The blogs will tell you about all of the amazing experiences HRI participants have had over the years!
Contributor: Aureen Aghajanian
Beginning the second week of camp, I am saddened at the realization that our time in Shvanidzor is almost over. Most people might question why considering we sleep on classroom floors, take cold showers, use holes as our restrooms, and choose to disconnect from the digital world.
However, that’s exactly why. Living a fast paced life in Los Angeles with a To-do list that never seems to finish can get quite overwhelming sometimes. We are so focused on accomplishing our tasks that we forget about human interaction. We forget about all the little things. In addition to this cycle, we use our phones / computers to wind down from this hectic schedule. And so that all changed.
From the first day, I took a 180 degree turn. Never touched my phone, forgot about social media, and began to feel alive and more connected with my day. The children of Shvanidzor expressed just how easy it is to be happy with so little.
Some might think, we change the lives of these villagers, however I think it's completely the opposite. The first lesson I learned was that happiness comes from within. It comes from giving to others. It comes from being selfless to some degree.
And so as I sit here and write this blog, I remembered how I felt right before leaving to Armenia. All the toys and gadgets I wanted that would make my life feel more significant, are now gone. I have no desire to allow a material item to make me excited anymore. These kids showed me that it's possible to be truly happy without even common amenities such as a hot shower or working toilet. It’s not the situation you’re in that matters, it’s your attitude about the situation that truly matters. With that being said, the next time I allow something little to throw off my mood or make me feel anything less than amazing, I will remember the 50+ smiles on these students faces.
Contributor: Naeiri Hakopian
If I could sum up this summer camp in one word it would be unprepared. Weeks before arriving in Shvanidzor, I met with Siranoush, with whom I would be teaching the English and Crafts class. We prepared detailed lesson plans for each age group, outlining all our goals and what we wanted to achieve with each class. We knew most of the villagers had very little English speaking skills, if any, and were prepared to teach them the basics of the language. For example, for the older kids, we planned to teach them sentence structure and how to introduce themselves, so by the end of the camp, they could write a short introductory paragraph about themselves. Two days into the camp, it was clear our lessons were not going to go as planned. Their English knowledge was less than we had anticipated, our planned activities were a bore, and we were having much more fun getting to know all our students, then we were when teaching them. For the younger kids, activities we thought would be uninteresting for them turned out to be the highlights of every class. We were singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” fifteen times a day; each day the young kids would come back more excited than the day before to show us which parts of the song they remembered. They would show their other teachers what they had learned in class that day. We were slowly making progress with the younger students, but with the older students we were still struggling to help them understand English phrases and sentence structure. With our class times running too short, we offered all our students the option of joining us in the afternoon (after classes were over, and when they were supposed to be chilling at home) to come to school if they wanted to continue studying. With me, they would be practicing English again, and with Siranoush, they would have an introduction to the Chinese language, something they all knew Siranoush is studying in University and were all interested in learning. The first afternoon progressed as class usually would, I asked each student what they wanted to pursue in their future, and helped them put together short descriptions of their aspirations. However, they were still struggling with putting together basic sentences. During Siranoush’s class, the student’s learned a little about the history of the Chinese language and how the different symbols in their language are punctuated to form a specific sound. Siranoush’s vibrant personality, coupled with her love for the Chinese language, made the students much more responsive and receptive during class. I realized I had to take a different approach, and decided I would teach Music fundamentals in the afternoon, but completely in English. The students would learn the basics of music theory while being exposed to English. Through song and note dictation, the older students were able to catch on to English much easier. I would ask questions in English, and a student would be able to translate it, come up to the board, and complete simple exercises, and also learn to interact with me in English when they needed help. A few already had a background in music, and almost all of them knew how to sing the notes, and this made them more motivated to join in during class and share their knowledge. In the middle of one of the lessons, one student said in Armenian, “You know, learning is a good thing.” A short and sweet comment, but it was everything. I was glad to have provided a lesson plan which captured their interest and held their attention for even a short time. So yes, I was very unprepared for the way camp would progress, and for how the students would react to our lessons, but I was also unprepared for how eager these students are to learn and how quickly they respond to something which interests them, and of course, for how much more they taught me then I taught them.
