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Meeting AVC

After familiarizing myself with Yerevan on the Sunday, and although my formal introduction to Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC) was on the Tuesday, Ruzan decided on Monday that she should take me to the AVC office to meet with the AVC staff in person and begin my induction informally. AVC and Depi Hayk (Birthright Armenia) share an office and many facilities and staff as they are sister organizations, but Depi Hayk is for volunteers of Armenian ancestry under 32, while AVC is for volunteers of any ethnic background, and those over 32. The office is near Republic Square on the corner of Melik Adamyan Street and Tigran Mets Avenue.

On the Monday, Sona from AVC arranged for me to meet with Nor Kharberd Specialized Children's Home, which was a bit of a trek from Yerevan so we took a taxi. At Nor Kharberd I was shown the stables where hipotherapy takes place, as well as introduced to some of the staff and children I’d be working with, and the facilities around the building. I met Gayane, the director of For You NGO, Maga, who ran the hippotherapy, and Qristine, one of the nursery workers. Also as I would be having to take the bus by myself to Nor Kharberd, Sona gave me details for how to take the bus there. Plus as I had two placements, I needed to arrange to meet my other placement at the Institute of Molecular Biology before deciding how best to split my time between the two placements and this couldn’t happen until Tuesday, but Sona had made arrangements for me to meet with them too.

Tuesday was my formal induction with AVC, where the AVC director, Tania, told the other new volunteers and I about the history of Armenia and its current geopolitical situation, and the history of AVC. AVC was founded by Hovnan Demerjian, who was a US national who was exceptionally allowed to volunteer in Armenia as part of the US Peace Corps despite being of Armenian ancestry. The US Peace Corps usually sends volunteers to countries that they do not have ancestry from as part of broadening volunteer’s cross-cultural experience, so Hovnan undertaking his service in Armenia was quite exceptional. Realizing that other Armenians would not have the opportunity to volunteer in their homeland through the Peace Corps, he set up Depi Hayk which provides young people with Armenian ancestry from all over the world with the opportunity to volunteer in Armenia. Depi Hayk later expanded with the foundation of a sister organization, AVC, which provides volunteering opportunities in Armenia for non-Armenians as well as older people of Armenian ancestry who are too old for Depi Hayk.

At my induction I met two other volunteers who were starting with AVC at the same time as me. Suzanne from France who was taking a six month internship in Armenia as part of her French university Masters programme, and Jeffry, a chemical engineer from the USA who was volunteering for three weeks for an Armenian tourism website writing a photography blog about Armenia for his vacation. There were also Depi Hayk volunteers starting at the same time who I met when we started language classes. The differences in our backgrounds, both country of origin and our professional background, and our motivations for volunteering in Armenia were diverse, and this reflected the diverse range of opportunities available at AVC.

After my formal AVC induction, we met AVC's social media coordinator, Hasmik, for publicity photographs, which were posted on Facebook to promote AVC. Later that day, Sona had arranged for me to meet with Arsen Arakelyan at the Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB) to plan my placement there. Arsen is the director of the IMB and heads the bioinformatics group (BIG) which I would be working with. Prior to arriving in Armenia, I had looked up his research areas, and I had identified a few research areas they were involved which I thought would be interesting, so I had some ideas already about what I would be working on. Arsen welcomed me to IMB and let me know his schedule for when I could start and introduced me to the members of the BIG. He told me that the next week there was an R course which IMB would be hosting for Armenian students and delivered by his collaborators Henry and Elizabeth from Leipzig, which I asked if I could join in, as I wanted to become familiar with this programming language generally, and a lot of IMB's work uses R so I felt it would be useful for my time at IMB. Arsen also introduced me to Diana, who lived in the same area of Yerevan as where I was staying so that I could arrange for a ride to get to IMB in the mornings. After knowing Arsen's availability for when I could start at IMB, I could now finalize the rest of my schedule for volunteering in the first week, and so after I’d had my induction on Monday and Tuesday, and with Independence Day on the Friday, I decided I'd spend Wednesday and Thursday at Nor Kharberd.

In the evening after my induction and introductions, I began my Armenian language classes. Language classes were optional for AVC volunteers, but as I enjoy learning languages and felt I would be more effective while volunteering if I could speak some Armenian, I took part in the classes. Here I met my teacher, Diana, as well as two volunteers from Depi Hayk who'd started at the same time as me, Tamara from Germany and Frances from Massachusetts. This class was a beginner class which started with the very basics of the Armenian language and simple phrases that we would need, and was taught using the Latin alphabet, rather than the less familiar Armenian alphabet. During the first lesson, we were taught how to construct sentences, and how a word in the infinitive (eg. to work, or ashkatankal) is conjugated (working, or ashkatankum) to allow it to be used in a sentence, along with the pronouns and [unlike in English] auxiliary pronouns that are required in the sentences. Before this class, I wasn't familiar with what these grammatical terms meant, my English grammar education apparently being quite lacking, so having this explained in this way, with examples of what they mean and how they’re used to construct sentences was very useful, not just for learning Armenian, but also for the other languages which I have been learning.

With my placements, accommodation, and language classes all arranged, as well as some familiarity with how to get around Yerevan, it was time to plunge into my volunteering. I now had to prepare to take the bus by myself to Nor Kharberd the next day (Wednesday)!

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