Introduction by Weekly columnist Stepan Piligian: Andy Daquesian is from the southern Connecticut area and active in the Armenian community. A longtime contributor to the metro New York area, he is also very dedicated to his philanthropy in Armenia. During his many trips to the homeland, Andy captures the true essence of the nation by focusing on the people he meets. Over the years, he has posted short videos of his spontaneous gatherings with street vendors, farmers, villagers, soldiers and children in need. Some of his encounters sample and explain local cuisine or their entrepreneurial interests, but always give us insight into the wonderful, warm and talented people of Armenia.
This was my first trip back to Armenia in a year and a half (November 2019) and was one for the ages. After two vaccinations and a negative PCR test, I was prepared to travel to Armenia. This marked my sixth trip to Armenia in five years. I was unable to go in 2020 due to the pandemic’s travel restrictions. When I landed at Zvartnots after an uneventful but restful flight, I was cheerfully greeted by my friend Gayane, who brought along some delicious dziran (apricots), gata (sweet Armenian pastry), and my first cup of coffee in over a year. Prior to the pandemic, I began a caffeine cleanse and promised to have my next cup upon my return to Armenia. The caffeine jolt was amazing as I headed into Yerevan. After meeting my host Nunik Hovhannisyan from Luna Bed & Breakfast, I immediately proceeded to the Mer Tagh restaurant (near Tumanyan and Abovian) and effectively broke a short three-week fast. I grabbed some delicious lahmajun and jingalov hatz and happily munched away outside the Opera House. Although it was nearly midnight, I was raring to go on this arrival night that set the tone for my next three weeks in Armenia. While my activities for this trip in Armenia were mostly considered humanitarian, I did manage to adjust my schedule to include time with some of my Armenian kinfolk and experience local culture.
Andy with Armenia Tree Project staff, Tigran Palazyan and Ani Melkonian
I finally got to meet with the staff of Armenia Tree Project (ATP) to better understand their mission to educate students and the citizenry at large with greening efforts around Armenia. Their impressive nursery has a very diverse assortment of foreign and indigenous plants that can grow year round in sheltered greenhouses. I had a chance to speak with their visiting students and staff and thank them for keeping Armenia green and strong. Lastly, I was able to plant a new toot (mulberry) tree in one of ATP’s growing fields located a few kilometers away. Later that afternoon, I visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial and museum (Tsitsernakaberd)—a shocking reminder of the atrocities committed against the Armenian people starting from the year 1915.
Visit to Mer Hooys. Executive Director Mihran Mirijanyan pictured on the left.
The next day I went to Mer Hooys – House of Hope—a safe haven for young women who experienced various types of trouble at home. Their facility in Yerevan is a new, clean and happy environment. The young women treated me to a concert with dancing, singing, jazz piano and traditional zither (kanoon). Being at Mer Hooys in the midst of all this incredible talent made me feel extremely proud to be Armenian.
I managed to visit some churches along the way including Etchmiadzin. It is always inspiring to be in these older churches. With every church I visit, I always sing a badarak hymn to check out the unique acoustics of each Armenian treasure. It is always a fascinating experience for me. I then visited Sardarabad and the related museum with “Hayk the Guide” who sang the famous Sardarabad War song and provided some historical insight. The Battle of Sardarabad was a battle of the Caucasus campaign of World War I from May 21 to 29, 1918, between the regular Armenian military units and militia on one side and the Ottoman army that had invaded Eastern Armenia on the other. The battle not only halted the Ottoman advance into the rest of Armenia, but also prevented the complete destruction of the Armenian nation. In the words of Christopher J. Walker, had the Armenians lost this battle, “it is perfectly possible that the word Armenia would have henceforth denoted only an antique geographical term.” Hayk then brought me to the Ziarat Yazidi Temple, which proved to be a gorgeous architectural wonder. The Yazidis have found a peaceful home in Armenia. Hayk and I had the chance to indulge in some local lahmajun, jingalov hatz, tonir lavash, tan (Armenian yogurt drink), and chicken khorovats (Armenian barbeque).
My friends Mkhitar and Tatevik took me to their local church in Masif where I experienced the best sense of community and spirituality. The people in Masif are humble and cohesive and are more than noteworthy. Mikhitar and his family treated me to a delicious homemade dinner with their warm Armenian hospitality.
Andy and staff from the Kharberd orphanage
I made my way to the Kharberd Specialized Children’s Home in Kharberd Village. We are sponsoring a fundraiser at my church (Holy Ascension) to help these quiet heroes. After being treated to a delicious Armenian lunch with the family staff, I met with the director, Harutyun Balasanyan and discussed current facility needs and potential initiatives that would promote work programs for the young adults. There is much work to do.