Contributor: Clarissa Guzman
Barev tis. Imanunes Clarissa eh. 2 weeks have gone by and I'm amazed at the relationships I've built with the people of Shvanidzor through hand gestures and minimal Armenian. I'm grateful for this experience because although it was frustrating almost being mute, I learned a lot about the Armenian culture. I've learned about selflessness and about the appreciation for the little things in life. Being around the village kids made me sincerely happy. The way they always offered themselves to help out. From the moment we stepped outside the car our first day, they were there to take our luggages into the school without us having to ask for help, to the days we needed fresh water, they were there to fill up the water gallons. As I continue my life back in the US I would like to incorporate more of that selflessness I experienced in Shivanidzor. In hopes of living a healthier and meaningful life I also plan on living with gratefulness everyday.It's so easy to become negative and forget about the happiness that the simplest things in life bring you. I learned that you should always remember your blessings because they will carry you a long way and keep you grounded. Not a single village kid complained about their life, which just made me realize that in America we always want want want and forget to thank life for what we have and give back. The culture in Shivanidzor, Armenia changed me and gave me courage as I start a new chapter in life, college. I came to Armenia lost and unsure about my purpose but I left with new goals of coming back to Armenia and making a difference in my home country, Mexico. Shivanidzor will forever stay in my heart, as it taught me many new things.
Contributor: Colleen Gabrimassihi
I’ve had many days where I’ve wished I could run away - not from the people or my life or the issues I face - but from the routine that we all create from ourselves. I’ve always craved and been curious of how the opposite of my day to day life would make me feel, living in a small town; the neighbors your family, the cashier your cousin, the person driving by your uncle.
I truly believe that you can change your life’s, routine, and how you feel in a moments notice - if that is where your heart truly lives. But I know that is a paralyzing idea to any sane person, to leave everything and everyone behind to go on your own true journey.
Living in Los Angeles my whole life this suffocating curiosity led me to find my love of travel; to even for a moment, experience life through a foreign perspective. Following my heart, I knew I wanted to return to my homeland and take out the weeds and plant new roots of my beliefs, perspective, and priorities.
From the moment I stepped out of the bus as we arrived in Shivanidzor, I knew every belief I had was going to change, grow, and strengthen. As volunteers we are here to help the village and teach the children, but every moment we spend we learn more from the way they greet each other and care for neighbors as if they are siblings (which they actually call their brothers and sisters) than anything a class could ever teach.
The disruption in my routine, and the new perspective this experience gave me reaffirmed my confidence that I should always follow the little voice in my head that tells me to chase my curiosity and the unknown.
Contributor: Arsine Kolanjian
To wake and sleep in the arms of nature has been one of the many gifts Shvanidzor has to offer. The morning sun shimmers through the pomegranate trees
followed by nature’s own alarm clock system. Each day begins this way coupled by delicious Armenian breakfast. The sweet giggles and laughter of children can be heard in the distance, immediately bringing about a smile on each of our faces. We begin camp with some uplifting music before entering the classrooms. In the photography and journalism class, we were able to teach the students how to take pictures, although they all seemed naturally talented in the field. The images they captured, innocently, appeared so beautiful and expressed so much. It was another method of communication, it seemed, as they did so with such pleasure and pure interest and curiosity. The evening was in near sight but the children’s energy remained full to the brim. We all enjoyed a game of volleyball, Gordz-na-Gordz, soccer, Twister, and many more. At one corner, the girls were engaging in a fun arts and crafts activity and in the next everyone was dancing and singing to various kinds of music ranging from Armenian to American to Latin. It was one of the highlights and continues to be with each passing day. Wednesday’s special cultural activity consisted of milking a cow! For many of us, milking cows was a mystery and we all wanted to give it a try. The combination of excitement, fear, and anticipation made the experience amazing and truly refreshing, as it was nowhere near what the average person would experience in L.A. The day ended with a sky full of stars, a luminous moon, and memories we will forever keep close to our hearts. Հաջողութիւն մինչ նորհանդիպում :)
