We have the choice to do more

Maral Assilian Ceulen (Cyprus)

In 2015, I made my first visit (at the tender age of 58) to Armenia with my husband from the Netherlands. We currently live in Cyprus, where we met, for about 13 years. We took Yerevan as our base and spent 6 days in a touristic mode. During this time, we saw many historic and cultural places, museums, and also visited nice restaurants.
Soon, I realized that the locals of Armenia have a completely different experience than what the diaspora or the tourists feel and enjoy. I was not surprised at this fact, especially because in my mind most Armenians in the Diaspora tend to have a more romantic, honeymoon phase toward the country, which has struggled for so many years, during and after the communist rule.
After my return to Cyprus, I started searching for ways to make contributions to present Armenia, where neither I, nor my parents or siblings ever lived. Then I came across the Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC), where I offered my experience and expertise to go back to Armenia for two weeks, but this time not as a tourist.
A quite lengthy application process, along with an online interview to determine whether or not I was accepted, followed finding AVC on the Internet. Apart from some gratuities, I was responsible for the cost of my stay.
I chose the option to stay with a homestay family instead of a hotel, since I wanted to become more familiar with daily life in Armenia in order to gain a better perspective.
I was pleasantly surprised by the location and offices of both the AVC and Birthright Armenia, located near the Republic Square in Yerevan. The office was mainly a place where youngsters were coming from all over the world and it was a great atmosphere to be in. But, despite seeing younger volunteers, I stayed focused on my goals on helping improve Armenia and the life of the Armenian citizens there.
My actual work as a volunteer would evolve around two matters: providing assistance from my logistics and customer service experience as a senior officer with a natural/organic cosmetics company, and trying to make a contribution to a program or workshop of American University of Armenia. I believe that the days at the company were useful. However, it was obvious that there could and should have been more communication in preparation of my stay with the company. Nevertheless, any long journey starts with the first step and it is much more useful to evaluate matters ready for improvement than to arrive in a situation already matured. Altogether, it gave me wonderful insight into the pace and structure of work mode in Yerevan. As the owners of the company came from the diaspora, I still felt that they had a head start over other local companies.
My contribution to the University did not take place. Maybe end of Summer/early Autumn are not ideal for programs, but as a fulltime working professional, this was the only time that I could take two weeks of my holidays to gladly spend on Armenian matters. I felt that this should be taken into consideration for the future.
Although AVC had meticulously and seriously worked on my placement, I sensed that there is room for improvement between the “supply” of seasoned active or retired professionals from the Diaspora, and the “demand” on the side of institutions, companies, government bodies and charities in Armenia. As a volunteer, my interests are secondary to that of the country of our ancestors, but it will only work if there is a strive for an optimal match. Maybe I assumed too easily, that in 2 weeks of my holidays, I could pass on my expertise to local entities and professionals, which was certainly the main drive of my volunteering.
My stay with the host family was extraordinary. It gave me the exact insight I wanted to acquire when I decided to volunteer. I lived with them, ate with them and listened to their daily struggle, which I would like the whole Armenian world to know of. Living in a homestay created a bond and built a lifetime friendship.
Now is the time more than ever; many Armenians in current Armenia need or can benefit from the support of many Armenians in the Diaspora. Many of our Armenian friends are struggling every day for their daily bread. The situation is not so rosy as many people think. 
The excursions and tours organized by AVC and Birthright Armenia were among the best I have encountered, even better than paid specialized travel services. A critical colleague in Cyprus assumed that volunteering meant a free holiday. That was not the case and neither would I want it to be the case. We can book flight and accommodation anytime and visit Armenia for leisure at our own expense. But truth be told, as beautiful as Armenia is, tourism needs a lot of development still. 
When I met other “diaspora” Armenians in Yerevan and was telling them that I was volunteering, they did not understand. Volunteering has the ring of charitable work, mostly by youngsters, to paint and fix up orphanages and so forth, or at the most to do internships. On the other hand, many of the “diaspora” Armenians have retired and some are having second homes in Armenia, and they were unaware of possibilities to volunteer their expertise as senior consultants, which can help our country become a better place.
I travelled on my initiative towards Noyemberyan to meet some rural projects that Turpenjian supports. These projects would also benefit so much of diaspora support. I am in favour of Armenian charities and of financial support for projects, but I believe that ultimately, Armenia as a country and its current citizens have to develop into a viable, competitive economy.
Would I be willing to spend another 2 weeks of my holidays in this way? Probably, but I am highly motivated to round up people to look into the options and the conditions to make such efforts more of a success, and it will be a pleasure to do so together with AVC. Ideally speaking, AVC could be an important link between Armenians in the diaspora that are willing to provide assistance of all sorts and at certain levels. On one hand, a division between general financial support, dedicated financial support (e.g Microfinance), and transfer of knowledge and expertise, and volunteering (as in providing general or charitable assistance). And, on the other hand, helping address this offering to for instance specific projects, start-up and developing enterprises, education and charities. Such a matrix, could not only channel and improve efforts from the diaspora to make a contribution, but also attract more people willing to make that effort, offering their capabilities, time and/or donations.
Ideally, it would be wonderful if any senior professional in the Diaspora (and, maybe even their non-Armenian partners) would consider to go to Armenia for a proper period and help transfer knowledge or just supply lacking expertise. Not every successful football player is a successful coach, but still, there are sufficient people in the diaspora who can prove they are and help Armenia become a better place. 
You may or may not be aware, that there are – in addition to a lot of NGOs – also non Armenian persons working on the ground. For example, I came across an Australian lady who finances 15,000 weekly towards a newspaper in Armenia for free distribution. Maybe something for Armenians to link up with?

We have the choice to do more, so we can support Armenians to stay in Armenia, rather longing for a better life outside the country, by creating more jobs and opportunities and helping create a foundation of experience and knowledge. 
November 30, 2016