By Anahit Movsesyan | Armenia
I didn’t know what to expect from internship here at Children of Armenia Fund – I wasn’t sure how I can help out but the Medical Mission with AAHPO has really put things into perspective for me. I’m a new graduate of Michigan State University (Go Green!) and have received a degree in Nutritional Sciences. My focus here at COAF has been to educate people about nutrition, since it is the primary way people can control health and disease. I am also on the path to become a Physician Assistant, therefore being able to participate on the medical mission was a real treat. Three days before the mission, I spent a lot of time answering the phone at the COAF office and fitting patients into time slots for our awesome doctors. The phone would ring repeatedly and after a while I even started to hear it in my sleep. You could imagine I was ready to dive into the medical mission.
In 2012, I had the opportunity to shadow Armenian surgeons in the OR at Mikaelian Surgical Institute here in Armenia. I really got to learn a lot and see the perspective of the doctors and nurses as well as the structure of the Armenian health system. Upon meeting the doctors on Friday, May 25th, I got really excited that I could see their viewpoint of health issues in Armenia. As a COAF intern, I was up for anything. Whatever needed to be done – photos, translations, setting tables, making coffee, cleaning up – I was willing to help.
I spent most of my time as a translator with Dr. Najarian, and it really turned out to be a rewarding experience. I was born in Armenia and lived here for about 11 years so I guess you can say I’m a fluent speaker although I don’t know any medical terminology in Armenian. I think this is why the doctors at COAF placed me as a translator, so I can explain and translate things in the simplest ways for our patients to understand. But it really was so much more than translating. I learned numerous things about the eye from Dr. Najarian as he would say explain things to me during his screenings. “I’m just saying this for you, you don’t have to translate,” became a common phrase in Dr. Najarian’s exam room. We saw a lot of people complain of ‘tired eyes’, which I learned is usually caused by dryness of the eyes. It came to a point where I had a script for dry eyes that I’d read (from my mind) to the patients.
There was one case that really left an impression on me. Petros, in his late 50s, was completely blind from cataracts. To realize that this blindness is reversible really showed me what the medical mission is about. Even if the doctors help 5 people out of 100, it’s worth it. It was a real pleasure to meet and speak with all the doctors, nurses, and health professionals. I really learned a lot and I’m happy that I got to be a part of the AAHPO Medical Mission in Armenia.
By Lousine Aga-Sarkisian | Armenia
I’ve come to realize that a summer in Armenia is not enough-not enough to see the land my parents are from and definitely not enough to feel satisfied helping my people. But, I have determined that a summer is enough time to learn about the needs of the people here and to recognize my love for my culture.
I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, a city with very few Armenians. Yet, my family has always worked to keep me and my siblings learning and interested in our culture. As a first year medical student at Morehouse School of Medicine, I knew I had this one summer to work or play and decided that through Birthright Armenia I could do both! My internship at Children of Armenia Fund (COAF) has filled both of those categories as the people here are so light hearted and so passionate about their work that it no longer seems like work. My first year of medical school brought me many challenges, and I had somewhat lost my motivation. My first day at COAF changed all of that as my three bosses, Lusine Antonyan, Nune Dolyan, and Lusine Sahakyan, (in alphabetical order!) came to the table with so many ideas to help the communities of their target villages. Their passion, efficiency, and constant strive to learn new things has brought my motivation up to a whole new level.
When I found out that healthcare providers associated with the Armenian American Health Professionals Organization (AAHPO) were coming to work with COAF and to see patients in our associated villages, I was more than excited! The first morning, our team went to the polyclinic in Myasnikyan Village, Armavir Marz. When we got there, the physicians, nurses, and even the cleaning lady were running around to help us get the place set up and hospitable for our guests. I spent the first day watching and helping Dr. Garbis Baydar, a pediatrician from New Jersey, as he saw patient after patient. Many of the children this day had sore throat related issues, and Dr. Baydar was prepared as he had brought a strep throat kit. All of the staff was intrigued as this was new for them, and a couple of the children were actually diagnosed. We then went to the Armavir City Hospital where we were taken on a tour and spent some time talking to and eating fruit with the chief physician of the hospital.
I spent the next day with Dr. Lucy Tovmasian, an obstetrician/gynecologist from New Jersey, as she met with patient after patient. Her experience was a bit different as the women in the villages are definitely not accustomed to our practices in the United States. Patients would come in with their mothers or mother-in-laws, and whole groups of people would stand in the room talking, not providing the patient with the privacy we are accustomed to. We eventually talked to the staff, and I hope that this brought patient privacy to the forefront of the community. The next village we went to was Dsegh, Lori Marz. Dsegh has a completely different vibe. Its landscape is lush and green, and the people live a somewhat more peaceful, potentially less stressful life. All of the patients were so kind and thankful for Dr. Tovmasian’s careful touch and expertise. We recognized that here, a large number of the patients were suffering from some level of pelvic prolapse. Dr. Tovmasian’s dream is to come back and do surgeries for these patients, and I pray her dream becomes a reality.
I can’t express the gratitude I have for my bosses at COAF, my co-intern Anahit Movsesyan, the healthcare providers from AAHPO, the healthcare providers in Myasnikyan and Dsegh, and most importantly the patients in these villages for being tolerant with me and giving me the opportunity to learn and grow from and with them. This summer is one I’ll never forget, and I can’t wait to come back here with more skills and experience to be able to help in a greater magnitude.
By Meline Karakashian, PhD | Armenia
Having recovered from an unexpected illness, I’d like to share some observations belatedly.
Spent two days at Armavir region’s Miasnikyan health center (on behalf of AHHPO) where practicing psychologists, school psychologists and externs gathered for a roundtable discussion. I had met several of them years ago during my Fulbright Lecturing tenure when I provided consultation, supervision & training to “psychologists” parallel to my university lectures. Here, in this blog, I share my observations and impressions.
While in the past few years, my advice to colleagues in Armenia was to develop a “school of psychology typical to Armenian clients,” during these two days, I became convinced that it would indeed be good. For example, the book of fables that a former trainee wrote a few years ago (and already published by COAF), is being used productively by the practicing psychologist. In Armenia, teaching values and life lessons through fables is an accepted method (Hovhannes Toumanyan is the renowned author of fables). Similarly, Tamara Harutunyan’s book of fables was used well by the psychologist to teach socialization skills to children with autistic characteristics. This approach was interesting to me.
The one area, it seems to me, psychologists need more skill development is diagnosis. In Armenia, the field of psychology consisted of industrial (production) and educational psychology (pedagogy), primarily, during the Soviet era. Some forensic and medical psychology was practiced. Clinical psychology became a lecture topic in 1993 (my first Fulbright Lecturing). Following the 1988 earthquake, the need for school psychology became evident and teachers received retraining to fill this void by the Education Ministry. However, this field remained in its infancy since it was an imported field and the tools of the trade were not available (i.e., normed tests were not available in Armenia, supervised experience was hard to come by), and corresponding public laws were lacking. The exception was the Ravens Progressive Matrices non-verbal test which a colleague normed in Armenia in the early 1990s and which was being used by psychologists.
The burgeoning field of clinical psychology, while accepted by the populace, became an orphan. As a result, clinical psychologists practiced unlicensed in spite of many efforts to legitimize the field. “Best Practice” standards were not developed and remained at the mercy of the practicing psychologist.During the “round table,” the AAHPO missionary psychiatrist & the Miasnikyan Center chief psychiatrist sat in during the psychologists’ case discussions when comparisons were offered. A demonstration of a treatment technique popular in the USA was done. The Armenia psychologists asked for tools/tests in Armenian which cannot be imported. Also, challenging client cases were presented and brought in for play therapy.
My conclusions are: (a) a “school of psychology” is needed in Armenia that is culture-friendly. For example, Armenians in the Middle Ages wrote about the healing effects of music (see Komitas Vartabed . Pjshgootyoon yerajshdootyamp [Healing with music], in Amenoon Daretsooytseh, 224-226). The early writings and methods of healing need exploration, I believe. Culture specific therapeutic approaches need to be developed in Armenia, not imported. Perhaps, they are in practice already and need to be formulated. (b) The field of practicing psychology needs to be legitimized. I believe those in the field for a number of years could be grandfathered into licensure, others would need to pass licensure test. As to which ministry could undertake this responsibility is a local determination. The contribution of practicing psychologists is supported by the fact that clients seek out their help and seem to benefit from their services. Their need is real.
During the two days of AAHPO mission, my suggestion was to adopt a culture of referral between psychologists and physicians, and to continue the benefit of peer support groups—initiated years ago. Since the social/economic system in Armenia has changed so drastically in the past 25 years, psychologists treat disorders that may be rarely seen by psychologists in the USA, yet, that may be seen weekly in Armavir. The job of the psychologist is challenging, yet, they tackle difficulties with courage.Let me add that I was glad to be able to consult with AAHPO Mission doctors for second opinion and to rule out disorders.Thank you, COAF for this opportunity to serve and thank you, AAHPO, for making this Mission possible. Sorry I missed Lori Mars and Karabagh. Waiting for next week in Armavir.
By Dr. Lawrence V. Najarian | Armenia
We took the weekend off for much-needed R & R. Some members flew in last Sunday and have been working nonstop. Our morale is high and we exchange stories about the cases we see. It is really nice to have a multispecialty team and we refer cases to each other a lot. There is a really good esprit de corps that has developed.
That is why we were so concerned when one of members did not show up for roll call this morning. All was well the night before yet she was missing and not responding to phone calls. It turns out she was weak from nausea and vomiting all night. Fortunately we have Greg Koobatian, MD, a gastroenterologist, with us and he helped a lot. By the evening she was feeling better. Several others on the team had similar symptoms but not as bad. Lesson: never go on a mission without a gastroenterologist! Personally, I have had rumbling tummy syndrome on three of my previous visits. Let’s hope I do not go four for four!
We were all impressed with how much the local health care providers want to learn and share information. Many of us are planning to remain in communication after we return home. Garbis Baydar, MD took special satisfaction that the doctor he worked with will help many more patients than the ones he was able to see alone. This is his second mission and many of us want to return here as well.
We are looking forward to another busy day tomorrow in the Children of Armenia Fund Villages in Lori Mars. We are grateful to Nune Dolyan, MD, MPH and her team for making our visit so rewarding and productive.
We took the weekend off for much-needed R & R. Some members flew in last Sunday and have been working nonstop. Our morale is high and we exchange stories about the cases we see. It is really nice to have a multispecialty team and we refer cases to each other a lot. There is a really good esprit de corps that has developed.That is why we were so concerned when one of members did not show up for roll call this morning. All was well the night before yet she was missing and not responding to phone calls. It turns out she was weak from nausea and vomiting all night. Fortunately we have Greg Koobatian, MD, a gastroenterologist, with us and he helped a lot. By the evening she was feeling better. Several others on the team had similar symptoms but not as bad. Lesson: never go on a mission without a gastroenterologist! Personally, I have had rumbling tummy syndrome on three of my previous visits. Let’s hope I do not go four for four!
We were all impressed with how much the local health care providers want to learn and share information. Many of us are planning to remain in communication after we return home. Garbis Baydar, MD took special satisfaction that the doctor he worked with will help many more patients than the ones he was able to see alone. This is his second mission and many of us want to return here as well.We are looking forward to another busy day tomorrow in the Children of Armenia Fund Villages in Lori Mars. We are grateful to Nune Dolyan, MD, MPH and her team for making our visit so rewarding and productive.
By Joyce Shoghig Kurdian, DMD | Armenia
It has been a wonderful week. We visited a COAF (Children of Armenia Fund) clinic in Armenia. This is my third year doing dental/medical mission work in Armenia, and each time my heart breaks a little… The dentists do the vest they can with what why have in the villages, and the children are so grateful for any care that they receive, but there is an unexpected amount of fear or lack of access… They are not used to anesthetic and are very scared but then are amazed when the experience is over! They have primary medical coverage in Armenia, but no dental care coverage: Dental care is very expensive here so many go without. Of all the children I saw all had rampant baby bottle caries! Multiple tooth extractions at even age four…. This is not seen in America anymore: So sad because it is so preventable. And the dentists here do the best that they can with the limited resources they have. There is so much we can do with education and giving primary care: So much to do, but such an inspiration to be here with AAHPO.
By Dr. Garbis Baydar | Armenia
We had two successful days in Armavir and tomorrow we will be working in the village of Dsegh. I saw thirty patients in Armavir, the parents were very appreciative but more than that, the young pediatrician I worked with told me that she learned a lot in two days from me. She appreciated the medical supplies I brought with me as well.
We had two successful days in Armavir and tomorrow we will be working in the village of Dsegh. I saw thirty patients in Armavir the parents were very appreciative but more than that the young pediatrician I worked with told me that she learned a lot in two days from me. She appreciated the medical supplies I brought with me as well.
By Dr. Gregor Koobatian | Armenia
Enjoyed meeting the doctors and healthcare providers at the COAF clinic in Myasnikyan. Saw many patients and hopefully was able to help. I learned a lot from the patients and the doctors. Look forward to Dsegh.
Medical Mission Begins!By Dr. Lawrence V. Najarian | Armenia
Patients I saw today:
As a young professional with a medical background and specializing in public health at AUA, I sought an internship in the nonprofit sector, so that I can learn more about the functioning of non-governmental organizations that use community-led approaches to reduce poverty, with a focus on healthcare. Internships in the public sector are important in understanding the role of organizations and the scope of action in working on societal problems, especially concerning health. I was fortunate to intern at International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), World Vision International Armenia and finally Children of Armenia Fund (COAF).
Working at COAF sparked my interest to learn more about the organization, as well as gaining insight in working with children and being able to be of use to the younger generation as a professional dentist. The experience at COAF broadened my knowledgebase by allowing me to implement projects in rural regions of the country. The objective of the project was to establish and promote healthy oral hygiene habits among children living in COAF-supported villages in the Armavir region of Armenia, along with the prevention and treatment of dental caries.
The COAF staff’s friendliness and openness allowed me to integrate easily and I was immediately involved in teamwork. Witnessing the tangible change COAF makes in the lives of children and the positive impact on their behavior made a lasting impression on me. I witnessed and took part in COAF’s efforts at changing the lives of children in rural areas, as well as helping them have equal opportunities with children living in cities. I appreciate the way in which COAF creates the right conditions for rural children to grow up as healthy members of society, focusing not only on education or health issues, but on all spheres that impact a child's life.My experience at COAF has immeasurably impacted my aptitude in various fields such as team work, report writing/analytical writing, organizational competence, project planning, organization and coordination. COAF is an organization that offers tremendous opportunities to youth and professionals who are interested in pursuing careers in the building civil society in Armenia. I believe strongly that COAF should continue to offer similar internship opportunities to young professionals, since it allows individuals to build their capacity and appreciate the civil society sector and share a common vision.
I will always remember my seven month internship at COAF last year as an experience in learning how to share knowledge and expertise, along with discovering my full potential. My decision to pursue a long-term career in community service was influenced by my work at COAF, especially from a much broader national perspective. After several years of working closely with various public service organizations, I would gladly work with COAF in the future and have the opportunity to exchange skills and experiences.
Artem Vrshikyan is a dentist who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Public Health at the American University of Armenia (AUA). During his internship last year at COAF, Artem was engaged in assessments of dental decay prevalence among rural children, health education on oral hygiene, and provision of free dental care to socially vulnerable children. Artem completed his internship, yet continues to volunteer as a supervisor of the free dental care provided by COAF in target villages.
After his internship, Artem presented his experience to his peers and professors at AUA. His presentation drew significant attention from fellow students and staff, triggering discussion of COAF’s comprehensive and innovative dental program. According to Artem, his experience was very useful and relevant to his needs unlike many other students who were not satisfied with their internships. The work at COAF helped him in developing his master’s thesis proposal on improving education on oral hygiene in Armenia.
By Laura Zarougian | COAF Supporter| Chicago
The night of February 7th, I stood up in front of a packed audience at the MLG Gallery in Chicago and debuted my performance of This Armenian Life, a one-woman show that I wrote and directed. I had no idea what the audience would think. I hadn’t tried it out on my friends or my family. I had kept it to myself and my mirror. I thought that I would faint on stage. Instead, I started to speak. Hearing my voice felt like an out of body experience.
I’ve been working on a one-woman show for some time now. It actually began in college in my creative writing class. Our first assignment was to write a story about something that defined us. I wrote about my eyebrows and how they were intrinsically linked to my Armenian identity. The next story I wrote was written in the perspective of my grandmother reading my fortune in a cup of coffee. When I read it to my class, I read it in her heavily accented voice. It doesn’t work if I read it in an American accent, I explained to my professor. I decided to write down stories passed down from my grandparents as well, proverbs and Nasreddin Hodja stories I heard growing up. I compiled them all into a short collection for my final project.
I liked writing them down. I liked reading my own personal stories next to the folklore that was passed down in my family. They were interwoven like a carpet, the past and present, the fictional with the non-fiction. Exaggeration and storytelling go hand in hand. But that doesn’t make them any less beautiful or important. A story should change each time you tell it; it evolves with time, as we grow and change. We begin most stories in Armenian, “There was and there was not.”
I liked writing the stories, but I preferred to read them, to perform them. But as soon as I’d start to read them aloud, I had the inclination to ditch the script, to change the stories to fit my mood and my audience.
I started to work the stories into a piece I could perform. This past year I have been putting the stories together into a one-woman show that would get at the very heart of what being Armenian means to me – a compilation of the voices from my childhood- advice, proverbs, songs.
When I started my job at the gallery in Chicago this past summer, my boss asked me about my hobbies. I told him I love live theater and that in fact I was working on writing my own play. Great, he said, Pick a date and you’ll perform it here.
The gallery became a theater for the night of February 7th. In lieu of charging for admission, we asked the attendees to donate to COAF. I admire COAF’s work in Armenia in education, especially their focus on creativity, on encouraging students in Armenia to explore all artistic endeavors and to approach all subjects with the same fervor: to question and challenge and ask why, to truly tackle a problem using their own ingenuity.
I feel very lucky that my own education placed equal emphasis and importance on the arts as it did on the traditional subjects. Above all, creativity was valued the highest. I have my education to thank for encouraging me to create, to act, write and direct. It matters to me that children in Armenia have the opportunity to think creatively and have the encouragement to share their ideas.
By Rosette Babayan | COAF Volunteer | Armenia
When I first left Toronto, ready to begin my summer adventures, there were two things I promised myself that I would not do: volunteer work and teaching fitness classes. You see, all year long for the last several years, I have spent countless hours volunteering for organizations and schools, working with kids and planning events for kids. I have also taught fitness classes such as yoga, Zumba, and a myriad of others. Don't get me wrong, I love both of these things, they are my passion and they bring great satisfaction and pleasure to my life; but this year was a little different. I had a higher than usual volume of activities, I had gone back to working my two jobs, and now I had my second child in the mix, which someone affectionately once compared her to my own personal wrecking ball. They weren't being rude or mean, it really is a good description of her. Additionally, I had suffered an injury which my doctor suspected was due to overuse of my body. To a fitness Instructor, that prognosis is a definite cause for alarm, so I made the decision to take time off from teaching and volunteering to rest my body and my over-exerted giving soul. So imagine my surprise when while in Armenia, sitting across from a university friend I had not seen in years, I heard myself say the words: “I would LOVE to help!”
You might be wondering what caused this sudden change of heart. Was it the fact that I was in Armenia without my significant other and with two kids who were driving me nuts? Was it the number of unfortunate events that were causing me to seriously question my disbelief in the evil eye? Or was it that I was just plain bored? Honestly, it was sitting across from my friend Haig and hearing what he does for Children of Armenia Fund (COAF). I loved that the organization focuses its work to benefit children in rural villages in Armenia. I loved that they were improving education by helping upgrade the schools and making them more modern technologically. I also loved that they use local resources, including the people from the village itself, to help improve the knowledge and education available to the children. The more I heard about the organization, its roots, and its mission, the more I wanted to be a part of it even in a small way. So I asked how I could help and the answer was simple: they were having summer camps at the schools in the villages, and I would be able to go to two of them and teach a Zumba class. I figured this would be a great opportunity for my 7-year-old daughter to see what the schools and the village life was like outside of North America.
My trips to the villages of Vanand and Sardarapat were absolutely amazing. Although the children had never heard of Zumba before, or even Latin music, they danced their hearts out. They asked for more songs and laughed and cheered the whole time. At one point, I felt like I was the performer at a rock concert as I had all the kids surrounding me and dancing and cheering and following my every move. It didn’t matter that they had slippers and flower dresses on, they were dancing the Salsa, Bachata, and Merengue with more soul than any other group I had taught in years; and the appreciation that they had afterwards really humbled me. I watched the children interact with their teachers and admired the mutual respect and love they had for each other. I also watched my daughter befriend some girls and go off to the classroom with them to join in on their acrobatics lessons. I left the villages feeling rewarded, exhilarated and truly happy with my decision to volunteer even for a small amount of time. I hope that I will get another chance to be a part of this organization sometime in the future, since it truly was one of the highlights of my trip to Armenia.
By Sona Dagley | COAF Volunteer | Armenia
As I come to the end of my journey in Armenia, I want to reminisce on the amazing opportunity I was given by working with the Children of Armenia Fund (COAF) this summer. When I first walked into the office in Yerevan I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had met with some of the workers once, to discuss going to villages and organizing sports activities. This sounds like simple instruction, but once my work actually commenced I realized that this would not be as straightforward as it seemed. At first I was extremely nervous to talk to any of the COAF staff members because I didn’t know who spoke English, who I was actually working with, what each individual did, and how open they would be to a random American who dressed differently, had a different mentality, and didn’t speak the language, waltzing into their daily life.
The first camp session that I took part in was an English camp held in different villages. I expected to be interacting with kids who spoke English fluently, having no difficulty in communicating. Once all the kids arrived, I was introduced and they had the opportunity to ask me questions, and then the lessons began. What I did not realize is that when the camp is referred to as an “English camp,” that meant that at this camp the kids are LEARNING English. So I would actually be teaching them a lesson here and there, which I enjoyed and although it would be difficult to understand each other at times, seeing as that I have a very small Armenian vocabulary, we would piece everything together. At these camps, I loved how each kid wanted to share with me what they desired to do with their life! They expressed to me how they wanted to be translators, doctors, politicians, teachers, dancers - the common dreams of most adolescents. But when hearing it from these kids, I felt a sense of excitement for some reason. Perhaps it’s because I had certain expectations that were exceeded, or maybe because of how proud I am of the youth. I have worked with Armenian youth in America, but when being with the kids in the motherland, it is a whole different type of experience. As my work with the English camps came to a close, it was hard for me to part with everyone, but I knew that I was going to be volunteering at more camps where I hoped to impact additional kids.