My last day in Halidzor began with a morning ritual of yoga and mediation with the other HRI
members. In an attempt to relax my body, I diligently sat on the outside ground, closed my eyes,
and generously breathed in the fresh Armenian air. I envisioned myself as a tall tree driving its
roots into the Armenian soil, the same soil our Armenians ancestors used to build a bell tower to
warn other Armenians of invaders during the Armenian genocide. Feeling the overwhelming
emotion of sadness, I began to reflect upon my family ancestors, recalling my great-great
grandmother Diana Apcar and her heroism saving millions of Armenian refugees during the
Although very little is written about her in Soviet era history books, my great-great grandmother
wrote a new history for many Armenian refugees looking for a home elsewhere. Many of the
Armenian refugees fleeing East of Armenia landed in Japan, where Diana Apcar helped over six
hundred families find hope for a new tomorrow in the United States. Her relentless strive toward
justice started with various books, poems, and letters of the untold stories of the Armenian
immigrants fleeing their homeland. She even build a shelter in Japan for many Armenian
escapees, continuously advocating for their right to be seen and recognized as refugees of the
Her efforts to save the Armenian people were so extraordinary that she was appointed the
honorary consul of of the fist republic to Armenia to Japan, becoming the first female diplomat in
a time where women had very limited rights. Her humanitarian work eventually granted her an
Aurora Prize for her dedication to awakening humanity to the atrocities of the Armenian
My great-great grandmother set an example for all activists still fighting for the rights of the
Armenians and their neglected history. Not only does her story of heroism inspire me to dig
deeper into my Armenian roots, but also encourages me embrace my own humanitarian
activism in Shvanidzor, advocating the rights of Armenian students access to a more fulfilling life
through higher education. My trip to Shvanidzor is the first of many future trips to Armenia,
giving a voice to the unheard citizens of Armenia just like my great-great grandmother did. Her
investment in the Armenian community is ingrained in my heart, carrying her spirit as a guide to
empower the untold stories of Armenia.
Contributors: Rosa Hambardzumyan, Julieta Arakelyan, Herminei Hovhannisyan
Ամառվա ամենասպասված օրերն են՝ Թաքնված ճանապարհ նախաձեռնության անդամները նորից Շվանիձոր գյուղում են: Այս կազմակերպությունը հասցրել է մեր կյանքի մի փոքրիկ բաժինը դառնալ:Հայրենիք վերադարձած և Հայաստանի ամենահարավային դարպասում գտնվելը անշուշտ տարբեր զգացողություններ է արթնացրել ամենքի հոգում։Յուրաքանչյուր օրը յուրովի հետաքրքիր է և լի էմոցիաներով: Առաջին հայացքից սովորական թվացող գյուղը իրականում ունի շատ հարուստ պատմություն:Շրջելով գյուղում համոզվեցինք դրանում,քանի որ ամեն քայլափոխին մեր առջև բազմադարյա պատմության մի ապացույց էր երևում:
Շվանիձորում իրականացված էքսկուրսիան հնարավորություն տվեց տեսնել 17-րդ դարի ջրանցույցը, որը շարված է սրբատաշ բազալտե քարերից՝ կրաշաղախով և համարվում է միջնադարյան Հայաստանի այդ տիպի կառույցներից ամենակարևորը:
Էքսկուրսիայի ընթացքում ծանոթացանք յուրաքանչյուր շվանիձորեցու հպարտություն հանդիսացող Բերդի քարի պատմությանը, տեսանք հին դպրոցի ավերակները, ինչ որ չափով պատկերացում կազմվեց գյուղի ու բնակիչների առօրյայի մասին, ինչպես նաև ամեն քայլափոխին արժանացանք ջերմ վերաբերմունքի:
Շվանիձորի դրական հատկանիշները վառ արտացոլվում էին էքսկուրսիայի ընթացքում։Մարդիկ ջերմորեն մոտենում էին,ողջունում և նրանց ընդունում որպես հարազատ մարդիկ: Կարծում ենք էքսկուրսիան բավականին հաջողված անցավ և մեր թիմին կարողացանք փոխանցել այն սերն ու ջեմությունը ինչը ունի գյուղը։Շվանիձորը պատմական վայր է և անվերջ կարելի է խոսել նրա մասին։
Մեզ համար մեծ հաճույք էր ներկայացնել մեր իսկ գյուղի պատմությունը և հույս ունենք,որ դեռ առիթներ շատ կլինեն նորից գտնվելու միևնույն վայրում ,միևնույն մարդկանց հետ,քանի որ աշխատել նման մարդկանց հետ հրաշալի զգացողություն է։Վստահ ենք՝ նրանք հավանեցին գյուղը,իսկ Շվանիձորը միշտ կսպասի ձեզ լայն սրտով և հավատով։
Contributor: Lillian Avedian
Return to Shvanidzor
Time is the most formidable con artist. It guarantees all and immediately whisks it away as you begin to appreciate its value. Time is the sea, and I am the sand on the ocean floor, grasping desperately to the present even as it is washed away.
