Birthright Armenia Alumni Newsletter | Winter 2016/17

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WINTER 2016 // 2017



- Table of Contents Expanding our “Next Steps” in 2017______________________________________3 Catching Alumni Doing Good_____________________________________________4 Professional and Academic Achievements________________________________6 Alumni spotlight: Allegra Garabedian_____________________________________8 Weddings & Babies_______________________________________________________9 Three alumni moms joined AVC in 2016_________________________________ 10 Two Birthright Armenia alumni returned to Armenia as AVC volunteers___ 11 Welcome to the team, Hayarpi!_________________________________________ 12 Volunteer to Alum to Birthright Consultant: an Interview with Nina Romá Agvanian_________________________________ 12

Winter Edition

Expanding our “Next Steps” in 2017 With an alumni base of 1,300 that will grow by 200 annually, we feel strongly now more than ever before that investing in our participants who want to further their engagement with the Homeland post program will yield a large impact. Over the years, we’ve funded 17 “Next Step” alumni grants for a total of $34,000, which alums further used to leverage tens of thousands of more dollars for successful development projections in Armenia. In early 2017, we will be announcing an increase in the “Next Step” grant award amount. By doing so, we hope to see further reaching and impactful project proposals as well as more collaboration amongst you to get the job done, as there is power in numbers in terms of actual implementation on the ground. These grants will be quite competitive and limited in number. Project budgets which currently cap out at $2,500 are being expanded to apply to projects up to $35,000. Please stay tuned for an email coming soon that will outline the eligibility criteria, deadlines, and guidelines for the grants. In the meantime, start getting your teams together and ideas solidified!


Catching Alumni Doing Good Nelli, Stepan and their daughter on the way to Herik village.

Hayp Pop-Up Gallery: New Illuminations This November, Hayp Pop-Up Gallery celebrated two years of existence with its 8th exhibit titled New Illuminations / Նոր պատկերազարդումներ, which was Hayp’s first exhibit hosted in Gyumri. Founders Charlotte Poulain (2015) and Anna Gargarian work tirelessly to create Hayp’s exhibitions in addition to their full-time jobs, and have involved countless Birthrighters, AVCers, local and diasporan Armenians, and foreign artists in their exhibits thus far. This time around, AVC volunteer Erin Piñon gave a talk during the exhibition entitled “Penned, Painted, Bound: the Armenian Codex as Art Object”, in line with her research as a Fulbright scholar in Armenia, and BR alum Raffi Berberian (2016) took all the photos of the exhibition. New Illuminations centered around women artists in Gyumri who attended a four-day bookmaking workshop by Boston artist Suzi Banks Baum. The multi-component project aimed to empower women, their voices and their personal embodied experiences through book making practice and storytelling. Fifteen women artists in Gyumri attended the four-day workshop, learning multiple methods of bookmaking and exploring the possibilities of artistic creation and storytelling through the medium, which has a long history in Armenian artistic and literary creation but has fallen to the wayside in recent decades. The opening of the exhibit on November 18th was well-attended by artists and their families and countless other visitors from Gyumri and Yerevan, with a folk and blues improv concert by Bet Williams. Hayp has been slowly but surely making their way to Gyumri -- this Gyumri-based exhibit follows the October 2015 exhibition In Motion / Շարժման մեջ, that took over the Yerevan-Gyumri train line for four days. Check out Hayp’s Facebook page and website to follow their upcoming exhibitions.


Hayrenaser opens a new school in Artsakh

Nelli Martirosyan (2007) and her husband Stepan Sargsyan are founders of the organization Hayrenaser, which recently sponsored the rebuilding and reopening of a school in Herik village of Artsakh. After being abandoned during the 90’s, Herik now has 12 families living there, who are all the more likely to stay and continue living in the village now that their children have a comfortable, modern place to go to school. Nelli has been involved in various village-based projects in Armenia and Artsakh over the years, including the repair of the school in Chinari village of Tavush region in 2007. She was also a recipient of a Birthright “Next Step” alumni grant of $2500 in 2008, which funded a youth development project in Tsmakahogh village of Artsakh. Here is a video from ArtsakhTV on the opening of the school.

Stega: A Perfect Union makes its first visit to Armenia

Stega: A Perfect Union, a new initiative started by Hasmig Tatiossian (2008) and Armen Menechyan of the yoga

and lifestyle blog, had its 6-week pilot project in October and November, teaching yoga and meditation workshops for the “movers and shakers, the social change-makers” of Armenia.

