Contributer - Nanor Balabanian
As we left Shvanidzor in our 18 seater sprinter van, hopping and skipping across the rocky roads, passing through the valleys near the border of Iran and the Arax river, I took a moment to stop and think why this year was different. This was my 8th year leading HRI, but I had never had an experience as effective as the past two weeks... What did it?
It was the team.
It was Asya's angelic and calming smile that melted the hearts of many students. Her creative idea to bring the first ever Tie Die shirts to Shvanidzor transformed our camp!
It was Ano's cooking as well as mothering skills that brought a sense of home, belongingness, and comfort to all the camp leaders and gave them enough energy and love to keep going.
It was Hasmik's deep discussions and thought-provoking questions on controversial social issues that got students to think in new directions and adapt new ways of treating one another.
It was Kathryn's incessant (and at times inappropriate) jokes that brought humor in the worst and best times and made everyone feel so much better.
It was Lilit's bad*** and original ideas that allowed students in just 1 week to start typing, making powerpoints, applying for summer camps in Yerevan, creating email addresses, painting beautiful landscapes, and presenting their slides in front of 50 people.
It was Margo's loud laughter and hilarious humor that brought so much joy to the group. Her professional talent in photography captured all our wonderful memories and got us 1,000 daily likes in Facebook notifications.
It was Raffi's ability to simply be Raffi that brought tears and laughter, joy and sorrow, love and hate, calmness and turmoil, all at the same time. That, along with his hidden talent of relating to every villager he met, allowed our group to bond with the people of Shvanidzor on a deeper level.
It was Patrick's unique story-telling skills that got random groups of people to unite and bond over one, sometimes very long, interesting story.
It was Talar's incessant energy that allowed people from 3 to 50 year old to learn ONE dance and perform "Kele Kele" together in just a few days! In addition, the management of the blog wouldn't have happened without her.
It was Teni's inexplicable way of relating to students that made every student bring her flowers on a daily basis. Her love was contagious!
It was Stepan's high protective instincts and muscle power that protected the group in difficult times and brought more "chillness" to the group at all times.
It was Valeria's financial and organizational skills that allowed us to stay stable and be able to do all the fun activities we had planned. That, along with her special communication with the children, gave many the love and attention they needed but didn't normally receive.
It was Vanuhi's public speaking, cultural, and leadership skills that quickly melted the ice between the villagers and our team and helped develop a very strong and loving bond between very different cultural groups. Her focus on social justice helped bring new ideas and ways of teaching the computer class like it had never been taught before!
It was Yeraz's immensely high quality lesson plans and very creative science experiments that brought new knowledge not only to the students but to us as well. Her experiments ranged everywhere from creating volcanoes, to brushing dirty eggs with toothpaste, to comparing two lungs with or without cigarettes, to much more!
So what did it? It was the team! But no team could have done what they did had it not been for the villagers' collaboration. The sense of trust and connection we felt with the residents as well as the village leadership (mayor and principal) were inexplicably valuable to our success. As cliche as the " It takes a village to raise a child" saying is, I felt it every day. Nothing we had planned would have ever happened had it not been for the Shvanidzor residents' collaboration. What makes me most happy is that next year, Shvanidzor students will be leading HRI camp with us as well!
Connecting roads, bridging issues - I think we did it this year!
contributor: Vanuhi Vartanian -Վանուհի Վարդանյան
"So, here you are. Too foreign for home, too foreign for here. Never enough for both."
Back in America, I feel as if I don't fit in. I'm too Armenian. In Yerevan, i'm the spyrukahye. The American. It seems as though I am stuck in a perpetual state of diaspora blues.
These past two weeks have been unbelievably humbling.
We slept on the floors of classrooms and cuddled with the steroid-Injected ants, a few scorpions, our pet mouse Peto, countless flies, and finally each other when we gave up and left our roomy classrooms to cram together and sleep in the principals office (upstairs and away from our new animal friends).
We carried our pink toilet paper, wet wipes, flashlights, our Febreeze, and most importantly, our bathroom buddies and marched outside to the lovely hole in the ground that we called our toilets. Occasionally we would walk out and find our new cow friend, Betsy, waiting for us with a thoughtful gift that we tried not to accidentally step on.