The two weeks I spent in Shvanidzor in the summer of 2017 are frozen in time. Every moment in Shvanidzor feels immense, as I am wholly immersed in the present, free from the distractions of social media and American news. The mountains in the distance, the cool water from the stream, the braying of the cows, the laughter of the children--all of these things overwhelm your senses in the moment, and the past and the future do not matter. However, the cruel irony of time proved its power as those two weeks passed all too quickly. It was not until I was gone that I could begin to understand how living in Shvanidzor would fundamentally alter my understandings of human kindness and happiness.
And so from the moment that I left Shvanidzor I looked for ways to return, to relive those moments that anchor you into the present yet fled from me so rapidly. When I travelled to Armenia this summer for my internship in Yerevan, a piece of me knew that my heart would lead me to this village, tucked away in the imposing mountains of Syunik, in the farthest corner of Armenia.
Since returning to Shvanidzor, every space has felt incredibly evocative. The dining table, the restroom, the classrooms--each one instantly triggers memories of a happy time spent here. Moments that I felt could only exist as sensations have crystallized into recollections tucked away in my mind.
It is impossible to recreate the past. I recognized this from the second I stepped off of the bus and we were greeted with music, balloons, and bread and salt from children dressed in Armenian garments. This unexpected and entirely new reception instigated a process of realizing that those dearly held moments belong to history. Yet my joy and anticipation upon getting to know our new volunteer group, catching up with the village kids whom I have not seen in a year, and re-acquainting myself with my surroundings prove that this inevitable cycle of change is a positive one. It leaves room to create new memories, new moments, new relationships. I cannot wait to see what these next two weeks hold, and I already dread the moment that I will have to leave and endure the devastation of the passage of time once more. So for now, I relish the gift of this present wonderful moment. I am here, I am here, I am here.
After two years of planning and fundraising, and a month of intense physical labor, approximately three months ago, we, members of the Hidden Road Initiative, opened the doors of the kindergarten Stork (Aragil) in the village of Jrashen.
To say that the month we spent in Jrashen was a learning experience, would be a massive understatement. As it turned out the experience of the previous kindergarten renovation project was of little help in predicting what the current one entailed; thus, I, along with a group of volunteers walked into a complete unmarked territory with an array of tools and building materials—purchased based on the advice of various experienced and inexperienced individuals—and immersed ourselves in a project of renovation and life in a village that was utterly unfamiliar to us all.
The first several days in Jrashen were almost dream like. Enamored with the hospitality of the village, our almost fairy tale village home, the abundance of apricot trees and stork nests, the majestic view of Mt. Ararat, one another, and of course our vision for the project, we spent hours and hours hard at work, hoping that we were being productive.
We emptied rooms, scraped and sanded old paint, demolished an old wall, swept and swept and swept kilos of dust and debris, and somehow managed to get the space down to its bare bones, from where it could be transformed into a kindergarten.
The project we had undertaken was much more difficult than any of us imagined and filled with more hurdles than we thought possible, but it were these difficulties which created the opportunity for abundant creativity and ingenuity. Two ladders and an old window sill transformed into scaffolding, the side of an old door-frame aided in demolishing a wall, a short meat-ax and a hammer somehow managed to pull off 50 meters of railing/skirting, and of course, an old wire from a curtain rod along with a piece of wood became the lever which helped us transport 30-50 kg sacks of gypsum plaster and cement.
After about a week of work, seeing the two classrooms and the hallway in a state of near destruction was a source of worry and anxiety, at least for me. There was the realization and the knowledge that this was, in fact, progress; nevertheless, my immediate emotional reaction to the visual stimulation of the state of those rooms was something slightly short of panic.
