Shenavan’s kindergarten after its renovation, July 2021

France’s Armenian Youth Organization Rebuilds Schools in Armenia

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By Melanie Tuyssuzian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

ALFORTVILLE, France — Mathilde is a 22-year-old French law student. Last year, Armenia was completely unknown for her when she decided to join the Armenian Youth Organization (AYO). Now, she’s going to participate for the second time in the program of this French-Armenian association.

Every July since 2007, the AYO organizes a three-week mission to rebuild schools and entertain children all around Armenia. Last year, the mission took place in Shenavan, a small village located in Lori’s region, for the renovation of a kindergarten.

Mathilde (at the left) and another volunteer during construction work, July 2021

For three weeks, Mathilde, the co-leader for this summer’s AYO program, has been busy finalizing the organization of the 15th annual humanitarian trip. This French student discovered the association thanks to an Armenian friend, and she was so satisfied with her first experience last summer than she’s now a full-time member of the association. Next month, with 14 other youngsters, she will be back to Shenavan to continue last summer’s mission.

Shenavan’s Revival

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In July 2021, 15 volunteers came to renovate the kindergarten of Shenavan, a small village in Lori Province. During twenty days, they discovered and helped this village “which hasn’t had parties or played music since the Artsakh war,” according to its inhabitants. Moreover, the village is still affected by the damage left by the earthquake of December 1988. Shenavan’s wrecked kindergarten has never been repaired. One of the most important targets for AYO was to make life easier for the village’s families: “About twenty children under six years old weren’t able to attend kindergarten. It was a real problem because it caused them to fall behind in their education. Their mothers were also affected because they needed to stay at home to take care of them,” Mathilde explains. That’s why AYO chose to go there, on the advice of the Armenian association “Shen.” Shen aims to find places to renovate in Armenia thanks to volunteers who live in the country and know the land and its needs well.

A Day with the Volunteers

During the trip, volunteers stayed in a host family’s house next to the school. They spend the entire day together. It starts early, at 8 a.m., with an Armenian breakfast, lavash bread and apricot jam. Once at the kindergarten, they are divided into two teams: one group takes care of the children, with sports and lively games, while the other is in charge of the construction work. Every other day, they alternate their jobs to do different tasks. No need to be a building expert – the volunteers were led by Amo, the site manager. “He taught us how to coat the wall with primer and to be efficient. He was really nice and even-tempered with us,” Mathilde says. Then, they have lunch together at 12 p.m. with the children and teachers. Several activities are offered to the children, like soccer, dance, painting, or card games. For the most motivated, French lessons are also organized every afternoon.

Games with children in Shenavan, Lori, Armenia, July, 2021

They keep working until 6 p.m. before spending the evening together. During the trip, the volunteers are used to dining with different Shenavan families. They invite them, each in turn, to thank the French group for their commitment: “It was great fun to discover new people and new customs every night. That’s how I learnt my first word of Armenian, genats [toast], along with the subtlety of doing a proper genats,” Mathilde exclaims, laughing.

July 2022: Back to Shenavan

But the mission in Shenavan isn’t finished yet. This year, 15 volunteers from AYO are going back, this time to renovate the dojo (an Asian-style gymnasium), the dance studio of the school, changing or locker rooms and the sanitary facilities, which are not up to standards. Volunteers will also provide preventative advice for dental and dietary health. This year, a special “dental bus” will be coming to the village, with toothbrushes and dental materials as gifts for children.

There are no traditional holidays for these 15 youngsters, who prefer spending their summer helping the village. Most of them don’t have Armenian origins. Despite the language barrier, communication with the inhabitants has never been a problem. In the case of Mathilde, even if she wasn’t able to speak Armenian, she easily succeeded to be understood by means of gestures. She even learnt some common sentences in order to communicate with the local children. Mathilde’s commitment to the country is one of the reasons she’s now the co-leader of this year mission. She declared, “I think Armenia is a ‘concept’ [standing for a way of life]. It is a beautiful country with people who always smile and welcome you very warmly, whatever they endure. Doing this trip and being committed all year long, is a growing lesson and a wonderful experience for us.”

How to Help 

The AYO has set up fund-raising via the online platform Helloasso (https://www.helloasso.com/associations/ayo) for personal donations to finance the construction work equipment. Information about its activities is available on its website (www.ayoasso.org) or Facebook page (AYO | Facebook). Therefore, you will be able to follow this summer’s Shenavan adventure through social media next month.

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