We took turns washing dishes in the akhpyur (our source of running water outside of the school), and naturally began to sing traditional Armenian songs. This was also where we brushed our teeth, did laundry, washed our hands, and even helped each other shower when our manual shower contraption was occupied.
We learned to shut up and deal with the fact that it's 100 degrees and there is no air conditioning in the village, as we sweat into our crimson colored HRI polos.
We milked the village mayor's cow, and then used it as cream for our morning coffee (trying not to envision aforementioned cultural activity).
We took a dip in the village "pool," until we were greeted by a frog swimming around like he owned the place (which he probably did), and then we were made fun of by the village kids and informed that the "pool" was really the old "xozanoc" where the villagers washed their pigs and cows. That was fun to learn.
We managed to squeeze 16 people into an 8 person mini van, and didn't die!
We learned to embrace how gross and smelly we all had become. The makeup came off, the hair went up, and our naked individuality was not only welcomed but encouraged by our peers.
With that being said, I have never in my life felt more at home.
This village welcomed us with open arms.
Every day, our students brought us fresh fruits, dried fruits, home made cheese and yogurt, pastries, and countless flowers.We were invited into the villagers homes and got to taste the sweet fruit of Armenian hospitality.
We went on adventures with the village kids, who quickly become our close friends.
We had the opportunity to teach the smartest, kindest, and sweetest kids in the world who lived in Shvanidzor, and commuted every day from surrounding villages. We taught them about social issues, health and science, computers, and art. I cannot begin to describe how rewarding it is when your students email you with the Gmail account that they created in your computer class wishing you a safe trip home--when two weeks ago they refused to use anything but @mail.ru and thought that learning to type with all 10 fingers was a waste of time because they typed faster with just their index fingers.
We concluded our summer camp with performances showcasing all that our students had learned in our classes. Photographs, artwork, tie-dye shirts, theatre plays, songs, science experiments, dances, and Google Slides and Paint presentations.
When the event was over, we sat in a circle outside, watched the stars and sang traditional Armenian songs. We laughed, cried, and shared meaningful conversations. At the end of the night, the kids took home Polaroid pictures and we took home an experience of a lifetime.
Thank you Nanor, for letting me open an HRI chapter in UC Berkeley. Thank you to our incredible team for making this trip unforgettable and life changing. And thank you Shvanidzor, for make us all feel welcome and at home.
We will most definitely return <3
Contributer - Margarita Baghdasaryan
My sleepy eyes flatter to the sound of my alarm clock.
I reach around the pillow, carelessly bumping into Asya who’s sleeping next to me, and finally find my cellphone. Its 4:25 am. I’m tempted to go back to sleep but we planned a morning hike with the village teenagers and I don’t want to miss it. I stumble out of my makeshift bed, and make my way downstairs to get ready.
From our group of 15 eager hikers only five of us manage to get up. A few of the village teenagers are already waiting for us outside. I’m the last one to get out of course, once we gather we set out for our early morning hike. The sun begins to rise as we make our way through the sleepy village. One by one the village kids join us as we pass by their houses, and by 5:20 am our group reaches the mountain and we begin to climb. The mountain path is rugged and rough, and the skies are gloomy but our steps are firm and our hearts are light.
With each step we climb higher and higher and panoramic view of the village and its surrounding mountains suddenly come to view. It’s breathtaking, humbling, standing there on the rocky mountain and staring out into the distance with the morning breeze whistling through the mountains I feel calm, elated. The grandness of the mountains around me overwhelm my sense of self, I feel my own insignificants. Suddenly my moment of bliss is interpreted by a loud burst of laugher, I chuckle as I overhear the last words of Samvel’s joke, and continue to climb higher. As we reach halfway up the mountain it begins to drizzle. The morning skies weren’t lying after all. We reach about half way up and hit the road that cuts through the mountain, we decide not to climb any further and instead make our way back to the village by fallowing the road. We need to be back before 9 for our classes after all. As we walk back we begin to learn more and more about one another. Even Artyom who is usually extremely shy opens up; we learn about the village, about each other and also about ourselves. We skip in the rain, and share Lilo’s Cliffbar. Life at that moment couldn’t have been better.
We make it back to camp just in time to prep for classes, having had an amazing start to a wonderful day.