As I spent more time in the office, I was surprised to see just how welcoming the staff members all were. At first it was a simple “barev” to only a few people, but eventually I felt that I had become a part of the team, with everyone smiling as they saw me walk in. In the mornings I looked forward to seeing everyone, saying hello, and catching up on how the rest of their day went the day before. When I would return from the villages, it was always an enjoyable time for me, telling everyone my stories from the day and how crazy yet great camp was. It was a very fun and loving community, with birthdays, and news of pregnancy, everyone was always happy at work, and this I will miss dearly.
The next two camp sessions I took part in were solely Armenian-speaking children, so as anyone can imagine, this was a whole new type of challenge. What really impacted me and touched a spot in my heart is the communication between the kids and me. They knew of my limited comprehension of Armenian, but no matter how much it took, they would do everything in their power to communicate with me. There were multiple strategies in which this conversing happened, a common occurrence was that a single kid would take charge and speak to me in Armenian, but when I didn’t understand a word they said, they would find a synonym that I knew in order to tell me what they wanted. Another way was through body language, for example I would connect my fingers to show them that I wanted them to stand in a circle, or I would perform an action and they would follow what I did. But one of the most entertaining yet frustrating forms of communication was when someone would try saying something and I would tell them that I didn’t understand, so in their head instead of trying something else, they would just repeat the word louder and louder, until everyone was yelling a word at me hoping that if their voices were raised I would understand them. No matter the tactic that we used to communicate it was always because we cared too much to let simple speaking get in our way of interaction.
With all the adventures I experienced with the kids, I do have a few favorites that I would like to share. Although it was terrifying at the time, there was one day where the kids all had tennis balls and were practicing bouncing them and tossing them up, but I wanted to make it a little more interesting. I motioned to one of the girls to throw the ball to me to start playing catch, then it caught the interest of a couple other kids, so I was juggling about five kids throwing balls at me at the same time, then once all of the kids realized what was going on there was a point in which tennis balls were just being hurled at me! Even though I felt frazzled, I let this go on for a while because, how often do kids have the opportunity to just continuously play with someone they look up to? Not very often, since we usually lose our temper or get tired, so I smiled with a little fear in my eyes, yet complete trust, and let the kids have at it. My other favorite memory is when at the closing ceremony, all the kids were in their seats watching the rehearsal before it was time for the actual show, and they see me walk in and everyone just starts waving, smiling, and calling out my name. As I made eye contact with every kid, their faces just lit up because they regarded me as some sort of celebrity! It’s not the attention that fills me with joy, it’s the thought that I have made an impact on their lives, even if it is the tiniest one, it is still something. Saying goodbye to this whole experience; the kids, the excitement, and my co-workers, was extremely difficult for me. I hope to be able to keep my connection through continuing to work for COAF, and hopefully one day, returning to Armenia and visiting the people that I have developed relationships with. That is a goal of mine, to show the kids that I will not forget them, that I love them dearly, and that when they least expect it, I will be there!
By Shant Amerkanian | COAF Supporter | Armenia
Having the opportunity to come to Armenia for the first time is amazing. Seeing the lively city of Yerevan and its many attractions may give you the thought that the whole country is just as luxurious. However, try traveling just a couple minutes out of the city. Instead of cafés and high rise apartments you see a wasteland of small communities in the shadow of abandoned factories.These towns appear to have been forgotten. The dirt roads and broken gas lines show that many regions and villages are falling apart like the old factories themselves. Clearly these villages are in desperate need of help. In the middle of these disaster‐struck towns there is a gleaming building. A school, a place for hope. This a place where the kids themselves can shine, some of which I saw today at COAF‐sponsored summer camps. While it may seem out of place among such difficult conditions, it is where it belongs. It is what the towns should have. It is the place where the next generation of the town will learn everything they need to thrive as a community. COAF has helped re‐build these beacons of hope for these towns and the fact that the parents of the children attending the school physically help to construct the schools shows the pride that they have in their children’s education and our nation’s future. COAF supports them with everything they need to give the children of these towns the education and life they deserve.
COAF’s medical centers are helping the towns with their care and teaching people how to take care of themselves. They are showing the towns how to be self sufficient in the future. By helping the children in these towns they are causing a snowball effect to happen in the rest of the town. Seeing this all with my own eyes was amazing. To see the contrasting parts of the towns in person was so different than hearing about it or seeing it in pictures. Interacting with the children in these schools and getting to know them even just a little showed me that COAF’s work has been successful. They are transforming these villages into self sufficient parts of our Mother country.
Shant Amerkanian, age 13
By COAF Staff | Armenia
Monday, March 24, 2014 - Following the World Water Day celebrated worldwide on March 22, the community of Arteni hosted an environmental awareness event in the premises of the newly renovated village elementary school. Arteni is one of numerous communities where the Children of Armenia Fund (COAF) implements its child-centered community development programs, and is one of the villages which is benefiting from the efforts of the USAID-funded Clean Energy and Water Project (CEWP) aimed at improving sustainable management of water and energy sectors in Armenia.
The celebration started with the village schoolchildren’s greetings and songs in Armenian and English, all dealing with the use of water and energy, and a traditional Armenian dance performed under a folk song about clean water from the mountains. The participants and guests also watched a short video in English about the theme of water and environmental responsibility. The creative translation of the video into Armenian was done by the local students attending the English Classes as part of the English Access Micro-scholarship Program, supported by the US Embassy.
Two weeks prior to the celebration, COAF and CEWP requested the elementary school students in Arteni to prepare posters and drawings dedicated to the World Water Day. High school students were assigned to write essays on the topic of why water was so essential and how people could use it more efficiently. The results of both contests were summarized on the day of the event and prizes were handed to the winners of the most original essay and most influential artwork.
In his message directed to the audience, the nine-year-old Manvel Sadoyan highlighted the vital importance of clean water for the well-being of fish and other animals, and requested his parents, teachers and friends not to contaminate water, rivers and seas and use the water efficiently. In the words of Ashot Grigoryan, 8 years of age, “Water is life. It is due to water that we enjoy the beauty of nature, and it is water that enables children, adults and animals to live on our planet."
Through an interactive presentation made by CEWP experts, the school population and guests learned new and interesting facts about the impact of climate change on our environment and life in general and interdependence of water and energy. The talk was supported with photos and visual materials and touched upon a number of solutions that people can find to use water and energy resources as efficiently as possible. The festive event concluded with the performance of high school students from Arteni who are enrolled in COAF’s Professional Orientation Program. To the delight of all the guests, the children suggested continuing celebration throughout the upcoming month and organizing community and water canal cleaning days, and tree planting activities.
Check out the entire album on Facebook.
By Haig Boyadjian | COAF Staff | Armenia
Debate clubs have played a significant role among teenage students since their inception by COAF in 2010. Today, close to 80 middle and high school students from four COAF-sponsored villages actively take part in their school debate clubs. Engaging in debate has had a tremendous impact on critical thinking, effective communication, independent research and teamwork. Debate teaches skills that serve individuals well in school and in fulfilling their responsibilities as citizens of democratic societies. Once students have learned how to debate, they are better able to critically examine crucial issues and to make informed judgments.
Debate teams from four schools in the villages of Lernagog, Dalarik and Karakert competed against one another on March 13th on the following two topics – whether higher education in Armenia should be free of charge, and whether cooperation among Armenian and Azerbaijani NGOs should take place. Active participants of debate club activities from this academic year were recognized for their hard work and dedication with certificates from the Jinishian Memorial Foundation.
This was the second semi-final tournament held this year in which five students will be chosen to compete in Armenia’s national debate tournament this spring. COAF is currently in the process of determining who will move on.
It should be noted that back in 2010 COAF had formed and registered the only debate team that competes in the nationals against city and town teams. This is the second team representing the region of Armavir at this tournament and the only team comprised entirely of village teenagers.
A group of 22 physicians and nurses from 7 COAF-sponsored villages convened in the resort town of Dilijan to discuss transferring various health screenings and community health education programs currently administered by the COAF Health Team to local medical practitioners. This was the 17th such gathering held for the network of medical personnel from COAF villages.
COAF doctors Lusine Antonyan and Lusine Sahakyan presented the initiative to localize health screenings and community health educations seminars. Each team was given the opportunity to prepare and present work-plans with budgets indicating how they plan to conduct future screenings and education seminars.
The vital network was created by COAF 4 years ago in response to the growing isolation of medical practitioners in 18 neighboring villages. Professionals from different regional communities were not in communication with one another and were limited to provincial meetings once a month. It was imperative that a professional and social network be established that would allow for the exchange of ideas and experiences.
Today, close to 40 medical practitioners are part of this network. COAF actively provides new approaches in diagnosing and treating primary healthcare patients. In addition to creating a networking system for these professionals, COAF also implemented communication and team building exercises on doctors-nurse- patient intercommunication. Medical practitioners have been given the opportunity to visit each other’s facilities to have a better understanding of different needs and capacities.
The network is a testament to the growing independence and self-reliance taking place throughout COAF’s cluster of villages. Health professionals regularly refer patients to one another and make recommendations to narrow specialists. Young medical students originating from the villages are also involved as volunteers in their respective villages.
By Mira Mitri | COAF Volunteer | Armenia
During the fall of 2013, I had the opportunity to visit my homeland of Armenia for the first time. I volunteered with various organizations through Birthright Armenia and The Armenian Volunteer Corps and stayed with a host family in Yerevan. Living with the host family was great, not only because I learned about the local issues, customs and life, but also because they led me to the Children of Armenia Fund (COAF). I was introduced to a friend that works for COAF, who got me connected with the organization and helped me start a partnership that will hopefully be a long-lasting one.
As a family doctor in Canada, a lot of my work revolves around preventative care in all age groups, for both men and women. I also specialize in the care of pregnant women and in low-risk obstetrical deliveries. While visiting different Armenian villages with the COAF team, I was pleased to see how effectively preventative care has been implemented thus far. For example, local midwives provide exemplary prenatal care to their patients; while doctors and dentists place great emphasis on dental care and fluoride application in local schools, in an effort to prevent cavities and periodontal disease.
I visited an ambulatory clinic in Myasnikyan where I spent some time with the local midwife seeing pregnant patients and discussing laboratory tests that are ordered in pregnancy (testing for anemia, etc). Some differences between our practices stood out, mainly regarding the frequency with which the tests were ordered. This was a very educational exercise for me as it made me think about and try to justify some of my practices, versus merely doing them routinely as per the guidelines. Upon further discussion, I realized that all pregnant patients in the village are tested for Gonorrhea but not Chlamydia, two of the leading sexually transmitted infections that can lead to complications in the newborn (eye infection, pneumonia, premature labor). The test for Chlamydia is not widely available in Armenia, so antibiotics are used to treat symptomatic women (women who are complaining of discomfort or discharge), based on the WHO guidelines. This approach would be perfectly acceptable if all women with Chlamydia had symptoms. However, not all of them do, which can be problematic for pregnant women, for the reasons noted above. I shared my thoughts with the COAF physician who resolved to look into implementing a routine Chlamydia test for pregnant women.
I spent an afternoon in the village of Arteni, discussing pregnancy and delivery related topics with local midwives. These ladies were so motivated to consolidate their knowledge, share ideas and perhaps learn something new. It surprised me to hear that if a woman in Arteni is in labor, she does not have the option of getting an epidural, as it is not available locally. In Canadian urban centers, the epidural rate can be close to 80%. To imagine a place where the choice of such pain relief does not exist seems unreal, yet it is a reality in Arteni. I was also surprised to hear that the birth house didn’t have an oxygen tank or a Doppler fetoscope (an electronic device to listen to the baby’s heart rate) and impressed with the midwives’ creativity and ingenuity in trying to overcome these challenges. In Canada, every labor and delivery has to be attended by a certified professional (gynecologist, family doctor or midwife) and needs to be in a place where an oxygen tank and other essential equipment are available. Oxygen is mostly used for the mother if the fetal heart rate drops or on the newborn after delivery if the baby is in respiratory distress or cyanotic (difficulty breathing or blue-ish skin tone). The lack of such resources could potentially become a question of life and death.
I also had the opportunity to spend some time in the ambulatory care center in Dalarik and visit some elderly patients in their homes. I met a patient with a long-term history of neck and shoulder pain. I was able to establish that the cause was muscular based on history and examination, and recommended a short course of anti-inflammatory medication (ibuprofen) and some physiotherapy. In my experience, once the patient goes to physiotherapy, he/she learns a few exercises and eventually gets some pain relief and increased mobility. Being unfamiliar with the exercises usually prescribed by physiotherapists in Canada, I was unable to suggest any myself. However, the COAF physician knew exactly which exercises were appropriate for this patient and proceeded to teach them to him. The patient’s pain was greatly relieved a few minutes into the exercise, which led him to decline the pharmacological (medication) approach. This collaboration between physicians was highly rewarding on a professional level. I learned a treatment plan that I will be able to apply to future patient care situations.
This was my first time in Armenia. I learned a lot about my country, my people and the local reality in terms of medicine. I would like to thank the team at COAF for giving me the opportunity to volunteer with them. I look forward to returning to my homeland and collaborating with COAF again.
The Armenia Tree Project (ATP) and COAF are resuming cooperation this spring with extensive tree planting in the communities of Argina, Arteni, Karakert, Sardarapat and Shenik. In the fall of 2013, a total of 510 trees and 640 shrubs were planted in the communities of Argina, Karakert, Lernagog, and Shenik. This was all made possible due to the generosity of ATP and was part of their widespread tree planting initiative throughout Armenia last year.
Argina town hall, where COAF recently built a playground for the village’s children with donations received by customers of Zvartnots International Airport’s Dufry duty free shops, was the first recipient of trees and shrubs. The trees will provide much needed shade for the children playing on their new playground. This spring, ATP will continue its support to Argina by donating trees to a public park envisioned by the village mayor.
Sections of the local school in Arteni will also receive trees and shrubs this spring. The school’s elementary wing was recently renovated by COAF thanks to the generosity of longtime benefactors Noubar and Anna Afeyan. A creativity lab sponsored by VivaCell-MTS is also located in the same wing. The school’s campus currently lacks greenery and areas where children can play freely.
The village of Karakert containing two schools renovated by COAF will also undergo tree planting this spring. The Karakert School No. 1 underwent a massive tree and shrub planting in the fall of 2013 thanks to ATP’s efforts. The school principal faced challenges such as poor soil and limited water supply at the school. She had soil brought from another region of Armenia to make sure the planting was successful and is currently determined to install a water pipe system. ATP is looking at helping the school with additional planting this spring.
In Lernagog, the local school underwent a beautification process last fall. COAF’s Entrepreneurship for Youth Program participants developed a business plan aimed at tree planting, installation of benches, trash bins, and painting of community fences/gates. The beautification program was supported by Beeline and the trees donated by ATP. A water pipe system was also installed at the school by COAF.
Trees were also donated to the local school in the village of Shenik, as well as to a community sports complex currently being constructed jointly by COAF and Shenik’s mayor. Shenik is aspiring to be a regional sports center for surrounding villages. ATP has committed to delivering more trees this spring in support for this ambitious project.
ATP has planted trees at the local school in the community of Sardarapat in the past. This year, a grove of fruit trees will be donated to the school. Sardarapat was added to the cluster of COAF villages in 2013. A creativity lab was also opened at the school by COAF thanks to the generosity of VivaCell-MTS.
ATP has planted a total of 4,455,869 trees in Armenia since 1994. Their commitment to COAF villages located in the Armavir and Aragatsotn marzes (provinces) is much appreciated. ATP experts have devoted countless hours to visiting, assessing and advising tree-planting sites at COAF villages.
COAF greatly appreciates ATP’s admirable mission in assisting the Armenian people in using trees to improve their standard of living and protect the environment. We share a goal in helping bring about self-sufficiency among members of society and aiding those with the fewest resources first. In addition to tree planting, ATP and COAF will expand their cooperation this year to include environmental education to rural youth in COAF-sponsored villages.
By Sosy Tatarian | COAF Intern | Armenia
As I'm writing this, it has been 5 weeks since I left Armenia and I'm still homesick. Yes, I say homesick because I can honestly say that Armenia is now my home. I was fortunate enough to spend 10 amazing weeks in my motherland, from June 4th‐August 12th. I participated in the Armenian Youth Federation Internship in Armenia as well as Birthright Armenia or "Tebi Hayk." I lived in a house with 10 other Armenian-Americans in the heart of Yerevan. In addition to touring and seeing all the beautiful sights that Armenia had to offer, we volunteered approximately 30 hours a week in a place relating to our field of interest. Although I went to Armenia interested in medicine, I ultimately decided that I wanted to do work related to public health. I didn't want to be stuck in a hospital all day, watching doctors perform surgeries. I wanted to interact with the people of Armenia and do something tangible, and I am so grateful because I was able to do just that.
I worked at the Children of Armenia Fund (COAF) with my roommate, Kenar Charchaflian. Our main task for the summer was to develop a set of healthy lifestyle activities in the areas of personal and dental hygiene and nutrition for high school students participating in the COAF Summer Camps. In addition, we planned and led physical exercise programs for elementary students participating in these camps. Kenar and I worked at the camp that was held in the village of Dalarik. In the two weeks I was there, I got the opportunity to not only teach these kids essential things about personal health and hygiene, but was able to form lifelong friendships and connections with both the kids and the teachers. The children of Dalarik brought a sense of happiness to my life that I have never felt before. They have a sparkle in their eyes and fire in their hearts that just stuck with me. I will never forget the feeling I got when I would enter a classroom in Dalarik. The kids would run towards me like a stampede. Even if the day at the camp didn't run as smoothly as I wanted it to, the kids never failed to greet me with hugs, kisses and smiles.
In addition to working at the COAF Summer Camps, Kenar and I traveled to other COAF sponsored villages and introduced villagers to the practice of yoga. We taught basic yoga techniques to women, children, and expecting mothers. My favorite group group to teach was the women of Karakert. These women work as carpet makers. They spend every day, eight hours a day, making handmade carpets. This monotonous and time-consuming work causes them to develop severe neck, upper back, and lower back pain. The first time we went to Karakert to teach yoga, the women were very hesitant. There I was, in revealing yoga shorts and bright tank top, teaching them things that they had never seen before, asking them to bend their bodies in ways that they didn't know could bend. Only a few of them participated, while the rest of them just sat with their legs crossed starring at us. It felt like they were looking at Kenar and I like we were aliens from another planet. At the end on of the session, I was convinced that they wouldn't be interested in doing another class. Boy, was I wrong! They all gathered around us, thanked us for coming and asked when we would be returning. After that, each yoga class got better and better. More women would show up to classes, they would try more poses, and push themselves further and further. It made me feel like we really accomplished something. We introduced a completely foreign concept to the village and got an overwhelming positive response. Not only did I develop a bond with these women, but they taught me their skill of carpet making as well.
The last thing that Kenar and I did in Armenia was organize the first-ever "Girls Soccer Tournament" in Karakert. Throughout our entire experience with COAF, Kenar and I noticed that there was a lack focus on women's sports. It was obvious that men were encouraged to be "athletic" and women were not. Both being athletes ourselves, this felt like a very foreign concept. We took this opportunity and set up a soccer tournament for the girls of Karakert. Myself, Kenar, and two other interns from the AYF Internship, Shant and Taleen, decided to help and play during the tournament. Although only a handful of girls showed up, we had them play with a group of boys that were also willing to play (with girls, that is). The girls played the entire time and one of them girls even scored. The joy that emanated through this girl when she scored a goal was infectious. As soon the soccer ball escaped her foot and entered the goal, she started jumping up and down with a smile from ear to ear. She was proud of herself for not only scoring, but scoring against the boys.
My experience with COAF will be one that I will never forget. It holds a very special place in my heart. I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to work for such a wonderful organization with such hardworking and dedicated people. Upon returning to the US, I donated my birthday to COAF and raised $2,445 to help more village children. Because of my incredible experience with COAF, I have decided to put medicine on hold and pursue another passion of mine. I will work towards getting a Master's in Public Health with a concentration in International and Global Health. Who knows, maybe one day I'll move to Armenia and work for COAF.
COAF Child and Family Support Program Manager Gayane Asatryan delivered a presentation at a special roundtable held on January 30, 2014, devoted to the second anniversary of the Child Protection Network's registration in the Republic of Armenia. Asatryan spoke about the results of the research conducted by the Child Protection Network in regards to guardianship as an alternative family model.
The session also touched upon the work carried out by ChildPact, a regional coalition of child protection NGOs from the Wider Black Sea Area. ChildPact's 'Together For Children' project aims to contribute to reforming the child protection systems in the partner countries of Romania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova, by reinforcing the capacities of child-focused national coalitions of NGOs from the wider Black Sea area.
ChildPact is a coalition of 600 NGOs throughout 10 countries, offering support services to over 500,000 socially vulnerable children. The project aims at securing living conditions, opportunities and access to education, which are essential to overcoming factors that prevent our region's socio-economic development and bringing forth a productive new generation. The organization's mission is to uphold the best interests of children and its guiding principle is that each child must grow up in a family.
The Child Protection Network has been operating in Armenia since 2005 and was officially registered in 2012. As an NGO involved in the protection of children's rights in Armenia, the Network focuses on safeguarding a child's right to live in a family unit and to develop and progress.
A major concern of the Network has been the quality of care delivered to children who have legal guardians throughout the member countries of the coalition. The roundtable held in Yerevan reviewed the results of the research involving 99 families, 25 guardianship committee members, 6 Child Protection Units representatives from 6 regions and 25 communities throughout Armenia. Gayane Asatryan personally presented the results of the analysis.
The purpose of the research was to learn more about the problems encountered by children under the care of guardians, as well as the challenges faced by guardians, all in an effort to come up with various ways to offer support.
COAF has been an active member of the Child Protection Network since 2006 and has led several initiatives and activities. COAF continues to conduct and share statistical data regarding children who live in the Armavir region.
By David Mnatsakanyan | Founder, FA Microloans | California
I founded FA Microloans with one simple mission – bring zero interest capital to low-income businesses in various countries. I started with my home country of Armenia because geographic, social, and economic factors made Armenia the perfect place to begin instituting FA Microloans Microcredit Program. Drawing from Mark Granovetter's argument of embeddedness, FA Microloans Microcredit Program is designed to create positive embeddedness between its participants.
