Twenty Days in Armenia: A Journey of Service and Discovery

01 August 2014

They prayed in ancient, cliff-side monasteries, explored a medieval fortress, and experienced the cool, fresh waters of Lake Sevan.

The 12 young people taking part in this summer's ACYOA Armenia Service Program (ASP) crisscrossed Armenia, encountering its geography and its religious and historic sites. But the three-week journey, from July 1 to July 20, was more than a tour of the homeland, participants said. It was also an introduction to the local way of life, and an opportunity to give back.

The group was led by the Rev. Fr. Hratch Sargsyan, pastor of St. Gregory of Narek Church of Cleveland, Ohio, with assistance from Ani Gulbenk of Fairfield, Conn. 

The ACYOA again partnered with the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR) to prepare the service component of the itinerary, and group members volunteered at FAR's Vanadzor Old Age Home and Tzitzernag Summer Camp in Armenia's third-largest city.

"There was a lot that I learned from this service experience," said ASP participant Julia Janigian. "One key thing was that little acts of service can do a lot more to help others than one imagines." 

A lifelong commitment

Upon arrival in Vanadzor, the group was greeted by Archbishop Sebouh Chuljyan, Primate of the Armenian Diocese of Gougark. Archbishop Chuljyan led them on a tour of the city and introduced them to members of the local youth organization.

During their weeklong stay, the ASP participants assisted at Tzitzernag Summer Camp and at the Vanadzor Old Age Home. At the camp, they joined the children for games, dances, and other activities. In addition to hosting children in need from the local area, this summer the camp welcomed kids who are refugees from war-torn Syria. 

At the Old Age Home, the young people took turns helping prepare meals—they learned to make dolma, sarma, kebab, and pilaf—as well as cleaning, ironing, and doing yard work. When all the work was complete, they spent time socializing with the elderly and hearing their stories. 

"It was great to see that we were really helping them," said Gina Falzone, adding that the residents were eager to make the young volunteers feel welcome. "It is a distinct quality in Armenians that they want to make you happy and to feel at home. Everyone was like a mother or father to us."

Other participants agreed that volunteering in Armenia was one of the most important aspects of their trip.

"We realized that our service in Armenia is a lifelong commitment," said Alexis Shahnasarian. "The days we spent in Vanadzor were the most impactful and important days we spent on our trip."

An unforgettable journey

For a number of the travelers, ASP marked their first time in the homeland, and the opportunity to see Armenia's historic sites—sites they grew up admiring in books and learning about in Armenian and Sunday School—was an unforgettable experience.

Among the highlights of their itinerary was a visit to Vagharshapat for worship services in some of Armenia's earliest and most celebrated churches.  At St. Hripsime Church the group experienced one of the most beautiful examples of Armenian architecture before proceeding to the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin—the spiritual center of the Armenian people.

"It was a monumental feeling to experience the power of the Holy Spirit in Etchmiadzin after hearing about it for so many years," said Alexis Shahnasarian. They participated in the Divine Liturgy there, and later visited the nearby St. Gayane Church. 

The young people also met with His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians. His Holiness blessed them and encouraged them to "keep Armenia in their hearts." He reminded them of the importance of preserving their Armenian heritage abroad, and of maintaining their ties to the homeland when they return to their home parishes.

Other stops included the monasteries of Khor Virab, Geghard, Noravank, Saghmosavank, and Datev, where the travelers rode the world's longest aerial tramway across the Vorotan River Gorge to the ninth-century monastic complex. Their travels were enriched by Bible study and discussion sessions at the various sites.

"It had always been my dream to travel to Armenia," said Andrew Tesini. "Being in Armenia gave me a better understanding of the Armenian culture, and made me have a stronger connection to my Armenian roots."

They visited the Sardarabad memorial dedicated to Armenia's 1918 victory over the Ottoman army. In Oshakan, they saw the St. Mesrob Mashdots Church, where the creator of the Armenian alphabet was buried in the fifth century. On Lake Sevan, they climbed up a rocky path leading to the ninth-century St. Arakelots and St. Asdvadzadzin churches, and in Garni they saw a colorful performance by a local dance group against the backdrop of Armenia's only surviving pagan temple.

"I have great impressions from this introduction to the homeland," said Gina Falzone. "All of the churches, historical sites, and mountainous views were breathtaking, and all of the people were so warm and welcoming." 

In Yerevan, the group visited the Tzitzernagaberd Genocide Memorial, Erebuni Fortress, National Parliament, Victory Park, Cascade, Matenadaran Manuscript Library, and the outdoor Vernissage market.

At the conclusion of their trip, the ASP participants visited the Fund for Armenian Relief's Children's Center in Yerevan, where they learned about the center's child protection programs. The children prepared a play for the visitors, and everyone enjoyed a day of playing games, singing, and dancing. 

"As a great-granddaughter of an Armenian Genocide survivor, I was always proud to be Armenian. I shared my family's stories and felt connected to my heritage," said Julia Janigian. "But being in my homeland was an unforgettable experience. I especially loved passing people on the streets and seeing their friendly eyes and smiles." 

Participants also noted how engaging it was to discover Armenia with other people their age from across the Eastern Diocese. "I could not have picked a better group to experience the Armenia Service Program with," said Alexis Shahnasarian. "Over the 20-day pilgrimage, we went from strangers to family."

Alexandra Hachigian remembers a warm family meal in Fr. Sargsyan's childhood home, not far from Vagharshapat. "I offered my help in the kitchen, and despite the language barrier, I felt right at home," she said. "The fellowship with Der Hratch and his family is something I will always hold in my heart."

Fr. Sargsyan said the trip was also rewarding for him as a pastor. "With every step we took together, I saw them grow in their understanding of Armenia and their Christian identity," Fr. Sargsyan said. "They truly embraced the land and the people as their home, and I was touched by their commitment to serving others. Their love and care will remain in people's hearts long after this summer."

Julia Janigian said she was struck by "all the beauty that God has created in this country." 

"It's very important to carry back home all the things that we learned about our Armenian homeland," she went on. "We have to continue to strengthen our faith and our connection to our heritage."