Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Woman of Substance

Peace Corps has an initiative project to encourage volunteerism in the countries in which we serve.  The following is an article that I wrote to recognize one of the people I have worked with during my time in Armenia. 


In my conversations with Armenians, I am often asked about why I came here when the US has so much more.  “Why would you leave the US to come to Armenia??”  I explain my various reasons but also explain that, in the US, there is a well established tradition of volunteering.  

Armenia also has a history of volunteering, but of the Soviet kind.  During the 70 years when Armenia was part of the USSR, there were sometimes “Volunteer Days” declared, but the difference was that attendance was mandatory.  So, the confusion when I tell people I am a volunteer can be understood. 

Another legacy of the Soviet time, however, is the belief that the government should do everything.  While people complain about many things here, the complaints are often accompanied by a complaint that the government is not doing anything about it.  There is a lack of civic involvement, even with respect to things like trash – people litter all the time but think the government should be responsible for cleaning it up.  

In my conversation club, we talk about volunteerism occasionally and I give examples of how people can help others here – for example, those with even a moderate command of English can coach children who are just starting to learn, people can do trash clean-ups in their neighborhoods, time can be spent with children at an orphanage.  The response is normally a list of reasons why it wouldn’t work or be appreciated or various others excuses for not doing things. 

So it is always refreshing to meet someone like Hasmik.

I first met Hasmik a few months after I moved to Gyumri, with a big smile that I have never seen her without. She was attending a project design and management workshop with other alumni of a program through which she spent a year in the US (more on that below).  Since then, she has worked with me and other Peace Corps volunteers in teaching HIV/AIDS education seminars, as a youth camp counselor, helping with a children’s poetry recitation contest, and participating in a program to increase volunteerism. She is the person I immediately think of when an Armenian volunteer is needed for a project.

She was born in Gyumri and is of the generation born after the earthquake, for which the aftermath has been a daily presence their entire lives.  She lives with her parents and younger brother in a district created to replace housing destroyed in the earthquake.  When she was 6 years old, her mother started teaching her English letters along with English language poems and songs. She has been studying the language since then.

At the age of 15, she had what she describes as “a life changing experience” when she entered the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program to study in the US for a year.  FLEX is a very competitive program open to high school students in 10 of the former Soviet Union countries.  To apply, you must already have a good command of English, be energetic and committed to do volunteer work – both while in the US and after returning.  Her family was supportive, seeing the program as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, although her father was concerned about whether it would be detrimental to her performance on university entrance exams by taking away study time.  Ultimately, the decision was made to enter the program.  Considering that Armenian society is very protective of girls, who normally live with their families until marriage and then with their in-laws after, the idea of a girl going away to live with strangers is alien to many people.  The fact that Hasmik’s family saw the opportunity the program offers and supported her desire to go tells me a lot about how they helped develop her character.  I know of other, very qualified women who were not able to enter the program because their parents did not permit it.

As a member of the FLEX program, Hasmik lived in San Antonio, Texas – not exactly an Armenian hub in the US – while the other FLEX students were in other communities throughout the US.  She lived with a host family the entire time and attended the local public high school.  Her host family spent some of the year in Indiana, so she was exposed to two very different regions of the US.  I can’t help but to compare the idea of moving across the globe alone as a teenager (usually for the first time traveling outside the country) with the Peace Corps program where volunteers are all well above high school age, receive language and cross-cultural training upon arrival, and live in the same village as other volunteers as we settle in.  This comparison makes me believe that Peace Corps volunteers have a lot we can learn from these students.

The FLEX program requires students to volunteer for 30 hours during their year in the US.  Hasmik’s volunteer work included working in her school library and in a nursing home – and totaled about 150 hours. It was her first experience with volunteering but it was something that resonated with her and that she continues to do. In her view, she does not see being involved as volunteer service, but rather “as a social duty that as a true citizen, I have to do.”

Since returning, Hasmik has been studying full time to obtain a degree in English.  Despite 20 hours of classes and countless extra hours of studying, she devotes much of her free time to volunteer work.  Beside the activities with PCVs, she also volunteers with the Jinishian Memorial Foundation’s Civic Dialogue and Action project, the OSCE’s Anti-Corruption Student Working Group, and the Gyumri Student Council of the Armenian Apostolic Church.  She recently worked with the “Melodies of Peace” project – an international your orchestra with musicians from Armenia, Georgia and Turkey.  She is the Gyumri representative of FLEX alumni, and is also working as a Student Ambassador for the organization that runs the FLEX program (American Councils), teaching students about the benefits of studying in the US and helping them learn about the application process and all that involves. 

As to her future, she wants to learn more and experience more.  She plans to enter the European Volunteer Service (whereby people from one country travel to another for specific volunteer projects) and then pursue a degree in Communication and Conflict Management.  

So what motivates her?  How does a Hasmik come to be?  She credits the FLEX program and the challenges it presented to her. “At first, you don’t really see the changes” she told me. “They are not very visible for you. But after some time, you realize that the person you are now is the result of all the obstacles and difficulties that you overcame while living all on your own.

“What I have learned from my volunteering experience is that there are some people, who are always motivated and it is their type. I am among them. Although sometimes I get tired or discouraged by the indifference and inert state of people around me, it doesn’t stop me from what I do. I am always motivated, because to really make a change you have to take little steps. Eventually, those steps will lead you to real success.  Also, there are people [whose] example is a motivation itself. My hero for this is Mother Teresa, who inspires and motivates me.”  There are others like Hasmik in Armenia, and each time a PCV meets one it encourages and motivates us that our work is worthwhile. 

So what next? “As far as for now, I don’t know where the waves of life will take me. I keep planning things but as new opportunities come up, I take advantage of them.  I think I will stay in Gyumri, but as I said, nothing is for sure.”   

For Gyumri’s sake, I hope that she continues as a force of nature here for a long time.