Raffi’s Very Diverse Birthright Armenia Experience
Moved from Havertown, PA, United States
When I first came to Armenia for Birthright, I came with only the knowledge that I had gained as a tourist when I came two years earlier with my family. It turns out that seeing the sights and exploring Armenia as a tourist is only scratching the surface of what this country has to offer. My Birthright experience started out in the city of Gyumri, which is the cultural capital of Armenia. When I first got to Gyumri ,my host family welcomed me with a meal and a scale. They weighed me to make sure that when I left I had gained weight (I lost weight). The 10-15 volunteers all lived in the “Ani” or 58 district throughout the summer, which is a district that was built after the 1988 “Spitak” earthquake. We all lived a 5-10 minute walk from each other which was great and we really grew close throughout the summer.
In the mornings I would eat breakfast and hop in the bus or marshutka (van) and head down to the center of town for work. I worked mainly at the City Research Center (CRC). My project was to create a walking tour for Gyumri since there are some many important things to see. I was really happy to work there because I was able to learn so much about the city, from its architecture to the famous people that lived there, to its long rich history. I used to say if you looked up a list of famous people from Armenia on Wikipedia, most of them came from Gyumri. I also taught English and photography at NGOs which was fun and a great way to mix with more of the locals. Near the end of my time in Gyumri I also worked at a production company taking and editing photos and video.
My time in Gyumri provided me with a fully immersive Armenian experience that in retrospect I would not have gotten if I had spent my entire time in Yerevan. Volunteering in Gyumri allowed me to see some of the real problems that Armenia still has which is hard to see when living in Yerevan. There wasn’t much work to do in Gyumri as evidenced from its 50% unemployment rate so it was interesting to see who was working and who wasn’t and almost all of the host family’s fathers were working in Russia. Living in Gyumri was an eye-opening experience which allowed me to see some of the best parts of our Armenian culture and some of the part of our country that need the most work. It is definitely one of the highlights of my Birthright Armenia experience!
My experience in Yerevan was drastically different. I moved to Yerevan at the beginning of September and started volunteering with various organizations including the Gurdjieff Folk Instrument Ensemble, Women’s Support Center, Armenian Society for the Protection of Birds, Yerevan Model UN, and Repat Armenia. For all of these organizations I was filming and/or editing videos and taking photos, almost in a freelance kind of position. The change in work was refreshing but the change from Gyumri life to Yerevan life took a little getting used to. Living in Yerevan seemed to be very similar to living in any other city in a developed country for the most part. At least living in the center of town. There was night life, museums, nice restaurants, parks, and cheap ice cream. My time in Yerevan was pretty stable for the most part. I volunteered, went on nice excursions on the weekends, lived with a host family, and hung out with volunteers in Yerevan.
The holidays were interesting for me. I missed Thanksgiving and Christmas with my family for the first time but it was ok. We had our own Thanksgiving and Christmas parties which were different from what I was used to, but it was great to experience the holidays in a different way for the first time. It is something that I will never forget. Near the end of my time in Armenia I started working at a documentary film studio which was very fun. I had the opportunity to go to Artsakh one more time to help film a documentary. I also moved out of host family to an apartment with another volunteer. After living with host families for 8 months, it was a refreshing change for my final 1.5 months.
One of the defining moments of my Birthright experience was during my second trip to Artsakh in October. On the last night of the trip at the Kef at Saro’s house we were all doing our toasts since everyone had to do one. When I stood up on top of my couch chair and looked around at everyone looking at me, I realized that every single volunteer there, around 60-65 of them, was different from those I went with in the summer. I had an amazing experience on this excursion, just as I had had in the summer, but it was different . It made me realize how amazing Birthright was. How it brings people together and brings out the best in those people. It was an indescribable feeling, a mixture of disbelief and joy. People slowly leaving Birthright and being replaced with equally awesome people. It is something that many volunteers may not notice unless they stay for a longer period. It was at this moment that I saw it clearly before me. This happened again one more time at my farewell dinner at the end of March, as there were many new people again that had arrived after the Artsakh trip in October.
Being in Armenia with Birthright allowed me to do many things I never thought I would do and meet many new Armenian people I would have never met otherwise. I hiked in Hell’s canyon on the hottest day in the summer and hiked to T’eghenyats Monastery through 2 feet of snow. I climbed to the top of Mt. Aragats (4,090 m), the tallest peak in modern day Armenia and swam in Lake Sevan. I stayed in the ex-mayor of Kapan’s mansion and slept in a cave in Lastiver. There really is no good way to summarize my experience. I am remembering too many things to write about, it is almost overwhelming. I’ve seen over 100 volunteers come and go and the experience was amazing the whole way through. I will value this experience for the rest of my life and make sure its effect stays with me in everything that I do in the future.