A beloved tradition returned this year for St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School (SSAES) fifth grade graduates – their annual trip to Armenia. This educational opportunity, which was a dream for many years, became a reality in 2004 with the first trip to the homeland. The class of 2022 became the 17th to experience this special event at the end of last month, after a pandemic pause in 2020 and 2021. In a joyful turn of events, the Class of 2021 will travel to Armenia in July as the 18th group to fulfill the dream. SSAES has embraced the trip as an integral, irreplaceable and truly unique part of its curriculum.
The trip is a two-week, fully-chaperoned educational venture to Armenia that complements the students’ learning at SSAES. The timing of the trip allows the group to celebrate May 28 in the homeland. The itinerary also includes visits to several cities and villages in Armenia, as well as museums, landmarks, monuments and churches – places they have studied but only seen in pictures. Included in these excursions are tree seed planting with Armenia Tree Project (ATP) and fellow fifth graders from the Avedisian School, a visit to an English language lab in Sevan, an afternoon at the TUMO Center for Creative Technology, a new kind of educational experience at the intersection of technology and design. Previously, the trip would include three days in Artsakh, which sadly had to be canceled.
SSAES is proud to have sent more than 200 graduates to visit and experience their homeland, as they move on in their educational journey to middle school, high school and college. It is SSAES’ hope that this experience will leave an everlasting bond between their time in school and in Armenia with their classmates for many years to come.
As part of the trip, the fifth grade students write about their experiences and share photos as a sort of travel diary. Following are some of their entries.
Day 1: May 22 – Class Reporter: Aiki Arzoumanian
At 2:30 p.m., my classmates and I met at the Armenian Cultural and Educational Center (ACEC). We saw Digin Houry, Archbishop Anoushavan Tanielian, Der Antranig Baljian, Der Samuel Ajemian, Digin Berjouhi, Digin Janet, parents, grandparents and even our nursery teachers Digin Vicky and Digin Dirouhi. We took photos, and the Archbishop asked questions to test our knowledge about Armenia. After we passed the test, we prayed and the Archbishop blessed us. After we said goodbye to our families, we loaded up into the van. As always, Digin Berjouhi threw a bucket of water behind our van to wish us good luck and safe travels. As soon as we left the ACEC, we prayed “Hayr Mer” and started singing “Mer Hayrenik,” “Zartir Lao,” “Sardarabad” and many other songs that Digin Maro had taught us this year. The moment had finally come, because we were going to Armenia! We sang until we got to the airport, checked in and boarded our plane, which was delayed.The seats on the plane were comfortable, and there were pillows and blankets waiting for us. Once we started moving, I took out my gum and started chewing rapidly, because I didn’t want my ears to hurt. We started moving fast, and we took off! We had a safe flight. Everyone was having a fun time, talking to each other and watching movies. We ate our dinner, and I wrote in my journal before I fell asleep for the day. It took us a while to adjust, but eventually we fell asleep, ready to start a new day full of adventures.
Day 2: May 23 – Reporter: Eva Khalarian
Today we landed in Paris and tried to wait patiently for our flight to Armenia. To pass the time, we chased pigeons that somehow found their way into the terminal and drank Starbucks. We were all very excited when it was time to get on the plane to Armenia. When we landed, some people clapped. It was exciting.
Day 3: May 24 – Reporter: Siran Arakelian
We woke up at 9:00 a.m. and had a breakfast of pancakes, Nutella, bread, butter and fruit. Then, we headed to the bus to drive to Geghartavank. On the way there, we stopped at Charentsi Gamar, where you can usually see all of Mt. Ararat, but unfortunately it was cloudy and the mountain was hidden. When we arrived, we saw a boulder that had fallen from a nearby mountain into the courtyard on June 3, 1975 and had stayed there ever since. From there, we went inside to the three churches and one secret room where women listened in on church sermons because it was illegal for them to go into the church, though there are other legends on the use of the room, like warning others of the enemy through the big hole in the corner of the room, a lightning strike and that the architect accidentally dug too much and created the hole! Geghartavank is elevated on mountains right next to the beautiful river, Azad, which means freedom in Armenian. We went to a restaurant called Sergey’s, where we saw women making lavash. We ate the warm lavash, and it was the best bread I had ever eaten. After that, we went inside the restaurant for a lunch consisting of chicken kebab, pilaf, fruits, vegetables and more lavash! Then we went to the bus to head to Garni Temple. After taking pictures on the steps, we explored the ruins of the church only feet away from the temple, where it was so elevated, we could see the Azad River flowing below. Later, we ventured a few yards to the mosaic-covered royal bath, where, as we learned in class, a working slave had written with mosaic tiles, “I work and work and get nothing” in Greek letters. On the way back to the bus, we discovered small pieces of obsidian, a shiny black rock common in Armenia, on the side of the road. When we arrived back at the hotel, we walked to the restaurant Sherep, which means ladle in Armenian. We ate, drank, laughed and enjoyed our time together. Then, we rested for tomorrow’s four-hour drive to Khor Virap, a pit very close to Mt. Ararat, where they banished St. Grigor, the man who convinced the Armenian government to accept Christianity.