Contributor: Kathryn Dermenjyan
After an amazing weekend spent relaxing, keffing, and exploring the indescribable beauty that is Tatev, we jumped into week 2 of HRI camp with little to no time for preparation.
Despite this, the day went smoothly—almost too smoothly for a Monday. The nervousness and newness of the first week—referred to by Pato (Patrick) as ‘one giant icebreaker’—was over, and coming back to the village felt like a homecoming. The flow of the camp schedule, the names of the children, all the details of village life came naturally; it felt like we had lived in Shvanidzor and known these people for years.
We had lessons in the morning, Vartavar: Day 2 in the afternoon, and an American Independence Day celebration in the evening. We essentially spent all day with these wonderful children, and although some of my colleagues are probably doing the smart thing by not getting attached to them, I feel like all 60-some of them are my brothers and sisters.
It’s going to be very hard to leave Shvanidzor not because the bathroom amenities are so comfortable (sarcasm); not because we’ve finally gotten good at swatting flies and dodging bugs and we’re not going to have as much use for that skill anymore; not because the food here has exponentially more taste units than food in the States; not even because of the amazing pomegranate wine you can only find here. It is going to be hard to leave this village because of the love and respect that has surrounded us since we got here. Armenians are known for their hospitality, but the people of Shvanidzor are not just hospitable; they love us. They shower us with attention and care and brotherhood. They don’t begrudge us room in their homes or food on their table. They trust us with their children, they are interested in what we have to offer, and they welcome us back to our ancient motherland with open hearts.
They love us, and we love them. Our nightly reflection tonight revealed that we are all already anticipating how strange it is going to be to wake up next week and go about our ‘normal lives’.
We technically only have two more days here, but we know we can always come back to the home we’ve found in Shvanidzor.
Contributor: Asya Grigoryan
Imagine swinging in the air with a beautiful breeze sweeping your skin.
A bright blue sky and the greenness of nature encompass your surroundings. The soft cries of children and free laughter of adults are heard in the background. As you look around, you can’t help but smile to yourself and gaze in awe at the sight. This is exactly how I felt as I was crossing the bridge in Khndzoresk.
Having the opportunity to experience this with my HRI family is a memory I will forever cherish. It took us 365 long steps until we reached the man-built suspension bridge. When we crossed the 420-meter bridge together, it was liberating. I didn’t have a care in the world because, in that moment, all my problems faded into the darkness. I couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty that is called Earth. Then Kat and I started spitting and watching it land on the ground (sorry Earth). The other side of the bridge held many surprises as well. We landed safely on what is known as Old Khndzoresk. We visited cool caves that were once used as houses for approximately 15,000 villagers up until the 1950s. We continued our journey up the hill until we found an abandoned church that was built in 1665. A nice lady inside told us some more history about Khndzoresk. She said that the villagers used the materials from their man-made caves to build New Khndzoresk.
It is the bridge that separates Old and New Khndzoresk. It is (literally and figuratively) a bridge to ancient and modern Armenia. It is also a bridge that connected me with my fellow friends from HRI. Words cannot express how honored I am to be a part of this awesometacular organization. If it weren’t for HRI, I wouldn’t have the chance to visit such a phenomenal site with a group that I now consider family. We laugh. We sing. We dance. We cry. But the best part is that we do it together. We came here to lead an educational summer camp for students, but I find myself learning with our students as well.
I’ve learned about how lucky I am to be here, how happy I am to be teaching, but most of all, how blessed I am to experience the utter joy that fills my heart with a fantastic group of individuals.
Contributor : Lilit Bazikyan
They say churches are often times built on top of hills so that we are closer to God; well it’s hard to see such beautiful nature at Tatev and not believe that you are closer to God.
Today, waking up closer to one another than we’ve ever been, we headed to Tatev Monastery, arguably the most beautiful sight in Armenia. Taking the longest tramway in the world, with our eyes glued to the windows, we made our way to Tatev Monastery.
Built in the ninth century, it is the embodiment of an aging beauty. We took our time exploring the church and its surroundings; with every turn of the head we were welcomed with amazing views. Our team had a humbling experience since we were often speechless and all we could do is just look at each other, recognizing the same amazement and wonder in each other’s eyes. Our bonding further developed when Margarita, Asya, and I were put in a rocky situation. We went down a hole from the dining hall that took us underneath the monastery to a beautiful opening overlooking the cliff.