Through their work and visits to Armenia, Hasmig and Armen noticed that the people who do the most in social and civil sectors have the least time and energy to spend on themselves, leaving them drained, stressed and liable to burn out. Building on their own experiences of yoga and meditation and the positive impact it brought to their lives, Hasmig and Armen came up with Stega, an initiative that, in Hasmig’s words, “is our contribution to building an inclusive, healthy nation”. By creating positive, loving and safe spaces for self-reflection, they value and support the emotional and mental health of those who do some of the hardest work in Armenia, enabling those change-makers to keep doing the crucial work they do. There is no roadmap for such a project: the idea of using yoga and meditation as systematic tools in the social sector is brand new everywhere, and with each step Hasmig and Armen create their own path with unexpected twists. One of those fortuitous twists was the way that the pilot project created personal connections among those who participated. By sharing space around yoga many participants realized that, though they care about and admire one another they don’t spend time together unrelated to work. Such connections and the solidarity they provide can be crucial emotional support tools, and the space created by Stega allowed participants to realize the importance of spending non-work time with people in their community.

Zanazan: The Proper Company’s “Armenian Ransom Magnets” Peno Mishoyan (2014) founded the Proper Company and its line of Armenian letter magnets, which they call “Armenian Ransom Magnets”. Peno told us, “I started working on the project in February 2016. First, all the letters were illustrated by a brush pen on paper, then they were digitized and colored. Zanazan is our first product at Proper Company, and the idea is to have a line of design products and games, made in Armenia. It took quite some effort to set up an e-commerce shop for Zanazan. Through this process, I’ve learnt that having a creative idea is just the beginning. The actual implementation is what takes all the commitment and determination to accomplish.”

Participants in a Stega workshop include BR alum Ani Jilozian and staff member Ruzanna Sargsyan.

We are such a small country”, Hasmig says, “that any impact is huge.” And, she credits Birthright Armenia for “having opened up Armenia to me, and the possible impact I could have.” During her volunteerism in 2008, Hasmig worked at the Women’s Resource Center (many of whose staff participated in Stega’s workshops), and even then knew she would be back. In 2011 Hasmig returned with the Fund for Armenian Relief, and she and Armen will be back again soon to continue the work of Stega: A Perfect Union. Check out their Facebook page and website for more information, or to support the project.

A perfect box of holiday goodies at From Armenia, with love. The tagline says it all. WithLove, a project curated by Anahid Yahjian (2011) and Ani Kalafian (2015), brings together the work of five talented Armenian artisans into one handmade leather gift pouch. The pouch and the four items it contains are a little slice of Armenia, delivered to your door to be shared with friends and family or kept all to yourself. The contents include Nairian’s all-natural body cream and face cream, a product created through the effort of the entire Markosian family, from ingredients grown in mountain fields, to the production lab, to the final design and packaging. Armine Harutyunyan designed a handmade silver pendant in the shape of Armenia and Artsakh, and the Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Culture has given its stationery made from the petals of flowers collected from the Genocide Memorial each year on April 24. Lastly, a collection of four wildflower teas is included, hand-picked and dried by hand in Tavush province by Gnel and Ruzanna Nazanyan’s company Darman Tea. The project is partially funded by Sosé and Allen’s Legacy Foundation, which was established in 2013 to establish programs and support existing programs that aim to bridge the gap between Armenia and its diaspora. is the SA Foundation’s first project focused on promoting high-quality, handcrafted goods from Armenia, which were a major point of focus for Sosé and Allen and one of the countless things about Armenia that they wanted to share with the world.


Professional and academic achievements Rupen Janbazian (2011) is the new editor of the Armenian Weekly, based out of Watertown, Massachusetts. And look who is his new part-time Assistant Editor! Dickran Khodanian (2016)! We wish both Rupen and Dickran much success in their new roles.

Mariana Kehyayan (2011) has a new position at Hapag-Lloyd AG in Sales Steering in SĂŁo Paulo, Brazil.

Lenna Ohanesian (2015) has a new position as a Strategic Management Analyst at Booz Allen Hamilton, working on a project with the Department of Defense in Washington, DC.

Michael Manavdjian (2005) has been promoted to Finance Manager in Global Network Partnerships at American Express in New York City.

Christina Asadourian (2014) landed a new position as a Field Representative at the California State Assembly in Downey, CA.


Cristin Malekyan (2012) has a new position as Quality Control Analyst at Shire biotechnology firm in Los Angeles, CA.

Avo Kambourian (2009) is now an Assistant Editor at VICE Media in San Diego, CA.

Rachel Townzen (2015) is a Data Management/Master of Social Work Intern at HIAS Pennsylvania, an NGO that provides legal services to low-income immigrants and refugees and assists refugees in the resettlement process.

