Armenian lessons over Zoom for Birthright participants

By Anaïs DerSimonian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BOSTON — Diasporan-Armenian organizations — like their counterparts the world over during the COVID-19 era — have been forced to radically alter their practices to meet social distancing guidelines and travel restrictions. To continue operating at a limited capacity over the last few months, Armenian organizations have moved the majority of their in-person events and meetings to online Zoom video calls, and due to funding cuts in most cases, have been forced to reevaluate which programs are worth pursuing.

Birthright participant Ani Bournazian working on her internship online

Shifting to Online

“When the state of emergency was declared in Armenia due to COVID-19, we had over 70 participants in-country,” says Nelly Poliakov, the marketing creative director of Birthright Armenia, an organization focused on bringing diaspora youth to Armenia to gain professional experience.

“While we couldn’t host new arrivals we had to quickly adjust to upholding their safety. During these times, as during all times, the well-being of our participants was our highest priority. Our transition to online platforms was done within a week — volunteers continued to work remotely with their job sites, our language learning and lecture series also moved online.”

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As most professionals have learned during COVID-19, making the shift to working online is rarely convenient. For international human rights organizations that rely on face-to-face meetings, the shift to online has proved additionally challenging.

“It’s all online. We have to reschedule all the meetings. We have to do much more to keep processes going,” says Gulnara Shahinian of Democracy Today (DT), a Yerevan-based NGO focused on human rights, democratic processes and civil society, as well as supporting women in Armenia’s rural regions since the fall of the Soviet Union through micro-lending and empowerment workshops.

Though some of this work can be seamlessly transferred online, other aspects – especially projects in which travel is essential – are more difficult. One of DT’s initiatives involves groups of Armenian and Georgian youth interested in political science traveling to each other’s country to discuss relations between their two nations. This initiative has since been put on hold. “The [Georgian] group came here, our group went to Georgia, and now we’re all stuck online, which is very difficult,” says Shahinian.

Democracy Today meeting held over Zoom

Planned events, seminars and gatherings that would have been near-impossible to bring online in their entirety have been postponed or canceled.

“We had a conference planned for later this month in Armenia, and we made a decision pretty quickly to postpone that, which was extremely hard after all the work and effort put into it,” says Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA) Board Member Sara Janjigian Trifiro.

New Initiatives

In addition to shifting most practices online, many organizations have readjusted their long-term plans to make space for initiatives that have suddenly become more imperative during COVID-19, namely, projects that directly impact vulnerable populations, like migrant workers from Russia, women-run households and the elderly.

Democracy Today has decided to focus on uncovering the truth about how effectively the Armenian government is assisting rural communities during COVID-19, using volunteers who are residents in the rural regions to collect data for analysis. AIWA is developing online programs to assist women with challenges they may be facing during this time, such as managing elders and dealing with domestic violence.

“We were working on a platform to connect women from all over the world in need of mentorship and connection — that is needed more than ever! We had to re-pool the priorities so that they were more focused on this new dynamic. And it took a long time to figure that dynamic out — what works, what doesn’t,” adds Janjigian Trifiro.

Populations who live in places where the internet connection may not be as stable, such as those in rural regions, are amongst the most vulnerable. With the pandemic limiting travel, the humanitarian non-profit presence in these regions have been dramatically reduced. Organizations like Armenia Artsakh Fund (AAF) have attempted to fill that void using air shipments. According to a press release, “During the first five months of 2020, AAF also delivered $6 million of humanitarian assistance to Armenia and Artsakh. Of this amount, the AAF collected $5.8 million of medicines and other supplies donated by Americares ($5 million) and Direct Relief ($741,000).”

Economic Impact

Armenia’s economy, like that of many other small countries, is heavily tourism-based (The French magazine, Le Quotidien, mentioned Armenia as the most trending destination of 2020). The travel restrictions — though crucial to upholding public health — will inevitably cause Armenia economic hardship in the months if not years to come.

“This will mean more competition between NGOs,” laments Shahinian. “I don’t think donors will cover the expenses of people coming to Yerevan from the rural communities for seminars and training because everyone has gotten used to the online discussions. But it’s a question of how effective these online discussions are.”

An observation that Shahinian made was: “The amount of organization and community engagement from the youth hasn’t been as widespread since the [1989] earthquake.” It seems that when tragedy strikes in Armenia, the youth have historically been the ones to pick up the pieces and demand change — a clear testament to the nation’s fortified resilience over the years.

Though much of the new COVID-era programming is still being developed, the hope is that these initiatives might provide a brighter future for populations whose vulnerability was not previously exposed to this extent before the pandemic. Janjigian Trifiro said of her new online workshops: “When there is this need, it opens the door to creativity. If you can take the fear out of the equation, creativity all of a sudden becomes boundless.” It seems that though there might be tough days to come for Armenia, the organizations and youth that make the nation great will not cease in uplifting vulnerable communities and moving the country forward; without hesitation and without fear.

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