the group where I would be volunteering, all my fears disappeared! Here I was in front of children most of whom on wheelchairs and who had their arms open and a big smile on their face welcoming me and asking me intriguingly who I was and where I come from, etc., etc., etc… I had no more fears and was overwhelmed by the acceptance and happiness expressed on their faces… They were simply happy to be taken care of and loved without realizing how much love they are giving back… I felt ashamed of being scared and just let myself go, bathing, drying, putting clothes on, feeding, playing and dancing with those kids. Each day I spent in that Home was a blessing….

As the next two days were officially declared public holidays due to the Francophonie Summit, I spent them visiting friends from a long time ago, re-discovering museums among which the Mashtots Matenadaran, the Sergey Parajanov Museum and the Modern Art Museum, not forgetting the visit to the ARARAT Brandy Factory and tasting 3 and 10 years’ old cognacs. I also enjoyed simply walking down the streets of a new Yerevan decorated to celebrate both the Francophonie AND its 2800th Birthday!! The week-end highlight was having the pleasure to go to the Armenian Traditional Song and Dance Ensemble (Tatul Altunyan’s) at the Opera with Marianna. The performance included old songs I grew up with when I was a child back in Palestine!! Each Sunday there was an Armenian radio programme broadcasted from Cyprus and my mother always tuned to that; this was my first Armenian language and initiation to the Armenian culture! Being at the Opera now with Marianna, who is from Yerevan and singing the old songs along with the choir was simply heavenly…

My second work placement was at The Green Lane organization for urban and organic farming. I was again scared before that experience as I am no botanist or expert on plants: I am simply a nature-lover and came only with my love and two hands to work the land! Being with the Green Lane team at Dzoraghpyour and uprooting the dried beans to prepare the soil for next
Spring, collecting the dried beans to pack them and later sell them gave me much more satisfaction than I had imagined… I realized to which extent I was actually connecting to my own roots by touching Armenian soil…

Although public transport is somewhat problematic in Yerevan and maybe one of the priorities on the agenda of the new Mayor, I enjoyed being in those buses (mainly 27 to downtown and 33 to Kharberd) as I felt so close to the people. It was moving to have someone hold me when the bus was full and I had no place to hold. In a European country, such behavior may be considered unacceptable as the space around each individual is so sacred and not to be violated. Although I hope that Armenia will soon be among the most developed countries on the World Map, I do hope that those nice traditions and gestures won’t be sacrificed in the name of prosperity and modernity….

A very nice feeling accompanied me all through my volunteer-ship and stay in Yerevan. Talking to friends and people, in general, gave me the impression that people were happy and positive about their future. Thanks to the pacifist Velvet Revolution, people became simply aware that they have their destiny in their own hands and that Armenia does not deserve less than any other civilized and democratic country. People were satisfied and enthusiastic about building a new Armenia and I felt jealous not to be part of that… I can only volunteer for 2 weeks this time….
Through volunteering, many people think that volunteers are kind and altruist individuals who think so much of others and who want to give and offer their time, energy and money to make good around themselves. This may be true to a certain extent, but I think to give a more complete and accurate picture it is fair to say that we are rewarded with much more than what we give in terms of physical effort, time and energy… This has been a life-changing experience for me personally and now that I have left Yerevan, I have this feeling of having left “unfinished business” behind… The kids at Kharberd have become part of my life, as has the Green Lane team and my host-mother/sister….

So what is the next step? How can I make a long-term contribution and extend this satisfaction of feeling good about myself and with others? Unfortunately, I cannot volunteer all year long as I also need to make a living but I am definitely considering “recycling” myself into a different field where I can feel more useful and hopefully be able to go back to Armenia more qualified to do more and better????
Volunteer: Jacqueline Shahinian
6 – 21 October 2018

November 30, 2018