By Renee Bunn
I have a vivid memory of my hands shaking as I awaited my luggage at Zvartnots Airport.
I had made a leap of faith and decided to come live and volunteer in Armenia through a program called Birthright. This would not only be my first trip abroad, but I was doing it alone in a country where I did not know the language.
No other members in my immediate family had visited Armenia either. I was experiencing a fear of the unknown: what was on the other side of baggage claim? Would I be disappointed due to unrealistic expectations I had developed living in the diaspora? After 20 hours of flying to reach my destination, there was nothing to lose. I took my baggage and made my way out. Little did I know that dozens of people were awaiting my arrival.
I was tricked into thinking that there was an issue with my luggage, so I walked with two people (disguised as airport security) who turned out to be a Birthright staff member and a volunteer. I was greeted in the airport café by a flashmob of people, balloons, handmade posters, a custom t-shirt, and a cake.
The only thing I remember is everything turning hazy and tears starting to fall. I learned that I was Birthright Armenia’s 1000th volunteer. When the shock faded away and the hype was in the past, I began to analyze what this title really meant. All of the attention I received upon my homecoming did not mean I would have an easy transition into the culture, nor did it mean I had a free pass on my work efforts. I knew that this would be a huge position to fill.
Birthright is a program that brings Armenians from the worldwide diaspora to their ancestral homeland: Armenia. For many who participate, it is their first time visiting the country. The volunteers can live with a host family and volunteer in either the capital Yerevan or the next biggest cities, Gyumri and Vanadzor. We took weekly excursions and were given the chance to visit some of the most ancient landmarks in present-day in Armenia. The program allows you to spend plenty of time with both volunteers and locals, so we were always meeting new people and learning about other Armenians’ stories. One commonality among us is that we all have a fascinating tale explaining how we ended up where we live today.
After spending a few days in Yerevan, my real adventure began.
I moved to Vanadzor, a small and beautiful city in Armenia’s northern Lori region. I easily became acquainted with some locals and the other volunteers also serving in Vanadzor. Not knowing Armenian was a bit of a barrier at first, because it is much more difficult to find English speakers in Vanadzor than it is in Yerevan. It turned out to be helpful because I was forced to learn some Armenian quickly in order to communicate with people. With the help of my friends and my Birthright coordinator, I settled in and began to love my new home.
Vanadzor is surrounded by green, lush mountains. We always noted that it looked like an oil painting in the backdrop of the city. It embodies remnants of Soviet times: there are many abandoned factories in the outskirts of the city as well as old cafes and amusement park rides within the city. It is incredibly fascinating to observe all of the history that remains and to discuss with the locals about life during that era. Vanadzor was a sprawling city in Soviet Armenia. With the Union’s collapse came lingering problems that still exist in the city today. Without spending time working in the city, I would never have known so much about the locals’ concerns.
Through my work with a local NGO called Union of Lori Citizens, I became educated on issues faced by the people of Armenia. A phrase used by a local resonates with me:
“Armenia is a real country with real people.”
It is something we often neglect to consider in the diaspora. It is not just my family’s former homeland on the other side of the world. Armenia is still inhabited by many people with great concern over the future of their country. I discovered that some were discontent with the lack of development of the city. Some were upset with the quality of roads and buildings. Some were frustrated with the government. I found it very interesting to discuss these issues with Vanadzor residents.
In addition to my work with an NGO, I lead English clubs and did activities at American Corner in the Lori Regional Library during my stay there. My volunteer work was immensely rewarding in the meaningful friendships I made with the locals. It taught me not only about the people of Armenia but about myself as well. The experience was always changing day by day, but internal struggle and personal development were the only consistent factors during my time with Birthright.
My field of study at San Diego State University, International Security and Conflict Resolution, gathered more importance as I spent time in Armenia. The experiences I had during my volunteer work and through my excursions around Armenia helped me realize the power I have to do something for this country and for the world.
My favorite experience during Birthright was my last excursion, when we traveled to Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh. I have studied this conflict in the Caucasus independently for years out of personal interest. This disputed region is one which not many people are aware of and beyond that, almost no one has the opportunity to visit it. I was lucky enough to have the chance to live with a host family for a weekend and to explore the region. We had a meeting with the president and also visited the border, which is one of the most contentious in the entire world. We even had the chance to spend time with some of the soldiers. I finally felt like the conflict was given life. It was no longer an article online or a page in a book. It was a real concept, and all prior knowledge I had was unequivocal to the hands-on experience.
I had this recurring realization about many things in Armenia. My presence in the country brought it all to life. The monasteries and the mountains that you grow up seeing in photos become a reality. At any given moment, you are surrounded by breathtaking views of the Caucuses and picturesque landscapes. The very essence of being Armenian emerges as a deeper experience than anything I could have imagined before visiting the country. It is a feeling that I would not trade for anything.
It is enriching beyond comprehension to wander the land your family once inhabited.
In Yerevan stands a 167-foot personification of Armenia called Mayr Hayastan (Mother Armenia). She looks over the capital and faces Turkey with military equipment her side. Standing beside her, atop the hill she rests on, I began to feel the history beneath my feet.
100 years ago, the Armenian Genocide commenced across that border. Gazing out at Mount Ararat, a historically Armenian mountain, and realizing that it no longer belongs to this country, I felt both sadness and contempt. My family was driven out of their homeland just on the other side of Ararat from Van. Now it is inhabited by a different ethnic people and there has been no justice for the atrocities committed there. My Birthright experience will never be fulfilled, I realized, until I visit my family’s old village. Armenians refer to the land west of the mountain as “Western Armenia” and the world calls it “Eastern Turkey”.
It was at that moment that I realized borders are symbolic but the land on this Earth truly belongs to us all collectively.
I went to honor the 1.5 million lost during the genocide by taking a few trips to Tsitsernakaberd, a memorial and museum. It is very sobering to place flowers at the eternal flame and to feel the heaviness that this country still suffers from. The museum is fascinating. It is easy to get lost in time looking at the artifacts, photos, old documents, and descriptions written on the walls.
Evidence sits right in that museum of what happened to the Armenians, but in a realist geopolitical perspective, evidence is not enough. I have been studying the genocide for years after growing up hearing about it in my family and have always been motivated to teach others and to seek justice. Visiting this memorial was a tipping point.
I am angry that 100 years have passed and Turkey has not been brought to justice for its Ottoman predecessors’ actions. I am angry that 1.5 million Armenians and over a million other Christian Greek and Assyrian victims died in cold blood. I am angry that my own government is bowing to the feet of evil.
I left Armenia with a lot of baggage – both physical and emotional. The first encounter I had with my homeland is one that I will cherish until I am old and gray.
My biggest takeaway was something I never could have achieved without traveling to Armenia: understanding. There is an old Armenian saying: “three apples fell from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for he who listens, and one for he who understands.”
My homeland came to life and I have never been more inspired to give my continued service to it. Being a descendant of genocide survivors, I realized that it is not only my birthright to visit Armenia, but my duty as well. Contributing to Armenia is the least I can do in honor of my fallen ancestors and all of those who shed blood on that land.