"Santa" Saro Yesayan with a young fan

YEREVAN — Christmas morning, 8 a.m. I grab my backpack and scurry through the empty streets of Yerevan to the Birthright Armenia office in Republic Square.

There, I meet up with Matthieu Sahakian, a French repat and co-founder of the All for Armenia (AfA) non-profit organization. He had organized a Christmas gift-wrapping event the previous day and graciously entertained my appeal to join the AfA team on their mission to deliver these presents in Goris. Matthieu and his wife Araz founded AfA at the start of the 2020 Artsakh War to assist refugees. Since then, the organization has focused on providing the native Armenian communities of Syunik and Artsakh with the necessary resources to forge a long-term livelihood.

A veritable Tetris of gifts

While we transport bags of presents to the van, Matthieu introduces me to the rest of the team: Saro Yesayan, an Australian repat who had been a fellow Birthright volunteer with Matthieu in 2017 and has hosted first-aid courses with AfA in Goris; Hovhannes Verdyan, a veteran of the 44-Day War and self-taught freelance programmer; and Dr. Carlos Ketzoian, a preeminent neurologist from Uruguay who sponsored the trip. My fellow tag-along traveler is Shushan Hovhannisyan, Birthright Armenia’s public relations specialist.

From left, Matthieu Sahakian, Serena Hajjar, and Shushan Hovhannisyan

I observe the AfA team launch a game of real-life Tetris as they struggle to stuff Christmas gifts for 140 children into every open crevice of our small van. We finally succeed in striking a precarious balance, and off we go on the 5-hour journey to Syunik Province.

Along the way, we are treated to a crystal-clear view of Mount Ararat, its peaks rising majestically above the cliff at our feet. We drive past the village of Tigranashen, one of three former Soviet Azerbaijani enclaves, located in the Ararat region and populated entirely by Armenians. Several hours later, we reach our first stop in Goris, a city hugging Armenia’s southeastern border with Azerbaijan.

The best way to experience a new locale is on foot. While half of our group enjoys a well-deserved nap, Saro and I leave the hotel to explore the Old Town, with its distinct architectural influences unique to Syunik and Artsakh: two-story houses with arched gates and cobblestone walls. Due to their proximity, the historical dynasty of Siunia (Syunik) and Kingdom of Artsakh frequently fused to repel invaders and thereby developed a characteristic architectural style.

Distributing candy

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However, the contemporary layout of the city, featuring parallel streets and street gutters, is German-inspired. During the Soviet Union, the state employed imprisoned German architects to create smart and efficient plans to transform villages like Goris into cities.

We venture past donkeys and chickens roaming around backyard farms towards the fourth-century basilica of Surb Hripsime with its modest altar and single bench. After lighting candles and saying our Christmas prayers, we continue along Goris’ Rock Forest.

These towering rock formations have an almost viscous texture, as though they were made of dollops of syrup which had piled up and coagulated into these imposing structures. Dotting these rocks are caves, which housed Goris residents as late as the 1960s.

The local cemetery greets us with a sign announcing it has no more room for additional graves. We make our way to a lookout point with a breathtaking view of the valley and mountains stretching before us.

Jingalov Hats, the herbaceous bread traditional to the region

A graffiti etched on an iron fence catches my eye: #haxteluenk (“we will win”). The ubiquitous rallying cry of the 44 Day War now rings hollow in light of the battle’s grievous outcome.

Back at the town center, we meander to the French Cultural Center to meet with a group of women, recent refugees from Artsakh. They work in the one-room sewing atelier funded by AfA in the same building. The workshop houses the Made in Syunik online store, which provides these women with a rewarding means of supporting their families. The center also offers French language classes for children and adults and hosts a technology center.

Once the rest of the AfA team arrives, the women hasten us to a table set with walnuts, candies, and the piece-de-resistance: homemade jingalov hats. A specialty of Artsakh and the Syunik region, this traditional flatbread is stuffed with over 10 different finely-chopped herbs and fried over a type of griddle called sajin.

Local cemetery with Rock Forest in the background

After the ladies fill our glasses with wine and our plates with hats, they entreat each of us to deliver a toast, in true Armenian fashion. Though I typically tend to avoid such invitations, the experience of breaking bread with these incredible women is so compelling that I cannot refuse their request.

