March 1, 2010
Connecting with Armenia Through Volunteerism: The True Stories of AVC Volunteers
Yerevan, Armenia -- One of the unshakeable first questions any newcomer to Armenia has to answer is ‘why are you here?’ This question is not asked to make small talk, as it might be in any well-traveled tourist destination of the world; on the part of the asker, an Armenian from Armenia, the question comes with sincere curiosity.
Of course, many Armenians from the Diaspora come to their motherland to see the church at Etchmiadzin, to visit ancient sites and to bring their school books to life before returning home, happy to know that Armenia is real and independent and available for future visitation. Others come to stay a little longer and involve themselves in the life of the country.
Although he does not speak Armenian, language is not a barrier between Brandon and the children of Zatik. The younger boys run and jump on him affectionately, and when the older boys act over-aggressively he takes them outside and teaches them wrestling techniques.
Brandon has worked at Zatik for four months. In his last week he started a project to cover one wall of the art room with the handprints of all the children. He teaches the youngest ones, who are very excited to have paint all over their hands, to stamp their hands evenly then quickly pull them away so they don’t smear the wall. Now Brandon’s large hands decorate the wall of Zatik orphanage beside those of the many children he connected to and who became family to him.
Tatevik Revazian, born in Yerevan, moved to Denmark with her family when she was 5 years old. She studies business administration and organizational communication in Copenhagen. Through the Danish NGO Mission East, she is fulfilling a 3 month internship requirement at her University. At Mission East she is creating a communication plan to help educate Armenians on HIV/AIDS prevention. She is also volunteering at the Arbes Health Care Center in the child development and rehabilitation area. She works with the professionals at the center to take care of autistic children. The children and she sing, play games, and learn to cook together. “They are mostly learning practical life skills,” says Tatevik, “it means a lot to me to be able to see this side of Armenia; it’s great to be involved with the staff and to be close to these kids.”
Some AVC placements mirror career internships. Edwin Akopian, from Maryland, received his Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and is now carrying out research at a design engineering firm, Industrial Technologies Co. (ITC). His current project is designing wind turbines. Of course, interning in Armenia has its unique challenges. “Sometimes there is no running water. And we don’t have all the funds we need yet to complete our work,” says Edwin. But despite these challenges, Edwin respects his team and appreciates their strong work ethic and commitment. Edwin’s family is from Iran and he is pleased to find many Iranian Armenians working alongside him at ITC.
Working in Armenia can require a volunteer to find creative ways of overcoming lack of materials. Both public and private schools need supplies. AVC volunteer Deanna Cachoian-Schanz teaches English at the Macsedan School, a private elementary and high school that specializes in languages. Soviet era maps of Armenia hang on the walls of these classrooms where the students wear their coats indoors during the winter as there is insufficient heating. Deanna brings her laptop to class and the students crowd around it to watch her English language power point presentations on topics like slavery in the United States and the Civil Rights Movement. She also initiated a pen pal program with her younger students. Public school students in Deanna’s home state, New York, are learning about Armenia and Armenian students are finding friends in New York.
Since 2001, 275 AVC volunteers have served 118,886 hours in Armenia. AVC has placed volunteers in almost 200 organizations in many of Armenia’s cities and rural areas as well as Artsakh.
Volunteers have to be at least 21 years old. But, there is no upper age limit (and many mid career professionals and retirees have volunteered) and no background is exempt.
This month, four volunteers are arriving from Argentina, including a married couple, a lawyer/singer, and an industrial engineer.
So, why does a person come to Armenia? Some come to visit, and some come simply to be a part of the Armenian nation by contributing their distinct backgrounds to the work of developing the country. The benefits are immense.
The AVC’s motto is “come move mountains,” although, as one alumni put it, you might also say “come move pebbles.” All the volunteers will admit that change doesn’t happen quickly or drastically; it’s done pebble by pebble, with the belief that your actions will encourage others to follow; acting on this belief will move the mountains.
For more information visit www.armenianvolunteer.org.
This article was written by Elaine Krikorian, an AVC volunteer from Oakland, California.
Brandon Norsesian hand printing at Zatik