Monica Paraghamian (2015) completed her MA in Educational Leadership at McGill University in Montreal. Congratulations Monica!

Armen Terjimanian (2015) has begun working as a Communications Consultant at the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America in New York City.

Anahid Yahjian (2011) became Production Coordinator at Interloper Films in Los Angeles, CA.


Alumni spotlight: Allegra Garabedian If you’re indecisive like me, coming to Armenia can be pretty risky. You come for a couple of months to try out “this Birthright thing,” because it sounds like it might be kinda cool. You extend your trip a few months here, a couple more there, and then fine, maybe just one more year… And before you know it, half a decade has passed, you actually are kind of scared of the skvazniak, and you’re using էլի in conversations in a non-ironic way. But seriously, how lucky are we? Even those of us who, like me, grew up as loner Armenians — the only Armenian in school, knowing just a handful of words in the language of our ancestors (for me it was exactly four), those of us whose Armenian identity was always there, but unexplored. I remember the pangs of jealousy when I first arrived in Armenia and I saw how easily the people who had grown up in Armenian communities seemed to slip right into a culture that was so foreign to me. I felt cheated because I hadn’t grown up as a “real” Armenian. I didn’t know the history, the songs, the traditions, the superstitions. There seemed to be an immediate connection that I was missing out on, and there was no way I was ever going to catch up. But actually, now I think that maybe we — the loner Armenians — are the luckiest. Because we get to discover our Armenian-ness from zero. We have no history, no context, no frame of reference. And it’s pretty cool to be able to experience it all with a totally blank slate. And now that I’m settling back into my “home,” the US, I can appreciate my Armenian-ness (or lack thereof) for what it is and what it has been in my life. It started out as a vague, nagging someday-I-should-really-look-into-this sort of feeling in my gut. And now, it’s a proud and prominent this-is-pretty-incredible sort of feeling in my heart.

Allegra Garabedian, born in Maine, USA was a BR volunteer in 2011, and chose to live in Armenia for five years after she finished her volunteer service. She left Yerevan in November to head back to the United States, where she will be living in San Francisco and continuing to work for PicsArt as their Content Manager. Check out Allegra’s previous alumni spotlight piece in our Spring 2013 newsletter here.


Anouch (2005) and Vahe Chahbenderian are happy to share the news of their third child Kami, born on May 2, 2016.

Candice Pridjian Reppell (2011) and Mark Reppell are proud to announce the birth of their baby boy, Grayson James, born on May 26, 2016.

Taleen Moughamian (2008) and Armen Moughamian (2012) announce a new baby brother for daughter Noor (BR TBD!). We welcome the birth of Van Armen, born April 29, 2016.

Fanny Djivelekian’s (BR 2010) baby boy, Sevan, was born this year.

Taline Kavazanjian (2005) and her husband Varand Vartanian happily share the birth of their baby boy, Aren, born September 18th, 2016.

Peno Mishoyan (2014) and his wife Marianna celebrated the birth of their daughter Nanor this year.


Simona and Shant Tamazian (both BR 2016) were our first couple to get married when they were still volunteers on October 9, 2016. Their wedding was well-attended and enjoyed by Birthright volunteers, alumni and staff, and staff member Hayk even served as their godfather in the wedding!

Anita Postaljian got married on December 10, 2016! “We met at Camp Haiastan in Massachusetts as kids, lost touch over the years and saw each other again all these years later at a mutual friend’s wedding and the rest is history! We went back to the camp to take our photos :) His name is Garo Terjanian.”

Jamie Kolar (2013) married Jason Gabriel on November 25, 2016 after getting engaged in Hayastan the previous spring. We wish them many good years together!

Meghrig Jabaghchourian Nerkizian (2010) married Garo Nerkizian on September 7, 2016.

Three alumni moms joined AVC in 2016 In 2016, three alumni parents experienced volunteering in Armenia for themselves. 2014 alumnus Devon Boutelle’s mother, Patricia Levin, 2012 alumnus Sevan Holemans’ mother, Isabelle Barsamian, and 2011 alumnus Aleksan Giragosian’s mother, Shoghig Giragosian, all came to Armenia to immerse, share their expertise and better connect with the country. All are experienced professionals in very different fields and came to Armenia through AVC’s Professional Corps program. Patricia Levin (USA) has been a long-time professor of Art History at Saddleback College. She is also an independent curator and has taught and curated projects both in the USA and internationally. Patricia’s first volunteering stint in the summer was at the Armenian Center for Contemporary and Experimental Art where she helped design new programs. She is currently serving at the Ballet 2021 Foundation, assisting with their international outreach and helping to create new systems. She plans to volunteer through the spring, leading a series of workshops on arts management and PR for new and established artists.