I timidly raise my glass — speaking in the Eastern dialect still intimidates me — and express what an honor it is to share this meal with them and hear their candid reflections on their current situation, forced to carve a new life for themselves away from their homes in Artsakh. It is difficult to find the words — in any language — to fully articulate what a surreal experience this is for me.

All I can think about is the fall of 2020, intently following the news out of Armenia day and night, feeling guilty for the safety I enjoyed in the United States and inadequate in my efforts to contribute financially. Now, here I am, one year later and halfway across the world, surrounded by these same resilient women who have survived everything I had been reading about that entire time. As I conclude my toast, the ladies assure me that they fully understood my speech, that such sentiments are communicated nonverbally better than with any words.

One of the latest handbags designed by the ladies at the atelier

The conversation drifts to the topic of security at the border. Evidently, they feel overlooked by Yerevan and frustrated by Armenians’ fears of traveling along the highway to Syunik. They maintain that there is no reason for people to shy away from Syunik and that despite the periodic altercations on the border, Goris itself is still perfectly safe to visit. To this, Matthieu asserts AfA’s interest in helping border communities precisely for this reason: neglecting these localities is functionally no different than ceding the land directly to the enemy.

Further, they repeatedly affirm that while they appreciate all the material and financial support they have received, what they desire most are the tools to support their families. In the words of Tikin Anahit, the eldest of the group, “We are a hardworking people. The best way to help us is to give us a means of making an honest living.”

Several helpings of jingalov hats later, I join the team in the atelier, where Carmen A., the director of the French Cultural Center, shows us their latest handbags and asks for our input on color coordination. When it comes time to bid the ladies farewell, Tikin Anahit, who had struck me with her warm yet strong-willed personality, hugs me and leaves me with words I will never forget. “Menk orets or aprum enk, duk tarets tar aprek.” We live day to day; may you live year to year. I can only muster a silent smile and nod in reply, as I feel my eyes welling up.

The AfA team and I then leave the French Cultural Center to dine at Takarik Tavern, after which Matthieu and Saro walk me to Carmen’s house. She operates the neighboring apartment as a bed and breakfast, and after my unforgettable experience at a BnB in Tatev, I jump at the opportunity to spend the night there. On our way, we pass by the Surb Grigor Lusavorich (St. Gregory the Illuminator) Church, where Garegin Nzhdeh was married.

At Carmen’s, Matthieu and Saro show me around the BnB, a lodging favorite of the AfA team during their trips to Goris. Carmen and her husband, Mher, beckon us into their living room and insist we enjoy a drink with them.

As soon as we sit at their dining room table, already festooned with nuts, homemade dried fruits, and various beverages, Carmen and her eldest daughter serve us tea along with bowls of jam and confectionaries. It feels like all we have done this evening is hop from one table to the next.

Paron Arayik, Saro, and Babik

Though the topics of conversation are heavy, Carmen and Mher maintain a warm and jovial attitude. The laughter and antics of the younger children contrast starkly with the somber discussion of war among the adults.

Matthieu, Saro, and the couple update each other about their mutual friend Arman Komshuyan, a young French-Armenian who, growing up completely disconnected from his Armenian culture, left his life in France and moved to Armenia to reconnect with his heritage just before the 44-Day War.

At the outbreak of the conflict, he valiantly joined the fight for Artsakh in Jabrail, one of the most perilous theaters of the war, where he refused to retreat despite falling under attack from a rain of enemy rockets. Thereafter, he made the survival of Armenia his life goal.

Reflecting on the subsequent day-long border skirmish of November 2021, Mher recounts how he had instructed Carmen to prepare his uniform and was determined to go fight if the conflict continued a second day.

Soldiers’ boots outside the auditorium


Back in my bedroom, I drop my belongings, cry, and pray, finally releasing the emotional overload that had been swelling inside me throughout the day. Though I feel sorrow for the hardship these people — our brethren — have experienced over the last year, I am even more so amazed and moved by their serenity in the face of catastrophe and the dignified composure with which they embrace life.

