Volunteerism in The Homeland Part II: It’s Not What Armenia Can Do for You, but What You Can Do for Armenia!


By Lisa Manookian
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN — Last week, we introduced you to Edele Hovnanian, the backbone behind Birthright Armenia. In this second part of the series, we meet three individuals who volunteered through Birthright Armenia and repatriated to the homeland.

Lilly Djaniants

In 1988, Lilly Djaniants was an 8-year-old girl, living in Baku, when she and her family were forced to flee in early December. Just 10 months before, the Sumgait pogroms began, during which Azerbaijanis killed and uprooted thousands of Armenians in a wave of ethnic cleansing that targeted the entire Armenian population of Azerbaijan. While Lilly and her family were not immediately threatened, her parents’ fears grew. With only a few basic necessities, they escaped to Armenia and began a new life in Gumri (then known as Leninakan). After their fourth day in Gumri, tragedy struck as Armenia was hit with a major earthquake, claiming more than 100,000 lives. Though their new home was in ruins, Lilly and her family were among the lucky ones to survive, but her parents were intent on leaving Armenia for good. The family went back to Yerevan and lived in a refugee camp for three years, without heat, electricity or water. Determined to give their children a better life and a solid education, the Djaniants family applied to several countries and, in May 1992, arrived in the United States on refugee status, sponsored by World Relief and HIS Family Church, ultimately settling in North Carolina. Living in Armenia during her early years changed Djaniants’ outlook on life dramatically. When she left at age 11, she vowed to never return.

Djaniants spent her formative years with no connection to a local Armenian community, although her family had been befriended by a few Iranian- and Russian- Armenian families. St. Sarkis Armenian Church of North Carolina had not yet been built and by the time it was, Lilly was a young adult living and working in New York. In 2001, Djaniants studied urban planning and landscape architecture in Prague, Czech Republic, after which she spent another six weeks backpacking through Europe. Over the next seven years, she worked as a project designer at several architectural firms in New York City and North Carolina. During much of that time, Djaniants thought of Armenia, yearning to return as a volunteer, but the opportunity never arose. After her layoff in 2009, 18 years after she had left Armenia as a child, Djaniants returned to the homeland with the help of Birthright Armenia and began a nine- week internship with the Armenian Volunteer Corps. “I had mixed emotions and no expectations, yet a sense of responsibility and a burning desire to contribute to Armenia’s development.”

One of the organizations she worked with was the National Competitiveness Foundation of Armenia. As an architect in New York City, Djaniants spent much of her time at museum exhibitions, and gallery and restaurant openings, in addition to attending concerts and entertaining high-end clients. She did not think Armenia could keep her entertained; yet she was pleasantly surprised. She was blown away by the scenic landscape and the beautiful, ancient monasteries. “I was surprised to find it so metropolitan and European, with a bit of an old-world flavor. Where else in the world, in a large city, can you pick your own fruit on your morning walk to work?”

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Djaniants immersed herself in the Birthright Armenia experience, sharing her thoughts with fellow architects shemet along the way, in addition to spending time with fellow volunteers. She was able to reconnect with relatives and childhood friends in Zvartnots — welcomed with warm smiles and open arms, despite the fact that the conditions in which they were living were far worse than those of her host family. She was able to visit her uncle in Ashtarak, whom she had last seen as a child, listening as he shared his stories of life in Baku.

Following her internship, Djaniants prepared initial designs and plans for a tourist center in Yerevan’s Republic Square, which would house offices, a café and several shops. She also worked with TUMO Creative Technologies Center, in creating a master plan for a children’s park, to include playgrounds, a basketball court, tennis court, soccer field and ice-skating rink, on the outskirts of Yerevan.

After her internship ended, Djaniants returned to the US for several weeks but her heart was back in Armenia, so she packed her bags, bid family and friends adieu, and began a new chapter in her life. Presently working with EPYGI Labs, as an architect managing construction administration, Djaniants oversees the work for an 80,000-square-foot plaza, where she is responsible for the coordination of all electrical, plumbing, irrigation and concrete work. Djaniants’ advice for any young Armenian who has never been to Armenia: “Go — it’s one of the best things you can do for yourself.”

