By Arsen Yelegen
A group of 16 young people from parishes across the Eastern Diocese traveled to the homeland as part of this year’s ACYOA Armenia Service Program (ASP), led by the Rev. Fr. Tadeos Barseghyan from July 2 to 17.
The ACYOA partnered with the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR) to prepare the service aspect of the pilgrimage. Participants spent three days at Camp Aragats in Meghradzor village and volunteered at the FAR Children’s Center in Yerevan and an apricot orchard in Yerevandashat village.
The participants arrived in downtown Yerevan on the Feast of the Transfiguration, also known as Vartavar. Whatever fatigue the participants experienced from the long flight to Armenia quickly disappeared as they were soaked with buckets of cold water by the local children and adults.
“Running through Yerevan trying not to get wet (which didn’t work) was truly a great bonding experience for all of us on our first day together,” said Leah Mamassian of Troy, MI. “The excitement of Vartavar was just the beginning of an awesome trip exploring our homeland!”
The first week began with a trip to the Vaskenian Theological Seminary on Lake Sevan. The group enjoyed swimming and jet skiing in the cold waters of Lake Sevan and visited the ancient temple of Garni.
The service aspect of the pilgrimage took place at Camp Aragats in the mountains of Meghradzor village. The camp hosts 400 children each summer (ages 9 to 15), including 16 Syrian refugees. Many of the children come from poor backgrounds.
During the three-day stay at camp, the ASP group assisted with meal preparation and clean-up, painted benches, and participated in the camp’s olympics ceremony, representing the United States. Every evening, the entire camp gathered in the courtyard under the stars for music and dancing.
“While I was not able to speak Armenian to the children at camp, I realized that love is its own language,” said Julie Aginian of Birmingham, MI. “It was amazing how much I was able to connect to all of the children through hugs, laughing, and dancing.”
“The experiences at Camp Aragats far and away exceeded my expectations,” said Kara Khanzadian of Syracuse, NY. “It was the most amazing feeling to be greeted with their chants, songs, and dance as soon as our bus pulled in.”
Another stop on the itinerary included Khor Virap Monastery and a climb down the pit where King Drtad held St. Gregory the Illuminator. In the pit, participants sang the Armenian Church hymn “Soorp, Soorp” (“Holy, Holy”).
The participants met with His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, at Holy Etchmiadzin. After meeting with the Catholicos, the group participated in the Divine Liturgy at the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin and at the nearby St. Gayane Church.
“To finally step foot inside the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin after reading about it and seeing pictures of it in Armenian and Sunday School was an amazing experience,” said Arsen Yelegen of White Plains, NY.
The group also visited “Alphabet Park” in Artashavan village. The park was created in 2005 for the 1600th anniversary of the invention of the Armenian alphabet. Other stops included St. Mesrob Mashdots Cathedral in Oshakan village, which is the burial place of St. Mesrob Mashdots, the founder of the Armenian alphabet in the year 405 A.D.
Other stops included Victory Park, which honors Armenia’s participation in World War II and is home to the statue of “Mother Armenia” overlooking Yerevan. The participants toured the Hratch and Suzanne Toufayan Youth Center, which serves food to about 200 people daily and hosts youth programs in art, dancing, and music. They viewed ancient Armenian manuscripts at the Matenadaran, and stopped at the Battle of Sardarabad memorial and museum, which commemorates the 1918 victory of the Armenian people against the Ottoman Empire.
For the second service project, the group traveled to an apricot orchard in Yerevandashat village, where they helped remove pits from apricots to prepare the fruit for drying.
“There is a lot that goes into overseeing a sustainable orchard, especially in Armenia,” said Courtney Ellian of Duluth, MN. “We were more than grateful to see how FAR works with these farmers to keep agriculture strong within Armenia.”
The participants enjoyed the freshness and flavor of the food in Armenia. In addition to the delicious meals at various restaurants, they were guests in local homes, where they were treated to traditional home-cooked meals. The families of Fr. Barseghyan, the pastor of St. Sahag Church of Saint Paul, MN, and Yn. Gayane were among those to host the ASP group.
“The meals with Yeretsgin and Der Hayr’s families were the most authentic Armenian experiences,” said Nick Tashjian of Kenvil, NJ. “Their families welcomed us with open arms and showed us the hospitality and warmth of an Armenian family.”
The group visited the FAR Children’s Center in Yerevan, which provides a nurturing environment to vulnerable children (ages 3 to 18). The young people toured the facility and had a chance to play games and sports with the children.
One of the most moving days of the trip was when the group visited the Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide memorial and museum.
“After remembering the extraordinary measures the Turks took to eradicate our people, we took heart in seeing how many of our national treasures survived, largely through our ancestors’ sacrifice and ingenuity,” said Thomas Toghramadjian of Blaine, MN.
Added Nicole Stevens of Duluth, MN, “I ache for the family I never met and the parts of my family that died in 1915.”
Another highlight of the trip included crowdfunding with FAR’s “Ayo!” in downtown Yerevan. The ASP group joined “Ayo!” to demonstrate street workouts and breakdancing routines to raise money for outdoor gyms in Artsakh. The ASP group performed the “Michigan Hop,” a popular Armenian-American dance.
Other memorable sites included the monasteries of Saghmosavank, Geghard, Noravank, and Datev.
“Learning about the people of this country, seeing the beautiful sites, and lending a helping hand to our homeland made me happy to have been a part of ASP,” said Aleen Kaltakdjian of San Antonio, TX.