By Armen Yerevanian
Flowers do not traditionally represent solidarity, but as I watched them placed two by two in succession, I couldn’t help but feel the sense of collective identity they inspired. Fellow Armenians would walk up to the Tsitsernakaberd memorial and place a pair of flowers against the eternal flame, assembling a wall that served to honor those who passed. The wall of flowers was constructed by everyone; by native Armenians, diasporan Armenians and non-Armenians, who were fortunate to participate in the commemoration. The colorful mosaic served as a symbol for how our differences have not prevented us from coming together to cherish our cultural and historical legacy.
These differences were on my mind during my descent into Zvartnots airport. As a diasporan Armenian who spoke a distinctly different dialect, and having lived all my life in the West, I was both uneasy and excited about living in Yerevan. My goal was to fit in, to become comfortable with the Armenian way of life. Driving from the airport at night only reinforced that I was in a different world. The streets of Yerevan did not remind me of my suburban neighborhood of Calabasas, CA back in the US.
The very premises of this goal were wrong, however. When I arrived at my host family’s home, it was a familiar welcome, into a living room that looked very much like my own. What I was noticing in the first few days I was here, was that there were more similiarities than differences. The superficial differences were many, as exemplified by differences in clothing, in body language and in certain social behaviors. What I felt however, was that I had a fundamental understanding of how my local peers thought and acted. I felt I could connect with them through an Armenian pathos, through a way of looking at the world passed down from my parents and grandparents that partly defined my Armenian identity.
This was most strongly apparent while attending the practice session of a local dance group. As I joined hands with my peers and practiced traditional folkdances, the sense of commensality through dance was empowering. In performing in unison with the group, I was aware that through our collective moment we were cherishing the same legacy. We all derived the same meaning behind the movements, and appreciated the stories behind their creation. I was no longer a Western Armenian or a diasporan Armenian; I was Armenian. And through being Armenian, I was invested in the culture’s wellbeing. I had a stake in keeping that culture alive.
Much of that investment has been channeled into my internship. Through the help of Birthright Armenia and the Armenian Volunteer Corps, I was fortunate to receive an internship at the National Competitiveness Foundation of Armenia. A newly formed organization, the NCFA has given me an opportunity to provide hands-on help in ensuring Armenia’s economic future. By working on various economic competitiveness projects, I know that I am providing a service that will benefit future Armenians. Back home, the concept of helping Armenia was an abstract one, or was the simple act of signing a check for an annual charity. Serving as an intern in this organization, however, has provided me with an opportunity to be proactive and look into the best ways to chart a new economic path for Armenia.
The work allows me to closely examine the nature of Armenia’s economy and society. When I came in 2004 as a tourist, I only got a shallow understanding of how people lived and what the country’s true situation was. Historical monuments and tourist attractions allowed me to connect with my culture, but they did not provide much insight into the developments. But through the field research I perform now, interacting with people from various institutes and organizations, I am getting a sense of how the country operates, and the often crippling limitations and challenges that Armenia faces have come into view. This information is crucial for being a true actor for change. Only by truly comprehending the nature of Armenia’s political and social infrastructure can one hope to make a lasting impact on the country. Through my current work experience, I am acquiring the knowledge and the skills to allow me to do that in the future.
Finding people with similar passions as mine makes these endeavors all the more exciting. One of the difficulties in the Diaspora is that often, you feel alone in your interest in contributing to Armenia. A perception of apathy exists, which makes mobilization difficult. Birthright Armenia has allowed me to interact with people who show a similar excitement for bringing change to Armenia, and who feel a sense of connection even under conditions of great distance and cultural assimilation. Having peers from the US, France, Argentina, Russia and elsewhere working with me reinforces the idea that the mission to better Armenia is an important one. I gain strength in knowing that I am not the only one putting flowers on a memorial. Rather, my contribution is one of many, a coalition whose purpose is to showcase the determination that defines the Armenian people. And as my flowers have built a wall at Tsitsernakaberd, I hope my contributions play a role in a luminous future for Armenia.
Armen Yerevanian, 23, is currently an Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC) volunteer being sponsored by Birthright Armenia in Armenia until early June 2009. A graduate of Harvard University, he will attend Case Western Medical School in the fall.
Birthright Armenia envisions a powerful, broad-based network of organizations and individuals committed to making service to and experiences in Armenia an essential rite of passage afforded to all young Armenians across the world.
Birthright Armenia envisions:
A significant percentage of Diasporan youth having personal ties to Armenia, a better understanding of the social, cultural, economic, and political issues and needs there, and globally participating in Armenia's development.
Energized and inspired Armenian homeland youth, committed to remaining in Armenia, as a result of a better understanding of their critical role in nation building and a stronger connection to their Diasporan counterparts.
The development of future leaders of the Diaspora with a better understanding of and strong ties with the homeland, promoting the importance of participation in Armenia's development within their local communities worldwide.
How to contact Birthright Armenia?
By email, please write to us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also reach us by telephone or fax at: 610-642-6633.
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