I come to be by your side, Armenia, at this time, with you to walk however briefly, and help rebuild, strengthen, and revive the hope
During the COVID-19 pandemic, unfortunately, yet another even more horrible fate fell on the shoulders of Armenians, as Azerbaijan and Turkey attacked Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) at the end of September 2020. Armenians around the world pulled their efforts, but unfortunately we lost the war and lost the lives of many soldiers and tens of thousands of Armenians from Artsakh were displaced, some forever, resulting in a huge humanitarian crisis.
While we tried to raise money from Finland, with my family and with our Armenian community, as well as with joint online fundraising activities, we also collected winter clothes and sent seven boxes of winter clothes for Artsakh families hosted by the Byurakan Observatory.
From early in the beginning of the war, I was trying to think how to get to Armenia, as a working mother of an infant-preemie, during the pandemic, there were many risks. I had many unanswered questions. Should I just hop on a plane and go? How to discuss this idea with my husband? Where to stay? How to afford it? Things got even worse as internal political climate in Armenia also was volatile. One thing I knew for sure, that I wanted to be in Armenia physically, to be there during the time of crisis. This was a personal value.
Fortunately, I am very grateful to my husband, as he extended to me an unconditional support for this initiative. I tried to research how to volunteer to help in Armenia with Artsakh-related issues, and found places where these types of needs were advertised. I also applied to several organizations, one of which I eventually joined – the Armenian Volunteer Corps.
We arrived on November 30th 2020 – my husband James Stone (jamesstone.com), my daughter Natali Hrarpi and myself. The first night, our cousin Kristina and her family hosted us, which was a heartfelt reunion after many years, both of us now mothers to preemies. We are very grateful for the warm welcome.
We are so thankful that we came in person, because outside of Armenia, you don’t have a good picture of what’s going on. By being in Armenia, the picture is clear and no need to worry about fake social media.
We settled in Yerevan, in our old apartment in Masiv, which was locked for several years. But our neighbors helped us vacuum and wipe some of the heavy dust, and turn on the electricity and gas. The house was old, with wind blowing through the windows and the entrance door, but we were able to get some heat in a few days, and Jamie patched some of the windows in the three main rooms which we decided to use. There is a lot of work to be done in this house, but in a few days, it was functional, albeit a bit like in camping.
Our neighbor also let me take a shower in their place, and even made a hot soup, accompanied with cheese, fresh armenian bread, and pickled vegetables. Yum! God bless her.
Several neighbors helped me in the first days a lot, to get change for taxi, to call different people to turn on a gas heater, to repair the water heater, and much more, for which I am also eternally grateful. And our dear old piano also welcomed us, as I was able once more in my life to sit down and hit its keys.
As a child, I had happy and not so happy days in this home, the old apartment on the 5th floor of a soviet building, at the edge of the city. But on this trip, my heart is only filled with warm feelings. Even the old room where my grandma lived, and where she died, only brought warm feelings.
Every day I enjoy the views from the kitchen window, to the mountain, where the Sun rises. And my baby Natali also loves watching out of the window, and exploring the house. And all three of us, are giddy with excitement to bite into the fresh matnakash of the day!
Okay, enough about my feelings about the apartment.
Fortunately, after several days of waiting and delays, we got the results for the COVID test, both negative. Then, I attended the AVC orientation, and afterwards I was able to find an opportunity for three days with the Transparent Charity NGO to help sort clothes, medical products, and food packages, and then distribute them to Artsakh families. This was a very rewarding experience, to see that people in Yerevan get together to help selflessly for this cause. I also am grateful to have been able to help find clothes to many Artsakh families personally, hearing their stories, and being inspired by their humility, kindness, and strength. Huge packages of clothes, interestingly, came from Sweden, and being a resident of a nordic country myself, I was able to guide with ease through clothes, and teach how to use some of them, as they are not typical for Armenia, e.g. snowsuits for kids, etc.
Then, after some thinking, we accepted the offer to go volunteer also with Gyumri office, which is another Armenian city. It is an older city, with very interesting history and culture, its own local parlance (Gyumru barbar) and a sense of humor. Unfortunately, some of the aspects are tragic, such as the aftermath of the 1988 earthquake still very much present today. However, the city retained its classy cultural sauciness, and it is a pleasure just to walk through the streets, and breathe its mountainous air. As Tania from AVC said also, most volunteers don’t go to Gyumri because of the cold air, but for us expats from Finland, the weather was not a problem – indeed, we welcomed the Gyumri weather, as it was not even closely as cold as in Helsinki, and in fact a few days were extremely sunny and pleasant. I really hope to have another chance to visit Gyumri with a longer stay. I also felt connected to Finland Armenians a bit more by my visit in Gyumri, because many of them lived here. In any case, I recommend to anyone to visit. And the staff at the office as well as the volunteers, all of them with Birthright, so young and joyful, make the time spent in the office fun and connections rewarding.
In Gyumri, I had the opportunity to work with KASA – Komitas Suisse center, leading a space-related activity for children from around 6 years old (or less?) to 16-17. The staff was extremely cooperative and passionate about working with kids, my French language skills also helped, and the building rooms were just great for such type of activities for kids. Some of the kids were from Artsakh, and I am honored to have been able to work with them on the “build your universe” fun project. The children were just so sweet and adorable, extremely creative, energetic, and curious. The few personal thanks that I got, seeing the spark, love, and energy in their eyes just melted my heart, and I am not sure how I did not just burst out there crying. These kids are something else and I wish all the goodness to them in life.
I also worked a little bit with SOAR Transitional center, and hope to contribute to their programs and projects more in the future.
At this point, I am in my last few days in Gyumri, and am looking forward to sneak a few trips to local museums (e.g. Isahakyan and Shiraz house-museums) and maybe a monument or two before my return to Yerevan. In Yerevan, I hope to continue volunteering with Artsakh-related issues and initiatives.
Each person has their own situation and values. It does not matter if you live in Armenia or outside, we are all part of the Armenian family. Any help helps. Of course, there are traitors, corruption, and other negative parts in life, including in Armenia, including my trip, which make it harder to resolve the problems, such as getting the help needed to rebuild, to give home and life back to families that lost it due to the war… However, we must continue trying to help. Every day during my trip I meet amazing people, and am inspired and amazed how much they care and do.
I am not doing a lot, I am only here a short time, plus I work full-time (remotely but still full-time) on a doctoral research in Astrophysics, and have a preemie infant, who requires tons of care. Nevertheless, I am grateful that I can contribute my personal time and energy. I am fortunate that my husband supported me so much and that circumstances in my life allowed me to make this trip despite risks and difficulties. But even if it is small help, it still counts. Sometimes, when our friends ache, or our loved ones are dying, we can’t heal them, but our presence brings the warmth, love, and peace just by being there, close, near. And so, I am here, my dear Armenia, close, holding your hand, at least for a few moments, as you go through this challenging time in history. And honestly, I am not sure who needs who more, Armenia me, or whether perhaps however struggling, difficult, and somber is Armenia now, still my heart yearns for it at this moment, to catch its sunshine, to breathe its air, to feel its closeness and to fill my soul with life and hope.