However, after receiving the professional aid we had asked for, two builders from the village joined our team, and soon, with their help, we learned what the old walls needed along with the Russian terms for the material and the techniques. Quickly we learned to prime using two different kinds of primer accounting for the two types of old paint on the wall; the most troublesome of which was the concrete primer which, once dry, would give much needed texture to the old semi-gloss paint, unfortunately the walls weren’t the only surface this material would settle on. We also purchased and used metal corner installments to help us evenly plaster the old walls, and learned that the walls needed three layers of gypsum based plaster and putty to get them ready for paint.
We visited more hardware stores than cafes, we learned the type of sandpaper one needs for leveling old parquet floors, we learned that there is a type of gravel that even tractors can’t dig through and you need a jackhammer to make your plumbing possible, and of course we learned that having a drink with construction workers during lunch is actually a pretty fun experience and occasionally necessary.
We discovered that it’s actually quite easy to negotiate down the price of floor-boards if you’re purchasing them for large enough surface area, unfortunately however, it’s almost impossible to negotiate the price of baseboards, as these are sold per unit.
But this experience wasn’t all paint and plaster; living together we learned each other’s preferences, hobbies, and quirks. We got to share our cooking skills and occasionally even learn new things, like making tolma (sarma). We discovered that even after an entire week of scraping old walls and an awake night out under the stars, it’s possible to run 5km the next morning and actually enjoy it. It became apparent that with two former scouts on the team there would always be at least three songbooks around, and this meant that most interactions would be musical in nature and of course most songs would be patriotic. We learned that apricots are incredible in every form and appropriate with every meal, and finally, when the weather is above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, it became apparent that ice cream is an expectation.
And of course we knew, but we felt, how a group of friends who’re passionate about their work can turn just about any circumstance and unimaginable condition into the most memorable experience.
Thanks to the contributions of all of our incredible donors, our partnership with Alpha Gamma Alpha, and the hard work of all HRI members, the village of Jrashen has a brand new kindergarten.
Lillian, Michael, Gagik, Rita, Victor, Shant, Andrey, Jasmin, Karine, and Hrach thank you!
Today is a great day. After some 9 and half hours of work, I came home to a Facebook post, that lifted my spirit and reminded me of why I do the work I do.
In 2014 when my sister, Hasmik and our team designed and implemented the Hidden Road Initiative’s first development project—the construction of a much need kindergarten in the village of Tsaghkaber, located in the Lori Province of Armenia—we received a lot of no’s. The idea of 4 young woman going to Armenia in order to renovate and launch a kindergarten in an empty building, in some forgotten village seemed preposterous to most people. Nearly everyone we came across said the same thing over and over and over again, “Why are you wasting your time? The moment you leave they (referring to village leadership) will take everything and no one will operate that kindergarten anyway.” This pestilent idea dominated every conversation. Locals and diasporans alike were so concerned with corruption, that they negated to consider the very tangible benefits a brand new kindergarten would bring to the village.
Nearly two years after the successful implementation of the kindergarten in Tsaghkaber, I had a rather informal conversation with the than candidate for village Mayor, Hovik Hovhannisyan as he drove me from Tsaghkaber to a bus station in Vanadzor. The two of us discussed his move back to the village, what he plans to do when he is elected mayor, and the need to expand the village kindergarten, as the demand from young families had grown over the years.
Today, Facebook reminded me of that very conversation. Mayor Hovhannisyan posted photos of the newly furnished rooms in the kindergarten, just as we had discussed. The village, not only maintained and operated the kindergarten we worked so hard to bring to life, but worked on it, and expanded the kindergarten to accommodate more children.
Today, his Facebook post reaffirmed what we knew all along, that what we are doing was worth the effort. That people aren’t as bad as we think they are. That you can, no matter your age, (or experience in construction) inspire and empower by your actions. That you can look at an empty, rundown building, in the middle of hidden village in Armenia and rather than seeing emptiness and neglect, see opportunity.
The Hidden Road Initiative, every project, every summer camp, every scholarship we provide is about creating opportunities.
Here are two photos of the kindergarten expansion which inspired this post, as well as some photos of us back in 2014 working on this project.
You can check out more or our projects here!