Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Picture a Day: Candle or the Mirror

I started writing this post last week but instead of finishing it chose to spend time with my friends and host family before I left Gyumri for good. I am currently in Yerevan for about 14 more hours, so I figured one more blog post before I left the ground was appropriate.

When I was preparing to come to Armenia, Sharistan, the hardworking AVC coordinator, told me that I'd be placed in one of two places, one with no other volunteers or one with many other volunteers. When I emailed her back I told her that either place would be fine, but inside I was kind of hoping that I'd be alone. Even though I'm a pretty social person in general, I was scared that I wouldn't be 'Armenian enough' for the other diasporans, or that I wouldn't relate to things in the same ways as them.

Then, a couple days after being here, in my
first real blog post I wrote, "Any doubts I had about being able to last these coming 10 weeks were significantly lessened by meeting the people I would get to interact with," in reference to the other volunteers here. Now that I am on my way out the door, I can safely say that sentiment was an understatement. The only reason I can leave the country feeling I did something worthwhile is because I had the help and support of the other volunteers I interacted with everyday.

The volunteers I've lived and worked with here for the past 10 weeks represent the best the diaspora has to offer
— the brightest and strongest people coming from all around the world, here to give up their time to help complete strangers. From the fun-loving Canadians, to the conservative from New Jersey, my long-lost brothers from Jordan and Argentina, all the pretty girls from LA, the Florida heart-breaker, each one has brought something unique and amazing to this experience and has passed on that light to the people who need it most.

Edith Wharton said, "There are two ways of spreading light-- to be the candle, or the mirror that reflects it." The people I met here, the other AVC and BR participants, have spent two months being both, and I can't thank them enough for doing so.

Thank you everyone. I'll miss you incredibly. Hadgogh.

Friday, August 6, 2010

38.576 Pictures a Day

We bring you this regularly scheduled interruption to my AVC blog posts to inform you that all my pictures from Armenia from June 3 to August 1 have been uploaded, and put into order and can all be found here. It averages out to just under 40 pictures a day for those 59 days. The next picture update most likely won't be until I come back to the States (in 6 days!) so enjoy these for now. The newly uploaded pictures start in "Hayastan2" and continue through "Hayastan3." And here's two:

Lori (this picture has not been enhanced in any way)

That claw game I love with a horrific twist

My last AVC post to follow shortly!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Picture a Day: Speak the Language

Today's picture was taken at Meghvik ('little bee') where I taught English during my two months here. I suppose there are better pictures to illustrate the issue I'm about to explain, but I haven't had a chance to upload pictures in a while and I thought this was a nice picture in any case.

Coming to Armenia to volunteer after having only studied the language for one year prior, and with a different dialect than the one that's spoken in Armenia, I fully expected my stay here to be "a 10-week game of charades" as my mother said on the way to the airport. And while my Armenian has definitely improved, I'm nowhere close to where I would like to be in terms of fluency. Every day is a struggle for us non-speakers trying to get something done with coworkers who can't get their point across, or struggling to tell your host mother that you don't want ice cream tonight when you don't even know the word she uses for ice cream (and if you did, it would take a minute or two to put a logical sentence together).

Week after week I have watched fellow diasporans build strong relationships with local friends, host family members, and coworkers, while I simply have not had the opportunity to do because of the language barrier. Sure, after 10 weeks at the Healthy Centre we developed a pretty strong bond and saying goodbye today was hard for all of us, but I can't help but to be jealous of my coworker, Shant, who on his second day was able to engage one of our younger patients in a way I never could before.

In my third work place, the YMCA in my district, I teach first aid to a group of young people who all (for the most part) speak English. In that class, I, along with Kristene, a volunteer from LA, have successfully taught CPR, how to take and assess blood pressure and pulse, treatment of burns, among other topics. Even though I spend more time at the Healthy Centre and at Meghvik, I can tell that I get more across on a day to day basis at the YMCA where they mostly understand what I am saying.

