Towards Armenia, Towards Hope

Towards Armenia, Towards Hope

Text : Zareh-Sevag Sarkissian    Photo : Birthright Armenia 

 

Birthright Armenia

“Armenia is not just a place where you emigrate from,” said Sevan Kabakian, director of Birthright Armenia. Birthright Armenia is a non-governmental organization (NGO) whose core mission is to recruit young descendants of Armenians worldwide between 21 to 32 years of age and to reintegrate them into Armenian society via an internship and volunteer-based community service program. All this is meant to bring Armenia and its diaspora together for the betterment of both.

 

The idea of Birthright began with a certain dedicated patriot, Edele Hovnanian. Prior to launching Birthright, she was already involved and was one of the leaders of the Land and Culture Organization (LCO), another NGO that for around 30 years has organized summer camps for volunteers from the diaspora and Armenia. Thus, she gained a lot of experience from there. 

Eva Minassian, AVC alumna from France, Costume Designer

 

In 2003, Ms. Hovnanian wanted to have a more impactful program and thus founded Birthright Armenia. A program that is not seasonal but year-round, not just based on renovation or manual labour, and that has a pre-planned itinerary of where the volunteers will work depending on their personal preferences and in their field of expertise that they can be most productive in. The thing that fuelled her determination was her firm belief in Armenia, in the potential of the diaspora’s untapped manpower, especially the young adults whose life is ahead of them. 

This is essentially a program that remains with a participant at every step of the way. “We provide the platform that people can use to immerse themselves into the country,” said Sevan- no stranger to the experience of moving from one country to another, from helping in learning the language, deciding where to volunteer, selecting a host family, to participating in gatherings and weekly excursions all over the country. It is a unique program that has set itself apart from other NGOs in Armenia and even throughout the globe in that it does not charge participants, but even goes further to reimburse the travel expenses of the volunteers/participants should they meet the terms. This makes the experience affordable to all. The option of living with a host family is an extremely immersive and gratifying feature, popular with the majority. A screened local family hosts a volunteer for as long as needed, and in turn essentially becomes a second family to them. 

One of the important attributes of the program is the amazing support that Birthright Armenia provides even long after completion of the program. People who have not been to Armenia before or spoken a word in the Armenian language are not going into a foreign environment and getting lost, but quite the contrary. This applies mostly to the alumni of the program i.e., an even more important component for Birthright. Since at its core, the idea of Birthright is not about volunteering for a few months in Armenia, but an opportunity for volunteers to see how they can engage in Armenian affairs after they finish volunteering.

For them, the “Pathway to Armenia” and “Next Step” programs have been set, where alumni are given nearly free accommodation and are aided in seeking work or advancement in career through the help of a full-time dedicated staff respectively. As of now, 13% of the 2000+ alumni permanently reside in Armenia. 

Birthright Armenia continues to challenge itself to increase number, expand, and scale and might soon add a residential component in Gyumri, as well as relaunch its Vanadzor program that had not been operating for the past two years due to Covid.

 

Nazuk

On Tigran Mets Avenue, in faraway Gyumri, you would find a charming little café bistro called Nazuk. The café’s owner is none other than Birthright Armenia (BR) alumna Zaruhi Karapetyan. 

Ironically, or perhaps by fate, Zaruhi is originally from Gyumri where she was born. However, her family left for Moscow three years following the devastation and hardships of the Spitak earthquake in 1988. She was raised and educated in the vast metropolis of Moscow, naturally spending most of her life there. She always had her homeland in mind, and when motivated by a colleague who was volunteering at Birthright to join the program, she did so in 2018. She tried volunteering at a café in Yerevan but no one would take her on. The organization exactly found her what she was looking for up north, in Gyumri, the second largest city in Armenia. 