Our next stop brought me to the Rays of Hope Center in Masis. The center provides various rehabilitation and day care services to develop and enhance children’s skills and abilities for better participation in social life activities. The Center also provides humanitarian assistance to displaced residents from Artsakh. We visited a few families and provided some basic needs including toiletries and much needed medicine. The families are living in simple unheated temporary shelters on the outskirts of Masis. This was a truly sobering, emotional and enlightening experience.
Andy helps distribute medicine and health care items to displaced Artsakh families who are currently housed in temporary shelters
I finally got to visit the Blue Mosque in downtown Yerevan. Construction for the Blue Mosque began in the 18th century during the Persian reign over Armenia. The mosque follows the traditions of the Twelver Shiite branch of Islam. After making a pit stop at the Modern Art Museum and Geologic Museum of Armenia, I went to the Women’s Support Center (WSC) in Yerevan, whose objective is to create a safe environment for women — a place where they receive support, empathy and the knowledge that they are not alone in their struggles. Women are provided with practical knowledge about domestic violence, as well as counseling that bolsters self-esteem and confidence. I met with the staff who provided me with insight into how they address each case and provisions for a safe temporary shelter for all who ask.
Staff members of the Women’s Support Center in Yerevan
Another inspiring encounter took place with an entrepreneur named Soghomon who drove me to his undeveloped lands in Charentsavan just north of Yerevan. Soghomon is looking to create local agricultural jobs by planting and maintaining fruit trees, vegetables, land management and the construction of a large greenhouse for year-round planting and harvesting. This will be a successful initiative that will require the help of local professionals moving forward. Soghomon is also contemplating starting up a “Farm Stay,” where tourists and locals can stay and work the land, livestock, and greenhouse. This was another exciting highlight of my trip. The creative energy is incredible.
Celebrating badarak at a church in Gyumri
I took my second trip in the last five years to Gyumri. I spent two days with my friend Mhkitar and his relatives. Gyumri still showed much damage from the 1988 earthquake. I went to a few art galleries and a history museum and participated in badarak at a wonderful small local church. The warm people, scrumptious foods, perfect desserts, historic architecture and Armenian culture made me fall in love with Gyumri. I can’t wait to return. I also traveled to Martuni, a small town not known for having road names or signage just south of Lake Sevan, and explored this interesting place including a church built in 700 AD and their local museum. There is always something new to see in this magical “hidden” city. I visited my artist friend Mariam Glastyan and her family who gave me a tour of their large property, fruit trees, vegetable garden and livestock. I was happy to sing along with their vociferous roosters. They locally sell their produce and goods in town. Life is simple here and has likely been the same for generations, a nice change of pace for me from the hustle and bustle of big city life. I enjoyed drinking from the cleanest local waterfall. Even the earth kicked up from the local paths felt soothing to my skin. Mixed with a generous serving of compote (fruit juice) and sunshine, you really feel alive! It would be easy to get used to this pace of life.
I was able to visit with my host Nunik Hovhannisyan’s family just north of Yerevan by the Hrazdan Gorge. After walking the grounds and eating the local fruit from the numerous trees on their property, I was treated to an amazing candlelit Armenian barbeque as we all sang romantic Armenian and Russian songs, and even some Christmas songs in English. I believe I ended at 12 shots of vodka after two hours of singing and eating. This was too memorable to forget. I believe the Hovhannisyan family will make this a bed and breakfast after my visit as we all had too much fun that night.
Meeting with the mayor of Vardenis (second from right) and staff with Mirijan and Yeva Kochian to Andy’s left.
After another day of non-stop Armenian reveling with Mkhitar and friends and another very late night, I woke up early for my last day in Armenia to visit the border city of Vardenis with my church friends Yeva and her husband Mirijan. We met with the mayor and discussed some initiatives related to local labor, green technology and manufacturing. We then drove to four border camps located to the east of Vardenis traipsing through mud bogs and potholes that formed the best of the road conditions.
Andy delivers supplies to soldiers in Vardenis
Yeva and Mirijan were kind enough to invite me on this historic trip to the border. Little did I know this trip would be a highlight, especially given the incredible adventures of the past three weeks! We handed out some basic supplies to every soldier. The physical conditions of their camp area were hard to comprehend for me. These are tough men who deserve better, but do what they must for Armenia and family. It is brave souls like these that make me proud to be Armenian. The local makeshift churches were a welcome sight in this seemingly godforsaken environment. We managed to sing a few badarak hymns at these churches, which was comforting for all. We returned very late to the bright lights of Yerevan.
What made this trip so special was the people. Armenia is all about its people. My personal encounters with local Armenians confirm their resilience from the recent war and personal losses attributed to the coronavirus. These personal experiences are unforgettable and inspiring. I believe Armenians have developed an innate ability to rebuild stronger and thrive despite any aggression or adverse conditions from outside sources. This was evident to me as a diasporan Armenian looking in. I want to thank all my friends and family in Armenia for giving me this incredible experience. I am anxiously looking forward to my next trip to Armenia.