When Margo channeled her inner rock climber and went down the side of the hill, we had to trust each other completely and believe that one would not allow the other to go down the cliff. Our day of adventure continued as the group split, some going to the Devil’s Bridge, and others, including myself, going to a view point, close to our cabins. Margo, Hasmik, Raffi, and Katherine went to the waterfall at the Devil’s Bridge and had quite the experience; having to walk down a vertical hill was scary for them but totally worth it. The rest of us took a hike to a viewpoint overlooking all of Harsnadzor. The views were breathtaking. There was also a tree on which you can tie something of yours as a symbol of leaving your problems and sorrows and letting them go. Although we were sad to be away from Shvanidzor and the kids, being able to spend quality time with one another has been amazing.
We spend hours taking pictures, taking life-threatening risks, and enjoying each other’s company all the while getting closer and closer to one another.
Contributor: Patrick Babajanian
Participating in HRI 2016 has been an absolutely amazing experience so far, an opportunity and responsibility that I am incredibly grateful to have been granted and entrusted with, respectively.
This trip has been the first time I’ve spent time in an Armenian village, away from the urban rush of the big cities, allowing a quality insight into another, more traditionally rural, aspect of the country of my ancestors. One of my favorite parts of these couple weeks, apart from meeting the people of Shvanidzor and working with my fellow camp leaders, has been getting to experience the nature of the Armenian countryside and getting in touch with a part of the land that has been largely untouched by modern mechanization. That is not to say, however, that modernization is a bad thing; on the contrary, it can provide great improvements to people’s quality of life and in that regard should be encouraged.
Nevertheless, it has been nice to be able to walk through the outskirts of the village, look upon the distant mountains with the sun setting behind them, hear the wind blowing through the valleys, and absorb it all in one transcendental experience. Apart from the regularly used buildings of the village, there were a few that had been run down over the years and which added a level of sad but serenely magical beauty to the scene, one that harkened to days of the past but also inspired hope for the future and the potential of people to make things better. The same spirit of meaning has been reflected in the people of the village I have had the pleasure to have met. So many of them have expressed their powerful dedication to the wellbeing of their home and their ardent desire to ensure its future prosperity. This attitude is in my opinion one of the most significant factors in furthering not only this goal but applying it to a national level if embraced by the population at large.
Overall, I have had an incredible experience so far in Armenia, getting to experience the more explicitly natural side of the country, seeing relics from the past that simultaneously hold hope for the future, and meeting a group of people that have sincerely impressed me.
I can’t wait to see what the rest of the trip holds in store.
Contributor: Raffi Gevorgyan
I never truly understood the hardships that came with teaching until I tried my hand at it.
Thank you Mr. Bilsky, I appreciate you ever more slightly. Looking back, I wasn’t exactly the best student. Was it the borderline ADHD that came with the age? Was it because I was not intelligent? Who knows. I’ve almost always found school boring. I always had a problem with following directions. Every single paper I got back, it said in big bold letters, with a coffee stain covering it, “FOLLOW DIRECTIONS”. I can only theorize why I did that. Probably, I thought it to be more fun to try my own method to doing things. Did it work most of the time? Don’t think so. Was it necessary to my personal development? I’m no developmental psychologist, but I’d like to think so. My teachers were constantly frustrated with my defiance. Now I face a similar situation. The question I ask myself is, do I hypocritically crack down on this type of behavior in order to make my educating them easier and more conventional? Or do allow this sort of individuality and creativity thrive and grow at the cost of my temporary sanity and energy? There’s nothing I’d like more than to make beautiful people out of all of them (on the inside that is). At the same time, I’m only human. I have my own personal limits and after a certain point I become more inefficient and, I’m afraid to say, more ineffective because I might not be able to make the right choice, no matter how small it is, that could snowball into a major decision that makes a huge difference in the lives of another. So what do I do? I might be bold enough to say that every real educator faces this obstacle. Some choose the conventional route and sometimes it works; others choose to make the great personal sacrifice to go the extra way. Which side will I fall on?
Only time can tell.....