Zaruhi Karapetyan’s Nazuk cafe&bakery, Gyumri

 

At first, she wasn’t sure if she would integrate into the quiet and comparatively laidback life of Gyumri, which was not what she had been accustomed to in fast-paced Moscow. Nevertheless, after spending time working there amidst the company of her host family, she fell in love with the city. “Moscow is a huge place, and here it is really calm compared to that, and despite not knowing if I will like it here in the beginning, I realized I did eventually.”

Her encouragement to open a café and bakery emanated from the experience she gained during her time volunteering and her fond hobby of cooking. This gave her enough momentum to go forth with her plan and in 2020, despite the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns, she opened and has been doing relatively well ever since. 

Her purpose with her business was never to make a large profit, rather in her words, “I wanted to bake good quality cakes for people to enjoy; even if once a month, as long as they are not eating less healthy or lesser quality options more.” In essence, high quality and resiliency are what matter most to her, and are in her opinion what she wishes to promote in Gyumri, and then step by step, in all of Armenia.

 

Armenian Volunteer Corps

The Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC) is the brainchild of a former Peace Corps volunteer based in Armenia, Jason Demirchian, who later came to be Father Hovnan. At that time, Peace Corps typically did not send volunteers to a country of their ethnic background. Jason was an exception and loved his experience. He wanted to start a similar project in Armenia to help bridge the gap with the Diaspora, developing a commitment to community service. Through great effort, and with support from attorneys Thom J. Samuelian and Tamar Hajian, the concept of AVC became a reality in 2000; and in 2001, it accepted its first group of volunteers. 

Birthright and AVC program volunteers with Mount Ararat in the background

 

At its inception, AVC provided its participants with an immersive experience that gave them more of Armenia. They did not just come as tourists, rather they experienced living and working in the country through customized volunteer placements. That concept continues to grow and evolve even today. It now encompasses not just Armenians older than 32, but foreign volunteers as well.

AVC, unlike its sister organization Birthright Armenia, welcomes non-Armenians. It hosts literally everyone 21+, offering a customized experience in their fields of expertise and/or scope of interest. It includes a Volunteer Corps, Professional Corps, and newly launched Senior Corps. The Volunteer Corps offers internship and volunteering opportunities to International applicants 21 and above to entice students to garner hands-on work experience. The Professional Corps is for applicants with at least five years of work experience in their field of expertise and can host both Armenians and non-Armenians. The Senior Corps is pleased to welcome retirees who can contribute their vast knowledge and honed skill sets to the betterment of Armenia. International applicants learn about AVC through many channels, but most commonly by word of mouth from its former volunteers or cherished alumni who now serve as ambassadors for the country. Since its start in 2001, more than 1,100 volunteers have impacted Armenia from over 50 countries. In 2021 alone, 77 volunteers visited Armenia from 25 countries ranging from the United

States, France, Canada, Russia, Lebanon, Egypt, Myanmar, Australia, Poland, Germany, Philippines, Israel, and more. 

One recent success story is the newly hired AVC Executive Director herself, Arina Zohrabian. She came to Armenia for the first time in 2002 as an AVC volunteer. The program changed her life completely. Her experience of seeing the country, living with her host family, and working with amazing organizations prompted her to stay. She never looked back. She found work at several prominent institutions such as IREX Armenia and the American University of Armenia, married and built a family, and now finds herself back where it all started, albeit this time at the forefront of it.

Narine Poladian, Birthright Armenia alumna from Lebanon is the first woman to make khachkars

 

Arina Zohrabian, Executive Direcor of Armenian Volunteer Corps

 

Cannes en Arménie


Following the 2020 Artsakh War, French-Armenian costume designer Eva Minassian had a calling to return to her homeland and to bridge the gaps between Armenia and the film industry abroad. It is her fundamental belief that a local endorsement of the film industry in Armenia would greatly attract foreign film productions and thus be greatly rewarding in creating new jobs, learning from foreign expertise, and improving the quality of local productions themselves.

