Volunteer Under Mt. Ararat in Armenia
The People Embody Its Dignity and Strength
Armenia is a little difficult to reach, and not an easy country to travel in, but it would be hard to find a more welcoming population or more fascinating mix of cultures. In the capital, Yerevan, you could have a Greek lunch, spicy Georgian food, drink, dancing at dinner, and then enjoy jazz at an Armenian bar. Your taxi driver may speak French because he was an engineer in Algeria for years. And, like everywhere, you can find a teenager to help you translate.
Unfortunately for Armenians, business is not booming, corruption is rampant, and under-employment is a problem. It is common to find the crafts market seller of hand-carved wooden boxes is actually a chemical engineer. One recent medical school graduate, trained as a heart surgeon, took a security guard job at the American Embassy because it paid more than a hospital.
But it is a stirring country. The stunningly strong image of Mt. Ararat that dominates Yerevan is echoed in the strength and pride of the people and culture: a low crime rate, low living costs, and world-class philharmonic, dance groups, opera, and other cultural events which are virtually free. Street vendors proudly insist on returning change from your purchase of one or two cents.
Those who would like to get involved in Armenia have many choices. Some organizations are church-sponsored, and others like the Armenian Volunteer Corps and Hamazkayin-Armenian Cultural and Educational Society specialize in helping Armenians who live abroad to learn more about their cultural inheritance by arranging trips and work projects in rural areas.
Another choice, the well-known Habitat for Humanity, is simply grateful for groups willing to carry buckets and stones to help build and fix up simple housing. According to their figures, an estimated 50 to 60 percent of all Armenians live in unacceptable housing. Individuals can contact the Armenian branch of Habitat for Humanity to join up with prearranged group projects.
Another short-term choice, particularly for the diaspora of ethnic Armenian people living elsewhere, is the Armenian Cultural and Educational Society. Peruse the Hamazkayin website (see More Info) for details on their big event, the Summer Forum, a 2-week cultural experience for young people. The organizations mission is to preserve the ethnic identity and heritage of Armenian people living outside Armenia.
One of the most important institutions in Yerevan is the AUA, the American University of Armenia, a graduate school primarily funded by donations from the diaspora. Recent stock-market problems have reduced its funding and it may need volunteers. The schools charming library director, Bella Avakian, is the person to contact. She is well-connected and speaks good English.
For those who dont know how or where they want to get involved, an initial exploratory tour might be the answer. The famous Tufenkian Foundation has short tours where you can learn about such village skills as making delicious Armenian yogurt, matsun, and visit with the people. Nigol and Zabelle (parev@arminco), who operate a bed and breakfast in Yerevan, can arrange custom-designed tours for your interests.
You will feel needed and appreciated no matter what talents you bring. Armenians love entertaining visitors, and you will have the chance to meet a quietly passionate and fiercely proud group of people.
For More Info
www.armenianvolunteer.org. This NGO will make arrangements for visitors, including short-term options. Contact Jason Demerjian, the director, for more information.
www.hamazkayin.com is the website of the Cultural and Educational Society, which has groups in Canada, U.S., Europe, South America, and the Middle East.
aua.am is the site for the American University of Armenia. Graduate level only, they have MBA, computer science, engineering, health sciences, and teaching English programs.