A small, ancient people, dispersed across the world, hounded by genocide and tragedy, with a successful global Diaspora that remains loyal to its ancestral homeland. Sound familiar? Though it’s not too difficult to make a compelling comparison between Armenians and Jews, the Armenian Diaspora’s “Birthright Armenia” program is both somewhat inspired by and radically different from the Jewish world’s highly successful Birthright Israel program.
Founded in 2003, the program brings young people between the ages of 20 and 32 with at least one Armenian grandparent to the country for visits ranging from two months to a year.
According to the organization, the experience is meant to foster a deeper connection to the country, and to allow for a longer, more hands-on trip than a whirlwind visit could offer.
Since it was founded, the program has hosted over 500 Armenian Diaspora youth from over 25 countries.
Sevan Kabakian, country director for the program in Armenia, says participants spend a minimum of two months to a year, volunteering around 30 hours a week.
“They basically participate in the life of the country, so their days
aren’t spent doing what a tourist would do, but what a typical
countryman would do; going to work, and then going home at the end of
the day,” he says.
After participants’ work days are over, he continues, the program’s
services kick in, including language classes provided by a series of
teachers and tutors, customized to fit the students’ needs. It also
provides lecture forums where they are introduced to different aspects
of the country, from economic and environmental issues to meetings with
Much like Birthright Israel, Birthright Armenia includes excursions
around the country, visits to cultural and historical sites, and
meetings with local Armenian youth.
Back stateside, the organization’s executive director, Linda Yepoyan, runs the program with a staff of five, including herself.
Originally from Pittsburgh, Yepoyan came to Armenia as a young student
following the devastating earthquake of 1989, and lived there for the
next two years through independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and
fighting with Azerbaijan.
Asked if the organizers ever considered making the program a 10-day trip
like Birthright Israel, which would be a less intense experience but
might attract more participants, she says that “one of our mantras is
immersion, and the longer the stay, the deeper the roots.”
She also doesn’t want people to leave Armenia with “a Disneyland, superficial understanding of what life is like here.”
While they don’t receive financial support from the Armenian government,
they do receive what she refers to as moral support, as well as easy
access to government and military officials for lectures and round-table
discussions with participants.
Yepoyan describes Armenia as having “a lot of development to go. It’s
not in its infancy anymore, but still in its teen years.” Still, she
adds, “there’s something here in the water and here in the air; you just
cant make a trip here to Armenia and not get roped into it.”
The program’s founder, Edele Hovnanian, says that when the initiative
was begun in 2003, she contacted Birthright Israel to ask permission to
use the name and received approval.
She also met with some people from the Israel program, who explained the ideas and principles behind it.
Hovnanian, whose family owns a well-known construction company in the
United States, says her family’s foundation pays for about half of the
program’s $500,000 annual budget.
The rest is raised in the Armenian Diaspora, which she says has many
foundations but not to the extent that the Jewish Diaspora does.
She describes how many young Armenians went to the country after
independence in 1991. While they often had a romantic view of the
country beforehand, “they would often come back disappointed, and I
thought it was important to have a generation that grew up with a very
realistic view of Armenia.”
According to Hovnanian, “there are a ton of programs that take kids to
Armenia for short-term purposes, but that is a very different experience
than what we do. We want you to stay in homes, live there at least two
months and really immerse yourself in the community, and take the local
PARTICIPANTS ARE also required to fill out an exit survey, outlining how they’ll contribute to the Armenian community back home.
When asked if the program takes a political point of view, like the pro-
Israel view put forward on many Birthright Israel programs, she says,
“I can see the importance of what they’re trying to accomplish, which is
to explain [Israel’s] point of view and only [Israel’s] point of view.
We don’t do that, so some would say we’re apolitical, but as a longer
program, it’s a lot harder to control the experience.
Birthright Israel is more strict about schedule, and that can only happen if you’re on a short program.”
She did say, though, that it is important for participants to learn the
Armenian point of view – for instance, in regard to issues like the
Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan.
As opposed to a standard studyabroad program, Hovnanian says her program
is “much more like the Peace Corps with a very clear intent – you live
in any country for three to four months, you’re going to bond with the
country and those people. We want you to identify with Armenia, and when
you get back to the Diaspora and people ask you what its like, you
won’t just say it’s just post-Soviet corruption or non-democratic...
they can become ambassadors for the country of Armenia. I don’t think
that Armenia does a good job of public relations for the country abroad,
so these young people become ambassadors... on a real human interest
Greg Bilazarian, 27, is one participant who has gotten hooked on
Armenia, and has found himself leading a somewhat unexpected late-20s
sojourn in the country. Bilazarian is also one of the relatively rare
young people eligible for both Birthright Israel and Birthright Armenia,
having been born to a Jewish mother and an Armenian father. He grew up
with and is familiar with both diasporas, and even spent a few years in
Hebrew school – though following a summer family trip to Armenia, he
made the decision to be baptized into the Armenian church at age 12.
He spent several years working as a TV reporter in Gainsville, Florida,
and later in Toledo, Ohio, before deciding that he was done with the
profession and wanted to try something new.
His decision to go to Armenia, he says, rather than being a
heart-warming, back-to-his-roots story, came about because he was
looking to take a professional sabbatical and had heard about
Much like young Americans who have moved to Israel, Bilazarian describes
his new surroundings as a close-knit country with a good nightlife,
where he hardly ever goes for a stroll downtown without bumping into
people he knows.
Also like in Israel, he says that in Armenia, “people are always
answering their cellphones in public and smoking everywhere. In every
cab, immediately they ask you if you‘re married.”
While he notes that the standard of living is definitely much lower than
in the States, the people are incredibly friendly, and the country is
fascinating and beautiful. He calls the experience the greatest time
he’s had in his life.
“It’s an amazing place. I go through every emotion every day, really high and really low,” he says.
Bilazarian admits that finding a job he loved was the single most important factor in having a positive experience.
Despite choosing a professional sabbatical from the media world, he has
found himself working again in media – for an organization called The
Civilitas Foundation, where he has joined a team of young people aiming
to launch a new media project.
He originally only planned to come for a short period, but the company offered him a one-year contract, and he decided to stay.
Though he may not have come out of any Armenian roots romanticism, he
says his time in the country has had a significant effect on him.
“It definitely has helped build a stronger connection [to Armenian
roots] and a stronger picture of what it means to be Armenian,” he says.
“Here you really get to see the country and the culture and how it
really is, instead of just the middle-class and wealthy Diaspora. I
certainly feel closer to the country, and I’ll always have that sort of a