Birthright Armenia a strong bridge between Armenia and Diaspora: program for volunteers continues actively
YEREVAN, OCTOBER 7, ARMENPRESS. Since 2003, Birthright Armenia, also known as Depi Hayk, a volunteer internship enhancement program, has been strengthening the Armenia-Diaspora ties, providing young Diaspora-Armenians with an opportunity to visit, live, work in and discover the ancestral homeland. Engaging in different organizations both in Yerevan and provinces, these Diaspora-Armenians share their knowledge, acquire new skills, sometimes get a long-term job offer and decide to permanently stay in Armenia.
Birthright Armenia Country Director Sevan Kabakian and several volunteers gave an interview to ARMENPRESS, presenting the advantages of the program, the opportunities it provides, as well as its mission and goals.
Mr. Kabakian said they are seeking to connect Armenia in practical terms to the Armenian youth living abroad, and volunteering is one of the means to do that. “We don’t want for them to have only a touristic experience or be satisfied only with participating in a wedding, baptism or other ceremony every ten years, or visiting beautiful sites. We want them to be engaged in different areas and know the country’s both positive and negative sides”, he said.
So far, around 2400 Diaspora-Armenians aged 21-32 have participated in the volunteering program. 300 of them have settled in Armenia. Everyone who wants to participate in the program is given with that opportunity. Kabakian said they are not selecting participants based on a field or experience, they are choosing people who want to connect to Armenia, to create something in the homeland, who are full of energy and seek to make Armenia one of the key parts of their life.
“There are participants who have just graduated from a university and have no work experience, or there are others who have an experience of years and can bring a lot with them. Most of the volunteers are engaged in different organizations operating in Yerevan, and some are in provinces. Birthright Armenia has offices in Gyumri and Vanadzor. In Vanadzor, we work only for five months of the year, but there is a wish to implement the program throughout the year”, he said.
When young Diaspora-Armenians apply for the participation to the program, they have no need to think about where they will work because Birthright Armenia covers all these issues, finds jobs for the volunteers, gives them with an opportunity to live in a hosting family, holds lectures for them and organizes Armenian language teaching courses. And it’s up to the volunteers to decide in which towns in Armenia they want to work, but the executives of the foundation urge them not to be limited to Yerevan only.
As for those volunteers who are currently living in Armenia, Sevan Kabakian said that most of them loved the life rythm in Armenia, because the countries where they were born in, they didn’t manage to see their relatives and friends quite often, but here in Armenia, they have a chance to enjoy the life in all aspects. In Armenia, they sometimes get job offers from the companies where they volunteer. As a result, Birthright Armenia becomes a bridge between Armenia and the Diaspora.
33% of the volunteers are from the United States, but there are also participants from Russia, Lebanon, France, Canada, Australia, Germany, UK, Argentina, etc. Among the volunteers who decided to stay in Armenia are many French-Armenians.
“There are parents who encourage their children and do not oppose if they decide to stay in Armenia permanently, or there are parents who try to convince their children the opposite. Our volunteers have a willful character, they leave their daily life, university and workplace and come to Armenia. Not everyone can do that, so the people participating in this program are resilient”, Sevan Kabakian said.
He said that even during the Azerbaijani military aggression against Armenia, the program continued actively and the number of volunteers didn’t decline. They didn’t miss the opportunity to come to Armenia. The 2020 Artsakh War further increased the number of the program participants. Most of them realized that they must participate in the program exactly in that period. During the latest Azerbaijani aggression this September no volunteer left Armenia. Those people who had planned to come to Armenia they came. Recently we have visited Yerablur… I think that soldiers do not need thanks, but want that people continue their work, and the definition of that work is broad. We tell the volunteers that they should fulfill their important mission in Armenia”, he said, adding that the job is satisfying, but is not enough, and much still needs to be done.
Volunteer Sevan Baliktsian came to Armenia from the Netherlands. Before participating in the program, he visited the homeland four times as a tourist, but he says he has always wanted to better know his homeland. And he has started to find ways for a long-term visit and got informed about Birthright Armenia which proposed him a wonderful package. Sevan is currently working at Gagarin territorial development program which covers Gagarin, Geghamavan, Ddmashen, Tsaghkunk and other settlements of Sevan community in Gegharkunik province. The goal is to develop a new model for community management and develop agriculture.
He is in Armenia for just a month and confesses that he constantly learns something new by living in a host family and realizes how every Armenian is proud of Armenia.
“People are very emotional because of the Azerbaijani aggression, but they want to be happy. Armenia is a beautiful country with a wonderful nature and interesting history and is always in the fight for existence. In the past I visited Khor Virab, Noravank, Sevan and Dilijan, but now I have an opportunity to get acquainted with other destinations as well. I loved Gyumri very much. I want to know more about Armenia and travel, get acquainted with the historical-cultural monuments, the traditions of various regions, song and dance”, he said.
Program graduate Nanor Balabanian arrived in Armenia from the United States. She says she visited Armenia every summer and has even founded the Hidden Road NGO. Later she decided to do volunteering job and applied to the Birthright Armenia program. “I love Armenia very much and I am very satisfied that I got this experience”, she said, adding that she has permanently settled in the homeland.
Nanor Balabanian was in Armenia also during the 2020 Artsakh War. “At that time I understood why I came here, I understood that I need to fulfill my mission in education sector. I was opening schools in shelters. It was difficult to see so many displaced children, but I had to stay”, she said. Nanor is currently finding scholarships through her NGO for children living in border villages, they finance the organization of trainings in villages and hold camps. “Our goal is to provide children living in villages with an opportunity to acquire new educational skills and to find funds for their further studies in universities”, she said.
Nanor says she loves Armenia and the locals. She says sometimes she was feeling lonely in US, but states that in Armenia, even in difficult times, people stand by one another.
Birthright Armenia was founded in 2003 by Edele Hovnanian with the belief that it is every Armenian's birthright to not only see Armenia, but also experience their homeland via an enriching, hands-on, life-changing experience. The program participants commit to at least 30 hours of volunteering per week, they’re given the opportunity to live with a local host family, improve their Armenian language skills, meet and interact with other participants from around the world, travel on an excursion every weekend and gain knowledge and education about the country and culture through forums and gatherings.
Interiew by Anzhela Hambardzumyan