How Volunteering in Armenia Changed My Life


As I gazed out the window from my seat on a Boeing 767 jetliner half-awake and en route back home to Washington, DC, I couldn’t help to reflect on how much Armenia has impacted my life. I was returning from my most recent trip to my country of heritage and couldn’t help but reminisce about my experiences there and all of the friends that I had made.

In my hands I held a plastic container with homemade dried apricots that our driver, Saro, had given us as a going away present. I was very touched by his gift. While taking my fiancé and I through the countryside that week, he had noticed how much we loved Armenian fruits and  wanted us to take a little piece of Armenia back home. To me the apricots symbolized the importance of people-to-people relationships. Over the past week, we had exchanged a great wealth of knowledge about our life in America and his life in post-Soviet Armenia.

This wasn’t the first time that I had left Armenia with regret. In the summer of 2001 when I was still in high school, I helped lead the summer camp programs in the cities of Gyumri and Sisian with World Vision Armenia. Each day children from the neighborhood would patiently wait at the doorstep of our house to walk us to the camp site. During our walk, we would exchange stories about our lives. I would explain my upbringing, while they shared about their lives after the 1988 earthquake and the struggles of living in post-Soviet Armenia. At the time, I was a naive teenager and didn’t realize these exchanges could foster a better understanding between the diaspora and native Armenians. That summer I developed a strong bond with Armenia, and I was eager to return.

The next time I visited Armenia I was in college and had matured considerably. My goal was to play a positive role in the development of Armenia, and I decided to go to Armenia through the international volunteer program Birthright Armenia. However, by the end of the summer I realized that I had played a part in something bigger than my original goals. I wasn’t simply volunteering, working to better Armenia’s public health system, or sharing my professional knowledge. What truly mattered was that I forged strong friendships with the local community.

As my personal relationships with native Armenians deepened, I realized that I could serve as an informal diplomat on Armenia’s behalf, linking native Armenians with the Armenian diaspora and Americans of other heritages. By engaging these three communities, I could also be a more effective advocate for my philanthropic projects. For example, when leading fundraising events for the Society of Orphaned Armenian Relief (SOAR) in the Greater Washington, DC community, one of the first questions benefactors ask is how the organization ensures donation accountability abroad.  My understanding of Armenian’s business culture and challenges allows for funding donated by SOAR to be transparent and directly benefiting the orphaned children.

Moreover,  Birthright Armenia connected diaspora youth were with their homeland. Young professionals from all parts of the world had the chance to experience Armenia together. Naturally, we shared our perceptions of Armenia, professional goals and lives at home. As a result, we formed a bond that united us in ensuring the safe keeping of our cultural heritage.

On my most recent trip to Armenia earlier this month, I was able to rekindle some of the connections I had previously established. It had been a short personal visit made independent of any international organization. However, I knew I couldn’t go back without volunteering and connecting again with the people. I spent time helping at a few orphanages SOAR funds. While spending time at the orphanage, I learned about the children’s needs and connected with them on an individual basis. I was able to directly observe how the diaspora can effectively assist with providing humanitarian relief to orphaned Armenian children.

From my travels abroad, I have learned that relationships are integral to volunteerism. Regardless of the resources an organization has available, without truly understanding the needs of a community and connecting with the people a project cannot be successfully implemented. When the man selling apricots starts sharing his story, listen, because it may change your world.

 The author, pictured second from right, with (L to R) Tania Chichmanian, Executive Director of Armenian Volunteer Corps; Linda Yepoyan, Executive Director of Birthright Armenia; and Sevan Kabakian, Country Director of Birthright Armenia.

About the Author: Natalie Grigorian is a successful technology and business management consultant specializing in the health care sector. She recently joined Sapient where she manages a technology-based initiative. Natalie is also the co-founder of the DC Chapter of Birthright Armenia Alumni, President of the Society for Orphaned Armenian Relief, and the Fundraising Committee Chair for the Daughters of Vartan. She has also worked abroad at World Vision Armenia’s Health Department in Yerevan, Armenia, where she was responsible for co-developing the World Vision Armenia Avian and Human Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Plan. Natalie obtained her Bachelors of Science degree from Boston University.

 

The contents of this blog are the sole responsibility of the author and its ideas and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of International diaspora Engagement Alliance (IdEA), the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Migration Policy Institute, or any of their partners.