I’m Coming Home: International Volunteering with Birthright Armenia

I recently spoke to two former Birthright Armenia volunteers about giving back to their country of heritage. Tamar Pounardjian and Manuk Avedikyan are young Armenian-Americans who are passionate about making a difference in Armenia. They believe youth living in the diaspora should reconnect with their ancestral homeland and contribute to development efforts by sharing the skills and knowledge they acquired during their US education. To listen to a podcast of my interview with Pounardjian, click here.

Birthright Armenia aims to renew a sense of Armenian identity among diaspora youth, contribute to the country’s development, and help strengthen Armenian diaspora organizations.  The program places young diaspora members in community service positions in Armenia for terms lasting between two and twelve months.

Pounardjian and Avedikyan believe that many diaspora members would be excited to spend time volunteering in Armenia but are simply not aware of the opportunities that are available.

Like many program participants, Pounardjian and Avedikyan first learned of Birthright Armenia through word of mouth. Pounardjian, a pre-med student, was searching for a way to spend a summer in Armenia volunteering in the medical field when a friend told her that Birthright would pay for her flight and support her stay with a host family for two months. Pounardjian said,

“It almost seemed like it was too good to be true…As soon as I found out about [Birthright] I started the application process. I applied to Armenian Volunteer Corps and once I got accepted to that I applied to Birthright, got accepted to that, then bought my plane ticket and was ready to go.”

Thanks to Birthright Armenia, Pounardjian became the first of her family to visit the country, as her parents grew up in Lebanon and Syria and raised their children in Cleveland, Ohio. Although Pounardjian and Avedikyan attended Armenian school growing up in the United States and speak fluent Armenian, each day they spent on Birthright provided a learning experience and opened their eyes to a new vision of their country of origin. Both students lived with host families during their time abroad and felt this helped them integrate into the culture more deeply. Avedikyan explained:

“I got along with everyone in the house very well. They took me as their son and I would talk to them for hours and hours…I learned a lot from my conversations with [my host family] every day. I learned more about the country, I learned more about the people in Armenia, and I felt like just on my own I would be far more ignorant. Even though I had a pretty decent knowledge beforehand I felt like I learned so much more by living with people who had lived [in Armenia] their entire lives.”

Avedikyan volunteered at the Armenian Genocide Museum and the National Art Gallery. Before participating in Birthright, he had also volunteered in the country with the Christian Youth Mission to Armenia. Avedikyan plans to settle in Armenia one day to raise a family and continue to contribute to Armenian society.

One of Pounardjian’s volunteer positions included teaching English to journalists. Co-workers filled her in about current events and politics in Armenia, fueling her fascination with the way the government operates.  She said, “I was learning something new about my heritage every single day.”

After visiting Armenia, Pounardjian has a better sense of how she can contribute to her country of heritage and has a strong desire to remain engaged.  “I just started to get a feel of what Armenia is like and I feel there is so much more I want to explore and I want to discover,”  Pounardjian told me. “Going back to Armenia is definitely something that I want to do.”

Avedikyan emphasized that it is very important for people to stay connected to their countries of origin. He believes America is a “melting pot where people tend to melt away from their identity” and it is essential to preserve one’s heritage. In terms of giving back, he said,

“I [and many of my friends in the US] have an education that you wouldn’t find in other countries like Armenia. Offering a country like Armenia the know-how in how to do business or something regarding science or IT is very important.”

Members of diaspora communities in the United States are a valuable resource for promoting development in countries around the world. Talented and motivated people like Tamar Pounardjian and Manuk Avedikyan who share a common language and cultural understanding with the locals make excellent volunteers and feel that their lives are enriched through their experience working abroad.

If you would like to learn more, please visit the Birthright Armenia website and check out the photo galleries and travelogues to connect to the experiences of program participants.

Taglit-Birthright Israel, Indicorps and Viet Fellows are other programs that promote diaspora volunteering. Do you know of others? Please tell us know; we would love to hear from you!