Again and again I ask myself, "should I have just waited even a year to improve my language skills? Am I getting short-changed an experience of a lifetime because I am not better prepared to communicate with all the people around me I desperately want to be able to?" The answer, I think, lies in the fact that because communication is such a struggle, it takes more of an effort on both parties part to have meaningful conversations and to form lasting relationships. For those of us who don't already know Armenian, we can pretty immediately tell who is earnestly interested in helping us or even just talking to us, and who isn't. If someone on the marshutka takes the whole ride to figure out if you have any brothers or sisters, they're probably worth the conversation, they're actually interested in you. You know what is important to talk about at work, you know that if your mother doesn't try to communicate to you more than once that she'll take care of the dinner table, that it's probably safe to keep on cleaning up.

It's still a difficult question to answer, even on my last day of work, whether it is better to wait until you have the langage skills under your belt to come or not. But then again, why wait to come to Armenia in order to learn the language, when you can come to Armenia to learn the language. And now that I've gotten basic conversation down, there's not much left to prevent me from coming back again, and again, and again.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Picture a Day: Baby Steps

For most of the day at the Healthy Centre I sit and write grants or research organizations or put together classes. After several days of compiling glum statistics about the region's health problems, I begin to wonder how much good an organization can do with only two paid employees that operates out of a renovated garage. Up against such staggering numbers and a long history of poor general health across the population, what will heat in the winter, or funding for a sexual health training (the two grants being worked on by the volunteers here) really be able to do for the people of Gyumri and the Shirak region?

And then there are moments like the one captured in this pictured. Today's picture means a lot to the people I work with at the Healthy Centre. The boy pictured is four and a half and is taking his first unassisted steps in his life. He is one of the many rehabilitation patients of the Healthy Centre, and one of the many success stories. What isn't shown in this picture is his mother, off to the side, crying to see her little boy walking on his own. After several surgeries and now in the second stage of rehabilitation, Garnik has learned how to use the muscles in his legs to walk on his own. After moments like this, I think to myself, "yesterday there were a million problems to be fixed here, today there are a million minus one." And I sit down at the computer, and I do my best to help an organization that does it's best to help the world around it.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Picture a Day: Family


My first day at Gyumri Healthy Centre, like many 'firsts' I've experienced in this country took me by surprise. After cramming five people into a taxi, we drove away from the city center and rather unexpectedly took a turn down a road that at first glance looks almost nothing like a road. In the time it took for the taxi to navigate the ditches, potholes, trenches, and puddles that lead to the Healthy Centre, my expectations of what lie at the end fell significantly.

Once in the building, they explained to me that the center was a renovated garage that had once served as temporary housing after the earthquake. With only the front office and a modest "fitness center" in the back, the center was what was to be expected at the end of such a road. But what was not expected was the immediateness with which the three ladies of the Healthy Centre accepted me as if I grew up in the neighborhood, was a member of the family.

From my second week working with them, the two younger women referred to me as their brother and the older woman would introduce me as her son. After long weekends when I walked into work, Noune, the oldest of them would exclaim, "Zach-jan! Your second mother has missed you!" But the sense of family did not end there in the Healthy Centre. From the patients' families to the neighbors, after two months here they all greet me like we've known each other our whole lives. Not a day goes by where I don't feel completely comfortable sitting down for lunch with my coworkers and discussing anything from politics and religion to what "Starbucks" is and why I keep saying that I miss it.

When I went to other sites to volunteer, I found the same thing. At the day-camp where I teach English, my boss's son invites me out after. At the YMCA where I teach first aid with another volunteer, they suggest taking sightseeing trips with us. Even after an hour at the ambulatory center they offered me a bed in the office.

And while I cant necessarily say that every volunteer's experience has been exactly the same, for the most part, when the people here see someone opening up and trying their best to help, they try to offer the same in reverse.