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Isabelle Barsamian (Belgium) is a psychotherapist who has had her own practice for many years. The technique she uses is ‘body psychoanalysis’, a therapy that combines psychonalaysis with body work. Isabelle came to Armenia for two weeks in early-September. In her short time here she taught special massage techniques to the masseurs at Seeing Hands, and consulted with the older orphans at Mer Houys and Rainbow House. She led workshops in Vanadzor and Gavar through the Mission East-UNICEF project Together4Armenia.

Shoghig Giragosian (USA) is a marketing professional who has worked with some of the largest legal firms in the United States. She was in Armenia for four months and parlayed her passion for mentoring, leadership training and teaching into multiple placements in and out of Yerevan. Shoghig taught English in Yerevan at the American Corner and at AUA, as well as at the Goris and Vanadzor branches of Instigate. She mentored young women at Rainbow House; and worked with the Women’s Resource Center in Goris.

Whose parent is next? Immersion, discovery and fulfillment are guaranteed!

Two Birthright Armenia alumni returned to Armenia as AVC volunteers

Lisa Giragosian-Iskikian, from Rhode Island, USA, visited Armenia for the first time via Birthright Armenia in 2004. Then, she volunteered with the Armenian Eye Care Project for two months, traveled to villages, Artsakh, and ancient churches, and met several repatriates from various countries. She created her own connections, and left loving the country, but feeling doubtful about what she thought she knew about it and its cultural association – and therefore, doubtful about her self-identity. She returned twice in the following years, creating stronger ties. By volunteering with AVC’s Professional Corps in 2016, Lisa hoped to gain a better understanding of both the benefits and struggles of living in Armenia. She was also curious to learn what people think of the Armenian Diaspora. And finally, as a speech-language pathologist herself, she hoped to connect with other Armenian speech-language pathologists and learn about methods and needs here. During her brief 18 days in Armenia this time, Lisa met with therapists at the Autism Center, and led speech therapy workshops and round-table meetings in Gavar, Vanadzor and Ijevan.

Antranik Kababejian, from Montreal, Canada, volunteered with Birthright Armenia in 2009 and has visited Armenia a dozen times. He is married now, with two children; he and his wife have recently begun talking about moving to Armenia. Antranik thought a volunteer experience with AVC would allow him to immerse again and rediscover todays’ Armenia as a resident, an insider. Antranik’s background is in IT, but he is also a professional photographer. He volunteered with COAF, traveling to some of the villages where they have projects, working with students and staff, and photographing everything. Antranik says, “I was privileged to see the positive impact of the change COAF has realized in the villages I visited. Change can succeed or fail, but in these villages, where schools were broken and children had little chance of success, I experienced firsthand the results of these improvements -- an increase in education, higher self-esteem, villagers proud of their schools, and motivated and engaged students.” He considers himself blessed to have been part of this journey, albeit brief. He captured it all through his lens and returned to Montreal content, and wondering when he might go back and do it all over again.

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Welcome to the team, Hayarpi! AVC is happy to welcome its new Program Coordinator, Hayarpi Vardanyan, who joined our team at the end of July. She’s intimately familiar with AVC and Birthright having been a local volunteer at our office during 2011-2012. Hayarpi has an MBA from the American University of Armenia. Although her professional experience has mainly been in the fields of finance and banking, she has always believed in the change volunteering can make in Armenia. She enjoys listening to the stories of new volunteers and being helpful in any way she can. So come and say hi to Hay whenever you’re at the office or contact her at