Positive embeddedness refers to the positive social and economic interdependence between the participants of our program. Our program works by crowd funding microcredit through our website www.famicroloans.org, where individuals from all around the world can be a part of our borrowers' entrepreneurial dreams. They can read about our borrower and make a contribution as little as $20 to help fund a borrower's campaign. Once the campaign is funded, FA Microloans transfers the Microcredit to a Partner organization in the country of the respective borrower. Our Partner disperses and collects repayments of the Microcredit. Once all repayments are made, our Partner transfers the Microcredit back to FA Microloans who then disperses the Microcredit back to its respective lenders. We are proud to say that we have had great success in Armenia with our Partner the Children of Armenia Fund (COAF).
I am extremely fortunate to have formed a partnership with COAF in the middle of 2013. Our partnership allows us to provide Armenia with economic opportunity. FA Microloans zero interest microcredit program provides borrowers with the opportunity to expand their businesses without having to face the pressures of high interest rates and fixed repayment schedules. Our partnership with COAF has yielded some incredibly promising results. Lusine Khamisyan received a $2,000 USD microloan that was used to rehabilitate her dry fruit production facility. The rehabilitation led to an 80% increase in production of dried goods. In addition, she was able sell out her increased inventory. Lusine Khamisyan has begun repaying her Microcredit making her first payment in December of 2013. In January 2014, Anush Sahakyan received a loan to purchase a dough-mixing machine to help increase efficiency for her family's bread baking business.
Our partnership with COAF provides opportunity for individuals such as Lusine and Anush, who would normally have difficulty obtaining funds through traditional avenues. We are targeting individuals looking to expand their businesses but are unable to obtain affordable capital. Working with COAF provides us with the opportunity to target deserving individuals looking to improve their economic conditions. We are excited to continue and grow our partnership with the Children of Armenia Fund, and continue bringing zero interest Microcredit to Armenia.
Dry fruit production of Lusine Khamisyan
By Ani Jilozian | Public Health Practitioner | Armenia
Armenians like to note that the map of Armenia looks like the profile of a woman with a slender neck and long, wavy hair; thus, I find it apropos to have spent much of the last year in villages that make up the mouth of the Armenian woman, collecting stories with the hope of shedding light on issues concerning women’s reproductive health and giving a voice to these women.
If you research articles on women in Armenia, you’ll find them littered with adjectives such as "submissive" and "obedient". The author will note the patriarchal culture that can make being a woman in Armenia difficult. Often a Google search will bring up the issues of domestic violence or the diminished role of women in politics. Though these challenges certainly exist, a more nuanced interpretation of Armenian women should include descriptors such as "strong-willed" and "unrealized potential".
In the course of a year, through carrying out a qualitative research project, I learned much about the trials and tribulations of women when it comes to speaking with their partners about family planning, making difficult decisions about abortion, getting treated for medical conditions, and how disempowerment is a force that leaves women behind. I also learned about the strength of the human spirit, perseverance against all odds, the courage it takes to meet everyday challenges, and the poise with which women in Armenia take on all the family burdens and raise entire communities.
Take, for instance, Gayane, a woman in her late 50s who, despite being told that it was necessary to bear a son, gave birth to six daughters and raised them to believe in their self-worth, or Shushan, a young pharmacist in her early twenties, who spoke confidently about how women should make the decisions that affect their bodies and reproduction.
In September, I began to work more closely with women in the villages within the Armavir regions. With the support of the U.S. Embassy and Children of Armenia Fund, I created an educational program focusing on reproductive health and gender equality, and am now working in conjunction with a local NGO to realize this vision. Together, we are educating and empowering 100 women in seven villages through trainings, seminars, and workshops on various topics. The hope is to expand this program to include more women in neighboring villages and to begin development projects and provide services, such as routine health screening, in order to provide women with greater socio-economic opportunities and better access to healthcare.
Trainings with village women
In reflecting on last year, which was filled with so many new experiences and phenomenal challenges, I am so grateful to the Children of Armenia Fund for their support and to all the women and health providers with whom I interacted. I’m left with a feeling of contentment, as well as the desire to create bigger and better change. And, most of all, I’m excited to be spending another year with so many women I admire and adore.
By Rebecca Rosenbaum | COAF Staff | New York City
At just eleven years old, Nella Khachian has proven herself to be a dedicated supporter and advocate for COAF. Raising money for others in need at any age is commendable, but when someone so young is selfless enough to recognize the needs of strangers halfway around the world and then take action, we think it’s downright inspirational.
For her second fundraiser for COAF, Nella sold cookies through Masterpiece Fundraising in Livermore, California. Nella's sincere and giving nature is portrayed in her most recent heartfelt letter to COAF.
"Last year when I donated my birthday to COAF, I made a promise to myself that every year I will raise funds to make a difference in the children’s lives. So this year I have decided to raise funds by selling cookies, through ‘Masterpiece Fundraising.’ In the month of November, I raised $410 with the support of my friends, family, neighbors and co-workers of my parents. I am thankful that they helped me reach my goal. Please let the children know that I will always be thinking of them!"
Thank you, Nella, for your continued dedication to the village children of Armenia!
By Samuel Armen | COAF Staff | New York City
Nerses was born in 1997 in the village of Sasnashen. As a young child, he moved to the village of Lernagog and began attending the local secondary school named after Onik Pagoumian. Nerses graduated from a regional school for music in 2001, where he studied the piano. He has been one of the most active students in Lernagog, participating in almost all programs offered by COAF since2006. Nerses has taken part in the ACCESS language program financed by the US Embassy in Armenia and quickly grasped English over the course of two years. Nerses is the current president of his school's student council and participates in numerous debate competitions. This past year, he was the yougnest student invited to Ukraine to take part in a seminar on leadership. His level of commitment to COAF programs is not limited to just his village of Lernagog. Nerses is active in most of his neighboring COAF-sponsored villages and is a natural leader. He is very interested in making the world a better place and finding solutions to global problems with his peers in other counrties.Anahit Vardanyan was born in 1997 and resides in the village of Lernagog. She is a 12th grade student at the local secondary school named after Onik Pagoumian. Her hobbies include dance, debate, and public-speaking. Her grasp of the English language after two years of classes in the English ACCESS Program financed by the US Embassy is beyond noteworthy.
Anahit was a longtime member of Lernagog’s ‘Sasun’ dance studio where she learned numerous Armenian national dances and took part in several performances. She has also been an active member of her school’s debate club and the student council, serving a one-year term as president for the latter. Anahit was instrumental in initiating a program to visit and assist the elderly in her village. She also arranged for meetings with the governor of her province in an effort to establish nighttime street lighting in Lernagog. Health and Biology are of great interest to Anahit, who has also been a member of the school’s ‘Health Club.’ She along with other members of the club often would travel to neighboring villages to teach other children about widespread diseases and how they can be prevented, detected and treated. Anahit possesses strong leadership skills and is committed to defending female rights. In 2012, she attended the Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) Camp which offers girls life-changing self-development opportunities, explores issues they are concerned about, allows them to learn new skills and tools to enhance their self-development, discover their full potential, and become active contributors of an evolving society. She was invited as a junior counselor the following year due to her level of activeness the previous summer and made presentations on topics such as trafficking, domestic violence and water conservation.
Her speech at the 2012 COAF Gala in New York helped Anahit realize just how much she enjoys public speaking and gave her the confidence to deliver a speech this past summer at TEDxKids in Yerevan. Anahit’s presentation touched on obstacles she has overcome while growing up and encouraged people to follow their dreams and never give up or feel they are unlucky or untalented. She continued her streak of speeches by participating at the Voice of Youth project’s seminar organized by the NGO “European Integration” with the assistance of the Armenian Ministry of Sport and Youth Affairs. Anahit won first place for her speech regarding her research in the field of music. Her participation in various programs and projects has helped her in choosing to pursue a future career in public relations and public-speaking. Anahit says growing up with COAF has ingrained in her a deep sense of volunteerism, which she will carry throughout her life.
By Samuel Armen | COAF Staff | New York City
"Understanding that their opinions and point of view are important and matter can and will give the youth the confidence to succeed at anything." Scout Tufankjian
World renowned photographer Scout Tufankjian honored COAF by photographing the children in our villages, which will be featured in our 2014 Calendar! We had the pleasure of interviewing her about her experiences and about her upcoming presentation at our 10th Annual Holiday Gla on December 13th.SAMUEL: You are internationally renowned for your brilliant photography both from across the world and in the United States. Your photograph of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama hugging in the August of last year became the most Liked photo on Facebook (+3.2 million), and most retweeted Tweet ever (+350,000). Your repertoire also includes capturing tremendous problems across the world – like the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the 2011 Revolution in Egypt. You have also spent a considerable amount of time in our villages! We are truly honored to have you photograph our children, and are excited to feature your photography in our 2014 Calendar. We also have the great privilege of having you speak at our 10th Annual Holiday Gala coming up on December 13th. Can you give us a little sneak-peek about what you’re going to present to us? SCOUT: Well, I haven't finished writing anything yet, but I can tell you that I will mostly be showing my images from the villages and discussing what I saw there. SAMUEL: How did you first hear about the Children of Armenia Fund, and what compelled you to provide us with your talents? SCOUT: I first heard of COAF through some friends of mine, and when I was in Armenia this Spring, Haig (COAF’s Marketing Manager) took me to the villages for a day to show me what you were doing. I was really impressed with the holistic nature of the services that you provide. In my experience, many NGOs only work on one level, they provide after-school programs or counseling or infrastructure. Very few provide the kind of complete services that COAF does and I think that's why your organization is so important. SAMUEL: You’re internationally recognized for your brilliant photography. In your artistic and professional opinion, what would you say taking a photograph accomplishes? SCOUT: Well, I'm not sure if I can tell you what it definitely accomplishes, but I can tell you what I hope it accomplishes, which is a window into other peoples' lives. Photography can provide a bridge into other places, cultures, and experiences that no other medium can. SAMUEL: I know you’re familiar with the photo/video club we started in 2010 - thanks to the Newman’s Own Foundation. What do you think is the real importance or long-term benefit of teaching young students photography? SCOUT: I think the most important reason is that it empowers students to be the tellers of their own stories. Look, I can go into these villages for a few days, and because I'm a professional photographer I can do a pretty decent job, but nothing can compare to an insider's view of these young people's lives. I will never know what is important to them better than they will, and no one can see their world through their eyes like they can. And this goes far beyond photography. Understanding that their opinions and point of view are important and matter can and will give the youth the confidence to succeed at anything. SAMUEL: We have seen, on several occasions, that feelings like pride and shyness get in the way of capturing the true level of destitution in the villages. Did you have any experiences where it was tough to capture the reality of the living conditions? SCOUT: I'm not a very judgmental person, and I think that comes across pretty clearly to the people I'm photographing. Plus, there is always something that people should feel proud of and that you can honestly compliment people on. Being friendly and not acting (or being) surprised at people's living conditions goes a long way to putting people at ease. The fact that I was visting them with Haig, who is beloved in the villages and who is beyond great with the kids, and with the social workers who are deeply trusted went a long way in terms of getting people to relax. SAMUEL: You are no stranger to the poverty that much of the world lives in, as we can see from your photography. What would you say was the hardest thing for you to capture in your stay in the villages? SCOUT: I think the hardest thing is the same thing that is difficult in any situation – putting people at enough ease so that you are photographing them as they actually live their lives, as opposed to performing for or hiding from the camera. SAMUEL: People often leave our villages with a radically different perception from when they first arrived. Can you recall what your initial perceptions of the villages were (from your first visit), and how they differ now after having spent time in them? SCOUT: I think the biggest revelation to me was how wide-scale the issues facing these villages are and how vitally important COAF is in helping to solve them.
JANUARY of the COAF 2014 Calendar Photo by Scout Tufankjian
By Ani Djirdjirian | COAF Volunteer | Armenia
This past summer, Ani Djirdjirian, an Adelphi University of New York student, traveled to Armenia with the AGBU Yerevan Summer Internship Program to intern with COAF. Ani had a wonderful experience helping with the English Language Program in rural Armenia and was eager to share her story with us.
My name is Ani Djirdjirian, and I am 19 years old pursuing a Psychology and Vocal Performance degree at Adelphi University of New York. This past summer was the most unforgettable and amazing summer experience of my life. I travelled to Armenia with the AGBU Yerevan Summer Internship Program to intern with COAF.
The kids I worked with in the villages of Lernagog, Myasnikyan, and Karakert are the most amazing and truly beautiful children I have ever met. They showed me every single day just how hard their inquisitive minds work. They ask me so many questions about where I live and what I do, and how people live in America. They are absolutely marveled by the English language and all hope to learn it one day so they can speak to me in my country’s tongue. What I find absolutely adorable is how the kids love cameras. I often brought mine to work with me, and the kids begged me to take pictures of them or to let them use it themselves. They would pose as if they were in a magazine, and if I am taking a picture of one child, they multiplied into 6 kids holding hands waiting for me to snap a shot of them.
Some of my favorite memories with my kids was doing sand art with them, having lunch with them, climbing apricot trees, and just observing and listening to the way the kids interact with one another. One of the most prevalent memories working in the villages was when one day during the kids’ lunch hour, a parent who often helps out began playing the piano that was in the room with us. I had never heard the song she was playing, but all the kids put their forks down and started singing to the music about Armenia. I have never in all of my life seen children sing about their country with such energy and fire. It put a smile on everyone’s face, and tears in my eyes. This meant more to me than words can describe, because as an Armenian music teacher at a Saturday language school, I have worked with children who can’t wait to leave and hang out with friends. The Armenian kids in America cannot compare to the passion that these children in the villages have, and I noticed it from day one.
This experience has changed my life. While I spent my time helping the children learn math, reading and writing, some English, music, dance, and some culture of America, I was part of the learning journey as well. I learned not to take everything for granted, which may sound cheesy, but could not be more true. The easier lives we live in America with the luxury of little things cannot compare to the families in these villages who may not have much to physically offer. They offer a lifetime of friendship upon meeting and never treated me differently. They made me feel at home instantly, and the stories and culture we exchanged are ones I will never forget.
Behind the smiles of the children in these villages lie secrets and desires and dreams that they feel cannot be fulfilled because of their upbringings. I wanted to teach these kids about working in a team and how music and dancing can make the soul so happy that they can forget about what makes them sad for just a little bit. They will all one day learn how to write their names and multiply numbers, but few people ever learn the value of simplicity and getting joy out of the little things in life. As kids around the world are busy playing with their iPads and watching TV all day, my kids were outside climbing trees and picking apricots, and playing games and sports in the heat and dust outside that are more fun than I ever expected. I have been invited into the homes of some of the locals who have taught me much about their lives. One day, a family I was spending time with taught me a dance of their village in their living room, and I taught them some of what I have learned in my dance group. Everyone can learn something from these kids’ lifestyles. They have adversities to face that we who are better off never even dream of. They have so little to physically offer – small homes and scarce clothing and food, but never has that stopped one of these children from smiling like they have the world in their hands. The smallest of gestures make their days so much brighter. Things like teaching them the English alphabet or bringing them chocolate from Grand Candy mean everything to them. They become excited when they get to sit and talk to me and always greet me with hugs. These kids and their families have made me feel at home from the very first day and welcomed me not as an outsider, but as one of their own.
I will never forget the beautiful faces whose lives I hope to have impacted in a beneficial way, and I will never forget the amazing staff at COAF who helped me through my journey of not knowing what to expect. The staff who drives for over an hour a day and stops at nothing to help people who need it most. This trip has been an emotional rollercoaster for me, because I have always dreamed of coming to my country. But even better than only visiting, I was given an opportunity to work with the amazing organization that helps better an entire generation. I have no doubt that I will return again – I have built too strong of friendships and bonds with the people in Armenia to leave without looking back.
Our very own Danielle Hacet finished the last stretch of her One Mile at a Time Marathon Campaign. Her goal was to run four half-marathons and two full-length marathons, and raise 100 dollars for every mile - a goal of $10,480! On November 3rd, 2013 she ran the last stretch of her campaign - the New York City Marathon - and far surpassed her fundraising goal. A few moments after she crossed the finish line, she was able to sit down and speak with me about what the race was like and what the campaign meant to her.To see photos from her marathon, check out our Facebook Page
Sunday November 3, 5:00 PM.
I was standing at the corner of 73rd and Columbus, watching as a sea of marathon runners bussed back and forth, and waiting for Danielle who had just finished the last stretch of her marathon campaign. Only a short moment passed before she appeared, draped in orange, walking towards me with a slight limp and an exasperated smile. To be able to hear each other, we had to walk away from the sirens and shouting crowds. We found a bench a block away in Verdi Square, and sat down to discuss the finale of her 104.8 mile campaign.
Congratulations Danielle! What was your favorite part of the whole campaign? Thank you! It depends. I mean, crossing any finish line is always amazing. I really enjoyed the happy hour. I felt like it was a different way of fundraising, and it was a nice way to engage young people – especially those who actually knew what they were donating to.
So you say ‘crossing any finish line is always amazing’. Was this final marathon a different kind of finish line? I was more nervous about this race than any of the other five races. I mean, I was pretty nervous about my April marathon in Kentucky, but even that was really like a practice for the New York Marathon. I always knew, in every race, that there was New York at the end. I started training for this a year ago - I had to run nine races with New York Road Runners in order to be able to run the marathon. Can you run me through the circuit as you experienced it? I was nervous about starting on a hill on the Verrazano Bridge in Staten Island. I hate uphill running. I get very slow, I get nervous, and I find it very hard on my knees, hips and everything else. But everyone kept telling me that at the start of the race you’re going to be so excited. And I guess I really didn't understand until I was actually running on the bridge, and you’re just surrounded, like the energy is just unreal. Everyone is so excited. And then once you get off the bridge, and you’re in Brooklyn, everyone is just cheering for you. Complete strangers are screaming “Go Danielle!” The first couple of times I was wondering how they knew my name, forgetting that it was obviously on my sweatshirt. I’m thinking – wait do I know that person? No. I don’t know that person.” But the crowd is just cheering you on making you feel great. Then I saw Emma – (COAF Development Coordinator in New York)
Where did you see Emma? I saw Emma between miles two and three. It was perfect because I had such high energy. I was excited to stop and pose to take photos for her. And then I got to mile 8, and I actually live at mile 8, so it’s kinda cool to see my building from afar and run towards it. Especially someone who is not from New York, right? To see your building as you’re running and passing it with all of these people in this New York event. Yes. Absolutely. And so it’s like running through NY, running through Brooklyn, running through my neighborhood, streets I’d walk through a million times – to be a part of the 47,000 people running it right now it just felt great. And then from Brooklyn we ran into Queens over the Pulaski Bridge. How was Queens? We were only there for a couple of miles. Queens, I was surprised by the energy there. People were really excited. But I felt like I was tired in Queens because at that point you’re halfway through. You’re in Long Island City, and then you run through the Queensboro Bridge and the rest of the city. I’d say that was the hardest part, the Queensboro Bridge. Why was that the hardest part? It was just so long, there are not too many people there, and it just feels like it goes on forever. But then you get into the city, and all of a sudden you’re like ‘oh my gosh – I’m at mile 16’ and the energy of the place is alive again. I could not believe how many people were out, how many people were cheering. Again, it really just takes you by surprise how involved the city gets, and how excited everyone is about it. So that was good. That was about 4 miles. And then we ran a couple of miles in the Bronx. The energy was good there, too. We ran one bridge to get in and another to get back. We were in the Bronx for about 2 miles. And then we ran back into the city. And at that point you’re at mile 21. That was great, you run down Fifth Avenue, in and out, which was cool; and it leads you to the park where you finish and everyone is cheering. And what was your favorite place? Hmm…well…I’d say the first 8 miles were amazing as a whole. And then miles 16 to 18 were awesome because you’re running through the city for the first time. Can you tell me your times? My last marathon was in my hometown of Louisville Kentucky on April 27th – which was actually my first marathon ever. My time there was 5:01:38 (5 hours and 1 minute). Here, my time is 4:50:13. So about 11 minutes faster. Plus I also stopped for photos in this one. So you finished running 30 minutes to an hour ago – can you tell me how you’re feeling right now? I am so exhilarated. I am just – I will tell you, generally speaking, whenever I cross the finish line it’s like a combination of exhilaration, exhaustion, and relief. And they all kinda happen together. And then now I don’t feel tired at all. I feel like I could go dancing, if it weren’t for my knee. But do you think in an hour or so it’s going to hit you? Yes. It’s a high. Sometimes it catches up to you in an hour; sometimes it’s the next morning. If I lay down right now I wouldn’t be able to sleep, though. The COAF element – did that motivate you? Yes! At the Detroit Marathon, for example, at around mile 8, which is a little more than halfway, I saw a person – someone I obviously don’t know – with a sign that was not directed towards me at all, but the sign said YOU GIVE THEM HOPE. It really touched me, and it made me remember why I’m doing this. All of a sudden, I was like ‘I am going to get to that finish line’. I was thinking about what I can do to help the children in Armenia. I’m also very emotional. (Laughs) So you’re just sobbing and blowing your nose as you are running? Almost. I can. I almost cried on the Verrazano Bridge before the race began this morning. There were multiple times where you are overwhelmed. I mean, you think ‘Ugh – I have 8 miles to go, and then you think – WOW! I just ran 18 miles.’ It hits you. But yes, the COAF aspect made it better. It encouraged me, and kept me motivated. Every donation pushed me harder. So were you thinking of the people who were donating to your campaigns as you ran? Yeah. Definitely. Actually, one of my friends donated 10 dollars, which was what she could afford to donate, and I am just so appreciative to have her support me. She said to me, ‘in your next race, the last .1 belongs to me.’ So, during my Staten Island half, at the last .1 mile, I took a picture while running and sent it to her saying ‘this one is for you.’ That’s a very specific example, but generally speaking, every time I ran I was thinking of how I could thank my donors for making all of this possible. I’ve got an overwhelming amount of texts, Facebook posts; and they all encouraged me so much.
So right now, if you could say anything to your supporters, would it be? Thank you! I mean, I am so overwhelmed by their generosity. And I honestly can’t say thank you enough. I feel – I know it sounds corny – but I am touched. People really surprised me. There were a lot of donations I received from people I wasn’t expecting to donate. They saw my campaign on Facebook or heard from someone else. Some of them are runners, so they understand the high, the challenge, and the energy – and took it upon themselves to donate. Altogether the experience was unbelievable, and I thank every single one of them for making it happen.
To see photos of the event, check out our Facebook album.
On behalf of the children who benefit from your hard work and dedication, all of us at COAF would like to say congratulations and thank you, Daneille!
