YSIP 2013 Interns Visit Military Academy in Yerevan

YSIP 2013 participant Matt Andonian compares his experience as a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point to the lives of the cadets at the Vazgen Sargsyan Military Academy in Armenia.

With visit to the Vazgen Sargsyan Military Academy in Yerevan, AGBU YSIP has given me a chance to directly compare my life as a college student in the United States to that of college students in Armenia. Interning at the Military Academy in Armenia as a former West Point cadet has given me a special opportunity to see how my education in the United States compares with the education that cadets receive in Armenia. I was expecting a large difference in the way the academies operate and very few similarities between the United States military and the military of a post-Soviet state. What I found, however, brought back a flood of memories from my freshman year and made for a few shocking revelations that revealed the seriousness of becoming a professional soldier in the Armenian Army.

When we arrived at the Vazgen Sargsyan Military Academy in Yerevan, we headed directly to the mess hall for lunch. Understandably, the mess hall was not nearly as big as the one at West Point, which must fit 4,000 cadets at once, but the idea of groups of cadets eating together at a family style meal is the same. One of the officers with whom we had lunch also explained that the cadets are told when to begin eating and when they need to finish and leave—a short amount of time that was very similar to my meals at West Point.

As soon as we left, we were taken to the dorms at the Military Academy where the daily lives of the cadets were explained to us. We were shown the dorm rooms that the cadets slept in, which had wool blankets very similar to those issued at West Point. The beds were also meticulously made as one would expect in any military barracks. I was definitely glad that I didn’t have to share my room with as many people as the Armenian cadets do but I was expecting as much from the smaller academy here.

Everyone’s favorite part of the academy tour was the simulated gun range that we were able to use at the end of our tour. This part of the tour was a large surprise for me. I was not expecting the Armenian academy to have this kind of technology and was quite excited to be able to use it. I had used a very similar one at West Point but most of the group had never seen one before that day. Everyone took turns aiming at the black silhouettes on the screen, and I think we all did pretty well considering most of us had never done anything like it before.

As a former cadet, I am aware of the sacrifices that the members of any military make to defend their homes. The cadets at the Vazgen Sargsyan Military Academy make a huge sacrifice while they are still cadets as well as during their future careers in the Armenian Army. The trip to the Academy helped me understand just how serious the commitment of each of these cadets is to Armenia and the gravity of the situation Armenia still finds itself in following the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh. I’m thankful that the AGBU and the Armenian Army made it possible for me to visit the Vazgen Sargsyan Military Academy and to get this unique firsthand experience..

YSIP 2013 Intern’s Reflections on Artsakh

YSIP 2013 intern Nana Shakhnazaryan writes about her visit to Artsakh and what it means to her.

After hours of driving and stopping, swerving and climbing with nothing but flower spotted mountains to keep with the passing of time, we arrived in Artsakh just a few days ago. It’s a hard place to get to and an even harder one to write about. A land cemented in a conflict as old as most of us interns, a land unrecognized and practically unknown internationally, Artsakh is home to 140,000 people and a homeland to thousands more.

I am one of those thousands and so, trying to write about a land so responsible for the course of my life up until now is proving to be more difficult than I thought. I could write about the facts of the war and the men, women, and children who died; there are words that attempt to package those emotions and, for the most part, succeed. I could write about the sweetness of the fruits, the cold wind on mountains that practically touch the sun, or the way that grapevines lick almost everything man-made: words for that exist as well. Maybe I could even write about how much closer a group of thirty human beings felt when the space we shared was no longer a city like Yerevan. All of these things would give insight on what this trip was in one way or another; each story would answer a question the reader might have had. Instead, I want to write about the Nagorno- Karabakh Republic in a way that hasn’t forced me to favor certain emotions over others, in a way that hasn’t asked me to forget one experience because another would be more suitable for an audience like this.

Artsakh is the in-between of place, time, sentiment, and space. It is a word that doesn’t have its sound yet. It is a refugee. Locked in a land it has bled to be apart from, it is suspended in government, discourse and public understanding. But, this is a liquid suspension because, despite Nagorno- Karabakh being a frozen conflict zone, structurally, culturally and economically, it is moving. Progress is what I felt, partly because I want to believe it and largely because Artsakh is transforming itself. It is rebuilding what was bombed and pillaged and building what never had a chance to be. In fact, going to the ruins of the Real School in Shushi was a testament to the priority of this reconstruction; quality education and new culture has not been condemned to death here. Artsakh is in between so much concretely and abstractly (historically, politically, culturally) that it injects that quiet chaos in the visitor.