Day 4: May 25 – Class Reporter: Arda Mahserejian
After a filling breakfast to start our day, we headed off to Khor Virap. It was so beautiful. We went down into the pit. We could see Mount Ararat; it was so amazing. We also stopped at Areni cave to see the site of the world’s oldest leather shoe (5,500 years) and learn more about it. After lunch, we visited Noravank; it was so beautiful and there are amazing stories behind it. When people tell you not to step on a grave, at Noravank, you can. In Jermuk, we saw the most beautiful waterfall. After that, we went to a hot spring and swam before heading back to our hotel for dinner.
Day 5: May 26 – Class Reporter: Aline Mikaelian
Today we woke up bright and early to go to Datev. We all fell asleep on the ride. By the time we all woke up, we had made it to the Datev tramway, the longest two-way tramway in the world. As we walked to the tramway I looked around at the scenery. It was a lot to take in. It was all so beautiful, the mountains, waterfalls, etc. We walked through this gate which led us to the three churches. They were so beautifully designed. I can’t imagine how construction of the first church was completed over 1,000 years ago in 906. It was evident to me that faith and Christianity were important to Armenians. We saw how Krikor Datevatzi lived with his students. We also saw how people from the village of Vahn made oil from walnuts using basic equipment. We took a lot of pictures with the beautiful background. I also learned the history of the name Datev. Legend has it that Thaddeus thought to name it after him, Datev. Another story is that the architect of Datev wanted to see his work from above so he asked God to give him wings; in Armenian it translates to “Da Tev.” We met a Vartabed who blessed us all with a prayer. We lit candles, and he gave us memorable cross necklaces and prayer cards. Our next stop was Lake Sevan, about a four-hour drive from Datev. During our journey, there were children who waved to us and looked amazed at our bus. When we finally arrived at Lake Sevan, we went to the island which is now a peninsula because of water shortage. We climbed the stairs to the two churches. The view from up there was amazing! You could see the whole lake. We took pictures, and some of the girls went to the small gift shops and bought jewelry made out of loosnakar, which is a rock found about 18 kilometers deep into Lake Sevan. I wish we could have swam in the lake, but it was too cold. Once we finished souvenir shopping, we headed back on the bus toward Dilijan. We ate at Haleb, and it was the best restaurant I have been to since I arrived in Armenia. Can’t wait to see other parts of my homeland.
Day 6: May 27 – Class Reporter: Aiki Arzoumanian
This morning, we ate breakfast at Dilijazz Hotel in Dilijan and then hit the road to Lori. We drove by the United World College, where students from around the world, including Turkey, come to study. We visited the Children of Armenia Fund SMART Center. We learned that children from different places around Lori come to COAF to get an education and housing. Everything was so modern and so different from any other buildings I have seen in Armenia. Bedo Demirjian, the director, showed us where the students have their lessons. We saw the auditorium, the dance room and the recording room, and we met students in the recording room doing work. Next, we saw the showers for children who don’t have showers at home. We went outside, where we saw a beautiful meadow and small houses. We sang to the fifth grade class, and they sang to us. After we took a picture, we headed to the Tumanian House Museum. The house had two rooms and one study room on top. The first room was for storing the harvest and cooking lavash bread. The second room was added later to sleep in and cook dinner. We saw some of Tumanyan’s work in a display room. Our next stop was Haghpat Monastery; I had read a short article about it. The monastery contained many churches and a big khachkar called Sp. Amenaprgich. It had Jesus Christ carved into it. After Haghpat, we headed to Sanahin, which is my favorite Monastery. It was so breathtaking with its churches and tombs. There was even a small study area. I got a gift for my cousin Sanahin, because she was named after the monastery. We ate ice cream and drove to the Tufenkian Hotel. After a manti dinner, we went for a walk and Eva’s dad’s friend taught us how to dance kochari and tamzara.
Day 7: May 28 – Class Reporter: Leanna Iskenderian
Ուրախ Հայաստանի անկախութիան Օր: Our wake up call this morning was at 6:00 a.m. We ate our breakfast at the Tufenkian Hotel lounge. Then, we got on the bus and made our way to the Sardarabad Monument. It is an honor to be in Armenia on a very important and historic day. After a nap on the bus, we woke up for the most beautiful view of Ararat. When we arrived at Sardarabad, I couldn’t take my eyes off the monument. It was completely breathtaking, and I wish I could’ve stayed. We started singing “Sardarabad” and “Zartir Lao.” While we were singing, we noticed a news reporter and two cameramen. They started filming us while we were singing. Then, they interviewed us and asked us questions about our visit to Armenia. The road was blocked off because PM Nikol Pashinyan was visiting the Sardarabad Monument. We saw him leave the area, and his driver was driving really fast. As we approached the monument, everything we had learned in our books came to life. This feeling is indescribable, and we all wish every Armenian in the diaspora has the opportunity to experience this landmark. This landmark also made me proud of all the soldiers who lost their lives to protect their country. We went to the Haghtanagi bad; the wall was humongous and worth seeing. I was also amazed by the carvings on the wall. We were surprised to run into one of Digin Ardemis’ students, Serena Hajjar. We shared wonderful stories with her. There were several priests who came and prayed in front of Sardarabad. After lunch at the Marriott Hotel, we went to the pool to swim for a couple hours. Then we got ready for dinner at the Byblos restaurant. The food was delicious. I even saw my cousins Nane and Shant-Roupen. Today was an amazing day filled with happiness and pride.