You're a young student, it's an early September morning, and the first day of school is today. Most of us when reminscing about the frist day of school, recall riding the school bus or a parent driving us in or maybe even having to make the chaotic decision of what outfit to wear. Most of us when reminiscing about the first day of school, recall riding the school bus or a parent driving us in or maybe even having to make the chaotic decision of what outfit to wear. That’s because, generally speaking, in most of our experiences we didn’t need to pay much attention to our omnipresent backpacks and the essential school supplies inside of them. Yet, a backpack holds everything we learn and all the tools in which we use to learn them. It carries all of the pieces that come together to help build our creativity, logic and wisdom throughout the school year. Through this campaign, we are emphasizing the what many of us may have taken for granted. There is a great need for backpacks and school supplies among our children in the rural villages of Armenia. The September Back-to-School Drive focuses more on the individual student. Many of our projects go to refurbishing classrooms, providing improved teaching methods, and so on. While those do positively impact each single student, the focus is more on the general, collective classroom and educational experience. This campaign is about making a child going to class empty-handed a distant memory. It’s about allowing young scholars the right to pursue and enjoy their education. Succinctly put, it’s about giving children in need the tools to succeed.
By Samuel Armen | COAF Volunteer | New York City
When is the last time you challenged yourself and ended up doing exactly what you love? Danielle Hacet – one of the members here at COAF – thought of a way to raise funds in a non-traditional manner. She successfully combined her favorite things – running, social networking, fashion, and helping others – into a single campaign.
From March to November, Danielle will be running 4 half-marathons and 2 full-marathons. The total of these runs equal 104.8 miles. She had never run a full marathon prior to this campaign, and I explained to her that she is running MORE THAN the entire perimeter of Manhattan 3 TIMES.
She responded with a shrug and by saying that she’s trying to sign up for more, and that these six races are only the ones she has secured into her schedule.
Danielle created a fundraising page in an area on our website called myCOAF. myCOAF has now become our version of crowd-funding where people can come together and support a cause.
Using this crowd-funding page of ours and her own social media network, Danielle announced that she wants to raise $100 dollars per mile, a total of $10,480. She told everyone her goal: to raise this money towards building, renovating and properly supplying three rural health posts in Armenia. She states, “The goal of the program is to improve basic primary health services provided in small villages. Currently, these facilities are in dilapidated conditions. They are broken down, unsanitary, and cramped and are run by a single nurse.”
In less than 2 months, she already is racing past half of her goal, collecting $5,351 out of $10,480 from 28 generous supporters. With 7 months left, we’re all cheering Danielle on.
Her first two runs were the New York City Half Marathon on Sunday March 17th, and the More Magazine/Fitness Magazine Women’s Half Marathon on Sunday April 14th through Central Park. This past Saturday, April 27th, Danielle ran her first full length Marathon at the Kentucky Derby Festival in her hometown, Louisville, KY. In a recent Facebook post, she dedicated the completion of her first marathon to many, including her friends, family, and “COAF and the thousands of children we’re helping.”
If you wish to cheer Danielle on, her next scheduled running dates are:
- Brooklyn Half Marathon, 13.1 miles, Saturday May 18th, Brooklyn, NY - Staten Island Half Marathon, 13.1 miles, Sunday October 13th, Staten Island - ING New York City Marathon, 26.2 miles, Sunday November 3rd, New York City
She’ll be the one wearing the fashionable COAF running jacket that she customized. The front displays her name and the COAF logo. On the back are the words, “Saving a Generation One Mile at a Time.”
By Samuel Armen | COAF Volunteer | Myasnikyan
In this post, Samuel Armen revists and reflects his experiences in Myasnikyan, and provides a short film that captures approximately one minute's worth of life in the village.
A group of girls are playing hopscotch by the stairs. One girl is jumping rope. A group of boys chase each other. Another group is running after a soccer ball. A group of young boys run into the school carrying pots with plants in them. As they see me they smile, laugh and shout ‘Gutentag!’ – from Samuel Armen’s previous blog, Tour Guides. It is truly surreal to stand in the center of one of our villages. Among the extant depictions of poverty there is always an infrastructure of pride, be it – a school, a hospital, a sports complex, a community center, a park – that is constructed or reconstructed beautifully, standing out with bright welcoming colors. The word welcoming is chosen perspicaciously, because: Students run to these buildings and play around these builds. Crowds of teachers, nurses, and parents – like the children – gravitate towards their existence. And why not?
Within these explosions of color in the once relatively monochrome villages, come engaging activities: Children learning about proper green environments, artists carrying their donated cameras with looks of admiration and aiming to capture moments of revelation, scholars learning a second or third language to communicate to more individuals just like themselves, fathers watching their children improve their chess abilities.
They hold the hundreds of programs that students, teachers, and COAF staff organize. More importantly, they are the physical metaphors of resurrection for this generation.
A generation where everyone is given an opportunity to show what they can do, where businesses can begin to flourish, where varying professionals can learn ways to thrive in their respective specialties, and where children discover worlds of new art and education, and develop the confidence to excel towards their new possibilities.
This is, more or less, one minute of the Myasnikyan village, where there is a new hospital, a new school, and a world of improvements that COAF and all of our generous supporters plan to continue.
In this post, Children of Armenia Fund volunteer Samuel Armen proposes a new definition for what 'COAF' means by adding a Verb part of speech to the abbreviation 'COAF'.Lexical Addendum: Defining COAFThe last line from one of my previous blogs (The Past Corridor) inspired an idea. Using whatever small poetic license I have, I declare COAF to be a Verb as well as an acronymous Noun. The same way that ‘Hawk’ as a Noun is that sharp-eyed bird-of-prey with the talons and hooked beak, and as a Verb means to fly or hunt from above (like a hawk), COAF shall have two meanings:
Noun: COAF, Children of Armenia Fund
1. A non-profit, non-government organization founded in 2000 that uses community-led approaches to stop poverty in rural Armenia, focusing primarily on children; and with programs in Education, Health, Economic and Social Development beginning in 2004, has spread from 1 small village to 12, bettering the lives of over 22,000 individuals.
Verb: COAF, COAFs, COAFed, COAFing, (Transitive)
1. To renovate, refurbish or rebuild a structure or location with the understanding that it will provide an exponential positivity: COAFing a single school led to a series of student clubs – ranging from a monthly newspaper to computer literacy. 2. To develop something positive that naturally creates or synchronizes with other positive developments: Newman’s Own Foundation’s donations of cameras COAFed into a girl from the villages winning an international photography contest, despite the fact that she held a camera for less than a year.
All playfulness aside, COAF is a simple organization that represents the alchemy of supporters who are as loyal as they are caring, a staff dedicated to efficiency, and a population eager to show what they can do. Without our supporters we would be powerless, without our staff we would be aimless, and without the eagerness of our population we wouldn't be wowed the way we are today.
With this, I’d like to take the moment to personally thank 300+ of my own friends who have attended our Events, liked our Facebook Page, followed our Twitter, read our Blogs, and have continued to show the necessary support that is helping to Save a Generation. Thank you.
By Ani Jilozian | COAF Volunteer | Armenia
Children of Armenia Fund volunteer, Ani Jilozian continues her post from last week titled, Women, Demystified: Overcoming Myths in Armenia's Villages. In this post, Ani recounts two personal experiences that provide insight towards male worker migration and the many adverse affects it has on families in the rural regions of Armenia.
The following is a continuation of Ani Jilozian's blog post Women, Demystified: Overcoming Myths in Armenia's Villages published on 3.08.2013. Both of which are her contributions to Women's History Month. I entered the village health post amid a hussle and bussle of motion. There was lots of energy in the building. Many women were rushing in and out, and nurses were shuffling from room to room. I met with one woman after another. There wasn’t a moment to catch my breath. But then, all at once, it was as if everything around me came to a sudden halt.
Armine, a young woman in her mid-twenties with round features, sat across from me. As she spoke about her life, her voice drifted off. She said with a soft tone, “My husband leaves Armenia for work and stays for six or seven months. Then he comes back... Something happened and I didn’t get pregnant... I got treated. I went to the doctor. Then they called my husband. He had a little too. The percentage was high. I don’t know, it was that HIV...” After a moment of silence, her voice regained its strength and she moved on. Either she hadn’t grasped the severity of what she had told me, or she had simply come to terms with it. Maybe both.
Studies have shown that migrant workers often engage in riskier behavior than non-migrants. Scholars have suggested this change in behavior stems from being distanced from established sexual partnerships; experiencing a new environment with expanded freedoms and less social stigma; and feeling social isolation and marginalization.
Many husbands are seasonally migrating in large numbers for work, primarily to Russia and Ukraine. For this reason, there is a growing prevalence of sexually-transmitted diseases from migrant husband to wife in Armenia. Sexually-transmitted diseases have been termed “biologically sexist” for a number of reasons simply having to do with anatomy. To make matters worse, there are a number of social factors that add to a woman’s vulnerability. To put this in more simple terms, an Armenian woman who lives in poverty and has a husband who is a migrant worker has three strikes against her already. In reflecting about the issues that women who have migrant husbands face, we must also take into consideration the psychological element, which prevades every-day life is much harder to quantify. Women are often forced to take on greater roles and may be left without a support system.
It was a cool, crisp autumn morning the day I met with Gohar, a woman in her early thirties with wide-set eyes and dyed blonde hair. We started talking about family planning, and she told me she was trying to have another child before her husband left Armenia again. Her line of vision drifted to the ceiling as she started counting the months in her head. She would get pregnant at the end of winter, in order to be able to work in the fields during the spring season before her pregnancy progressed into the second trimester. In talking about her husband, who was set to leave in a few weeks, she became upset. Gohar proceeded to tell me that her mother-in-law was abusive toward her, and it was upsetting her to think about what it would be like to live without her husband again, since he acted as a mediator between her mother-in-law and her.
“If my mother-in-law knows that I am pregnant, she turns really aggressive toward me. [During my last pregnancy], she said to take the laundry outside. Then she said, ‘I made the dough, so we have to bake bread.’ I took the laundry outside, I sat near the bread pit, I baked bread, I went back and forth... I bathed my children, I shook out the laundry, I brought it inside, I arranged it... From lifting heavy objects, I miscarried. I was four months pregnant... [When I was at the hospital], my mother-in-law called and said, ‘Come back. What are you going to do lying in bed?’ She said, ‘Who’s going to take care of your children when I go to work?’... When I was about to leave the hospital to come back, I fainted, I fell... That same day, I left in two hours. I came back with public transportation – not with a car, with public transportation.”
Both Armine and Gohar had harrowing stories, but something else struck me about them. As Armine continued to speak, her voice got louder. She had strong convictions. She was resilient. She would carry on despite the odds that she faced. Gohar had a striking presence and spoke confidently. The thought of being alone again with her in-laws was unbearable, but she knew that she would get through it. She would support herself and her two children.
While peering out at the village landscape, sometimes it seems like time has stopped. Rocks are strewn about; roads consist of gravel and potholes; and factories are boarded up, reflecting a time once passed, a time when men stayed at home and the family unit was more cohesive. But when I enter a space where women are bussling around, where they can meet with one another to share stories and receive counseling, I find hope. These are the little reprieves from daily hardships that are so valuable. I see great strength and great potential in these women. They are my heroines.
By Taleen K. Moughamian | COAF Volunteer | Armenia
Taleen K. Moughamian, a women’s health nurse practitioner in Philadelphia, traveled to Armenia to work with COAF in the fall of 2012. During her time in rural Armenia, Taleen conducted health exams, including breast and cervical cancer screenings, and provided contraceptive counseling. This essay was originally published by Our Bodies Ourselves on February 6, 2013.
The differences between Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, and the rest of the country are vast. While Yerevan has most of the modern-day conveniences you could ask for, the villages I visited in the Armavir region have populations between 300 and 1,000, mostly comprised of women. Their husbands have gone –- off to neighboring countries, especially Russia, to find work. They usually stay away for 10 months out of the year. Some men have even started new families in their work countries. It was not uncommon to meet women who needed to be treated for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) because their husbands are having extra marital affairs while abroad. They are upfront about this, though it surprised me how openly they talked about it.
I heard so many of them say, “They are men. They have needs. What can we do?” This has created a huge problem and is one of the reasons why STIs, including HIV, are on the rise in Armenia. There is limited access to effective contraception, so the rate of abortion, which is legal up to 12 weeks, is high. Most of the women who seek an abortion are married, already have two or three children, and do not feel they can provide for a larger family.Sex-Selective AbortionsFor some women, this means having three or four or even 15 abortions over the course of their lives as they struggle to create a family they can support. The median number of abortions for women over 40 is eight, according to a 1995 study conducted at a Yerevan abortion clinic. Sex-selection has also become a huge issue. Since women leave their homes and join their husband’s family after marriage, a son provides a source of security for his parents. I met so many women who have had multiple abortions because the sex of the child was not what they had wished; for more data, see this UNFPA report on sex selection in Armenia and this story in The Armenian Weekly. If you look at recent family planning data, it appears the number of abortions is going down, but from what I observed, that is not necessarily the case. Rather, more abortions are going unreported.
Rise in Unsupervised AbortionsWomen are using an over-the-counter medication called Cytotec (the brand name for misoprostol) to induce abortions at home without the supervision of a trained medical professional. Cytotec’s indication is to treat ulcers, but it also acts as an abortifacient. Fifty cents worth of Cytotec can induce an abortion, whereas a surgical abortion usually costs about $35-$50. When used properly, Cytotec is very safe, even without clinical supervision. But it is most effective when used in combination with a second drug, mifepristone (see more on this below). Women in the villages I visited were not familiar with the World Health Organization guidelines now used by women all over the world. (Note: Women on Waves offers guidance, based on the WHO research, on how to do an abortion with pills.) Many Armenian women are therefore in a dangerous situation, as they are using Cytotec without the relevant information about its efficacy or side effects, which can range from an incomplete abortion to bleeding to death.Barriers to ContraceptionAs part of my work with the Children of Armenia Fund (COAF), I counseled women on birth control options. This has been quite a challenge, as there are so many myths surrounding birth control, and it’s expensive for rural women. One pack of birth control pills costs about $15-20 a month in Armenia. For a village family barely making $100 a month, it is completely unaffordable.
Besides the cost and access issues, social factors also influence a woman’s reproductive health. Although many husbands are supportive, others do not allow their wives to use birth control. Sometimes the mother-in-law gets involved, too. When a woman in Armenia gets married, she moves in with her husband and his mother. The mother-in-law is usually the matriarch of the family, so she has a lot of pull in decision-making, even when it comes to her daughter-in-law’s reproductive health.
Changing Patterns, Changing LivesDuring my last week in Armenia, I met a woman who had come to her village clinic for an abortion. She had two children and this was going to be her fourth abortion. She told me that her husband wants to have another child, but that he’s an alcoholic -– has been since the day they got married –- and he beats her. She doesn’t think it’s right to bring a child into this world when her life at home is so unstable, and yet she is completely dependent on him for financial security. Living in the village, there are very few resources for either of them to get any help. Stories like this are difficult to hear; you quickly realize how vital organizations like COAF are to these women. COAF provides free screenings for breast and cervical cancer and free treatment for STIs. With the help of the UNFPA, I inserted intrauterine devices (IUDs) for free to eligible women. This provides them with one of the most effective forms of birth control for up to 10 years.
On my final day working with COAF, one of the women was so thankful that as soon as the IUD procedure was complete, she jumped up and gave me a big kiss. She had had six surgical abortions, and she could not remember how many times she had taken Cytotec to end her other pregnancies. It amazed me how much the women opened up to me. They are yearning for accurate information and resources, and they are deeply grateful not only for the health care that is provided but for the conversations about their bodies and their health. Some women may not change their minds about birth control right away, but I know they at least have the information they need to consider it, and sometimes that is enough to start changing attitudes.
Despite all the economic and cultural barriers, I believe things are changing for women in Armenia - slowly, of course, but moving in the right direction. There is no reason why Armenian women should have to keep relying on abortions for family planning, or why they should be misinformed about their reproductive health.
My hope is that educating women about their health and family planning options will empower them to take control of future. At the very least, they know where and when to seek care if they need it.
Related: Learn more about OBOS’s partner in Armenia, “For Family and Health” Pan Armenian Association (PAFHA).
By Marisa Dabice | COAF Staff | New York City
Hello Kelsey! Thank you so much for speaking with me about the work you’re doing in Karakert. I suppose the best place to start is with an introduction: would you mind telling me a little bit about your background, how long you’ve been in Karakert and how you came to join the Peace Corps?
About my background... Well, I hail from the suburbs of Baltimore, although I also lived in Dover, Delaware for many years growing up. I returned to Baltimore for university, where I studied English and Secondary Education at Towson University. During my time at Towson, I spent a semester studying abroad in Newcastle, England. This was when my interest in travel and international education began. Upon my return to Towson University, I got a job as a Peer Advisor at the campus's Study Abroad Office. I helped other students explore the various options for studying abroad and how to choose which path was right for them. If my experience in England was what sparked my interest in international education, then this job is what cemented it. It was during this time I decided that, after graduation, I wanted to teach English abroad. I did some research and found that Peace Corps was the best fit for me. I applied for Peace Corps during my final year of university, and in February 2011 I received an official invitation to join the program in Armenia. It was an overwhelming moment, partially because so much work had gone into the application process, and because it was the first time I'd ever heard of Armenia! But after some thorough research, I decided to whole heartedly accept the invitation. I arrived in Armenia in June 2011. My first few months were spent in a village in Kotayk Marz, living near other Peace Corps Volunteers. During this time we took intensive Armenian language lessons, lived with host families, and learned more about Armenian culture and how to go about working here. In August 2011, I finished this training period and moved to my permanent site of Karakert, where I'd work in Secondary School #1 as an English Teacher Trainer for the next two years.
Where do you live and work in Armenia? What were your first impressions when you arrived?
I was assigned to work in Karakert as an English Teacher Trainer at one of the two Secondary Schools. As part of Peace Corps tradition and policy, I also live in this village. For the first six months, I stayed with a host mother, but now I live in my own rented house. Karakert is a relatively large village located approximately 70 km west of Yerevan. My first trip here was a memorable one. Peace Corps had invited all the school directors and other supervisors who would work with Peace Corps Volunteers to a small conference near Yerevan. This is where I met Tamara Baghdasaryan, the director of School #1 and my supervisor. I remember, at our first meeting, we could barely communicate as my Armenian language skills were still very, very basic. And within this first day of meeting one another, I traveled with her all the way back to Karakert. This was also my first long-distance trip on a public marshutni. It was hot, smelly, and tightly packed. I remember as we got closer to Karakert, I noticed that there were fewer trees and greenery. There was certainly no water in sight. My first impression upon entering the village was that it looked like it was a Great Depression-era dustbowl town, with just a few signs of life -- the occasional fruit tree, grape vine, and people walking around. After arriving, my director took me straight to the school where I'd be working. At the time, it was in a state of major disrepair. There were missing windows, floorboards, and door handles. The chairs and desks were falling apart. Some blackboards had giant cracks in them. If it weren't for the big, solid concrete walls, I feared that the whole building could collapse at any moment. Thankfully, I also met some of the other teachers and administrators on this first day. Despite the language barrier, I could tell that they were eager to meet and work with me. The fact that these women were so upbeat and positive, despite their working conditions, gave me hope that I'd be able to do just fine living in this new place for two years.
In what capacity do you work with COAF?
Most of my work with COAF is with the English Access Microscholarship Program. This program, in cooperation with the US State Department, was started just after my arrival in Karakert. The timing couldn't have been more perfect. The program provides teenage students in six of the COAF villages the chance to participate in an intensive, extra-curricular English program. I conduct a weekly lesson with the participating students in Karakert. My lessons focus on speaking and listening skills and stress the importance of being able to communicate with a native English speaker. This program also included a two-week English Summer Camp last July. This was an exciting opportunity for both me and the students. I recruited other Peace Corps Volunteers to work with the kids, and we were able to introduce a lot of fun American camp games (including kickball, ultimate Frisbee, and the art of making s'mores). The kids, on the other hand, had a great time meeting other Americans and other COAF students. It was a joy to see how much their English skills flourished in this short time.
Is there such a thing as a typical day in Armenia?
No, not at all. I'm still learning to be flexible and patient at all times. I've learned that things can change abruptly here, whether it's your class schedule, when local transportation will be running, or when water will be available. It's been a tough transition, of course. I just hope that I will be able to take some of this new-found flexibility and patience back to the US with me!
What are some of the different holidays or traditions you’ve experienced in Armenia that don’t exist in the states?
Because I've been in Armenia for over a year and a half now, I've been able to take part in all the traditional holidays and celebrations. There are a few that stand out in particular. Vardavar, a summer holiday, is one that stands out in particular. Essentially, it's a holiday celebrated by children and young people by throwing water on each other -- and strangers. The first summer I was here, I was in training and lived in the same village as seven other Peace Corps Volunteers. We had a great time running around in the streets, playing with the kids (photo attached). And in my second summer, Vardavar happened to fall on the first day my parents were visiting. They had a good time trying to avoid the water-throwers throughout Yerevan as we walked around the city.
In addition to celebrating Armenian holidays, I've also celebrated a few American holidays with my students here. Halloween is generally the most popular one. This past Halloween, my students in the COAF English class prepared and gave a presentation about the holiday for their parents, played games, and dressed up in costumes. They had a great time, especially making jack-o-lanterns!It’s been said that there are 4 stages to culture shock: honeymoon period, hostility/rejection, regression & isolation, and finally, adjustment and adaptation. What has your own experience been like living in rural Armenia? Was there a difficult transition? How do you feel now?
I completely agree with this outlook on culture shock. However, when living in a foreign culture for such an extended period of time, the four stages tend to repeat themselves...over and over and over again. It's a roller coaster!
I did have some difficult transition time when I first moved to Karakert. Some of this had to do with this village being a much poorer and more rural than where I lived during training. I had to adjust to using an outhouse, taking infrequent bucket baths, and most of all, not seeing any other Americans regularly. I truly felt like I was alone in a foreign land. Luckily, I had a very kind host family that included me in all their activities, and as soon as school started, I began to form friendships with teachers and students there. But, then the weather started getting colder. The first winter I was here was one of the worst in recent Armenian history. It lasted from October through March and brought a lot of snow and ice! This made the feeling of isolation feel stronger yet again. So again, in my experience, the stages of culture shock tend to go in mixed-up order sometimes.
During most of my second year here, I have felt just fine. As the time to leave Armenia approaches, I am faced with mixed feelings every day. I look forward to going home and seeing all my family and friends again, but it is devastating to not know when I will see my new Armenian family and friends again.
What about the language barrier? I’m assuming you spoke little Armenian when you first arrived – how comfortable are you with the language now?