And now come those emotional words I tried to handle earlier. Pride (because we defended it with what little we had, and won), peppered with shame (for are there not families we also displaced?). Happiness about the beauty we coexist with: the hushes of bees in fertile fields and clean air that hugs the chest; and the overwhelming sadness about the destruction of war. A more eloquent word for this in-betweenness is elusive but it stands to articulate everything this land is. It is separation and unification: its progress is “frozen” but fluid, its land “unrecognized” but settled, and its people “forgotten” but alive, proud, and dancing.

The last night we spent in Artsakh, a toast was made before thirty pinched cups of mulberry vodka floated to the air. We were reminded of the dream we were in to be where we were, to be eating and talking, laughing and dancing as young Armenians in a land that had so recently been ravaged by Hell. Under the music of our instruments and the hum of our language, I hope we realized that the stones in our shoes, the dirt in our clothes, and sun in our skin meant that we were, in fact, welcomed by the free and independent Republic of Artsakh..

YSIP 2013: A Life-Changing Internship in an Armenian Village

YSIP 2013 participant Ani Djirdjirian gives a moving account of her life-changing experience interning at a COAF sponsored summer program for schoolchildren in the village of Lernagog:

My name is Ani Djirdjirian and I am currently an intern with the AGBU Yerevan Summer Internship Program. I am 19 years old pursuing a Psychology and Vocal Performance degrees at Adelphi University of New York. To say the least, I have a burning passion for my culture and have struggled to keep my Armenian culture alive while growing up amongst many varying cultures in the United States. For this very reason, I try to participate in as many Armenian events and organizations as my time allows—singing in the Huyser Armenian music ensemble, dancing with the AGBU Antranig Dance Ensemble, as well as teaching music and dance to Armenian children at the Holy Martyrs Armenian Language School in New York on Saturdays. It has always been my dream to come to my Motherland and experience firsthand the country that I have only heard about through the many stories my parents have shared with my sister and me, the music I grew up hearing, and of course, the delicious foods I’ve been eating my entire life. Now, not only have I embarked on a most unforgettable experience, hoping to work to change the lives of my own people, but I am beginning to see how this internship is gradually altering my own life as well.

I am an intern at the Children of Armenia Fund (COAF), which is a non-profit organization that aims to improve the social, educational, economic, health, and living conditions of families and children in poverty-stricken rural villages of Armenia. They offer a number of programs in the villages, including school and hospital renovations, consultations with psychologists, food and clean water, classes and seminars for parents, and the majority of their time is spent developing the best programs for children, to ensure that they have a bright future and essentially, change the lives of a generation.

I work with the organization’s child psychologists and travel with them for over an hour each day from their office in Yerevan to the village of Lernagog. There, I work in a summer program for children whose home living conditions and familial situations are unacceptable and do not meet standards of living a regular life. Some of these kids are orphaned, and some are abused at home. Many are too poor to afford daily meals. All of the children I work with have fallen severely behind in school, either because they developed learning disabilities from improper care and lack of attention at home, or because they were unable to attend school at all. My job is to assist them with reading and writing in Armenian, as well as help teach them mathematics. I also spend time with the children teaching them songs in Armenian and English, and am currently choreographing a dance for them for their end of the month show.

The kids I work with are the most amazing and truly beautiful children I have ever met. They are between the ages of seven and twelve and show me every single day just how hard their inquisitive minds work. People in the villages rarely get outside attention and are not exposed to cultures and communities outside of their own towns. This was prevalent when, for example, I told the kids I was from America, and a few of them said that they knew where America was—city in Moscow which is in England. Ever since then, they ask me so many questions about where I live and what I do and how people live in the United States. They are absolutely marveled by the English language and all hope to learn it one day so they can speak to me in my country’s tongue. What I find absolutely adorable is how the kids love cameras. I often bring mine to work with me, and they beg me to take pictures of them or to let them use it themselves. They pose as if they are in a magazine, and if I am taking a picture of one child, they multiply into six, holding hands, waiting for me to snap a shot of them. One day during lunch hour, a parent who often helps out began to play the piano that was in the same room. I had never heard the song she was playing, but all the kids put their forks down and started singing to the music about Armenia. I have never in all of my life seen children sing about their country with such energy and fire. It put a smile on everyone’s face, and tears in my eyes.

In a country where poverty is not rare, it is unrealistic to say that I will be able to help each and every child live a better life. However, my goal is to change the perspective of any child who has no hope. I want to be the encouragement they need to say “Yes, I can be a doctor one day.” I have learned that these kids have so much potential, just no opportunities to apply their abilities. I spoke to a 16-year-old in the village, who has spent years learning English fluently, and had been accepted to a very competitive student exchange program in Normandy. He showed me his very impressive academic resume and all of the projects he has been working on. However, he was forced to deny his acceptance because his family did not have enough money to pay for the trip. I have come to learn about a lot of the kids’ backgrounds from teachers and parents, which helps me to better understand why each child acts the way he or she does, why some of them come in with bruises and scars, and what experiences have made them who they are now. Behind the smiles of the children in these villages lie secrets and desires and dreams that they feel cannot be fulfilled because of their upbringing. I want to teach these kids about working in teams and how music and dance can make the soul so happy that they can forget about what makes them sad at home for just a little bit.

While I feel as though my work with these children is in fact making a difference, for example, walking an 11-year-old through a math problem step by step, the kids are changing my life just as I am trying to change theirs. They will all one day learn how to write their names and multiply numbers but few people ever learn the value of simplicity and getting joy out of the little things in life. As kids around the world are busy playing with their iPads and watching TV all day, my kids are outside climbing trees and picking apricots, and playing games and sports in the heat and dust outside (which is more fun than I ever expected). I have been invited into the homes of some of the locals who have taught me much about their lives. One day, a family I was spending time with taught me a dance of their village in their living room, and I taught them some of what I had learned in my dance group. Everyone can learn something from these kids. They have adversities to face that we who are better off can never even imagine. They have so little to offer materially—small homes and scarce clothing and food— but never has that stopped any of them from smiling like they have the world in their hands. The smallest of gestures make their day so much brighter. Things like teaching them the English alphabet or bringing them chocolate from Grand Candy mean everything to them. They become excited when they get to sit and talk to me and always greet me with hugs. These kids and their families have made me feel at home from the very first day and welcomed me not as an outsider but as one of their own.

Thinking about leaving these kids behind when this internship is over is heartbreaking, and only means one thing—I have to come back. My work has only just begun. What started as an internship where I was not sure what to expect has completely changed my outlook on life. I plan to return not only to visit these kids but to continue to develop a bright future for a generation that truly needs support. Starting small with a group of children in Lernagog will one day become all of the villages in Armenia, and further, all of the children in the world. Does my dream sound too big to fathom? No goal is ever too far away—one of my children taught me that..

YSIP 2013 Participant on his First Journey to the Homeland

YSIP 2013 participant Aris Agdere writes about his first journey to the homeland:

I am proud to say that my first trip to Armenia is as a participant of the AGBU Yerevan Summer Internship Program. YSIP is allowing me to discover my country and true heritage while making amazing friends and experiencing life in the workforce. I was astounded when I found such diversity amongst my fellow interns. They come from the United States, Lebanon, Russia, England, and even Australia. Born and raised in the suburbs of Long Island, New York, I have not had many opportunities to meet fellow Armenians from abroad. This trip has allowed me to broaden my horizons and learn about Armenian culture and traditions as they are practiced in other countries. The cultural similarities between my new international friends and myself amaze me. Although their families have had to spread throughout the world, they have managed to persevere through hardships and preserve their culture. I am building friendships and enjoying my time exploring Armenia with other first-timers.

I particularly enjoyed visiting the Etchmiadzin Cathedral, gasping in awe of its surreal beauty which has been preserved for over 1500 years. Being exposed to such significant landmarks of Armenian history has given me a newfound sense of comfort and purpose which I have not experienced before. Aside from sightseeing and socializing, I am also learning about working life in Armenia as I intern at a tech company called Sourcio, where I am gaining further knowledge in computer science. Technical jargon aside, I am excited to hone my programming skills, which will leave me better prepared for future internships and careers. Ultimately, my experience as an intern for AGBU YSIP has been life-changing. I will not forget the good it has done for me and how it has inspired me to return to my homeland in the future..

YSIP Interns Experience Vartavar in the Armenian Capital

YSIP 2013 intern Lara Ozdemirci shares her story of Vartavar in the Armenian capital:

Vartavar has been one of my most memorable experiences so far on the AGBU Yerevan Summer Internship Program trip. Only in Armenia would a large-scale water fight be a nationally celebrated holiday. I started the day off right by waking everyone in the house up with buckets of water. We then all united as an army of thirty, ready to go off into the madness. But our army was no match for what we were about to encounter. Ten steps into our journey, we were already being attacked by the children of the neighborhood. Half of us were completely soaked only ten minutes into our walk.

I knew what to expect because I had been in Yerevan during Vartavar in 2008. But even so, I did not expect the level of chaos that took place at Garabi Lich (Swan Lake) park. You could feel water hitting you from every direction. The locals felt no mercy; everyone was a target. People were being pushed into the pond every second. What I enjoyed the most was passing by Parliament and seeing two guards carrying another guard to be thrown into the fountain. It really showed how everyone participates in this amazingly unique holiday where no one is safe.

On the way back when we were nearly home, we were splashed by a policeman, once again reminding me how full of life the people of this country are and making me fall in love with the city even more. Even though some of us left with battle wounds, I know we all left with an experience that we will never forget..