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..