Actually, I came into Armenia with very little knowledge of the language. Peace Corps had sent us some materials before our departure, and despite my efforts to try to learn the alphabet and how to properly say "Շնորհակալություն," I could barely communicate in my first days here. Thankfully, Peace Corps wasted no time in beginning our intensive language classes. We had wonderful Armenian teachers who spent 5 hours a day, 6 days a week teaching us the ins and outs of this difficult language.
Over the past year and a half, I have picked up a lot more Armenian. I can get by in most conversations, and some Armenians here seem to be under the impression that I understand everything! (Not the case). This really is the most fluent I've ever been in a foreign language, and I'm very proud of myself. I still have daily struggles related to the language barriers, but not nearly as many as I thought I would have.
Any fun/interesting stories?
I have so many stories; it's hard to think of just one to tell! I could tell you about making s'mores with Armenians, learning how to "kochari" dance at numerous weddings, being incredibly proud when a student of mine speaks in English to another Peace Corps Volunteer (and totally wows the volunteer)... the list goes on and on. (And if any of those stories you'd like to hear, I'm happy to share). But here's just one:
One of the most interesting experiences during my time here has been when my parents visited Armenia. They came for a week last summer, right in the middle of my Peace Corps service. Although it was a short amount of time for a visit, we managed to get a lot in. It was during their visit that I really realized not only how hospitable Armenians are, but how much they cared for me and were grateful that I was here. Everybody treated my parents like royalty, chauffeuring them around in cars (even if it was the neighbor's car), treating them to the best food, and even asking them to be godparents! I was so happy to be able to share this culture with my parents and introduce them to the people I live and work with every day.
Myths about women’s health make their way up and down gravel stone streets, traveling from the rocky mountainside to homes casted in concrete and tufa, meandering from the bedroom to the laundry line, whispered from neighbor to neighbor, friend to friend, sister to sister, mother-in-law to daughter-in-law. Myths are a way of life in the remote villages of Armenia.
Myths about women’s health make their way up and down gravel stone streets, traveling from the rocky mountainside to homes casted in concrete and tufa, meandering from the bedroom to the laundry line, whispered from neighbor to neighbor, friend to friend, sister to sister, mother-in-law to daughter-in-law. Myths are a way of life in the remote villages of Armenia. Did you know that the pill causes your hair to fall out, damages your internal organs, and leads to infertility? Have you heard that condoms aren’t effective, bad for a man’s health, and causes allergies? What about the IUD? Did you know that it leads to infections? Well, if you haven’t heard about these side effects before, it’s because none of what I just wrote is true. But these are the myths I hear every week.
I’ve been working with COAF as a volunteer since the autumn of 2012, and my role has primarily been as a women’s health myth-buster. (Yes, I’m like the science educators on TV, except my myth busting is less explosive.) Each week, I accompany the Lusine Antonyan & Lusine Sahakyan dynamic duo to one of the COAF target villages. During the first couple months of my time with COAF, I was meeting with women one-on-one or in small group sessions and counseling them about their contraceptive options, alongside former volunteer, Taleen Khoury Moughamian. Since the start of the new year, I have been conducting a research study on the social influences that impact family planning decisions, as well as continuing the counseling sessions at the end of each of my interviews.
At first I was surprised by these myths about contraception that the women would relay to me and alarmed at how abortion is still used as the main method of family planning. However, in reading about Soviet health “education” campaigns and the lack of available information on this topic, I now understand why these myths have perpetuated and how the deep-seated reliance on abortion stems from Soviet ideology, policies, and current socio-economic conditions.
When I speak with the women, I like to share anecdotes from my own experiences. Though raised in different countries and under different conditions, I, like many of the women with whom I speak, am a young woman in my mid-to-late 20s, married, and thinking about family planning. I know that by being able to relate to the women that my impact is greater. But myth busting is just touching the surface. What we need to create is a community-led initiative that will continue to spread knowledge about reproductive health, as well as help empower women and enable them to create better livelihoods.
With the help of COAF, there will soon be a shuffle of women’s voices from up and down the gravel stone streets, from rooftop to rooftop, from home to home… but these whispering voices will have taken on a new narrative. In place of myth-spreading, there will be an exchange of knowledge. Women will become empowered to make good decisions for themselves and their families. Husbands and mothers-in-law will understand the importance of family planning for their wives, daughters-in-law, and children. The village status quo will have become a distant memory of the past.
By Samuel Armen | COAF Volunteer | Armenia
Still in Myasnikyan traversing about, time-traveling through The Past Corridor, stepping outside, stepping inside, attempting to film each beautiful face as classes change, waving to children who try to study despite me waving a camera in their face and giving them the thumbs-up sign like a Western Borat… A tap on the shoulder. I turned and faced bright green eyes. Like blades of grass when the sun flexes and beams all of its mightiest rays down on them. – A little bit brighter than that. Her name is Anahit, she’s 16, goes to the school, lived in Myasnikyan but now Armavir, and greeted me with a half-confused, “Can I help you?” Someone who speaks ‘Merican! The uncultured pygmy in me shouted. “Sure!” She became my lovely tour guide. We traveled together with one of her friends, Silvi (who also spoke English). Together, all three of us posed for photos as Anahit told me about the school. I already knew a decent amount about the school, but it’s always great to learn more, especially from an inside angle. She showed me the cafeteria/canteen, the gym, and walked with me outside. She was speaking English the whole time, so I assumed that she learned it in the school’s English program. I was wrong. She was learning English through her own efforts, and was instead learning German in school.
“Do you like German?” I asked. She shrugged. “Not really.” Ich mag es nicht, auch nicht. (Thanks Google translate) But what do I know?
Anyway. She spoke three languages, which I found very impressive, and in the one that I speak relatively well she said, “Class is going to end soon, and the students are going to step out.” Like the totally militant cinematographer I am not, I readied my handheld Sony HDR-PJ260-super-duper-HiDef-OMG-it-has-a-PROJECTOR?!?!-machine and aimed towards the door, hoping for a perfectly-caught frenzied moment. A moment passed. ‘Time goes ever so slowly when you await the school bell.’ I said to myself in Jason Statham’s voice. And then the bell rang, and unlike most schools where we’d elbow and bite and literally climb over the weak-speeded to break out and deeply inhale all of the fresh clean air of liberty, the children came out calmly, casually … unhurriedly. Why? I mean, it IS obvious if and when you’re standing where I stood. The school is brand new, bright, colorful, joyous, lovely, active, engaging, imaginative and so on. And then, a mere 45 degree turn left or right and one sees the poorly-structured homes the children deign to re-enter. It’s not their fault that their homes do not have heating. It’s not their fault that for decades snow would breeze in through cracks as cruel reminders of their inequality. Yet, I see them and they’re smiling, because they have this powerful new gem, and their capacity for appreciation is incomputable by my standards, and every year, more good news is given in new programs, new schools, new parks, another new student excelling and standing out for the first time because an opportunity was finally there. I smile and I frown, filming them walking, standing next to Anahit at the entrance of the Myasnikyan school. This school emits a positive aura, I thought to myself. A group of girls are playing hopscotch by the stairs. One girl is jumping rope. A group of boys chase eachother. Another group are running after a soccer ball. A group of young boys run into the school carrying pots with plants in them. As they see me they smile, laugh and shout “Gutentag!” I stand until the students are gone. Alexithymia – the inability to describe emotions in a verbal manner.
In 2012, we saw a spike in the creativity of donor engagement with COAF. Donors shared their birthdays and wedding anniversaries with us and we were honored to be a part of the celebration. In addition to these festivities, in October of 2012, we were introduced to Narine Vartanian a senior at West Anchorage High School in Anchorage, Alaska. After an emotional trip to the Mary Ismirian Orphanage in Armenia, Narine began recruiting her fellow students to establish Project Armenia. Narine started a Facebook group for the project, tweeted about her goals, and was able to recruit 20 students in the first week alone. Project Armenia is now an established club at West Anchorage High School and meets once a month to organize fundraisers. Their first fundraiser, a bake sale, raised almost $500! We spoke to Narine recently about her work with Project Armenia, what inspired her to start the group, and how she came to find COAF.
COAF: Hello Narine! It’s so wonderful to get the chance to speak with you. As you know, this will be our third installment of our "Donor Spotlight" series. Could you please introduce yourself to our donors?
Narine: My name is Narine Vartanian; I am 18 years old and currently a senior at West Anchorage High School. My hometown is Anchorage, Alaska; I have lived here my whole life but I often travel to the lower '48 where all my relatives live. I also travel to Yerevan, Armenia with my family every other summer.
COAF: "The lower '48" – I’ve never heard that expression before but I love it! What inspired you to want to start Project Armenia at your high school? Why the focus on Armenia?
Narine: In the summer of 2012 I went to Yerevan, Armenia and decided that I wanted to do some good while I was there. I went to the Mary Ismirian Orphanage and after a few days and nights of observing the conditions that these orphans lived through, with malnutrition and horrible living standards; I realized I had to do something to help these kids. They were just innocent children who were victims of unfortunate circumstances, and who continued to suffer. My focus is on Armenia because first and foremost I am Armenian, and helping my own country has always been a goal of mine. The country has been victim of corruption and suppression for far too long, and too many innocent people have suffered for it. These children have done absolutely nothing to warrant where they are at now.
Children at the Mary Ismirian Orphanage
COAF: What you said is absolutely true. The circumstance of our birth has the ability to affect the outcome of our entire lives. I think many people get wrapped up in the idea that "life in unfair" and just stop there; But to go the extra step, to acknowledge that there are children and entire communities who need help from those who are in a position to give, that is the first step towards a better global community. Now I understand the inspiration but what about the implementation? How did you reach out to your fellow students and get the group started?
Narine: When I returned to my high school for the fall semester, I immediately grabbed a club charter from the school office and began recruiting kids who wanted to help raise money. I began a Facebook group for the project, tweeted about it, and in the end was able to get almost 20 kids interested just in the first week. I had taken pictures of the orphanage and the children during my stay there, and so once the kids in my school saw these pictures they were all thrilled to help. So after the naming of our group and getting our club charter approved, Project Armenia was established at West High School.
COAF: How did you first learn about COAF? Where did you hear about the work that COAF does and what made you want to get involved?
Narine: I first learned of the Children of Armenia Fund through my father, Mher Vartanian. He has always sent money to the organization because of the outstanding work your organization has done to aid Armenian children. My interest in COAF began when I realized that any of the money raised by Project Armenia in West High belonged to the school. I had no way of withdrawing the money without an address to a non-profit organization West High School could write a check to. With this in mind I went about researching groups who had goals similar to Project Armenia’s, and that was when my father suggested COAF. To this day, whenever Project Armenia raises money at West Anchorage High School I write a check from my high school to the Children of Armenia Fund, knowing that it will be going into the right hands and the children will benefit. My father matches the money that Project Armenia has sent to COAF, and I send that money to the Mary Ismirian Orphanage so that they may buy the children whatever they need. It is a win-win situation.
Narine Vartanian (left) and fellow Project Armenia member
COAF: We are honored to be a part of this "win-win situation." To know that the money raised during your fundraisers is being matched and sent to others in need in Armenia is truly progressive giving. It is so important for organizations and individuals to find common goals and work together for change. Can you tell us a bit about the fundraisers you have done with Project Armenia?
Narine: The bake sale was done to raise money so that the orphanage can buy blankets for the kids in the Mary Ismirian Orphanage. Project Armenia has meetings approximately once a month at school to organize such fundraisers, and this particular one was our first. It raised almost five hundred dollars, with over 15 people from the club baking dozens of delicious homemade goods ranging from muffins to scones that accommodated all diets. After this bake sale, we raised money by running a coat check at a Royal Filipino Banquet in town, and by caroling for Christmas. The members of this club have put an incredible amount of effort into this project, and I honestly would have gotten nowhere without them. I thank my close friends and my peers for the success of Project Armenia because that is where credit is due.
COAF: That’s exactly how we feel about our donors. Without their help, the work we do would not be possible. Thank you so much for your time and for the hard work that you and the Project Armenia group are doing for those in rural Armenia. We can’t wait to see what you think of next!
If you are inspired by Narine's story and are interested in donating to COAF in similar ways, please visit myCOAF or call us at 212-994-8234 for more information on how to start your own giving campaign!
By Samuel Armen | COAF Volunteer | Armenia
On February 5th and February 6th, 2013, I traveled to the COAF villages with the intention of collecting film for an upcoming project. Traveling with me were Haig Boyadjian (Marketer and PR for COAF), Lilit Khachatryan (Photographer for COAF) and Alexander Yakaitis (a friend from back home). We would be traveling to Myasnikiyan, Karakert, Lernagog, Baghramyan and then back to Karakert for the school opening.
13 months prior, in January 2012 I was standing alone inside of the then-still-renovating school in Myasnikiyan. The school was almost completely renovated; behind me was the bright vastness of the soon-to-be-completed school, but in front of me was a dark hallway that was not yet refurbished. There I was alone, just my video camera and I, facing this dim passage. I paced forward, and this is what I saw: • The bright-colored paint of the renovated walls slowly dimmed and chipped away into the gray pallid stones. • The many windows that poured bright hues would deteriorate into broken windows with iron-barred openings and then lessen into no windows – and one was entirely tangled in shades. • The expected smoothness of the doors, floors, and walls would become uneven, rocky, chipped, punctured, and crumbling. • Even the blanket of warmth from previous rooms would slowly unthread and pull away until the cold sank into your bones as you quietly gasped a most relevant cloud of condensation. 'Children walked through here, children walked through here, children walked through here' I kept saying to myself, staring through the camera and then ahead, unable to ignore the !!!A S T R O N O M I C A L!!! difference between my pristine schools – from elementary school to high schools – and this one. (In my elementary school we’d get upset if they ran out of the soft, chocolate-chip cookies. They were REALLY good, though.) Pardon all hyperbole, but, in an atmospheric sense, it was truly the descent from a dream setting to a nightmare. Then, I’d finally emerge back out of the hallway, and be welcomed back into the main part of the school – the new and refurbished majority. Again there would be the bright colors, the warmth, the windows, and the comfort everywhere before me. But that wouldn’t be the end. I turned back around and walked up and down the past corridor. How many times are past and present so closely and so tangibly linked?
Fast-forward to February 5th and 6th of 2013. The school is fully functional. I stood again with my video camera, walking through the hallways which were vivid and bright. As I turned my camera on, noises echoed throughout the school. I followed what sounded like the loudening shouts and running stomps of children in the gymnasium. A few steps forward and a quick left turn, and I was met with a room full of bright colors, a whizzing soccer ball, and children racing towards it.In another bright room, students were reading in class, reviewing an Armenian lesson. Each student had a book. All the winter coats and jackets were on hangers in the back of the classroom. There were shelves for materials. The teacher was smiling and had all his supplies on his desk and by the chalkboard. The image of my own elementary school returned, and this time it wasn’t much of a tragically stark contrast, and I felt something like confidence, like admiration, like fairness, or perhaps like justice. And that was a very COAF feeling.
In our latest addition of "A Conversation with..." we speak with the newest addition to the COAF staff: Danielle Hacet. Danielle joined the team in August to work as our Donor Relations Coordinator and played an instrumental role in putting together our Ninth Annual Gala in December! She took some time today to speak to us about her very first COAF event, why she decided to make the switch from fashion to the non-profit world, and what it means to her to be an Armenian-American working for COAF in New York City.
COAF: Hi Danielle! Thank you so much for taking some time out of your busy day to do this interview! You are the newest addition to the COAF staff and I think it’s time we introduced you to all our donors. Let’s start with the basics: I know you’re originally from Kentucky, why the move to NYC? Danielle: Since I was young, I was intrigued by the world of celebrity, fashion, and culture—three things Kentucky does not offer. I had always dreamed about living in a city like New York, but it wasn’t until I was 16 that I had the opportunity to visit. The moment I stepped off the plane, I fell in love. I turned to my mom and said, “When I graduate college, I’m moving to New York.” And that is exactly what I did.
COAF: You mentioned fashion. Your previous work includes several jobs in that field. The fashion world and the non-profit world are so different. Why the switch? What made you want to work at a nonprofit?
Danielle: The truth is I never set out to work in non-profit and I probably wouldn’t have made the switch if it weren’t for COAF. While the fashion world is deeply intriguing, it’s also a very tough world and it takes a certain type of person to make it. I loved the moments I had and the adrenaline rush it gave me at times, but I certainly don’t miss running down Fifth Avenue in six-inch heels. At the end of the day, I had to make a decision about whether I truly fit into that world. My dad always told me that I was too nice to work in that field and I think he was right. It took me a while to figure out it wasn’t the best fit for me, but I don’t have any regrets about the experience I accumulated. Now, I can use my kindness to help Armenia’s most vulnerable children.
COAF: How or where did you first hear about COAF? What was your first COAF event?
Danielle: When I moved to New York, I was excited about the idea of getting involved with the Armenian community. Growing up in Kentucky, I didn’t have many ties to my culture, aside from attending summer camp and the occasional event here and there. I started attending events but found that it was difficult to meet people, especially when most of these kids have known each other since they were in diapers. I oftentimes felt like it was a lost cause and eventually gave up trying. My cousin, who is very actively involved, continued to drag me to parties determined to introduce me to more people. He convinced me to come to the Summer Soiree in 2011. It took a lot of courage for me to show up, but I ended up having a great time. It was the first time I felt welcomed at an Armenian event in New York and I met a lot of people. More than anything, I was touched by the messages in the video and speeches that evening and I knew right away, it was something I wanted to be a part of.
COAF: How did you become involved? You started as a volunteer before you joined the staff.
Danielle: After the Summer Soiree, I was having dinner with a friend of my father’s and I told her about how difficult it was to meet people but how much fun I had at the Summer Soiree. She told me about the young professionals group and put me in touch with board member Alice Saraydarian. From there, I volunteered for the Holiday Gala in 2011 and then continued to work with COAF in a volunteer capacity. In August of last year, a full-time position opened and it felt like the perfect fit for me. I was ready to fade out of the fashion world and take this next step. COAF: You’ve traveled to Armenia before; can you tell me what that trip was like? Where did you travel to? What did the trip mean to you as a member of the Armenian diaspora?
Danielle: I took the trip with Armenia Service Program (ASP) back in 2006. It was an amazing experience. We worked with Habitat for Humanity to restore homes and we also had the opportunity to travel around Armenia and explore the villages. Like most everyone else who visits Armenia, I was shocked by the stark contrast between Yerevan and the surrounding villages. Yerevan felt like any other metropolitan city while the surrounding areas were in despair. I saw so many children who looked so vulnerable and sad and it broke my heart. There’s one story that I like to share about my trip. It wasn’t a part of our itinerary but I took it upon myself to go visit an orphanage while I was there. I remember seeing this little boy, he couldn’t have been more than 18 months old. Like any small child, I couldn’t resist how adorable he was and I wanted to tickle him. As I moved my hand toward his stomach, he immediately began to sob loudly. Most of these children had been neglected and abused. That little boy saw my hand coming and cried for dear life. It’s an image I will never forget as I try to fight back my own tears each and every time I tell the story. In that moment, I knew I wanted to do more for these kids. I wanted to make a difference.
COAF: What’s it like to be an Armenian working for COAF in New York City?
Danielle: I think I provide a unique perspective. For me, this isn’t just a job. I feel a true, genuine connection to my culture. It’s not about dotting i’s and crossing t’s. It’s about waking up every day and feeling good about the work that I do because I know somewhere, somehow the work that we do is touching thousands of lives.
By Sam Dolgin-Gardner | Peace Corps Volunteer | New York City
On December 13, 2012, Sam Dolgin-Gardner took the stage at the COAF Ninth Annual Holiday Gala. With the Temple of Dendur glowing behind him, he delivered a powerful speech about his experiences as the first Peace Corps Volunteer to work in the village of Arteni - one of the communities in the COAF cluster. During his time in rural Armenia, Sam worked as an English language teacher who helped so many young students learn English. At the end of his speech at the gala, Sam introduced Anahidt, a former student of his from the village of Lernagog. Anahidt spoke beautifully, in English, about what COAF has meant to her and her friends. A video of her speech can be found at the bottom of this post. Sam Dolgin-Gardner: When I applied to the Peace Corps three years ago, I told them they could send me anywhere in the world. Isk shnorakalutstyun Astvats, [And Thanks be to God] they sent me to Armenia. So in August 2010, my sitemate and I arrived in the village of Arteni as English teachers. We were the first Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) ever to come to this site, and we were both astonished by the school’s lack of resources. Both schools lacked sanitation systems, so there were no bathrooms for the kids, and no heat, so that in the winter the students had to pack tightly into classrooms in their coats so that their body heat could warm the room. But as a teacher, the biggest challenge was the lack of educational resources. There were no English language books, tapes, or videos and the English language teacher herself was trained in the Soviet system, so she could only read and write English, not speak it in class. I started to gather books and magazines whenever I went to Yerevan, printing out materials on the Peace Corps printers, or getting friends and family to send material. In a few months I’d collected enough to start a little library of maybe fifty or a hundred books. At the time I didn’t know it, but I was very lucky, because it was right about then that COAF hired Nara Martirosyan. Nara is an extraordinary woman, a close friend of mine and a Peace Corps Success Story. She grew up in Tatev and became a community development worker. In 2000, just out of college and not speaking any English, she became the counterpart of Sara Todd, a PCV from Wisconsin. Thanks to her work with PCVs, she learned English and got a State Department grant to get her masters degree in Ohio, then returned to Armenia and began working for COAF as their Education Program Manager. When she got there, the first question she asked was: “Where are the PCVs?” So one morning, as I’m about to go to school, my host family says to me, in Armenian, “Go to the Mayor’s office, COAF is there.” I say, “Erav, inch e nshanakum COAF?” [Allright, What does “COAF” mean?] They say, “We don’t know, it’s an English word.” I go to the Mayor’s office, and there is Nara and Serob, the Country Director of COAF. They ask me, “How would you like to have 2500 Scholastic language arts textbooks?” I say, “Yes, please, that would be great, but what exactly does that word, ‘COAF,’ mean?” So I started working with COAF, and together we got a grant from the US Embassy for $50,000 to do intensive after-school English language teaching in 6 villages. It’s a two-year grant that’s enabled COAF to hire three full-time teachers trained at the American University of Armenia and supply students with international-quality textbooks. Last July we hosted a 2-week long intensive English language camp where students got the chance to meet with the director of UNICEF Armenia, the CEO of Vivacell and visit the US Embassy Information Resource Center. There are currently five Peace Corps Volunteers working with COAF, either in the villages or the Yerevan office. COAF’s newest school, being built right now, will feature an English language center organized by PCV Kelsey Anderson. COAF’s work wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for the support of donors like you. Now that I’m back in America, I’m thrilled to get the chance to thank you in person and talk about the difference your support makes.
