My visit to Armenia changed me forever.
The year 2016 was the 50th reunion for my class of the Armenian Evangelical College (AEC) in Beirut. It was decided that we should all meet in Yerevan considering that fellow classmates were dispersed throughout the world after the Lebanese civil war.
The ten-day visit to Armenia, with my wife Shirley was a trip of discovery of my roots, and a chance to reconnect with classmates that I have not seen for 50 years. Our journey after graduation, from a small Armenian private high school in Beirut, Lebanon has been remarkable. For the second time in the 20th century most of us have left what was home and dispersed throughout the world seeking a safer environment and better opportunities.
It is remarkable how successful my classmates are, given the odds. In our reunion tour, we had a scientist working for the US Federal Government, an owner of a construction company in LA area, an owner of a software company in California, an importer and distributor of specialty foods in Sweden, an importer and distributer of hospital supplies in Belgium, and a postindustrial recycler in Canada.
Although I am of Armenian descendant, I attended mostly French Catholic missionary schools in Lebanon, except for my last 3 years at AEC. The school exempted me from attending language classes since my Armenian reading and writing skills were deemed to be inadequate.
Our visit and reunion were a real discovery for me. During our visit I pestered those classmates who had visited Armenia before, with questions about religion, history, government, economy, politics, and differences between Western and Eastern Armenia.
I saw young men and women at Tumo Center playing-learning-working with technology. I was impressed with how motivated the young were to learn and adopt modernity. I was charmed by the beauty of the land; Armenian highlands were truly stunning with wildflowers during July. Although I am not a spiritual person, I admired the ancient churches and the people of faith who visited and lit candles in prayer. I instantly felt at home even with my limited language skills – the feeling of belonging seized my soul.
My second trip to Armenia this past April gave me the opportunity to explore Yerevan and get to know the people. I would walk neighborhoods daily often four or five hours, observing people carrying on their daily lives. I probably walked every street in Kentron – central Yerevan. In my evening walks, I would notice young women walking often in pairs but occasionally alone in the dark which would raise my concern about their safety. With further conversations and investigation, it became clear to me that Yerevan is very safe.
As I became more interested in Armenia and started reading the news from various on-line sources. I wanted to understand the recent political developments and the rallies. Why are so many young and old are protesting in Republic Square? Initially I was skeptical – protests usually do not end well, they tend to expose ugly behavior that can be hard to undo.
I was wrong.
On May 8, I shared on Facebook a New York Times Article titled “He Was a Protester a Month Ago. Now, Nikol Pashinyan Leads Armenia” and I added the comment: “Remarkable how one individual was able to change the political landscape in Armenia. Wishing its people peace and prosperity”. Wishing its people peace and prosperity is not enough.
The turning point was the day I came upon this wonderful organization called Homeland Development Initiative Foundation – HDIF . Run by Timothy Straight. He calls himself ABC (Armenian By Choice) He came to Armenia 17 years ago to help this small country get its footing after the soviet breakup and stayed there. One of his many projects in Armenia is Homeland Development Initiative Foundation – HDIF, a social enterprise, which promotes sustainable economic development by creating job opportunities in remote Armenian communities. His Facebook had this wonderful saying: “roll up your sleeves we have a country to build “. I thought to myself, I can support HDIF by buying their products. One day I read a post by Tim on his Facebook page. That simply said:
“Late last night I was told by an organization working with the disabled in Vanadzor that the apartment they work out of has been sold, and they have to get out. They have been bounced around quite a bit in the past few years and need a place to call home. These folks are engaged and hard working. Would love to help them out! Hint: a small house in Vanadzor costs about $15.000. If you have thoughts, preach! – Live Love Armenia”
Someone posted a comment on Facebook: “why don’t we start a crowd funding campaign on GoFundMe.com.?” The comment made me think about my actions. All I did was to wish its people peace and prosperity. I thought how is it that so many individuals have been working so hard to make this small landlocked country with its share of adversities a place to call home. How come, I haven’t done anything to help? I am not young, but I made a living working in technology – I can probably help by using social media. I decided to get the ball rolling by creating “Armenia Disability NGO Needs Office”, a crowd funding campaign https://www.gofundme.com/armenia-disability-ngo-needs-office . To my delight, donations started coming in – generous souls who understood the need and responded to the appeal.
The disabled get very little attention if it weren’t for organizations such as EQUAL RIGHTS EQUAL OPPORTUNITIES «ՀԱՎԱՍԱՐ ԻՐԱՎՈՒՆՔՆԵՐ, ՀԱՎԱՍԱՐ ՀՆԱՐԱՎՈՐՈՒԹՅՈՒՆՆԵՐ» the non-profit organization who helps the disabled in Vanadzor is now actively looking for a permanent location that meets international standards of accessibility. In most advanced countries there are government agencies that makes sure persons with a disability have opportunities and independence. One day we will get there. In the meantime, roll up your sleeves we have a country to build.
August 14, 2018