Sevana Zadorian is a senior politics major.
I spent most of my life surrounded by Armenians and Armenian culture. I’d been yelled at in the house to only speak Armenian. I’d been constantly told that I could never marry an odar or non-Armenian. And I’d been taught that my duties as a female were to greet and host our guests with tea while my brother lay on the couch. So why was it I still loved my Armenian-ness and jumped at the idea of volunteering in a village in Armenia during my summer off college?
As a child I’d always considered myself white, and tried to maintain the notion that I was just like all the white girls in school. But the truth was, I wasn’t anything like them. As I grew older, my complex Armenian-American identity began to unfold and I no longer bought into the idea that in order to be better, I needed to be whiter. My experiences this past summer in Armenia became the quintessential moment in my affirmation of Armenian-ness, my passion for the Armenian cause, and being unapologetically Armenian.
The plan was to spend four weeks in a rural village of around 100 people, living in a concrete home, with bed sheets instead of glass on the windows, and a hole in the ground as a toilet. All I knew was that we were helping rebuild a broken down Soviet-era church, and that it would be hot. Luckily I spoke the language, unlike a few of the other volunteers.
By the third day, we had a routine. We would wake up for breakfast, spend five hours working on the church, have lunch, go swimming in the river with the village kids, play soccer with the village boys, eat dinner, then go dancing at the discotek. Sure enough, I was being proven wrong about my preconceived notions of the misogynistic life in Armenia and specifically, villages. They named me team captain during soccer games and let me choose my team. They even praised our work there, as girls in Armenia would never leave their privileged lives to live in a village and perform hard labor for free.
I wasn’t sure whether it was the immersion into all the rich culture or the familiarity of all of it, but something about this place had me crying every step of the way. I would obediently listen to the villagers’ stories of the war, and the people they had lost along the way. I attempted to take in as much as possible. One day I decided to take a walk around the village and seemingly became lost among the hills and sheds.
Around the corner from the village church was an old man staring off into the view. I walked closer and said barev (which means hello) in an attempt to not frighten him, but he didn’t react. As I walked around him, he caught me in the corner of his eye and turned to me with his broken smile. He had beady blue eyes and a frail body, but he continued to smile. I told him I did not want to frighten him, but would love to pick some mulberries from his tree. He nodded then began speaking slowly and I listened. He was 90 years old and was almost completely deaf. He told me of his experiences fighting for the Soviets in World War II and how his son had died in the Karabagh War protecting this very village. Something about this man made me feel the most comfortable I had ever felt. He noticed I had started to cry during his story and pulled me in for a hug. He said, “Do not cry, you are my grand-daughter, and you are home now.” I made him a promise that day that I would come visit him everyday until the day I left, and I did. And every time I did, he would give me the biggest kiss on my forehead and call me his granddaughter, consistently leaving me in tears.
I had never paid much attention to religion growing up, and it made no sense why I had come here to help rebuild a church when there were people with homes made from leftover metal scraps. That was until we spent every weekend excursion visiting the ancient churches of Armenia. Every church had a different feel to it; some were dark, musty, and gothic while others were filled with light. Whichever monastery I stepped into, I found myself questioning my choices in coming to Armenia, in never having gone to church growing up, and why an organization was bringing people from around the world to work on a church. And most of the time, I was just trying to cover up the tears rolling down my cheeks before anyone else noticed.
One day, while we worked on the village church, a priest from a nearby city came to see the work we were doing with a news station crew. The priest had asked us about our backgrounds and what we hoped to gain from this experience. He began to bless us volunteers and told us that “we are all Armenian, whether we are born here or not.” As I looked over to the other volunteers I noticed my friends had also begun to cry. I realized then that it wasn’t just me who was undergoing a revelation, but all of us who had decided to venture back to the homeland with hopes of helping others.
I had decided to go to Armenia to help my homeland and the people I felt like I had left behind all this time. But the truth was, Armenia was helping me. I believe most people share the notion that by volunteering in impoverished areas you are helping the natives, but really those living in Armenia didn’t need me, I needed them. They have lived and will continue to live in Armenia, continuing to better the country. And I, now equipped with the experiences and new perspectives was ready to gain from this country. I learned that as much as I had resented being Armenian growing up, Armenia had never turned its back on me. I felt like I had become whole, someone in tune with their identity. I learned that if it smells like home and looks like home it must be home. Because Armenian-ness is like a tree, those living in the diaspora are the leaves and Armenia, the root. Both need each other for survival. Now I am in between a home and homeland, learning how to be.
Photo courtesy of Sevana Zadorian