Anahidt's speech at the COAF Ninth Annual Gala
By Lily Abagyan | Filmmaker | California
How to Dance the KochariPart 5 of 5
See more photos from Lily's photo shoot here.
There’s no better way to celebrate the final installment of our 5-part series than with an iconic Armenian dance: “How to Dance the Kochari” was the first “how to” concept that I developed, since I had always wondered what the oft mentioned but seldom defined Kochari really was. Why dance? Compared to the other COAF projects—and accordingly, the other video topics—extracurricular activities aren’t indispensible for survival, and thus lack the sense of urgency inherent in projects like rebuilding dilapidated health clinics, providing a reliable education system, and facilitating irrigation systems that enable agricultural activity for families that have no other feasible source of income. And yet, the dance, photo, art, music, and athletic programs are profoundly important for the children living in these villages.
In fact, one article in the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) states “that every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities … and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.” Much less, the government is responsible for defending those rights. Particularly in regions like these where poverty plagues most families, children grow up under great emotional strain, with only a few years worth of a carefree childhood that’s naïve to grim realities. Organized activities give them a chance to connect with their community, form strong bonds with their teammates, and strive towards personal goals and ambitions. But most importantly, the hours spent dancing, taking photographs, or playing soccer, is time they can spend just being kids. The Sasun Group is the dance club based in Lernagog, and the team as well as the entire school is lauded and beloved by everyone in the COAF organization. So I was very curious to see exactly what made this school so special, and what made the kids in the clubs (photo as well as dance) such model students. We arrived to the Lernagog School at 4:30 pm one day, deciding to meet with the principal, Mr. Makaryan, since there was no dance practice that day. He welcomed us into his office, and promptly offered us coffee and chocolates. A kind, engaging man who wears glasses, he greeted every single staff member or student that passed in the hallway. He also congratulated me on the progress I had made in my Armenian language abilities (since I had met him a year prior).
We asked him about the dance group and he lit up, overjoyed that we were going to document the pride of his school. He made a quick phone call to their instructor, Mrs. Kamalyan, to discuss our plans, and within 10 minutes she had the entire group assembled in the gym. The picture was starting to clarify: the first thing you need to foster an exceptional student body is a school principal who is sensitive to the needs of his students, connected to his staff, and goes about his day with a genuine smile. The kids filed into the gym and stood in a line formation, awaiting the commands of their teacher. A few ran over to fidget with the stereo, and suddenly the gym was echoing with the shrill but celebratory sound of the zurna. As we spent more time with them, I understood how it all happened so seamlessly: Mrs. Kamalyan is a remarkable woman. She comes from the Sasun region of Armenia and specializes in dances of that region. She’s quiet but dedicated, and can relay detailed instructions to her kids with just a glance. They hover around her like little ducklings, and listen to every word—so she only ever has to say everything once. And though there is a sternness to her, as soon as she begins talking about the kids, the love in her eyes is unmistakable. So that’s two: have a teacher who instills discipline, but also inspires and loves the children. We started scanning the team for exceptional dancers. Immediately, our eyes, as did all the eyes of the group, fell on one dancer: 15 year old Volodya. He was one of only five boys in the 25+ member group, and leader of the dance. He yelled percussively, and exaggerated his movements, often improvising intermediate steps or arm motions. Seeing him come alive, and that invigorating smile on his face, was an instant decision. What’s funny is that prior to seeing him, various teachers and the principal did tell us about one boy who was quite good, but would probably be hard to work with because he received low marks in school and was a “bad” student. In fact, as soon as he stopped dancing and we pulled him aside for a conversation, he fell very quiet and inarticulate. He gave one-word answers and a lot of “I don’t knows.” But on the dance floor he would come alive and carry the whole group through each new series of steps. That’s three: a successful group of children needs a passionate leader who acts as a role model and consistently pushes them to raise their standards (and even spearheads spontaneous dance sessions outside of school).
Initially, we filmed the entire “how to” Kochari sequences in the renovated theatre space of the Karakert recreational center. The kids were understandably camera shy, and rigid, taken out of their natural habitat and placed in a large, empty space that was unfamiliar to them. Fortunately we had the privilege of filming some of the sequences a second time (9 months later); this time we optimized everything for their fieriest performances. We asked Volodya and Mrs. Kamalyan to ensure that all the kids would gather outside of their school at 10 am (a boiling hot 10 am in mid June), wearing street clothes rather than their customary black and white dance uniforms. When we arrived, we saw the kids employing a group effort to carry their over-sized stereo system outside, and through some very creative rewiring, set it up on the street corner, at the intersection of the school’s gates and the main street that descends through the village. Had it been clear that day, it would have been a street punctuated with a view of Ararat. By the time everything was ready, the sun was scorching. But as they danced and the familiar percussive melodies echoed through the quiet village, people started to peak out of their homes, and make their way up that main street. First, a few wandering kids sat on the curb. Then, grandfathers came with their infant grandchildren, dancing with their granddaughters. Then finally, children ceded their seats on the single bench to a group of grandmothers (the last but most important group of people to arrive) who sat perched on the bench, whispering to each other and watching intently. All the meanwhile, our dancers were growing tired, sweaty, but no less enthusiastic; I can’t explain the sense of joy and fulfillment I saw in the Sasun Group on this day. Apart from the many benefits of extracurriculars, the events of that day demonstrated the importance of connecting with heritage. Dance is a physical, communal activity that ultimately connects them to the Armenian culture. The end of the village dance session was a spontaneous event that couldn’t have happened so flawlessly had we planned it: suddenly the five grandmothers sitting together on the bench stood up and squeezed themselves into the kids’ Kochari dance. They danced with pride, the strength of centuries of survival, and smiles beaming on their faces: youthful, timeless smiles, but also the smiles of handing down tradition. As Volodya’s grandmother danced the Kochari next to her grandson, the source of his vigor for dance became clear.
Again: I know that extracurricular activities aren’t as essential as formal education. And yes, a child can’t live without basic healthcare but can survive without dance lessons. But I am making a plea to emphasize the arts and extracurriculars in Armenia, and in impoverished regions around the world. This kind of enrichment and development is what differentiates between kids who grow up with a hunger for life, a replenishing well of creativity, and a source of gratification in their lives, from those who fall into the inevitable patterns of hopelessness, enslaved by a fate of few opportunities, cigarettes, and a lifetime of doing very little. The time they spend dancing, is the time they can become acquainted with the feelings of bliss and accomplishment, and hopefully become addicted to this kind of achievement.
Volodya’s story is emblematic of the importance of the enrichment programs: the “bad student,” discredited by his teachers, who shone on stage and lead his group practice after practice. Volodya’s story is just one; there are countless children whose true nature lies in the arts, athletics, or other forms of creative expression. We can’t expect all children to shine under the same circumstances; and if we give them the right ones, they just may become the kind that will inspire their entire generation to do the same.
By Kim Artounian | COAF Summer Intern | Yerevan, Armenia
This past summer, Kim Artounian traveled to Yerevan, Armenia to develop and implement a series of hygiene and dental programs for the COAF summer camps. Kim had a wonderful experience in rural Armenia and was eager to share her story with us.
The instant I walked into the COAF office in Yerevan, I felt comfortable and welcome. The staff was so friendly and kind from day one and I was absolutely positive that I would have a great experience working with them. Before I began my internship, I didn't know what to expect. I knew I would be planning and facilitating activities for children of all ages that promoted hygiene and health and I had been communicating with Nune, the COAF health manager, for a few weeks with fledgling ideas before my arrival in Armenia, but it had yet to be implemented.
The first weeks of the internship, I spent my time at the COAF office in Yerevan planning activities, writing descriptions, and having discussions with staff and with my fellow intern (and roommate!) Narineh. During this planning phase, we had the opportunity to tour schools and health clinics in different villages and participate in a couple of days of the English camps with the older children. The first village we visited was Myasnikyan. We walked around the health clinic and school (they have the most beautiful outdoor classroom!) to get an idea of where we would be working. We also went to Dalarik, where we again saw the health clinic and toured the school with Miran, a student at the school. At the Myasnikyan English camp, we worked with Peace Corps volunteers and participated in their activities as well as led our own, which were skits and short video clips about anti-smoking and the importance of exercise, healthy eating, and hygiene. In Lernagog, we helped the campers prepare for the COAF talent show that brought together the English camps in all the villages. I specifically worked with two kids who were doing their own skit about their experience in a pizza parlor. I loved spending one on one time with them and actually saw them a couple of days later on a trip to the Ambert fortress.
One of the most memorable experiences with COAF was when nearly everyone in the office went to the village of Karakert for the opening ceremony of a series of soccer tournaments between the villages. There was music and dancing during the breaks and there was an incredible energy in the air. We met our friend Lilit, who works with COAF as a photographer and studies in Yerevan as well. We spent time with the kids, who would remember us when we began teaching in the camps the following week. I became very close with the kids very quickly. They were so sweet and caring and constantly asked us when we were coming back. There were two camp sessions. For the first one, Narineh and I worked separately then combined our most popular activities and worked together for the second session. My activities included making posters, mini booklets, and skits/performances with health and hygiene related themes.
We divided our time among five villages: Dalarik, Myasnikyan, Lernagog, Shenik, and Karakert. Each day consisted of three sections and we would work with a different age group each hour since the camps were divided into primary, middle, and high school groups. Throughout our internship, Narineh and I frequently reflected on how different and fulfulling each day was and how we truly felt as though we were contributing to COAF’s mission in the villages. Some days were incredibly exhausting, but no less amazing than any other day. When I returned to the states, friends and family bombarded me with questions about my time in Armenia. I honestly could not find the words to describe my experiences in the villages to them. I felt so much love and genuine kindness from everyone in the office and the villages and Narineh and I truly bonded with the people around us. I have the most amazing memories from every single day spent with the kids and these are the memories that I will keep near and dear to my heart. I am eager to return to Armenia and will hopefully be reunited with my COAF family very soon!
By Michael Merjian | COAF Volunteer | NYC
COAF Volunteer and Supporter, Michael Merjian, recently visited Lernagog, Armenia for the opening ceremony of the Creativity Lab. Michael recounts his day in the village and what the experience meant to him.Riding towards the village of Lernagog, I began to realize and understand why our ancestors fought to preserve their land and ethnicity. Today was the dedication of the Creativity Lab at the Lernagog School. As we approached the school and I saw the children waiting to greet us, pride in our Armenian nation swept over me and set the stage for my future efforts with COAF. The Province governor, the local Mayor and COAF Representatives introduced each other and proclaimed their happiness on this landmark occasion. We were ushered to the gym, decorated with murals of various sports activities. Twelve athletic students came onto the court and gave a basketball demonstration. Some of them waved to me, knowing me from the basketball clinic I ran . Armenian music started and a line of dancers streamed into the gym and performed a traditional Village dance. One student sang a traditional Armenian song, followed by a young man "rapping"' bringing the past into the present.I looked at the children surrounding me in the gym, beautiful children that could be from any school in the United States, but here by an accident of birth in Lernagog, the hope for Armenia's future.
Instead of a school bell, COAF wants the school environment to encourage kids to want to come to school. The existing school environment is for sitting and listening while the new Creativity Lab environment is for creating, acting, and engaging in learning. There are several zones in the classroom: technology, individual, group, play, reading. The creativity lab accommodates 40-50 students—the size of two classrooms.
Speaking of the concept of the Creativity Lab, Serob Khachatryan, COAF director, noted, "Today's students do not favor monotonous and boring classes. In this respect the appealing school environment can be a significant incentive for diversifying learning activities." Present at the opening ceremony were the Armavir marzpet Ashot Ghahramanyan and deputy minister of Education and Science Manuk Mkrtcyan. Artak Poghosyan, director of the National Center of Educational Technologies handed an award to Lernagog school student Hasmik Stepanyan, the winner of the republican photo contest.
By Marisa Dabice & Narineh Abrahamian | COAF Staff | NYC & Armenia
COAF-Armenia summer intern, Narineh Abrahamian, talks to COAF NYC staff member, Marisa Dabice, about her involvement in this year's COAF summer camps. Narineh helped to create dental and general hygiene demonstrations, as well as lessons on healthy living, that she taught to the primary, middle, and high-school aged children.
Marisa: Hello, Narineh! Thank you so much for taking the time to reflect on your internship with COAF this past summer in Armenia. We’ve heard a lot about the work you’ve done and, to put it simply, it’s fascinating. To start, how did you become involved with COAF and what inspired you to make this trip?
Narineh: Before coming to Armenia, I was looking for an internship that would be related to my field of study. Throughout my academic career, my interest in helping to serve others and to encourage healthier lifestyles has grown. I learned a vast amount of information about poverty, nutrition, healthy habits (oral and personal hygiene and physical activity), infection and disease. Little did I know at the time that I would be working with COAF in the summer to help educate and empower rural village children about healthy lifestyles. I was unquestionably eager and anxious upon arriving to Armenia to begin my internship. Through AYF (Armenian Youth Federation), COAF health manager, Nune Dolyan, had reached out to myself and another intern, Kim, and asked us to begin thinking of creative and enjoyable games that would help to educate primary through high school children about healthy lifestyles at COAF sponsored summer camps.
Marisa: Tell us about your first week. What were your first impressions? Which villages did you visit?
Narineh: During my first week and a half, the staff took us to visit two villages and health centers. I didn’t know what to expect until I stepped into the schools and clinics, which exceeded and expectations I might have had. The schools and health clinics had been renovated and were kept in great condition. The most amazing moment happened during my visit to the Myasnikyan health clinic. There, I was able to see a clear image of an ultrasound of a 5-6 month old baby. What made it so amazing was to see how much technology has helped these villages, whether it has been with ultrasounds, dental equipment, eye equipment or everyday health issues. It was a great experience to see health educator and physician, Lusine Sahakyan, educate the women of the villages about breast cancer as she performed day-long screenings for women.
Marisa: When did you first meet the children that you would be working with?
Narineh: The next week in the village of Karakert, I went to the opening ceremony of the summer camp which included a soccer tournament and dance performance. There, I met the children who I would soon be working with, as well as more COAF staff and Peace Corps volunteers. It was unbelievable how easily the kids warmed up to Kim and me. They were so eager to show us and talk to us about many different things and invite us to come to their house for dinner. The culture here is so different from America and the children were prime examples of this difference. The generosity, sincerity and excitement they presented when interacting with us was far beyond what I had expected. I had heard that a lot of these kids used to be shy and reserved but that they had recently been opening up to people more and more. It was truly a great feeling to start creating a bond with them.
Marisa: Your project for the school in Dalarik was to introduce the kids to proper dental hygiene techniques, how did you go about this? I know many kids who absolutely hate to brush their teeth; how were you able to turn this usually mundane activity into something fun, engaging and educational?
Narineh: My first day at the school in Dalarik, I was extremely nervous to arrive to the school and meet the principals and team leaders. There were many kids trying to find their designated classrooms and their team leaders trying to organize them and the caps and shirts given by COAF to designate each group (primary, middle, and highschool). To introduce the children to my dental hygiene activity, I had the primary school kids create paper model toothbrushes and teeth to practice brushing while I taught the middle school group about cavities and flossing. The primary kids, with the help of myself, Nune, and their team leader, were able to successfully make models toothbrushes and teeth. They were very happy with the activity, especially after completing it. I discussed the importance of flossing with the middle school group because many of them didn’t even know what floss was. I introduced what floss was and showed what it looked like. After, I had each kid pair up and practice flossing on each other’s hands (which represented the teeth) and the yarn (representing the floss). One child would floss in between the fingers of the other child’s pressed together hands. It was a good hands on activity to make sure that each child understood the concepts and technique of flossing properly. It was great to see the kids being open to trying something new that they had little to no knowledge about. Also, the cavity activity demonstrated how a cavity would grow in a tooth if left for too long. Many of the kids were calling out answers eagerly saying they know what causes cavities and how to prevent it or what you should do. It was fulfilling to hear that they knew a lot about this aspect of dental hygiene even though they are not always implementing these habits.
Marisa: How did the children respond to this new information? After these lessons, was it something you saw implemented into their daily routines? Are there any challenges to this implementation in the villages?
Narineh: One of my favorite parts of the day was when I would see the primary school kids brush their teeth after lunch and see all the groups wash their hands before lunch. I think the lessons instilled good habits that emphasized the importance of brushing their teeth twice a day and washing their hands often, especially before eating. A challenge that persists is that villages and school lack certain things at certain times – like running water, proper drinking water, and healthy food and drinks to consume. With this, COAF had to think of creative ways to help the kids brush their teeth, obtain drinking water, and wash their hands. COAF set up water coolers in each village for clean drinking water, personal water bottles for the kids to drink from, and gave toothbrushes for the primary school group. In addition, it was innovative to see the schools install hand-wash basins where the kids could wash their hands before lunch. Some of the days during lunch I would sit in the office with the school leaders and listen to their conversations or ask questions about their lives in the village which helped me better understand their living conditions. For instance, the village gets certain water that they shouldn’t drink because it has “rocks” in it but many of the villagers still drink it, whereas certain homes buy gallons of water for daily use like showering, laundry, drinking and washing.
Marisa: In addition to the oral hygiene demonstrations, there has been a lot of talk in the COAF villages about the correlation between health and diet. What activities did you introduce to the kids to encourage healthier eating habits?
Narineh: One thing that stuck out to me the most during my healthy eating topics was the amount of soda, chips, and unhealthy snacks the kids do consume. It was particularly astonishing at the opening ceremony of the soccer tournament when the kids were drinking soda and eating unhealthy snacks after their soccer game rather than drinking water. In some of the villages we played an activity where the kids would do a thumbs up or down for healthy or non- healthy foods and those who placed their thumbs up for unhealthy foods would have to explain why it was a healthy option. During most of the game the kids were accurately distinguishing healthy and unhealthy foods but I noticed that sometimes the kids would place a thumbs up for something like chips or fries because they liked it a lot and said they consumed it at least twice or three times a day. They knew it wasn’t good for them but they liked the food so much that they assumed that it is in a way healthy. To encourage healthier eating, the primary and middle groups were able to create fruit and vegetable people and baskets. The kids enjoyed these activities so much because they could cut, color and decorate their own fruit or vegetable person to take home to remember to eat healthy as well as talk to their parents about these choices. Many of them said they liked eating apples, grapes, watermelons or all fruits in general. We encouraged the children to speak to their parents about these healthier choices and why it is good for the body and overall health. One day when we were leaving the camp, I noticed a COAF camper going to the store and coming out with an apple in his hand rather than an ice cream, which made me feel so much better about what we were implementing. Along with healthy eating, exercise was very important for the kids so we tried to play interactive games with the children if it wasn’t too hot outside. The kids especially enjoyed getting up and out of their seats and being able to be active and play. It was a nice change of pace for them and for their leaders to incorporate play, sing and dance in their curriculum.
Marisa: During your time in Armenia, you taught children who were in the primary, middle, and high school aged groups. How did you change the lesson plan for the teenagers? Was there anything you spoke to them about that differed from the younger kids?
Narineh: During my time with the high school groups, I conducted anti-smoking demonstrations so that I could better understand their knowledge and views on smoking and inform them of the possible health problems it can create. I think that the demonstrations were a good reinforcing factor because many of them already knew that smoking is bad for you, causes shortness of breath, cancer and much more. The first activity we did was the straw activity, which was used to help students understand how smoking can affect your breathing. Each student received a thin straw and a thick straw in which they would first place the thin straw in their mouth and jump up and down for 10-15 second and then they would then do the same thing with a thick straw in their mouths. After, we discussed what the thickness of the straws meant in according to a smoker and nonsmokers lungs, which the kids were able to describe perfectly. Also, I showed the kids a demonstration about the harmful effects of smoking by showing how tar and nicotine accumulate on cotton balls placed inside a water bottle. This activity caught each student’s eye, especially when they were able to squeeze the bottle themselves, to understand what happened, why this was occurring and potential effects smoking could create on the body.
Marisa: Overall how did you feel about your time working as a intern at the COAF summer camps?
Narineh: Overall, the camp was very successful in helping to encourage healthier lifestyles for the children of the villages. It was an amazing experience for me to bond with the children, to have them look up to me and to ask questions. The more I worked with the children, the more I wanted to help them in any way possible. Upon leaving, no matter how tired I was I always felt a sense of accomplishment because the kids were happy, interested and eager to learn and do more activities. It may have been tough on certain days due to language differences, cultural differences or any minor problems, but each day was a new learning experience for me as well as the children as we worked together to help encourage daily habits. This internship has given me the opportunity to understand Armenia on a more personal level, not romanticizing what I see or only doing touristic things, but truly understanding the hardships people and the country do face. Being a part of COAF and working alongside the staff, I have been able to experience things first hand while recognizing the determination, dedication and support that are used by the entire staff to encourage and instill daily habits and stronger awareness of these social and health issues. I am truly grateful for my time and experiences here while meeting and working with such great staff that I hope to always stay in contact with.
By Keith Krosinsky | COAF Summer Intern | NYC
Keith Krosinsky interned at COAF’s New York City offices over the summer of 2012. He sought out work with COAF for the summer as a way to prepare for his upcoming graduate program where he will be studying international relations in Brussels.
When did you work with COAF, and what was your role?
I was an intern at COAF from May until August of 2012. During this time I performed a variety of roles including managing and designing content on the website, helping out with event planning and a variety of administrative work around the office. Much of the work I did alone but it was always enjoyable to collaborate with the rest of the COAF team on the bigger projects and events.
What were your tasks within the organization?
As I mentioned I mostly helped with website management, event planning and administrative tasks but I would help out with any other work that my coworkers needed help with.One of my largest projects was designing an interactive map of the Amarvir region using Google Maps which allows users to explore COAF’s model cluster of villages and the projects we have funded on the ground. Being able to see the schools and clinics we have built really showed me the kind of difference that the organization makes.Besides the map I also helped update a lot of the content on the website and helped design and launch the myCOAF fundraising platform. It was interesting help brainstorm ideas on how we wanted our social fundraising site to look and function and was rewarding to see it finally up and running in time for the Summer Soiree.
What did you find most beneficial?
This is a tough question since I feel like I took a lot away with me from my summer at COAF; including learning what it’s like to work in a development organization, what life in New York City is like, and important office skills (especially website design). Overall I think the most beneficial part of my time was the lessons I learned about time management and how to work with a diverse team like the one at COAFWhat were your best experiences?