Volunteer to Alum to Birthright Consultant: an Interview with Nina Romá Agvanian From March to November, Nina Romá Agvanian (2014) worked as a consultant for Birthright, training staff on principles and skills of psychosocial support, recommending policy, and providing skill-based resources to help make Birthright a more inclusive, supportive organization for volunteers. We talked to Nina about what she saw as the most crucial changes of the past year and how she sees Birthright continuing to create as inclusive and supportive of a community as possible. Can you talk a little bit about how you saw the need for your skills at Birthright, and how you ended up training the BR staff? Well, as a volunteer I noticed that Birthright didn’t have the resources or the staff training to support people around certain issues, specifically situations of street harassment, conflict between volunteers, and cultural competency and integration issues. I also noticed that LGBTQ volunteers were having a difficult time at BR, but weren’t approaching staff with their concerns. So at first, another volunteer and I created a training for staff on how to deal with disclosures of sexual harassment and sexual assault, and later I created a training on Street Safety for volunteers, which Gohar and I do together for each round of new volunteers on a quarterly basis. So all of that started about a year and a half ago. Essentially, I noticed some issues when I was a volunteer that I could envision tangible improvements around, and when I talked to Birthright about street harassment and started doing training around that, I realized that I could be a resource for them around other related psychosocial issues. I wrote a proposal for them to hire me as a 6 month consultant and eventually BR agreed. It’s really powerful when organizations trust the direction of their beneficiaries and the things that their beneficiaries actually say they need. I appreciate that they trusted me to do that well, and they trusted that what I was saying was important was actually important. And I think that speaks to the leadership of Birthright’s founder, and of Sevan and Linda. Did you have any intentions in your work at Birthright, and if so do you feel like you achieved them? My intention was for volunteers to come and to have the best experience they could in Armenia. For me, doing BR was hugely powerful and meaningful, and transformative in my life in a lot of ways. I mean, not just volunteering with Birthright but the experience of living here, which I credit to BR. Beyond that, I wanted volunteers to have an experience that wasn’t as difficult in some of the ways that my volunteerism was difficult, in ways that I felt could be tangibly changed. My intention in that sense was to have volunteers feel emotionally and mentally supported. Birthright does an amazing job of providing resources and facilitating connection. They have the resources and the organizational part of what a volunteer needs down, but doing BR is often hugely transformative emotionally and mentally for people. BR’s relatively new, so they haven’t had the resources or the research to find out how best to implement emotional support, and how psychosocial support might actually facilitate a better or more fulfilling connection to Armenia for diasporan Armenians. At the same time, because I was close to staff members and I saw how dedicated staff really were to the organization and to

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volunteers, I wanted them to be able to work in a way that felt good. By that I mean, I wanted them to have the resources they needed to help volunteers in the ways they wanted to. In the beginning I had staff members tell me, I don’t know how to respond to this situation, or this is really different for me because I’m local, or I feel bad that this volunteer had a bad experience in this way, what should I do? I wanted staff to feel like they were really well-equipped in their jobs because I know what it’s like to be in a job where part of your work is supporting other people through challenges, and you feel like you don’t have the resources to deal with those things. I also wanted BR to function the best it could as an organization. Many of the principles I introduced were not just about supporting volunteers; there’s a lot of research that says that better supporting volunteers and providing space that is inclusive and non-discriminatory makes organizations function better and be better not only for volunteers, but for staff and for the organization as a whole. For example, when I was a volunteer, queer volunteers would leave saying, no, I will not recommend BR to another queer Armenian. Now we have queer volunteers leave being like, yes, I will sing the praises of BR to my community. And, the current LGBTQ volunteers and in-country alumni can see and state that they feel a change in the understanding and support of those issues at BR. I mean there’s a huge difference between having staff members making violently homophobic remarks versus Salpi, a staff member, having an LGBTQ safe space sticker on their door. That’s awesome because firstly, queer volunteers deserve to do BR just as much as anybody else and deserve to feel safe, but secondly because Birthright is able to better fulfill its mission when all volunteers are talking it up in a positive way and feeling really good about what they are doing. When all volunteers are happier, staff feels better and the organization functions better overall. What do you feel really good about having given BR? When you train people it’s difficult to tangibly see the effects of your work. Some of the last trainings I did were roleplays where staff had to respond to a volunteer who came to them with an issue (a harassment situation, a death in their family back home, feeling culturally or linguistically isolated, a conflict in their host family or work placement, etc). During the last three sessions of roleplays I was thoroughly impressed by the BR staff’s ability to internalize the principles I had given them and to enact that information in an individualized way. It’s also really nice to see that based on my work, volunteers are coming to staff more for support when things are hard and are getting the support they need, and that staff are feeling good about those interactions. While street harassment is a terrible thing that happens everywhere, I feel so much better that BR now acknowledges that it may be a risk for volunteers and actively works to be a resource and support system for volunteers if it does happen. Street harassment is one of those things that can really affect your day-to-day life and even impact your entire Birthright experience, and I have had volunteers tell me that the workshops we do made a difference after an experience, or just generally in making them feel safer and more prepared while walking through the streets. If people feel emotionally supported -- and this is why the emotional support piece really matters -- not just because we want people to feel emotionally supported and happy, but because when people are emotionally supported, when their stress levels are manageable, then they feel better, they are more productive and they contribute more. They function better as volunteers and as diasporan Armenians in Armenia better, and alumni function better as diasporan Armenians who have done BR, who bring that somewhere else and pass on what they gained in Armenia. It’s not just for the single point of emotional support, it’s for the multiplicity of things that people can do if they feel emotionally supported, things that we as an organization and as part of our mission care about.


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