Day 8: May 29 – Class Reporter: Siran Arakelian
We woke up bright and early and ate breakfast in the hotel before getting on the bus to drive to Yerablur. The graves at Yerablur had Armenian flags next to those who died in the recent war, and their age was written on the tombstone next to their names. One of the soldiers was only 17 years old! We also visited the grave of Soseh Mayrig, whose remnants were imported from Egypt in 1997. She was the wife of Serop Aghpiur. Our class visited Yerablur because we wanted to pay our respects to those who died during the Artsakh War. After Yerablur, we went to Dzitzernagapert, the monument in honor of the Armenian Genocide that took place in 1915. At the monument, we sang “Anmoruk” (Forget-Me-Not). Then, we went to the museum nearby for a tour. After the Armenian Genocide Memorial, we went to Etchmiadzin, the Mother Church. We couldn’t go inside the church because of renovations, but we walked around. After lunch at Hin Ashtarak, we went to Oshagan, the resting place of Mesrob Mashdots, the creator of the Armenian alphabet. We visited his grave and the khatchkar-style letters in the backyard. Then we drove toward Yerevan for free time and a visit to Vernissage.
Day 9: May 30 – Class Reporter: Arda Mahserejian
Before heading to Gyumri today, we stopped at the alphabet park and “Kntouni” bakery. The lavash was a amazing. We arrived at Gyumri and stopped at “Seven Wounds” church where we saw amazing paintings and sculptures. After lunch, we headed back to Yerevan. We ended the day at Taverna Yerevan, where we enjoyed authentic Armenian food and entertainment.
Day 10: May 31 – Class Reporter: Aline Mikaelian
Only a few days remain of this wonderful trip. Our morning excursion was with Digin Ardemis to Gomidas Museum. Gomidas Vartabed was born in Turkey in a town called Kutahya. His parents died when he was young. His grandmother took care of him until she passed away. Gomidas was only 14 years old. He would sing on the streets with his beautiful voice to earn money. Gomidas was sent to Etchmiadzin for an education. That was the beginning of his life in music. Gomidas’ voice gave him very big opportunities. He got accepted into the Kevorkian Gemaran, made friends and started to sing songs such as “Gakavig.” During the Genocide, he was captured by the Turks, but fortunately escaped to Paris. There, he suffered with depression because of the trauma he experienced during the Genocide. He died in Paris, but his ashes are now in Armenia. We also visited Erebouni and saw what people would use as plates and jewels. Erebouni is what Yerevan used to be called. After that, we ate at Italiano where we had pasta for the first time in this whole trip! After lunch, we headed to TUMO, an interesting after-school program focused on technology, photography, film and art. After returning to the hotel, we freshened up to head to the Opera House for a performance by the Sardarabad Dance Ensemble.
Day 11: June 1 – Class Reporter: Eva Khalarian
After breakfast at the Marriott hotel, we went to the Matenadaran in Yerevan where there is a statue of Mesrob Mashdots and his student looking up at him. Inside the Matenadaran, we saw the Hsgay “Msho Jarndir” and the Tzoog. Hsgay “Msho Jarnir” is a big book with 666 pages in it. The Tzoog has 104 pages in it. It was interesting to see all the artifacts at the Matenadaran. Next, we went to Grand Candy and got bonchiks. We also saw the famous Vartan Mamigonian statue and had lunch at Lahmajun Gaidz. That evening, we went to Cascade and saw the Alexander Tamanian statue. We also climbed the set of stairs all the way to the top, over 390 feet. Climbing those stairs made us all hungry and thirsty so we went to Al Mayass for dinner for their amazing food.
Day 12: June 2 – Leanna Iskenderian
After breakfast, we made our way to the Avedisian School. We were introduced to the students, and we had the chance to get to know each other. We then headed outside to the greenhouse where they grew strawberries, tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables. On the bus, we talked and sang Armenian songs. Next, we visited the Armenia Tree Project (ATP) field to plant trees. We took pictures, laughed and sang, and then we dropped off the students at their school. It was really sad, but we had a great time and made amazing memories. Once we got to the hotel, we had the rest of the afternoon off. I went to Elie’s Lahmejune with my dad. After swimming at the Marriott Hotel pool, we went to Rehan Garden for dinner. We have a free day tomorrow, which is bittersweet because our trip to our homeland is over. This trip was the perfect ending to my nine-year journey. Bye, Armenia! Until we meet again!