One of the most rewarding experiences during my internship was helping setup and participating in the Summer Soiree at the Dream Hotel. I had taken part in a couple of fundraising cocktail parties before but had never been as involved in the process as I was this time around. I learned a number of things about event planning and orchestration but also had a lot of fun interacting with guests about the work COAF does and why they should help by making a contribution.What has been your lasting impression?
I now have a better understanding of just how much work goes into running even a small non-profit like COAF. The sheer amount of coordination that is required between the offices in New York City and with the field offices in Armenia, not mention the amount of work that goes into fundraising and communications is something that I will always remember as I continue to study international relations and hopefully continue professionally in this field. What would you tell others considering an internship?
I think an internship with COAF is a great idea for anyone who is a hard worker, compassionate about development work and who wants to work with a small but friendly, and dedicated team. The experience will teach you a lot about working for a non-profit in the field of development and is a great way for a young person to become familiar with working in New York City.
Keith Krosinsky holds a BA in political science and public policy from American University in Washington, DC and will be beginning his studies at the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies where he will be pursuing his MA. He has held a variety of internships in environmental policy and criminal justice system reform with organizations including Greenpeace and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition among others. He hopes to continue on an international development tract.He enjoys hiking, the beach, playing bass guitar and listening to music as well as traveling. He has seen much of Europe but hopes to see even more over the next year.
By Marisa Dabice | COAF Staff | NYC
For the official inauguration of our new "Donor Spotlight" series, we are very excited to introduce you to Nella Khachian. You can call it bragging, if you wish, but Nella is kind of a big deal in our office. We love all our donors, but every now and then one comes along that is so inspiring with such a unique story that they become quite famous around the COAF headquarters. Her story has been shared with our friends in Yerevan and New York City - and now we'd like to share it with you.
In the last few months, COAF has received 2 unsolicited and original requests from two young women. A few weeks ago in the mail, we received a letter from Nella who had written to tell us that she planned to share her birthday celebration with COAF. In her letter she wrote:
"For my birthday I didn’t want gifts. So what came to my mind was I already have everything I need, why do I need more things? So I thought to myself, what about the kids who don’t have what I have or the kids who don’t have anything? So I decided to do something for them, I wanted my friends to donate money to the Children of Armenia Fund as my gift, to give them what they need."
We were not only impressed with the eloquence of such a young woman's writing, we were touched and honored that Nella had come to decide this for herself, at a time in life when most kids look forward to their birthday because it means getting presents. At just 10 years old, Nella's kindness inspired dozens of the attendees at our Summer Soiree to get involved with COAF by "donating" their birthday in the same way.
Nella's efforts demonstrate how impactful an idea can become. The transformative nature of giving in the name of celebration does so much more than allow us to honor those we are celebrating; this type of celebration, when combined with giving to others, impacts the lives of thousands of people living in rural Armenia. We have felt truly honored to have been selected to become a part of this joyful and memorable event and we can only hope that their actions inspire others to do the same.
To Nella we'd like to say: Thank you so much for your dedication and for wanting to help those in need. You are an extraordinary young woman and we can't wait to see what you think of next!
The last few months have been particularly exciting for us at COAF. We had an incredibly successful Summer Soiree, inspired 2 different trips for our donors to go visit the villages first hand, had a wonderful year of progress in Armenia – with many new programs in the works, and reached a new milestone of over 1,000 "likes" on Facebook. With all this (and so much more), it’s clear that 2012 is shaping up to be a standout year for COAF. But before it seems like this blog write up is just a place for me to brag about this year’s highlights, I want to introduce you to Erin Melikian, this week's "Donor Spotlight."
Out of all the amazing things that are going on at COAF, there are two true standouts that have made us feel most honored to be a part of so far this year. This write up is our way of honoring and expressing our gratitude to those who have reached out to us and asked us to become involved in their lives in extraordinary and unexpected ways.
In the last few months, COAF has received 2 unsolicited and original requests from two young women. The first, from 10 year old Nella Khachian, sent us a letter to let us know that she had made a very important decision for her birthday and that she had planned to share her celebration with COAF. You can read more about Nella's story here:
The second inquiry we received was from Erin Melikian of Virginia. In mid-June, nearly a month after Nella, Erin made a phone call to our office in New York. She explained to us that she was planning a 40th wedding anniversary party for her parents and when their family and friends had begun to ask what gifts would be appropriate for the occasion, she and her parents had decided to ask that donations be made to COAF. All she asked in return was that we send her some brochures and factsheets that she could send to her guests as a means to educate them on the work that COAF does in rural Armenia.
In Their Words: Mr. and Mrs. Melikian
"Our daughter Erin informed us that she was going to have a 40th wedding anniversary party for us on July 27, 2012. She asked us to indicate what type of gifts we would like to receive. We answered that we were blessed to have all that we wanted. She said that people were asking about what gifts would be appropriate for us. We thought that it would be best for us to have a charity or project in Armenia to benefit from our 40 years of marriage. After considering a number of organizations actively working in Armenia, we selected the Children of Armenia Fund.
We were impressed with the unique approach COAF has taken in Armenia. There are many organizations and companies providing assistance in Yerevan and some of the major cities. In the villages the population has been largely neglected and the people live in dire poverty conditions. Under these conditions individuals move away from the villages or remain in a disengaged life style. COAF has tackled the conditions in many villages and established the cluster concept to revive the way of life by giving the villagers a sense of accomplishment and hope for a better village life. What we liked about the COAF approach was that help was not given as a handout, but rather a helping hand was given allowing the village people to improve themselves and their environment. The COAF project has given the villagers great pride that they now can sustain and support themselves by their own ingenuity and hard work. The bigger aim is to provide the children of these villages a future in sustaining themselves in the village life and be a part of Armenia’s economic development. Bravo, COAF!"
The Melikian Family
The efforts of Erin and Mr. and Mrs. Melikian demonstrate how impactful a single phone call can become. The transformative nature of giving in the name of celebration does so much more than honor those we are celebrating; this type of celebration, when combined with giving to others, impacts the lives of thousands of people living in rural Armenia. We have felt truly honored to have been selected to become a part of this joyful and memorable event and we can only hope that their actions inspire others to do the same.
To Erin, and Mr. and Mrs. Melikian we say: Thank you! We are honored to have been a part of your celebration!
Marisa: Good Morning, Joe! I know how busy you are at the COAF offices so I sincerely thank you for taking time to discuss your recent travels to Armenia. This trip was not only your first time going to Armenia, but it was also your first opportunity to meet (in person) the people you speak to on a daily basis.
Joe: Thanks, Marisa. I’m happy to take time to talk! Yes, you’re correct—aside from a few of the staff who traveled to New York City for our annual gala last year, this was the first time I’ve had an opportunity to meet our fellow staff in Armenia. It was very nice to finally match faces to names. I’ve been working with COAF for almost one year, which is a long time to build relationships over long distances, so to have in-person conversations—in the office, over dinner and coffee—was wonderful.
Marisa: It may have been your first time traveling to Armenia, but you are heavily involved with the COAF Yerevan staff on a daily basis. Tell me what it is like to work so closely with a group of people when you literally have an ocean and then some between you. What’s the preferred means of communication? Are there advantages or challenges to this sort of transcontinental work?
Joe: Well, it can be hard sometimes. It is an interesting and unique working environment for me—working closely with the staff in the NY office on all of our fundraising and communications, but also very intimately (however remotely) with the Yerevan staff on designing and monitoring our programs on the ground. We use Skype on a daily basis to communicate. I’m not sure how we would be able to do it otherwise. Obviously this depends on a good Internet connection, and while it has gotten better in Armenia, it can sometimes be a problem. More than anything it is hard to maintain the personal connection and collaboration that drives so much of the work we do, especially given the 8-hour time difference between New York and Armenia. When I get into the office in the morning, the Yerevan staff are just about ready to head home for the night—so it sometimes means I get started a littler earlier, and they sometimes stay a bit later, especially when we have a big project coming up. But one advantage to this is that COAF essentially runs as a 24-hour operation. I have a real affinity for cross-cultural work, too, so this is a great advantage in my opinion.
Marisa: After a year of skyping, did you start to imagine what the COAF Yerevan offices looked like? I wonder if it’s similar to the imagined environment phenomenon of reading, in which after becoming so absorbed in a book, the reader begins to visualize (or create environments) that match what they’re engaging with. Was this similar in your interactions with COAF Yerevan? Did you start to imagine the environment of the offices and city of your peers? If so, how did this match up with stepping off the plane? Did Yerevan look like how you had imagined?
Joe: It’s funny, I’ve actually never thought of it in those terms, but for me it was always trying to imagine what the person on the other end looked like. I am often shocked at how off the image in my head is in relation to what the person actually looks like. It’s a funny thing when you actually meet in person—you can’t say, “it’s nice to meet you” because you already know them to an extent. I did always wonder what the background noise was, and what room my voice was filling. All you have is a voice. But after being there in the offices, I can actually tell what part of the office someone is in when we talk. It’s more like a new perspective has been brought.
Marisa: When I spoke to COAF supporters, Max and Alexander, one of the first things they mentioned was how surprised they were at the energy in the city of Yerevan at 1:00am. Did you have a similar experience? Did Yerevan remind you at all of New York City or is it a city unto itself?
Joe: The center of Yerevan is certainly full of energy well into the night. It’s really quite cosmopolitan in that way. While that may be the case for the city center, what you find when you leave the city is a completely different story. The differences between Yerevan and rural areas of Armenia could not be starker. This is really one of the main drivers of our work as well.
Marisa: Let’s go back to the work you do for COAF. What was the purpose of your trip to Armenia? Who did you meet with? What was the agenda?
Joe: The main purpose of my trip was an opportunity to meet with the staff to discuss in person our strategies for programs, and begin our plans for the next two to three years in terms of program projections. This also involved evaluating what is working, setting goals and determining how we are measuring our progress against those goals. It was really an intensive time. I also meet with our in-country partners and other organizations doing really great work such as USAID, the US Embassy and organizations such as the Luys Foundation and the TUMO Center in Yerevan. While this can all sound a bit boring, it is really a lot of fun for me. COAF’s programming is unique, not just in Armenia, but as a model for addressing the comprehensive elements of rural poverty. It is great to have the opportunity to help shape those efforts.
Marisa: Any special stories you’d like to share?
Joe: Nara, our education program manger, had spent several years living in the US while in school, and on the days that I was working in the Yerevan office she would make me American-style coffee. It may seem trivial, but it was wonderful, and I was exceptionally grateful. It was delicious. Not to say that Armenian-style coffee is inferior—quite the opposite. I also had the great opportunity to meet several students during an English language class in the Lernagog School. It was nice to hear the students speaking, they asked me questions about COAF and New York City. I had a chance to ask them about some of their aspirations in school and beyond. It was a really great opportunity, and one that I think is quite rare, to have the chance to talk directly to those who benefit from all our efforts.
Marisa: What’s next for COAF? What progress can we expect to see?
Joe: COAF has been able to demonstrate that a set of targeted and high-impact programs that address the key needs in education, health, and economic development have the potential to dramatically improve the lives of children in rural communities. Over the next few years we are going to begin expanding our programs to other rural areas in a very rapid and strategic way. I can’t say too much, as this is still being developed, but what we know is that COAF has made a number of advances in terms of quality of education, access to critical health care, and sustainable economic opportunities throughout a cluster of 11 villages in rural Armenia over the course of 7 years. We have also learned a great deal during that period of time, about what works and what doesn’t. One of the key conclusions we have come to is that through small investments, much of what we have done can be replicated in other rural areas where children are most vulnerable. We will also work with local governments and Ministries to see that the changes COAF has implemented in rural villages are supported by lasting changes in policy. This is also a very important step
After returning from their first ever trip to Armenia, Max & Alexander graciously took the time to speak with COAF-NYC staff member, Marisa Dabice, about their experiences on the ground.
Marisa: Hello Max & Alexander! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me about your recent trip to Armenia. You’ve both long been supporters of the organization but this past trip to Armenia was your first opportunity to survey the work that COAF does first hand. Is that correct?
Max & Alexander: Yes. This was our first visit to Armenia and the COAF villages. COAF encouraged us to see the results of the organization’s initiatives, which was a wonderful experience.
Marisa: Tell me about your pre-trip preparation, if there was any. Since this was your first time going to Armenia, did you try to indulge in any language or culture orientations? Any visits to Armenian Restaurants?
Max & Alexander: We definitely did not know what to expect. While we have Armenian friends (some of whom are active supporters of COAF), our knowledge of Armenia was limited. We took the opportunity to talk with as many Armenians as possible in regards to what to expect and particularly sights to see, which was quite helpful. Additionally, we researched the history of Armenia through the internet as well as consulted different resources to understand a little about the current political and economic situation in Armenia as well as the areas surrounding it.
Marisa: I’m interested in what inspired this trip to Armenia. You yourselves are not Armenian, but you both have a passion for COAF’s work that is inspiring. Please tell us about how you got involved with COAF and why you decided to go to Armenia and see the work that has been done.
Max & Alexander: We have been active supporters of COAF for over a year now. We initially became involved with COAF due to a personal relationship with Haro and Khajak Keledjian [COAF Board Member], who spoke to us about their involvement. We decided to take a more active role in COAF because we believe in COAF’s mission. Unlike many charities, COAF has not only demonstrated that it is committed to improving the lives of children in Armenia, but they seriously consider the needs of the villagers. The fact that COAF works in partnership with the villages was very important to us.
As we continue to become more involved with COAF, we wanted to get a first-hand look at the improvements COAF has made and perhaps provide a unique perspective as a non-Armenian foreigner. Traveling to Armenia and seeing a few of the villages that COAF has partnered with seemed to be the best way to accomplish these goals.
Marisa: Tell me about your first day. On a visceral level, what was it like? What did you see, feel, or smell? Did Yerevan remind you of any others cities you have previously visited?
Max & Alexander: While we had done some research on Armenia and the capital city of Yerevan, it can never completely replicate the feeling as you step off the plane for the first time. Our first surprise was how alive the city was at 1:00 AM when we arrived to the apartment. People were still out and about, listening to music, walking around the downtown area. Fortunately, we didn’t smell much of anything as Yerevan is an extremely clean city. Of places I (Alex) had previously visited, Yerevan seemed most similar to Kiev to me.
There are definitely many signs of the country’s Soviet past, including the architecture, food and lest we not forget, plenty of Trabant cars on the road, a memorable symbol of the Soviet Union.
Marisa: What was your day-to-day itinerary like? Who were your hosts/translators?
Max & Alexander: After having breakfast in Yerevan we left the city with our guide and COAF Country Director Serob Khachatryan who took us to the COAF villages, a COAF supported health clinic, a local artists’ studio where we had a traditional Armenian lunch, and a brief tour of Yerevan. We finished our day with dinner in Yerevan and went to a local jazz club.
Marisa: What was the first COAF village that you visited?
Max & Alexander: The first village we visited was Myasnikyan. Upon arrival we visited the COAF renovated school. Comparing the original school building to the renovated one was truly unbelievable. Honestly, the school facilities rivaled any school one would find in the United States. We were given a tour of the school by teachers there and even met the Principal, who was quite surprised that we came from New York to see her school, which clearly meant a great deal that foreigners were taking such an interest in the success of the students. We even spoke to a few students (whose English was far superior to our Armenian), who were extremely grateful for the improvements COAF had brought to the school.
Afterwards, we visited the new healthcare center, L’Enfant Jesus Health Care Center in Myasnikyan. We were extremely impressed with the quality of the facility, and the villagers were grateful for a center of this kind to be available to them and their families. Serob informed us that the Prime Minister of Armenia [Tigran Sargsyan] was so impressed by the facility that he said it was nicer than any hospitals in Yerevan!
It truly was a great experience to see the types of improvements COAF has made not only to the physical aspects of the villages, but to the overall lives of the villagers themselves.
Marisa: What is the progress that has been made on the ground?
Max & Alexander: Outside of the purely physical changes made by COAF, which one can clearly see from the photographs we took on the trip, the education is improving in tandem with the increase in involvement of COAF and students are gaining more confidence. They are now exposed to so many different opportunities. From COAF donated internet and computer stations to English classes, students are receiving a high quality education. We were informed that three years ago, students would not ask questions in class and now they do.
Marisa: What, in your opinion, still needs to be done? What are the obstacles?
Max & Alexander: Well there is the simple issue of that COAF can only do so much. While COAF is now working with over ten villages in Armenia, there are over 900 villages in the country, so there is a long way to go. Hopefully, the Armenian government will become a larger supporter of the work COAF is doing and open the education system more so than it does already. For example COAF required government approval to begin English language classes, which can be frustrating as it slows down the education process. We hope that the education system can become more independent in the future.
Marisa: Any favorite parts of the trip? What’s the experience that you remember most vividly?
Max & Alexander: Our favorite aspect was visiting the villages. It exposed us to COAF’s direct progress and development. We will never forget going between two worlds of the old and new sections of the school in Myasnikyan.
Marisa: Based on your experiences in rural Armenia, why is the work that COAF is doing so important in the region? What’s the impact?
Max & Alexander: At the moment, the majority of government resources are directed at the major cities. COAF provides the villages with resources that are not available to them otherwise, which is going to help the next generation develop and help the country as a whole. We were also very happy to hear that certain villages are now calling COAF for help. Although COAF cannot currently help every village in Armenia, we hope that our developments will encourage other groups and even the Armenian government to start projects of their own.
How to Make Armenian Yogurt Part 4 of 5
Armenian hospitality is famous to anybody who has had the privilege of setting foot in the small nation. From my experience, it’s the hardest place in the world to feel lonely, and consequently, a place where you’ll rarely have a chance to feel hungry. So, given the significance of food culture, and the importance of dairy in the Armenian diet, I was thrilled to hear about COAF’s collaboration with the Heifer Project. The cows they provide bring a much-needed source of income and food to families in these villages. Most importantly, each cow’s offspring is given to a new family, in a sustainable practice that Heifer calls Passing on the Gift.
This video was shot in the remote village of Shenik—surrounded by vast landscapes and so far west that the Turkish border is equidistant with neighboring villages. On this day, like every other day, we visited the homes so we could get a shot of the children telling us about themselves in their bedrooms. This was our only opportunity to really enter their daily lives; to capture that oftentimes, behind the clever eyes and broad smiles, were difficult circumstances.Some kids were prepared for the home visits. So, upon arrival, we would be pleasantly surprised to find out we were in the homes of their grandparents, not theirs. Anush, our young actress, was unsuspecting. When we stopped by her family’s shop, her mother’s eyes widened. “Our home is under construction! No, no, there’s nothing to see there. You’ll go to grandma’s house,” she said, quickly and sternly.About half the children we worked with had homes that were “under construction.” We would try to explain that it was ok, we only needed one wall of one room; but it was out of the question. Instead, like today, with Anush, we were taken to their grandparents’ home—complete with luxuries like painted pink walls, patterned beige curtains, and matching pillows. They couldn’t bear to let us see their poverty or grasp their pain. And those rigid, almost frightened, reactions were the only moments when we did.Once we actually entered their homes, we were up against a new adventure: a long exercise of politely refusing all the goodies they were offering. (We were on very tight schedules.) In the time it took to film those 15 second segments, tables would be covered in fresh fruit, sweets, coffee: everything that they had in their homes, laid out with care on their best tablecloth. It’s an interesting predicament. On one hand, it’s rude to deny what they’ve offered. On the other hand, we know that they survive on slim margins. Chocolates for example, might come at a significant cost relative to their income, and though the fruits and vegetables grow in their gardens, they depend heavily on them for sustenance. And people never serve water on their tables: Coca Cola and Fanta are considered a delicacy because for them, soda is expensive. Imagine $1 for a 1-liter bottle—comparable to U.S. prices. But here, people may be living on less than $2-3 a day. If you don’t sit down to eat and drink, they insist you take something with you. We often left with bags of ruby red pomegranates, or freshly picked grapes that were ready by the time we crawled our ways to the door. On this day, Emin’s mother gave us a giant watermelon—because after all, Shenik is famous for its watermelons.
Now, it’s difficult to sense their hunger. People try as hard as they can to simulate the feeling of plenty—for you, their guest, but also for themselves, and their children. But the memory of hunger lives in their behavior and traditions. From my experience—and I believe this is not uncommon—Armenians never throw away bread: No matter how dry, be it crumbs of lavash or a rock-hard piece of a loaf. “Do you know, in those years, what people would have done for that piece of bread?” I don’t mean to make the case that Armenians weren’t hospitable or conservative before the Soviet collapse. There are many years of struggle in the collective consciousness, and many years of celebratory food ritual and tradition. You never pour yourself a drink of something before offering it to somebody else first. So simple, but so profound. So on the day of this shoot, after a week of having to walk away from colorfully decorated coffee tables, we finally got to sit down and enjoy a meal together. We sat down with Emin, Anush, Emin’s sister, the neighbor’s boy, our gracious host, local doctor Gohar, COAF doctor Lusine Antonyan, and Gohar’s neighbor who was kind enough to star in our video with her cow, and prepare a delicious and photogenic meal with the meat we had brought. We had dolma, fresh vegetables, fresh herbs, and of course plenty of yogurt and “yogurt drink.” We even had pickled watermelons. (They shrink down to about the size of a lemon!)
Sitting there, enjoying their deliciously prepared food, your mind tries not to wander to what the winters must have been like. But as your eyes scan the windows, the roof, and back down to the broken floorboards, it’s hard not to imagine the scene. Generosity, a strong sense of community, hospitality—that’s what must have saved them, I realized. There is no greed. There is no individualism. People who have known hunger, will always share. So in a way, this was the most complete day of shooting. We prepared a meal, we set the table, we sat down, and together we filled our bellies. All the nerves of an eventful shooting day were silenced. The children finally rested. We talked about the day, and we laughed at the neighbor’s boy who happened to hate dolma. But it’s that watermelon, that beautiful watermelon that I won’t forget: resting there, with the awkwardly patched wall behind it, next to that frail chair. Such a pregnant, green watermelon. Picked from their land, high up in that rocky soil. Emin’s mother didn’t owe us anything. We took her child away from his studies for a full day, and made him work very, very hard. And still, she gave us that watermelon. And there it was, in spite of all their difficulty, in spite of what we had already taken: their gift. You can see more images from Lily's photo shoot here.
By Samuel Armen | Writer | New York
Samuel Armen is a writer and social media expert. Since COAF’s inception, he has been regularly involved with fundraising activities for the organization in the United States and has made several professional and recreational trips to document the work being done by the organization in the COAF-sponsored villages of western Armenia. In late 2011 before the start of the annual gala, Sam volunteered to pick up our Armenian staff and child performers from the John F. Kennedy airport in Queens, New York. This is his account of the children’s first glimpse of the New York City, which traces the journey the children made from the residential borough of Queens through midtown Manhattan, across the George Washington Bridge and into Northern New Jersey to the residence where they stayed for the duration of their stay in New York City.
