Within Birthright
REPATRIATION AND RETHINKING DIASPORA

Within Birthright

Birthright Armenia builds a bridge between Diasporan Armenians and their ancestral homeland by providing volunteering opportunities to young Diasporans from around the globe. We spoke to Sevan Kabakian, the organization’s country director, about volunteerism as a tool to help Diasporan youth to establish a strong cultural and intellectual connection with Armenia.

Interview : Karine Ghazaryan  Photo : Birthright Armenia

 

Mr. Kabakian, Birthright Armenia is one of the largest volunteering organizations in the country. How was it founded?

— Birthright was founded in 2003 by Edele Hovnanian whose vision was to have an organization which is able to put to service the Diasporan potential for the development of Armenia. In Birthright’s case this is done through the youth, it’s done through introducing Armenian reality to the young people from the Diaspora as much as possible. We want them not to have a ten-day tourism trip to Armenia but to establish a more substantial, longer-term connection with the country. We have developed a very affordable model, where there are no application fees, moreover, we cover the travel costs and pay for the host family. Over one hundred people between the ages of 20-32 come every year to volunteer with Birthright. And in the summer about half of them work outside of Yerevan.

Is it more difficult in the regions?

— Yerevan has many job sites; outside of the city one has less opportunities. Still, working in the regions has been rated by over 95% of volunteers as being an experience that they would not have exchanged with Yerevan. I believe it’s because outside of the city they get more authenticity, more of the indigenous reality.

How many of them stay in the country, repatriating to Armenia?

— I would say that historically about 15% of volunteers have stayed back for longer-term employment. About 7% of our total number of volunteers are currently living in Armenia. However, Birthright’s mission is not for everyone to move to Armenia. Repatriation may be a very natural outcome, and we support that very much. But the goal is not that if you come you must repatriate. We focus on the phase between physical and mental repatriation, encouraging people to start to think of this place as a possibility for them, as a place that they can be engaged with for real and not just emotionally. That is specifically why our model is based on volunteerism. Volunteering 30 hours a week puts someone in the cycle of a local resident. If you are a tourist, everyone else in the country is working, and you are on a bus going somewhere, you do not get a chance to get acquainted with local life. Unlike that, when you volunteer you go to work as a local, you go home to a host family and spend an evening as a local, and thus your opportunities for connection with the reality here are maximized. Through volunteering you meet coworkers, make friends with them, get attached to the people and the place. These kinds of connections are very important, as the whole point is not to come and be a tourist for six months, isolated in a hotel or in a tour bus; the point is to come and to understand more substantially what is going on here.

Being from another country, they must have a very dull idea of the culture, they often may not know the language. Does volunteering provide them with the necessary skills to find a job in Armenia?

— About a third of the participants come with no or very basic language skills, the rest are at more intermediate or advanced levels. However, I cannot say that the language barrier is something that is insuperable. You see, when you are a volunteer you have an opportunity to see Armenia as a real country with real possibilities – something that you cannot do from Beirut, or Paris, or Los Angeles, sitting there and just reading stories or hearing other people’s narratives. This program is a gateway for seeing a true country and that, I think, is the most important part of wanting to stay and work here. It’s of course also important to have the skill set which is marketable. Because the economy is growing, there are more and more companies which are looking for employees who come from different countries and have skills which cannot be found here in Armenia. Also, work skills in the outside environment are attractive to many local organizations. At Birthright, we have methods of assisting, providing people with contacts, helping them to find something according to what they want to do. Over time, a volunteer establishes his own network and is able to fully enter the job market. Sometimes you volunteer at job site A, but job site B knows that there is this person, a marketing specialist, or graphic designer, or somebody else that will be just the right candidate for them. At other times, the hosting organization decides to keep the volunteer in their team for permanent employment.

But is it difficult for your participants to find a job in Armenia?

— It is difficult to find a job in any country. Armenia has a small economy, but I know a lot of people in bigger countries, in more developed countries for whom finding a job, or finding the right job is not easy at all. A lot of people are underemployed: they are working but it’s not in their major and it’s not in their sector. So I think challenges exist in a lot of places. In Armenia certainly it is also a challenge, a significant challenge, but it is important to follow the historical trend: if someone looked for a job in Armenia 20 years ago, it would be nearly impossible. It became easier 15 years ago, 10 years ago, 5 years ago... Compared to the past, we have a lot more opportunities available today, and I think this trend will only continue.