I think back to the toast one of the refugee women had delivered earlier that evening, praising us as heroes for leaving our comfortable homes, coming to Armenia, and involving ourselves in such projects as AfA. It had been difficult to consider myself heroic in the presence of those tenacious ladies.

The next morning, I wake up to a breathtaking view of the sun pouring over the rocky mountains of Goris from my balcony.

When Santa arrives to deliver presents to children, he doesn’t typically expect to be greeted by soldiers holding AKs.

Such is our welcome to Kornidzor’s local theater, which was converted to a military dormitory during the 2020 war.

On a balmy Friday afternoon, we drive up in our van bursting with gifts of all shapes and sizes. At the rope fence, a young soldier brandishing an AK-47 verifies our identities and ensures we have permission to enter. Upon receiving a stern nod of approval, we continue past a squad of soldiers milling about and stop to unload our Tetris puzzle.

While Saro furtively changes into his Santa costume in the van, the rest of us step into the auditorium, where we are greeted by a lively congregation of over 140 local children accompanied by their parents. The room buzzes with anticipation as we call for kids to climb on stage and recite Christmas poems.

Hearing their poetic summons, Santa suddenly appears at the doorway, prompting squeals of excitement and rhapsodic chants of “Tz-mer Pa-pi, Tz-mer Pa-pi” (Santa Claus, Santa Claus). The kids rush to greet Santa and receive their presents, while I stroll about distributing candy out of a giant wooden basket.

When the supply of sweets is exhausted, I step outside for some fresh air. Inside, the children squeal with excitement, their joyful cries reverberating throughout the arena. Outside, the soldiers march in formation around the building, their voices echoing as they chant the lyrics to Getashen.

View from the balcony in Goris

The contrast serves as a blunt reminder of the dichotomy of life in these border villages: despite living with the harsh aftermath of an uneasy ceasefire, these children, like all kids around the world, impatiently await Santa’s arrival every Christmas.

We then meet briefly with Mrs. Lusine, AfA’s local coordinator and recently elected mayor of Kornidzor. After reviewing the event and brainstorming areas for improvement in subsequent years, we make our way to the home of Paron Arayik, the neighbor to AfA’s nascent KorniTun community home.

In creating KorniTun, currently under construction, AfA aims to establish a base from which the diaspora can connect with the border and its people and understand the reality of everyday life for these communities at the doors of Artsakh. The first floor will function as an education and technology center, while the second will serve as lodging quarters.

At Mr. Arayik’s house, we are invited for a traditional khorovats (barbeque) lunch. While we explore the family farm, the enticing smell of fresh, local pork and potatoes sizzling on the grill wafts through the air. Near the grill stand corn crop stubs and a phalanx of honey bee boxes, which we are told house 30,000 bees. In the stable, we meet Paron Arayik’s horse, cows, and calves.

Syunik/Artsakh-style cobblestone walls

We sit down to a table so abounding with khorovats, meat blinchiki, jingalov hats, bread, cheese and herb platters, homegrown honey, and, of course, homemade vodka. Several toasts later, filled with this hearty sustenance, we part ways with Arayik and his family.

Before returning to Yerevan, we set out on a brief hike on the dusty valley road to a rock church which would be considered positively contemporary by Armenian historical standards. Erected in 1905, it was the first architecturally independent structure in Kornidzor, the first building not carved out of the mountains.

The austere interior features artwork of Jesus and biblical scenes dating back to the last decade, presumably painted by local children. After we light candles and say our silent prayers, Hovhannes and Saro gather the bits of trash scattered around the church and burn them outside. They mention that the village of Kornidzor itself does not have a well-established public garbage disposal system.

While Shushan and I marvel at how people managed to live in the caves sprinkled among the steep inclines of the mountains surrounding us, Hovhannes notes that Tikin Lusine herself was born in one of them.

As the final flames lap the last of the debris, we climb back up into the van which will bring us to our homes in Yerevan. Peering at the colossal mountains enveloping the valley, I understand why so many Armenian folk songs extoll these gentle giants. They are the embodiment of the Armenian spirit: serene yet imposing, ancient yet enduring.


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