| From Ottawa, Canada | Moved in 2002
Canadians Antoine and Sheila Terjanian first came to Armenia for a year in 2002-2003 with the Armenian Volunteer Corps. Antoine had read about all of the problems in Armenia, the poverty, the corruption and how Diasporan Armenians were likely to be robbed if they came to their “motherland”. But Antoine also had the longing for his ancestral homeland, and Sheila, of Scottish background, was curious about this newly independent Armenia. So, after a bit of research on the web, and consultation with people Antoine trusted, they decided to take the leap and go on faith for one year to Armenia in an effort to give back some of the good fortune that they had enjoyed so far in their life. For Antoine, it was a way of “serving the ancestral Fatherland” for a year.
They never regretted it. What Antoine was pleased to find was a group of people, honest, transparent, hard working and dedicated to making life better in a country that he was delighted to realise was full of people like him. They spoke his language – well sort of! But that was not a problem as AVC gave him language lessons, from a magical lady called Lala, when he first arrived. Armenian was heard everywhere – on the street, on the Metro, during meetings!
Antoine came from a professional background of development work, statistics, geomatics and marketing. While Sheila had some development experience early in her career, her work as an economist was mostly in public policy, specifically social policy and aboriginal policy. They were both eager to use these skills here and to this day, still do. And their view of development is one of participation as equal partners with the many different Armenians and institutions they have encountered. Antoine’s philosophy has always been: I will work with any Armenian. Persevering even after some difficult situations, Antoine holds this philosophy to this day.
For the last 11 years, Antoine and Sheila have spent the spring and fall of every year living in their house on top of a mountain in Yeghegnadzor. They call it ‘The Castle’.
Not too long after they arrived in Armenia, they both came to the firm belief that Armenia’s greatest treasure is not the monasteries and monuments and marvelous landscapes; it is its people. They realized that tourism is the best industry that Armenia has at its doorsteps, and, the best that Armenia has to offer the world is in the personal contact with rural people in towns and villages scattered all over the country, outside of Yerevan.
So, since those early years, Antoine and Sheila have been working with small businessmen and women and family businesses in rural Armenia, specifically in the Vayots Dzor region where they live. Over the years they have built up a network of B&Bs as the basis from which tourists can be introduced to Armenia, not only as a place to sleep and eat well, but also as a hub – where local guides can take them hiking up the mountains to visit caves and places like Spitakavor and Noravank, where local taxis can ferry them to Tatev and Zorats Karer in half the time it takes from Yerevan, where they can do the wine thing, or hike to a restaurant on the river and have fish khoravadz. And combined with the B&B network, Sheila has been teaching English and Antoine has been organising large groups of folk dancers from Europe and England who come to Vayots Dzor to explore and enjoy rural hospitality after formal Armenian folk dance lessons. A lot of their work has been in conjunction with local institutions like the Culturayi Toun, the Yeghegnadzor Conservatory of Music and, most especially,Gitelik University and Syunik NGO.
Antoine and Sheila have also been entrusted funds to help the Yeghegnadzor region. These funds, donated by generous Canadians, are now used for the betterment of Armenians in Armenia through the Atken Armenian Foundation, a charity registered with the Canadian tax authorities. All the people administering this charity are unpaid volunteers. They pay their own expenses and 100% of the donated funds reach the intended beneficiaries in Armenia with zero overhead.