How do you attract people to take part in Birthright program?

— We of course use traditional mechanisms and social media. There are also a lot of former participants who go back and encourage others to come, give personal recommendations which is always very effective. Yet, I think the fact that this is not a one-week or ten-day program and it demands a longer-term commitment, for nine weeks, maybe even a year, automatically self-selects the participants: a lot of people who do not have that tenacity, or that courage, or that boldness to dive into the adventure, they don’t apply. So people who come here have a similar spirit and a whole range of different motivations. Some of them come for professional internships to put on their resumes; some come to connect with the language and the culture; some come because they are at a transition point in their lives: they don’t want to stay in the same routine, working from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., always busy, always tired… So it’s very personal, it’s very individual.

What are the hardships that volunteers encounter when they arrive in the country?

— Not knowing the language fluently, being away from home and completely unfamiliar with the support structure, all of these might cause the majority of stress. But the good thing about Birthright is that we have a significant support system. When someone arrives, we do not tell him “Ok, here’s your job site, bye-bye.” Instead, we do everything to relieve the unease, to make the new environment more welcoming and less scary. Fortunately, from 1,400 volunteers who have arrived over the years less than 10, I would say, did not make it, changed their plane ticket and flew back home. On the other hand, we have incredible stories of connection with the country. For example, a couple of years ago we had a paramedic firefighter from Los Angeles, her name is Jamie Kolar. Because she was in active duty at the Fire Department and had a very limited vacation time, her goal was to come for about four weeks, do some professional engagement and then go back and continue her life. We placed her at the Ministry of Emergency Situations, and she found out that people there were very interested in what she knew, very eager to learn from her. So she decided to stay for another few weeks and do something outside of Yerevan. Then we placed her at an ambulance core in a hospital in Gyumri, and people there were happy to have her. She was training the first responders and she knew zero Armenian! Jamie got so much involved in the process that she got special permission from her supervisor to stay longer, telling her team back in LA that she is not just having a nice time on a beach but is actually integrating professionally here. And they were very supportive, they even started to donate equipment. She ended up staying for months and started her own organization called “Aid to Armenia.” On the centennial of the Armenian Genocide she headed a project called “100 Villages.” With the help of other volunteers, she traveled all over the country giving professional first response trainings to teachers and hospital crews. She kept her job in LA, working extra weekends and holidays in order to be able to spend more time in Armenia. Jamie is actually here now.

Mr. Kabakian, you are a repatriate yourself. How did you decide to move back?

— I was born in Lebanon, I lived there for about 15 years. But I lived most of my life in the US. For me repatriation was not a single-step event where you wake up one day and say: “Let’s move to Armenia.” It’s pretty much a life-long dream. Even before Armenia was independent, when there was no sign of independence, in the Armenian community people talked constantly about that one beautiful day when we all would move back. Unfortunately, when the country became independent, the big move, the big wave of repatriation did not happen, mainly because of very practical reasons – jobs, for example. It’s understandable. But, I think, as time passes, we come out of that very difficult situation – again, not every part of Armenia, but at least the country as a whole has given more opportunities for people to look at it as a place where they can come and invest themselves. Every country develops like that. You can’t wait for Armenia to become fully developed and prosperous in every sector and then take action.

Why, in your opinion, is repatriation important for our society?

— To some extent having most of your children being outside of the country is a deficit in the sense that they are not here directly contributing to this society. But on the other hand, it can be looked at as study abroad and an investment in experience. A lot of countries spend huge amounts of money to send their citizens to study at the best universities, get work experience and then come back and reinvest. Armenia naturally has the biggest study abroad program in the world for which it has spent no money. Putting aside that huge potential and focusing on local residents only is not really efficient. Of course, many Armenians are not connected to their culture, but there is a very significant part which still at the very least has an interest in personal engagement. It might be a two week visit as a tourist or something a bit more substantial or very substantial, just like long-term volunteering which we at Birthright chose believing that it is one of the best gateways to repatriation.