Volunteers from France discover their raison d’être in the homeland
By Nana Shakhnazaryan
Nestled in Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan, the quaint, quiet village of Sarigyugh exists at the threshold of poverty and isolation. Though the Artsakh War is no longer being waged overtly, the daily threat of violence and skirmishes introduce uncertainty in the small Tavush community. This past summer, aware yet unfazed by the brutal realities of life in Sarigyugh, 30 volunteers from all over France came to the village to connect, educate and empower through the Arménie, Terre de Vie (ATDV) community service program.
From Sarigyugh to Berdzor, Lusadzor to Malatya, ATDV has launched five successful campaigns since its inception in 2011, bringing over 130 French volunteers to Armenia. Focused on providing support in the most remote and marginalized communities in the country, the program carefully selects cohorts of volunteers every two years to work throughout Armenia for a month. The nature of the social justice service work is predicated on mutual respect and genuine cultural exchange, with each community engagement carefully planned and well researched before volunteers arrive to Armenia.
“I wanted to create something not only for Armenia, and for the Armenians there, but also for people from France, from the Diaspora, who were lacking that connection to their identity,” founder Raphaël Der Agopian explains. The organization, whose name translates to “Armenia, Land of Life,” has several objectives apart from galvanizing the Armenian Diaspora in the homeland.
Bilateral cultural exchange is at the crux of unifying the ATDV cohorts. Each service project is coupled with initiatives to allow for volunteers to interact with those in the community. Every weekday, activities are organized for local children and, at least one week out of the month, volunteers live with host families, allowing them to immerse themselves in village life and get a taste of the famous Armenian hospitality. “The experience of living with Armenian families taught us how to be humble in solidarity with those we were serving,” explained Astrid, from the 2017 cohort. On weekends, the program offers cultural outings throughout Armenia. After days of hard work, volunteers are shown the country, discovering the heritage and history through their adventures.
Risk and Reward
Since 2015, ATDV has been travelling to Armenia’s treacherous Tavush region, near the border with Azerbaijan, and working on various projects, empowering youth and renovating infrastructure. A testament to the philosophy of the program and the spirit that governs each cohort, volunteers—aware of the violence and uncertainty that plagues villages like Sarigyugh—still decide to offer their support there.
“By renovating our school, at the border with Azerbaijan, you defend, as much as our soldiers, our country,” mayor of Sarigyugh Seyran Saribekyan said, addressing the 2019 ATDV cohort.
The protection of nature and awareness of the environmental situation in Armenia is a key pillar of the mission. Realizing that the lack of education around sustainable practices is a severe problem in Armenia, organizers of the first two sessions of ATDV focused their efforts on Lake Sevan. Volunteers collected garbage and created public service announcements on billboards around the lake. Another project took volunteers to a farm in Lusadzor, where they also introduced environmentally friendly practices through education, while cleaning the space. Most recent campaigns in Sarigyugh once again provided targeted billboards and eight photovoltaic solar panels on the roof of the village school.
Health and Education
According to the World Health Org-anization, issues related to oral hygiene are increasing in Armenia. Given the country’s lack of education around dental care and prevention, cohorts carry out awareness-raising missions directed at children in more remote villages and orphanages. “We organized small shows to make explanations fun, drawing giant mouths and teeth to show children how they should brush their teeth,” Dikris Demir, leader of the 2015 ATDV cohort, recalled. Kits with toothbrushes and toothpaste are distributed at the end of each session.
Since 2011, all cohorts have engaged in upgrading educational facilities. Armenia’s recent history has left many schools throughout the country in subpar conditions. Volunteers renovate rooms, plastering, painting, tiling and installing new windows and doors. Cohorts also bring school supplies, French language books and dictionaries to eager students for the new academic year.
Ties that Bind
Initially imagined as part of AGBU France’s Youth Group (UGAB Jeunes) initiative, ATDV provides continuity in AGBU programs. For those who have aged out of the Colonie de Vacances and Discover Armenia, ATDV cohorts provide a path to volunteer in Armenia. The thread woven between communities, and the lifelong bonds forged at ATDV are among the program’s key benefits. “We all have this unique feeling of being exactly where we need to be,” explained Anna Agopian, a volunteer from the 2019 cohort. “Working in suburban Yerevan at an orphanage for disabled children, a place of healing that ATDV explicitly raised money for, we knew we would never forget what it took to unite us as people under one roof.”
The singular space ATDV fills in AGBU France’s program suite attracts a majority of French-Armenian participants. However, volunteers have come from all over the world. French, Swiss, Belgian, German, Turkish or Canadian, volunteers are generally age 18-35 and express interest in not only learning more about Armenian culture and history, but engaging with Armenians living throughout the country and supporting initiatives that help fill gaps in marginalized communities.
Another unique aspect of this program, and a principle that bonds cohorts, well before they arrive in Armenia, is that every single participant, at all levels, volunteers their time and labor. The program is totally financed through fundraising from private companies, foundations or organizations. A crowdfunding campaign is set up and the program regularly receives financial support from public institutions, such as the city councils of Hauts-de-Seine and Seine-et-Marne. Each participant is involved in the process, understanding the logistics behind the work they do.
For its sixth session, ATDV will support ever more volunteers, even those coming from beyond France. “As we invite more people to join our cause, we must be mindful of the constraints we already work around, such as finding accommodations and transportation for larger groups and fundraising a bigger budget,” Simon Landré, ATDV Program Manager and AGBU France Communications Director, admits. Landré has been volunteering with AGBU for 12 years and has himself participated in every session to date, at every rung of leadership.
“At its core, ATDV is about uniting people around a common mission to bring good to the world. We want to make ATDV the first choice for those who would like to volunteer in Armenia, whether they are Armenian, French, or neither,” he asserts. Landré himself is not of Armenian descent. His own efforts in organizing within and around France’s Armenian communities, and doing service work in Armenia, exemplify the mission of ATDV: encouraging diversity in the cohorts, mobilizing volunteers from all backgrounds, and cultivating solidarity between global communities.