Searching for a way to contribute in Armenia, Eva found AVC; who then connected her with Order Film Production in Yerevan,. The opportunity helped Eva grow immensely in her profession. 
“If you’re not born into it or have strong connections, it’s extremely difficult to get into,” says Eva. An essentially difficult and closed industry to work in, she managed to maneuver her way up the artistic ladder during her time living in Germany. A period during which she was introduced fully into the film industry while transitioning from fashion designing and marketing. 

One of the Order Film Production’s latest projects, which is also a joint project with Doping Creative Agency, focuses on sex-selective abortion; an uncomfortable subject for Armenia that has become a significant topic of discussion the past few years. “There are five countries in the world that have the highest rate in sex-selective abortion and unfortunately Armenia is one of them,” said Eva, who believes such a morally-controversial issue in an already depopulated country needs to be promptly addressed.

As a highly endangered ethnic-religious group, the Yazidi community is the focus of another documentary project for the team, which plans to visit communities not only in Armenia but also in Georgia, Iraq, and Syria to showcase and demystify their culture, history, and religion.

Eva is also involved in two films in the post-production phase. One of them is the newly premiered Zulali based on a namesake novel by Narine Abgaryan. Eva wrote the French synopsis for the film and translated the subtitles into English. She is now supervising the application process of Zulali to various international film festivals. The other is a documentary about Armenian composer Maestro Tigran Mansuryan to which Eva is trying to find distributors in Europe as best she could. 

Eva is determined to create a film commission in Armenia, which would centralize the logistics via several departments for any foreign production that will be interested in filming in Armenia that includes accommodations, local technicians, all sorts of catering, and talent and production locations. She has drawn all this from the Czech Republic’s example, which departmentalized its film industry and is now reaping the benefits of having highly skilled technicians, crew members, and other stakeholders. 

This will indirectly boost tourism to the country and contribute to the development of other spheres. “When the Game of Thrones decided to do shooting in Jordan, that country created a film commission, as one did not exist,” explained Minassian. “The series has long finished, but people are still travelling there to visit the place where filming took place.”

Eva is cooperating with Armenian Public TV to conduct research, collect data and develop a business plan to ‘market’ Armenia as a filming destination by the end of 2022. She extended her volunteer experience with AVC through December 2021 and plans to return to the homeland soon to follow through on her long-term film projects.

 

Impression of hope

Throughout the years, Birthright Armenia and AVC have formed partnerships with more than 1,100 organizations across Armenia and that list grows daily. Presently, they have partners in every single field whether it is education, engineering, IT, natural sciences, health, mental health, arts, music, and the options also continue to expand on a year-to-year basis. 

This allows volunteers to connect with those organizations based on preference and expertise, always taking into account Armenia’s needs. Hence, the customization is really important and makes for an amazing experience with the partner as well as the volunteer. 

Saturday excursion to Noravank for Birthright Armenia and AVC volunteers

 

Eva Minassian, AVC alumna from France, Costume Designer

 

Neither program has ever had the intention to replace or disregard the knowledge and skills that native Armenians have and contribute. In contrast, their efforts complement resources that are already on the ground. Local people who are getting exposure to different perspectives from volunteers from that many countries are learning something as well. The volunteers are experiencing new things from their exposure in Armenia. This mutual exchange and learning processes have been Birthright Armenia’s and AVC’s key to success and meaningful impact and something they proudly continue to promote. 

Residents of Armenia often face challenges that are frustrating and take a toll on motivation. Yet, there is also another hidden side. Showing the motivation and will of people physically wanting to be in Armenia whether from within or the diaspora has been one of AVC and Birthright’s greatest achievements. These organizations have done an amazing job in helping shift that narrative. 

Sevan Kabakian, Country Director of Birthright Armenia

 

And if one decides to move to Armenia, Repat Armenia, a partner organization of Birthright Armenia and AVC and a part of H. Hovnanian Family Foundation offers one-on-one consultations on various aspects of integration, networking opportunities during informal events and helps to connect to the community of repats, expats, Diaspora Armenians and local Armenians. Besides, the organization assists with employment and job matching, provides reliable service providers for setting up a business and much more.