Birthright Armenia Experience - No Reservations -
By Lia Parisyan
Those who know me well, know that I cannot stay still in one place for too long. I have a nomadic soul, and despite frequently being typecast as "a lost soul," I continue exploring the world, taking solace and gaining motivation through Tolkien's famous words: "Not all those who wander are lost."
I came to Armenia through the Birthright Armenia program, which I discovered by entering the keyword ‘Armenia’ into Google’s search engine. I read about the program, its requirements, and quietly entertained the thought of volunteering for a few months during my time as a Web & New Media consultant in the drab and soul-sucking offices of the corporation where I worked.
I knew I was at an important crossroads: I could continue to climb the rungs of the corporate ladder in a job that provided me with virtually zero satisfaction or, I could take some time out to discover my roots, explore my identity and culture, and experience a country, while most people around me (many of whom had actually never set foot in the country) were only too eager to share their opinions and prejudices, and engage in impassioned tirades to try to convince me that I was making a grave mistake by taking another ‘unnecessary’ detour.
Yet, it wasn’t all negative; I had some friends, family and familiars who lauded the virtues of an architecturally rich capital, nostalgically recounted wondering in miles of scenic countryside, and reminisced, painting vignettes of their encounters with hospitable locals residing in villages that were as picturesque as they were poor.
I took all of these thoughts, opinions and experiences into account, and while I formed a loose idea of what Armenia could or would be like, I never internalized any of these descriptions as unequivocal truths, having done a considerable bit of traveling in the past, I knew that often what people said doesn’t align with the reality of place. As the departure date neared, I approached my journey with Anthony Bourdain's philosophy: "No Reservations."
I arrived on April Fool’s Day, on a surprisingly cold and damp night. It was dark, so I didn’t really get to experience Yerevan through a set of well-rested eyes or appreciate the many points of interest my driver and I passed en route to where I would be staying in the city. I had booked my apartment stateside, and as I became more familiar with the districts of Yerevan, I learned how I had accidentally chosen to live in one of the most posh portions of town complete with an incredible square full of modern art, chic cafes you’d might see across Europe, Soho and Willamsburg, and a centralized, anchoring Caucasian take on what reminded me of Rome’s Spanish Steps.
I was often and happily surprised by Armenians, but also, as a Diaspora Armenian who had attended St. Illuminator’s Armenian Day School in Woodside, and had fortunately learned to read and write, to wear the traditional dance costumes, and recite the words of famous Armenian poets, I did not feel like a complete outsider. Still, there was so much information that I was shockingly ignorant of, in particular the details of what locals referred to as “Moot Dariener” or Dark Years, which they had lived through even as I in New York was studying a brighter parallel reality, learning about the past: Armenia’s notable kingdoms, fearless national heroes, and cultural achievements. Hearing people of all walks of life describe a period where food was scarce and, electricity was virtually non-existent, made me appreciate the level and scope of how a person’s basic quality of life could be so dramatically disrupted and persist for years. I thought about Hurricane Sandy, and how I lost power for two weeks, and was ready to tear my hair out, but living in darkness for a whole winter, or several years, the thought alone was mindblowing, and made me appreciate Armenians’ resiliency despite being dealt an unfortunate hand.
I couldn’t imagine how the café I was sitting in, enjoying a perfectly brewed Americano, was the Armenia that had survived a devastating earthquake, territorial war with neighboring Azerbaijan, food and power shortages, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the growing pains of a new and inexperienced “democratic” government.
Prior to my Armenia trip, I knew virtually nothing about the country’s contemporary history. Sure, there was the catastrophic 1988 Spitak earthquake, but I was three-years-old at the time, and other than remembering church drives and Diaspora aid, it was a tragic, but distant reality.
What Birthright Armenia gave me was an opportunity to experience the country as a living, utterly current reality, and the best way to describe the value of the experience is that the Birthright Armenia program helps shape you into a traveler rather than a tourist. It opened my eyes, and gave me the guidance to discovering my own truths through immersion in various facets of everyday Armenian life, beginning with my volunteering post at Yerevan State University (YSU).
Firstly, I am thankful for Birthright Armenia’s flexibility, and its willingness to help volunteers make the most of their experience; it gave me the opportunity to switch posts, and find a better fit for my work experience and skill set. And, while I was nervous and didn’t know what to expect, working with YSU’s brilliant faculty and post-doctoral students, I began to see the “huys” or “hope” that’s characterized this nation’s tenacious resiliency through catastrophes, darkness, the fall of empires, and uncertain transfers of power.
If I had to compare Armenia to a historical precedent, the closest analogy is America in the 1970’s. The country is rapidly developing, has the resources, passionate people, a strong system of community networks, and the drive to move forward and improve people’s quality of life. What Armenia is missing are the intermediaries or the bridges between desire and results; it needs excellent communicators, business planners, strategists, project managers, and leaders to guide future growth. Many changes are already manifesting- when I boarded that plane in April, I never imagined I would help create the country’s first Bioscience Center, formal business plan, and 5-year strategic roadmap. I never imagined I would meet such a diverse range of personalities within a predominately homogeneous culture. Had it not been for my curiosity, and Birthright Armenia’s ability to find a practical application for my explorer’s spirit, I would have never discovered many of my latent gifts or seen the great potential of an underdog nation that’s somehow miraculously defeated all odds.
Despite having to leave Yerevan, I will continue to work as a remote Business Analyst for YSU, and support my team in Armenia. And, like the swallows that return each year to rebuild their nests, I, too will journey back to a place that I can proudly call home.
Lia Parisyan is a New York based writer and content strategist, who graduated from Hunter College with a degree in Creative Writing. Her greatest passions are travel, philanthropy, photography, and finding unconventional solutions to problems. She served at Yerevan State University’s Biology Department for three months as a Birthright Armenia volunteer this spring/summer. Lia can be contacted via: