Bella Arutyunyan, a student at UCLA, is participating in our Yerevan Summer Intern Program now. Read on for her touching and exciting experiences with local youth during the group’s recent visit to Karabakh:
One of the best experiences this summer was getting the chance to get out of the city and take a four-day trip to Artsakh. Everyone kept telling me how beautiful the wilderness was going to be and how much I was going to love it. In all honesty, however, I didn’t necessarily think I could find any connection to a piece of land and a people I didn’t know much about. I knew about the war and the ongoing conflict and had heard lectures about the struggle. But if there is one thing I’ve learned from being in Armenia, it’s how important it is to see things with your own eyes because stories alone aren’t enough.
My favorite part of the entire trip was when we went to Gandzasar. The scenery was beautiful just like all the other monasteries we visited. But that’s not what made it special. While sitting on the ledge and enjoying the view we spotted a group of about 8 kids. We asked them what they were doing there and they told us they were participating in a “jambar” [camp].This was my first time hearing “bar-bar,” the dialect spoken by locals and although I had been warned about it, I was still taken back at my complete lack of understanding. They were able to also speak in Eastern Armenian and after a few more minutes of speaking to them, a crowd began to form. They were excited to hear that some of us were from Los Angeles, and kept asking about Hollywood where the movies were made. We laughed, and told them it wasn’t that great. One of the girls was playing music on her phone and the alpha male among them, Narek, asked us if we had heard the music. We asked him to show us his dance moves and without hesitation, a circle formed and he began showing us “tectonic” dancing. This was some crazy dancing and really entertaining for us all. A couple of other boys joined in and also started break-dancing. It didn’t take much longer after this for their shyness to fade along with any walls separating our worlds. We followed them to their campsite, which was directly adjacent to the church. There were at least 50 kids there. A soccer match began with the boys and those not participating cheered their respective teams on. I went over to the opposite side where the kids were cheering. The amount of positive energy spewing out of them was incredibly contagious. Instead of only supporting their friends, they chanted “USA” and “AGBU” for our interns. I asked them to sing for me and without any reluctance they joined hands and began to sing “Yerevan Erebouni.” I swayed along with them and Narek asked me to tango with him to the song. My cheeks were burning from smiling so much at this point. A larger crowd formed and they continued singing songs. One boy in particular, David, brought chills down our spine with his amazing voice. He stood there proud, with a sense of maturity and understanding way beyond his 10-year old frame. He sang “Shushi Yerkuh” [Shushi’s Song] solo with the rest of the kids holding hands and swaying along. Our group was in awe with their cameras in hand trying to capture the magic of the moment.
I asked if I could see where they were staying and they excitedly grabbed hold of my hands and made me run with them for the tour. They showed me their dorm style rooms and then took me to the kitchen. In true Armenian nature, I was offered fresh nazook and chocolate milk. We then went upstairs to their activities room. A few games of checkers began and the rest of the kids started showing us their dance moves again in the “discotech.” Within five minutes a dance party broke out. It was 4 p.m. and 90 degrees but that didn’t stop anyone. I definitely hadn’t seen anything like this before. Nor had I been around kids with so much life, or as I like to say, “jigar.” They were also really interested in our Ray-Ban sunglasses. They kept asking if they could wear them for pictures. They posed with their arms crossed and tilted the camera to a 45-degree angle when taking the picture, typical of any 13 year old. One of the interns also realized how excited they were by the glasses and gladly presented hers to Narek, the boy who won everyone’s heart with his charisma.
I wish I could explain how happy I was during the two hours we spent there. We weren’t doing what was on our planned schedule but no one minded. We told our coordinator we wanted to stay there with the kids. It was apparent how much everyone was enjoying themselves. Sitting back and listening to them sing and watching the boys play soccer against the backdrop of the amazing scenery with the church bells ringing is an image I never want to leave my mind. It was silly but my eyes couldn’t help but water up. In that moment, I remembered why I had wanted to come to Armenia so badly and how much I had to learn from these kids and the people here. It made me realize the importance of connections like these and the joy to be shared. These kids were not kin, but could very well be our little brothers and sisters. Artsakh finally became a real place to me. The stories and the lives that were affected by the continuous struggle came to life. The importance in coming here was not just to see the beauty of the land but also to get to know the people. It may have been a short experience but it was definitely a defining one that I’m so thankful for one that allowed me to a form a connection with the land and the people of Artsakh.