Nyree Abrahamian and Areg Maghakian

Nyree Abrahamian volunteered with Birthright Armenia in September 2007, working with the Armenian Volunteers Corp. Her intention was to stay for five months, but she found herself falling in love with Armenia and her people. After three months, Abrahamian was hired by the Armenian Tourism Development Agency and began warming up to the possibility of living and working in Armenia. But another love was at play. She had met fellow volunteer Areg Maghakian at Birthright Armenia’s offices one day and soon they were inseparable. Maghakian and Abrahamian made the decision to move to Armenia together. They worked through the challenges of repatriation with each other’s support. Over time, their relationship grew stronger along with their shared desire to contribute to Armenia’s development. They married in August 2009 and settled in Yerevan.

Abrahamian grew up in Toronto and came from a close-knit Armenian family raised with the notion that being Armenian was an integral part of her identity. Her motivation to volunteer stemmed not only from her emotional attachment to her heritage, but also thanks to a curiosity about the homeland and the challenges and rewards of living and working in a country where the potential for growth was largely untapped. Though surrounded by a fairly large diasporan community in Toronto where the Armenian language, food and music were in abundance, Abrahamian was seeking sustenance on a more intellectual level.

“I wanted to understand Armenians, our history and our present reality, in amore global context. I wanted something more than dolma and an alphabet to link me to my ancestors and to Armenia, the country, and to give me some context of where I stand in the world, what I come from, and what I can offer,” she said.

Though raised with a strong Armenian identity, Abrahamian believes that were it not for her emotional connection to the homeland, she would have likely been drawn to a similar environment, which would have allowed her to directly contribute towards the development of an emerging country.

Raised in beautiful San Diego, Maghakian also grew up in a family whose parents were driven to imbue both him and his sister with a strong sense of heritage. As a child, Maghakian went to Armenian school on Friday evenings and was active with his local Armenian scout troupe. Every week, the family would drive to Los Angeles to ensure that time was spent with grandparents and cousins. “I remember that none of my non-Armenian friends used to do this, and, at the time, I was jealous and tired of going back and forth between San Diego and Los Angeles, but in retrospect I’m happy we did.” While Maghakian’s parents planted the seeds early on, it was ultimately his decision to volunteer. “Many diasporan parents plant the same seed, but most times it doesn’t grow beyond local commitments.”

Abrahamian is presently a project development specialist at the National Competitiveness Foundation of Armenia and is part of the team responsible for the Tatev Revival Project, a tourism development initiative in southern Armenia which includes the world’s longest aerial tramway (launched in October 2010) and the restoration of the Tatev Monastery. She is also a freelance writer whose talents are sought after by companies in and out of Armenia. Maghakian is the associate director of the Armenia Tree Project’s Yerevan office.

While modern technology such as Skype helps the couple keeps in touch with family and friends in Canada and California, being away from family is hard. Both have integrated into Armenian society and made new friends, finding common ground with locals. The longer they stay in Armenia and the more they establish themselves, the more they can see themselves staying long-term.

As volunteers, Djaniants, Abrahamian and Maghakian all sought to make an impact in a very short time. Now, as contributing members of Armenian society, they relish in the belief that they have the ability to play a key role in Armenia’s progress and future. With their collective intellect, keen prowess and industrial talents, they are but three examples of many young individuals eager to invest in a homeland they now call “home.”

Abrahamian summed it up in a piece she wrote for Birthright Armenia’s newsletter: “It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when one goes from being a long-term visitor to a repatriate, but for me there was a definite turning point. I decided to move to Armenia after spending only a few months here, but I didn’t really start to consider myself a repatriate until the day I realized I wasn’t carting around my camera everywhere I went. . . It’s not that Armenia stopped being interesting — it’s just that I started experiencing it on a different level. I went from being an observer to a participant. And whether that turning point happens after five months or five years, that’s what repatriation means to me.”

(Much thanks to Mihran Toumajan for contributing to this article.)

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