On a cold, grey day in December, I had the honor of welcoming Gayane (15), Davit(13), Nareg (11), Hayastan (8), and Elmira (8) to America, and the privilege of taxiing them from John F. Kennedy airport to New Jersey. Now one might think I’m using the words ‘honor’ and ‘privilege’ lightly. I am not. In fact, these words seem faint compared to the outcome of our first hour together. It was December in New York. The sky was black. It was cold and the wind felt like needles in the air. But to these five children (if I may reductively call them this) running out of the airport, none of this seemed to matter. Flashback I had met Davit for the first time 6 months prior, and knew him to have an unfortunate plight with troubling family issues and an especially impoverished situation. He was, to a degree, homeless for some time. It was in a gymnasium in Yerevan where I first saw him blossom from a shy, quiet boy to a booming, talented singer. Gayane I had also met earlier, and was introduced to her as COAF-ik (little COAF), because of a shirt she designed with the title inscribed on the side. From what I knew of Gayane, she was extraordinarily sweet and intelligent. Back to the present The five of the children split into two cars. Ovsana Yeghoyan (COAF’s Infrastructure and Economic Development Consultant) was in the passenger seat, and Gayane, Nareg, and Davit were in the backseat (from left-to-right). We were in a large Mercedes SUV, and every convenient feature of the car was magnified into something miraculous to them. We were crossing over the Triboro Bridge; the glimmering lights of uptown Manhattan were visible to the left, the South-most part of the Bronx was on our right, and Queens was vanishing behind us. I turned the heater all the way up and opened all of the windows at once (the sunroof as well). The speedometer read 50 mph. A current of warm air rippled out of the car as the roar of the wind exhaled. “Davit!” I shouted over the wind. He turned, his face the image of enthrallment. I turned up the volume of the speakers. “Part VI of Shine on You Crazy Diamond” by Pink Floyd was just beginning. Knowing he was a bit of a musician, I wanted to get him involved with the melody. “This is my favorite part of my favorite song – try to listen to it.” I said to him, which Ovsanna translated. As I played the music, and drove over the bridge 143 feet (44 M) high above the water – far higher than they’ve ever been, with lights from the boroughs, the cars and bridge zipping by, and the warmth and cold gyrating throughout the steady car – I watched them, especially Davit. There was a look in his eyes that no elaborate structure of sentences could begin to exaggerate. I was watching the boundaries of his world, the limitations of his possibilities, the scope of his reality, undergo a tectonic shift in his mind. To all of them it was a saturation of the senses and a defiance of all that they had ever seen. If you flew me to the moon to see Michael Jackson alive and moonwalking, MAYBE I’d have a similar reaction. This was before the COAF gala. This was before they even acclimated to our time zone. This is also before and after many, many stories of which I will provide as many glimpses as possible in blogs entries that are to come. But to be there and witness their faces… it was both simply and complexly amazing.
By Nathalie Adam | Volunteer | Frankfurt
During the summer of 2011, The Children of Armenia Fund hosted a fundraising gala in Armenia. Nathalie Adam, a Diasporan Armenian from Germany, was a volunteer with COAF at the time. In the following blog post, she shares her experiences helping plan the evening and on the gala itself.
COAF Fundraising Gala Evening - An inspirational night!
During my period as a volunteer with the Children of Armenia Fund, I had the opportunity to, not only attend COAF's first fundraising gala in Yerevan, but I had the privilege of being a part of the team who organized the event.
This was a great experience for me. I saw the entire COAF staff pitch in together to put all of their energy into making the evening a great success. In addition to the their daily jobs, they took on the responsibility of coordinating the gala to make it a great success. The event was attended by benefactors, partners and friends of COAF.
We were fortunate enough to have the event at the Cafesjian Center of the Arts. The space was donated by the museum, and the catering was sponsored by the Austrian Airlines. BMI Representation in Armenia and various famous Armenian artists such as Aramo, Malkhas (Levon Malkhasyan) and Stepan Shakaryan volunteered their time and performed at the event to make the experience truly unforgettable for all those in attendance.
What was personally amazing to me were the children from the villages that contributed to the evening by sharing with the audience their personal experiences and what the impact of COAF has been on their lives. Several went on stage and gave their speeches in front of 120 strangers, as if it was something that they did that every day. Hearing their stories about growing up in a village where their families have only limited or no access to clean drinking water, proper nutrition, adequate shelter, basic healthcare, sanitation or jobs touched every single person in the room that evening. The children also explained how their villages and lives changed when COAF started their projects. They discussed the improvement of their family's situation and how, most importantly, they experienced hope for a brighter future.
All these children were highly talented and inspirational individuals that have lived through very tough times and from whom we can learn so much. The whole audience realized that we still have a long way to go to make Armenia the country we all want it to be, but COAF has proven that we can make change happen by recognizing issues, tackling them and by empowering others.
The evening ended with a very cheerful performance of the village children dance group, performing the famous Kochari dance, moving the audience from their seats to join the very passionate young group. It inspired us all to continue to work together for a brighter future for the children of Armenia.
How to Prevent and Treat Venomous BitesPart 3 of 5
Finding a neatly packaged “how to” topic for healthcare was a challenge, but I knew that I had to incorporate COAF’s extensive work in this field, particularly because the imagery of the pre-renovation clinics is so visceral. For a photo album, click here.
Healthcare in Armenia, especially rural Armenia, is one of the most devastating aspects of post-Soviet infrastructure. I won’t go on about the broken walls, creatively repurposed equipment, or the reality of a healthcare facility without running water. The shiniest tools and most expensive medicine cannot counter the effects of outdated knowledge and the lack of proper training.
Admittedly, the odds of being bitten by the flat-nosed viper (macrovipera lebetina obtusa) are slim; but snakes do inhabit the region, and their bite gives the victim a stiff deadline of 2-3 hours to inject the anti-venom. As I began researching this topic, I ran into an obstacle that became a pervasive problem in my entire pre-production process: there is very little high quality information about Armenia on the internet, and much of it is the same blurb copy-pasted across different web addresses. Armenia still functions on a primarily oral tradition—so little information is written down. This becomes a cycle: people cannot access it, people do not produce it, knowledge remains stagnant and people can only share their expertise with people within coffee-drinking distance. And of course, the broken telephone effect. Stories live and evolve over generations and become accepted truths, fully integrated into society, and never questioned. Word of mouth knowledge is exactly why COAF’s work is so transformative in these villages. Much of rural doctors’ medical knowledge, for example, hasn’t been revisited since Soviet times or relies on the indisputable diagnosis of Grandma. I don’t mean to belittle traditional medicine—from my time in Armenia I learned that people who live so closely to the land know intimately how to use their gardens to cure ailments. This is invaluable, but not always the solution. In order to obtain comprehensive and accurate information abut the deadly flat-nosed viper, we had to interview the medical director at the Myasnikyan clinic, with a recorder, sifting through fascinating but albeit lengthy anecdotes about a courageous man who was bitten by the snake but survived without the anti-venom, and so forth. Then we had to talk it over with COAF’s resident doctors, Lusine Sahakyan and Lusine Antonyan (two truly wonderful women), to make sure that everything was in accordance with correct medical practice. It seems simple enough: get the patient to a hospital, administer the anti-venom as quickly as possible! But certain measures that have long been considered beneficial, like applying tunicates on the victim’s body, could mean losing a limb. There is good news. Plenty of good news. Besides the indispensible medical training that COAF has provided to the doctors in the region, they have also organized community health education that targets the children. These kids are smart. Levon, Anahit, Mushegh were so easy to work with during production because they all knew how to prevent and treat the bite after COAF’s educational session with them. This generation is also incredibly internet saavy, especially in these remote rural areas where a glance at the village-scape would suggest the contrary. During his audition, we asked little Vahe (from the alphabet video) if he knew the melody of the alphabet song or if he needed us to burn him a CD, and without hesitation he said “I’ll just look it up on YouTube.” Just two years ago, children would ask me what channel would be broadcasting their footage, anticipating watching themselves on TV. And during this last trip it was just—“This will be on YouTube, right?” It’s self-evident: information, training, education is the only solution. From my experience, this generation is proving to be receptive and promising in that regard.
By Dr. Alice Saraydarian | Board member | New York City
The weather today was zero degrees Fahrenheit, with the added discomfort of freezing rain. Nonetheless, with Nara Martirosian, the head of COAF's educational programs, I visited four schools to evaluate their computer capability and to assess the level of basic training for teachers.
Our first school was in the village of Aragatsavan. This school is not within the infrastructure of completed COAF schools, but it is in our geographical cluster. As some of you know, COAF focuses on improving the level of education in numerous training programs, regardless of the fact that the walls may be crumbling and there is no heat.
We met with the principal Anahit DerMardirosian, who was gracious and warm to us, despite the freezing cold. The school, with its all-too-familiar broken windows and crumbling walls, looked abandoned, but there were signs in French, Armenian and English thanking France for passing the Genocide legislation - which was current news when we arrived in Armenia. Anahit showed us around the building with pride. The computer room consisted of two old monitors, a broken chair and a broken keyboard. Her dilapidated school seemed colder than the outside, and to me, it seemed unimaginable to sit and try to learn under these kinds of conditions. Despite the circumstances, the kids were in their coats, hats and gloves participating in their lessons.
We thanked her and were on our way, but not before she thanked us at least five times. We know that we are her only hope; she wants to witness the 800 students in her school learning comfortably. Just standing in one of these frigid classrooms is enough for people to see the reason for urgency. In this village of 7,500 people, many have migrated out. Even though through the years I have witnessed soul shocking conditions in these villages - homes without doors, children without food, sick children huddled with their parents for warmth – I still find it deplorable that these bright children don't have schools that meet the most BASIC of human needs. COAF has made huge changes in the lives of the 25,000 people, who have been a part of our programs, but there is so much more that needs to be done; there are still so many children that are living in poverty. This thought consumes me, and remedying the situation is the singular driving purpose in everything I do with COAF. Like Anahit the school principal, many villagers and our dedicated staff remain optimistic. We are motivated to help these children recover from the hardships in their lives. Witnessing children who smile and are motivated to succeed despite their obstacles – lack of drinking water, heat, electricity and proper schooling – is a heartbreaking human tragedy which NEEDS to be addressed as an urgent responsibility to mankind and to our people.
By Emily Dewhirst | Peace Corps volunteer | Knoxville, TN
COAF has many volunteers helping us meet our goals, both in New York and Armenia. One volunteer in Armenia, Emily Dewhirst, is an 81 year old serving with the Peace Corps. Emily was recently interviewed for her work with COAF by her hometown NBC affiliate in Knoxville, Tennessee. Emily shared her thoughts on her work for our blog. You can view the segment on WBIR's website here.
I came to Armenia a month ago, not because I am of Armenian background, but because I wanted to be involved with the positive growth of rural children somewhere in the world where children do not have the opportunities I had while growing up.
I'm a Peace Corps Response Volunteer who specializes in the teaching of English. I will be here for 6 months. The village children where I work are very special. Because they now have a modern school and after school projects (thanks to COAF), they are not the haggard listless children I have seen in so many other countries. They are bright, motivated, and, best of all, they have self confidence and feel self worth. The world is no longer a dead end place, but a place where opportunities exist for them!
COAF has opened so many doors for so many people. In the villages where COAF works there is now health care, dental care, psychological services, social services. Roads are being improved, running water is being made available, educational opportunities abound. I am so happy to be even a small part of it all. These are the memorable times of one's life.
I am Nathalie Adam, a Diasporan Armenian from Germany, one of the many volunteers that have the privilege to work for the Children of Armenia Fund.
As almost every Diasporan Armenian does, I had the urge to explore my homeland. Knowing that the Republic of Armenia has only been independent for 20 years, I was aware of the fact that this country still needs support to develop, especially in the rural areas. Therefore, I decided to work voluntarily in this country to contribute to the well-being of my people.
Finding out about COAF’s holistic approach of not only focusing on one specific area that needs development, but tackling six different areas that are interlinked with each other, I soon realized that this is an exceptional organization. COAF’s slogan is “Saving the next generation” and this is actually what they are really doing. The projects that are implemented cover the following areas: health, education, child and family services, community engagement, economic development and infrastracture rehabilition. All of these areas need development in order to secure the future of the children that live in the rural areas. The kids are what later is going to be defined as Armenia. If they don’t have a chance to unfold their potentials, then Armenia does not have that chance either. And it is a fact that these kids have high potentials, I have experienced that myself.
In my first week at COAF I had the chance to visit the villages that COAF is working in. I was lucky as it was school-opening week, so I had the opportunity to see how enthusiastic these kids are about school. To see the excitement in their faces was already very impressive as I am used to kids being less keen on having to go to school in Europe. It was clear to me that these kids have had different experiences of school, experiences that for Europeans are probably difficult to comprehend. Seeing these villages I was asking myself why on earth people would live in this piece of land, as there was nothing. Seriously nothing! There are no fields to plant, no factories to work at, no infrastructure. Roads are undeveloped, water supply is not given in every village and houses that people still live in resemble ruins.
I found out that these villages have been built in the Soviet times, when they built factories in the rural areas and recruited Armenians to live on these pieces of land and work in the factories. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the factories were closed. But the people stayed even though they had no jobs. These villages are important, as Armenia as a whole needs to develop - not only its capitol - in order become a strong country. Moreover, living under the most difficult circumstances has given these people very strong personalities and talents that enabled them to become capable of surviving in these difficult conditions. These potentials have been so long neglected, as the government has not cared about the development of these lands, these people, these children. Therefore, it is even more crucial that organizations such as COAF exist to help and to make a difference.
Just like all NGOs, COAF’s existence relies on the support of people, companies and other organizations that understand the urgency of what is happening in the villages and that have the ideology to believe that it is our responsibility to correct what has gone wrong for so long. This is why I am happy to support this organization, but not only because I totally believe in their approach, but also because of the people that work here. These are local Armenians that have not given up, even though they are facing obstacles every day, they still continue in giving their best in making a change in the people’s lives that live in the villages. Also I want to learn from them, finding the patience to finally see progress in the very long road that Armenia still has ahead.
How to Make Peach Preserves Part 2 of 5
Video 2: How to Make Peach PreservesThe day we made this video was one of my favorite days of our entire two weeks, in spite of the fact that getting all the details aligned was an arduous process. For a photo album, click here.I chose to make this video because fruit preservation is such a vital part of life in Armenia. It may seem self-evident, but it takes living there to realize the impact of not having the freedom to purchase whatever you want whenever you want. (Or if you’re living in the city, at a manageable price.) You start to reminisce about the last time you ate each fruit of that season, and what a pity that you didn’t eat more. Then winter comes, plates become heavy with rice and potatoes, and people begin to open their pickled vegetables and jams. They save the dried fruit for New Year’s weeklong celebration.
Unfortunately, in the month of October—while impeccable for weather, lighting, and the overall beauty of the landscapes—is past harvest for stone fruits and berries, which make the best preserves. So when we arrived in Armenia, we walked past rows and rows of multi-colored apple trees and grapes, but the apricot trees were bare. Subsequently, we spent two days searching for the perfect late-blooming peach tree and found just one.Finding and working with our hosts was another challenge. We saw Arusyak on the first day and I chose her immediately because of her beautiful coloring and gentle voice. Boys, however, were often either too excited by the camera, or so camera-shy that they refused to be filmed. We went from classroom to classroom in both Karakert’s schools—the reconstructed one and the Soviet-era one—before we settled on Tigran. He was sitting in the front row of the classroom, which was a sign of either exceptionally good behavior or exceptionally bad behavior. We took the chance.On the day of the shooting, it took us three hours before Tigran and Arusyak could recite thirty seconds of their dialogue. Even while reading from the scripts, they were so nervous that they would stumble on the words. Their overexcitement caused them to choke—and while the other half of my team almost gave up on them—I couldn’t imagine how much it would break their hearts if we cancelled the shoot.Over the course of the day, they transformed into completely different children. Tigran did most of the actual work required in the process, and began trying to say Arusyak’s lines for her. Then he started trying to film with my camera, and inventing new lines. By the time we took them to the orchard, we had tapped into their most honest, and beautiful selves, with all the energy and grace of a fearless child.Then we took them home. Arusyak was still smiling and giggling, but retreated to her nervous self a bit, which I realized came most from her consistent need to be perfect. We took Tigran home last because he lived outside of the village, in a high-rise building, on the 5th floor. As soon as we left Arusyak’s home, I sensed him crawl back into the same boy that had been with us earlier in the day. He stopped smiling, his speech became quiet and inarticulate—when just minutes ago he had been skipping around, opening doors for me, and calling me “madame.” He tried to convince us that there was no need to come upstairs, overwhelmed with the curious questions and stares of his neighbors. Not out of disrespect to Tigran, but due to a very strong bond I felt with him, I made an excuse to go upstairs anyway. We soon discovered that he was the oldest of five, they all slept in one small room, and his family was living in particularly dire circumstances. He retreated deeper into his shell every minute we spent in his home.Finally, he accompanied us downstairs to say goodbye. Moments like these are the most difficult. Personally, I struggle to find the balance between connecting with the children and beginning to feel pain for them—as if it’s something I can understand, or I have the right to assume my life is in any better than theirs. I know only what I saw by the change in his physiology. I still think about him sometimes, the turtle boy and his one-day transformation.
By Serob Khachatryan | COAF Country Director | Armenia
Hello and welcome to the COAF Blog! I am the COAF Country Director in Armenia and I have been working in the villages for three and a half years. COAF is a remarkable organization. We work tirelessly, implementing a community-led approach to reduce poverty in rural villages in Armenia, with a particular focus on children.Our dedicated staff and volunteers have direct access to the developments in each of our villages on a daily basis. We are excited to be able to share our stories with you through our new blog! And we hope that you, too, can share in the incredible progress being made on the ground every day. Our aim is to create the conditions for future generations to thrive by working directly with community members. Just recently, one of the organization's former beneficiaries from the village Karakert, Ani Yengibaryan, was offered a position with COAF's child and family services. Ani just graduated from university with a major in psychology. She now works with children from rural villages, helping them tackle the serious psychological problems they face. Ani enjoys working with children, and she is happy to have the opportunity to stay in her village and contribute to its development. Please check back often as our staff and volunteers from around the world will be posting stories, photos, videos and reflections on their experiences in the COAF villages.
What we can learn from the children of ArmeniaPart 1 of 5
Video 1: How to Sing the Armenian Alphabet Song My first taste of the Armavir region of Armenia was in the summer of 2009. I found Children of Armenia Fund (COAF) while browsing the internet one day, and felt compelled to contact the organization thanks to the particularly riveting image on their homepage: a young boy gazing out from behind a fur hood with picture-perfect Armenian eyes. That August, I volunteered as a production assistant during the shooting of A Bloom in the Desert, a film about COAF’s work. Since then, I have visited the children of these remote villages time and time again to both document and get acquainted with their lives. This year, I had the privilege of returning to Armenia to develop and shoot a video project of my own about COAF’s initiatives. Why rural Armenia? Under Soviet planning, factories were constructed in desolate parts of rural Armenia with artificial villages erected around them to provide a work force. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the bittersweet ring of independence was met with a new level of poverty. The factories and all infrastructure collapsed almost overnight, leaving hundreds of thousands of people lining up for bread, and a generation of children learning to read by candlelight. The small nation was in no shape to provide aid to its rural provinces, as the lack of resources plagued the entire country in those infant years of independence. In 2000, COAF took on the task of revitalizing a cluster of villages in Armavir, a western, desert province. Restoration began in the model village of Karakert: water, electricity, healthcare facilities, and most importantly, schools. Saving a generation required a global approach—but it started with education.Consequently, the first village I saw in 2009 was Karakert. I remember stepping out of the car next to a blue-green landfill, and seeing four small boys doing somersaults in front of their homes, a few feet from the garbage. A group of women ran out of their homes hoping for their voices to be heard—the inevitable video camera effect—and though I didn’t understand much Armenian at the time, their grievances came across quite clearly. The director listened to them kindly and patiently while handing out bars of ice cream to their children on that 95-degree day. The next stop was the village of Dalarik, which at the time I could only differentiate by the lack of that blue-green landfill. Waiting in front of its renovated health clinic, I couldn’t help pointing my camera at everyone I saw—though I tried not to draw attention and often resorted to the held-at-the-waist-and-hoping-it-worked-anyway stealth shot. Despite my efforts, a teenage boy noticed and approached me. He didn’t show the more typical over-excitement and/or outrage upon having his picture taken; instead, he asked me if he could take mine. And he did—with confidence and finesse. Smbat was a member of his school’s extracurricular photo club, which I subsequently frequented, and where I fell in love with COAF’s kids. It took me a while to understand exactly what drew me so much to them, but I realized that it was quite simply their eagerness to participate and responsiveness to new information. They gave back as much—if not more—than they received, often in the form of unsolicited coaching on my photo technique. I know that the word “potential” gets thrown around all too often in these contexts, but really, theirs was palpable.When I conceived my video project, my objective was to show the kids as I saw them: bright, grateful, enthusiastic, funny. Rather than focusing on their life conditions, or even all the crucial changes COAF has created in their lives, I was interested in what they could offer a foreign audience. I decided to create five “how to” videos, each highlighting skills unique to life in Armenia and at the same time showcasing COAF’s key initiatives. My hope is that these small lessons will forge the distance between internet users across the world, and the lives of these children. In creating scripted, educational videos, I don’t mean to overlook the devastation in their lives; poverty still plagues most families. But somehow I believe that if more people spend just a few minutes with the kids, we’ll be that much closer to saving their generation.
A second generation Armenian born and raised in the New York/New Jersey area, Dr. Alice Saraydarian, DMD is a founding member of the Children of Armenia Fund’s Board of Directors.
For the past several years, she has served as one of COAF’s most dedicated board members offering her guidance and expertise to COAF’s staff and volunteers in the New York offices. She is a trusted source for information on everything from educating the staff on the social mores of Armenians in the Diaspora to the planning of the organization’s large annual gala.
In addition to the time that she devotes to the COAF’s New York offices, and annually hosting several children from Armenia in her home, Alice also travels to the COAF-sponsored villages in Armenia several times a year and works with COAF staff there to implement and oversee new programs in healthcare and education.
With her passion and knowledge, she is a wonderful resource for information on the history of COAF as well as current events in Armenia. Her deep-seated interest in the long-term success of the organization is evident in the enthusiasm and zeal she brings to every aspect of her work with COAF.
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