“I discovered Armenia for myself. Even though I had very little information inherited from my father about my native country, by coming here I realized that in a deep corner of my heart there’s a little Armenia, made from my emotions and impressions.”
American Armenian Grace Yacoubian, 23, has discovered
herself in Armenia through Depi Hayk (Towards
Armenia), a volunteer program making its first
mission here this summer.
volunteers on a "journey of self-discovery"
She is one of forty who are seeing places such as Ararat and Sevan for real, while also discovering the reality of Armenia by spending two months doing volunteer work.
“The main purpose of the organization is to increase the number of youngsters visiting Armenia, since today we have independent Armenia, so what can become an obstacle for Diaspora young people to visit Armenia?” says Linda Yepoyan, executive director of Birthright Armenia, Depi Hayk’s parent organization.
The answer to Yapoyan’s question was answered in a poll conducted by the organization that found a majority of Diaspora youth eager to visit, but short of funds to do so.
Depi Hayk was founded to not only assist young adults’ desire to see the mother land, but to accommodate volunteer spirit by paying for their travel here.
Other organizations such as Volunteer Corps of Armenia and Land and Culture Organization have conducted volunteer programs for many years for visitors who find their own means for getting to Armenia.
“We decided to assist those organizations who already had programs of bringing youth groups to Armenia by paying travel expenses of participants,” says Yepoyan.
By cooperating with 7 organizations –
Armenian Assembly of America, Armenian Medical
Association, Armenian Church Youth Organization
of America (ACYOA), Armenian Students Association,
Armenian Volunteer Corps, Armenian Youth Federation,
Land and Culture Organization (LCO) -- Birthright
Armenia carried out its patriotic work.
According to Yepoyan, Birthright Armenia's mission is to strengthen ties between the homeland and Diaspora youth by affording them an opportunity to be a part of Armenia's daily life and to contribute to Armenia's development through work, study and volunteer experiences.
is mixed with group excursions
Participants, from age 18 to 30, are placed in volunteer jobs according to skills and interests.
“One of Birthright Armenia's guiding principles is the belief that all experiences in Armenia should encourage immersion into the native population instead of viewing it from the outside,” says Yepoyan.
Volunteer are also given a chance to visit sights
of Armenia and Artsakh, which according to the
organizers also has an important teaching purpose.
The first group of volunteers have already visited
Khorvirap, Noravank, Goshavank, Haghartsin, Haghpat,
Sanahin and other places.
Meetings with various non governmental organizations and government officials are organized to give volunteers an overview of needs, issues and problems faced by average Armenians.
Birthright Armenia even took care of the volunteers’
language problem. On the website of the organization
are free classes for learning Armenian, which
are available not only for participants but for
anyone who is planning to visit Armenia.
The learning begins pre-departure with an interactive on-line tutorial, complete with on-line testing capability focusing on speaking, reading and listening skills. The program includes 12 on-line lessons, which cover pretests, grammar, vocabulary, dialogues, reading exercises, and tests to gauge progress.
“We always tell the participants of Depi Hayk that they are unique ambassadors. When you’re here you represent Diaspora and are ambassadors from there, and when you return for all your friends and relatives there you have to be ambassadors of Armenia and have to present your native country at its true worth,” says Yepoyan.
“The volunteers of Depi Hayk will enjoy and study their native country for another month, but they’ve already started loving and appreciating as its people,” says Sonia Shahrigian.
“Although I've been here for a short time, and
although my stay will last only 2 months, I can
confidently say that I've never felt more at home
anywhere else,” says Sonia Shahrigian. “Now,
I know why some Armenians are afraid to come here;
they are afraid that they might never want to leave,
and might have trouble picking up the roots they
have planted elsewhere. But the deepest, strongest
root is deeply buried in Armenian soil, which is
why so many of us feel like we are coming ‘back’
when we come to Armenia, even if we've never physically
been here before".