FAR program offers volunteer and travel opportunities in Armenia
Published: Thursday August 02, 2012
New York - Thin, gray tendrils of smoke twist up towards the towering dome of the cathedral, floating over the heads of the group of young Armenians who have gathered to pray there. The murmur of voices drifting from behind them comes from tourists who have traveled from all over the world to see the ancient Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin.
The young Armenians praying in Holy Etchmiadzin had come to Armenia with the ACYOA's Armenia Service Program. This year the ACYOA sent 20 young people from the Eastern Diocese to Armenia from June 29 to July 19. Not only did the group attend the Divine Liturgy at Holy Etchmiadzin that first Sunday of their trip, July 1, but some of the members had the privilege of serving on the altar.
The trip, led by the Rev. Fr. Hakob Gevorgyan, pastor of Holy Trinity Church of Cheltenham, Pa., provided an opportunity for young adults from parishes across the Diocese to travel to the homeland together. They visited Armenia's greatest religious and cultural sites, learned more about the history, and developed deeper connections to the Armenian Church. They also spent time serving the homeland through projects of the Fund for Armenian Relief.
On the Feast of the Transfiguration, July 15, the group returned to Holy Etchmiadzin and were honored to meet with His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians. His Holiness impressed upon the travelers how important their trip was by explaining the difference between learning about Armenia at home, and actually traveling to Armenia to experience it firsthand.
The Catholicos' lesson would resonate with the participants throughout their trip. For many of them, this was their first time traveling to Armenia. While they had learned about the culture and history from their respective communities in the United States, seeing it in person created a stronger connection to the homeland.
"You read about Armenia and you learn about it in church and Sunday School and camp, but actually going there changes you. There is a connection which grows stronger when you visit," said Melissa Mardoian of Palos Heights, Ill.
Serving with FAR
Alongside developing a spiritual relationship with the country, the participants helped serve its people by working in conjunction with the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR). For the ASP group, working with FAR was one of the most rewarding aspects of the trip.
"It just felt natural," said Greg Boyajian of Palos Heights, Ill., who explained that being able to give back to Armenia made them feel closer to their culture and heritage.
For the service portion of the trip, the group spent a week in Gyumri. Upon arrival, they met the Primate of the Shirak Diocese, Bishop Mikayel Ajapahian, who said how pleased he was to have the group come to Armenia. They later met with FAR's Gyumri office director, Marina Bazayeva, who introduced them to the programs where the ASP participants would be volunteering: the Octet Music School and the FAR soup kitchen.
The soup kitchen brought the group face-to-face with the elder generations that benefit from FAR's efforts. They were able to see how much this work meant for the elderly, and how happy the latter were to have the young people among them.
"They loved the fact that young Armenians from America came to help out their country," said Kareen Kaltakdjian of Baton Rouge, La. She remembered fondly the words of encouragement she received from the elders: "They told me never to forget where I came from and not to let the Armenian language fall apart."
In addition to preparing food, ASP participants took it upon themselves to strip the wallpaper from one of the rooms in the soup kitchen and repaint the walls.
The Octet Music School is in the process of being renovated and the ASP group was there to start the work. The children put on a concert for the group as a final performance before the renovations began.
"After having seen the condition of their buildings, many of us were caught off-guard when the students performed for us. They were incredibly talented," said trip co-leader Jaqueline Baydar of White Plains, N.Y. After the performance, the group began to dismantle the building in preparation for the reconstruction.
"All the members of the ACYOA group worked with enthusiasm and vigor to produce the best possible results," said Ms. Bazaeva. "They showed a real dedication to their work and a desire to serve their homeland and make tangible changes."
Back in Yerevan, the group visited the FAR Children's Center, which provides shelter and counseling to children who have been orphaned or abused until a safe home can be found for them. After speaking with the center's director, Dr. Mira Antonyan, the ASP group was able to meet the children and play with them.
When they weren't serving Armenia through FAR, the group traveled across the homeland. They took in the breathtaking scenery, including a leisurely day on the banks of Lake Sevan, and visited historic sites along the way.
They saw how landscape and architecture can become one in the form of the 13th-century monastery Geghard, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is carved out of the side of the mountain. In nearby Garni, the group visited a pagan temple dating back to the 1st century. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Haghbat monastery in the Lori region, was a striking example of Armenia's magnificent architecture.
The group walked beneath the towering red cliffs surrounding Noravank, a monastery from the 13th century. They also visited the churches of St. Hripsime and St. Gayane near Holy Etchmiadzin.
But perhaps the most memorable stop was at the Khor Virab monastery. Here the group descended into the pit in which St. Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned for 13 years. They prayed and considered the incredible strength and faith of Armenia's patron saint. After the visit to Khor Virab, the group was invited by Fr. Gevorgyan's family to their home in Ararat, where they were treated to a meal in the traditional warm atmosphere of Armenian hospitality.