Flour, vegetable oil, rice, pasta, salt, preserves and… sports equipment. That’s what Maral Manoukian managed to buy for COAF summer camps in Artsakh through fundraising…
When Maral, a Birthright volunteer from Australia, initiated a fundraising campaign for the COAF Humanitarian Assistance Program Summer Camps in the Republic of Nagorno-Karabagh, she couldn’t even imagine she would raise enough to pay for the meals and sports equipment for all the camp-goers. However, she made it happen with the help of her large network in Australia and thanks to this 250 children in COAF camps in Martakert and Gishi enjoyed hot meals and played outdoor games for 10 days.
Contributing to summer camps in Artsakh was not Maral’s only involvement in the life of rural communities in Armenia. As a volunteer, she participated in a number of projects, from teaching research skills to doing dental check-ups in rural areas.
“However COAF was definitely the highlight for me,” Maral says. “COAF is an incredible organisation and is doing so much for disadvantaged children in impoverished villages of Armenia. The trips to the villages really opened up my eyes to the reality of the issues that our people are facing in the homeland. It was very surprising to see how difficult it is for people living in places like Armavir to access basic necessities. But being a part of making that change was truly rewarding, and I created wonderful bonds with the amazing staff that helped me every step of the way.”
Maral’s experience in Armenia was unique because she had family in the village she was volunteering in. “During my first two months in Armenia I had visited the village of Hatsik in the Armavir region on a number of occasions to visit relatives of my grandmother that had migrated from Syria back to Armenia in the 80s. One day one of my aunts that works at the village school mentioned COAF and the work they do in their village. Immediately I enquired through Birthright Armenia and began volunteering with COAF the following week. COAF was very flexible and found volunteering opportunities in the same village where my family was. They made my experience working in the villages as smooth a transition as it could be.
Coming from Sydney, one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world, it was a very different world to what I was from. But I was able to stay in the village with my relatives during the week and teach research skills workshops to high school students at their school, where many of my cousins attended, and two of my aunties taught. I spent ordinary days in the village of Hatsik with my relatives, eating dinner with them, going to funerals, going to “panagi kef’s” when my cousins left for the army, laughing with them and crying with them. It was the real thing. I got to see what everyday life was like in Hatsik. I would go back to Yerevan with COAF staff whenever I needed to. This way I got the best of both worlds and I was able to live the reality that I never knew existed. This included all the power outages, all the water outages, the slaughtering of pigs, the Christmas barbecue that followed and, most significantly, no WiFi!” Maral says.
This experience definitely changed and shaped Maral’s perspective of Armenia as a whole. “Seeing how difficult life is outside picture-perfect Yerevan was very important for me. As a young Diasporan it is essential for each of us to climb out of our comfort zones and really try to understand why Armenia is the way it is,” Maral says. “Once we have that understanding we can begin to question what role we as individuals can play to make a change in our homeland and take a step forward. My small role had massive implications, and although you are only one person, you too can make a large impact on the lives of many.”