Monday, August 22, 2011

A LOOK BACK AT HISTORY-----through the Eyes of an Armenian Woman

       Where were you in 1988? It seems light years away, doesn’t it?  Now I find myself sitting in the home of a woman Dave and I just met in Armenia. She is an English teacher in Dilijan where we’ll live for the next 2 years, and she invited us to dinner along with another Peace Corps volunteer who will be teaching English in her school.  We are joined by a local history teacher who speaks no English. By the end of the evening, we’ve heard of the horrors of the 1988 earthquake which killed thousands of Armenians and was soon followed by war with Azerbaijan, the Armenian’s neighbor after the fall of the Soviet Union.
        Our new friend was studying and working on her teaching credentials in 1988 and also working in a factory. She painted a brief picture of her experience during the years during and after the earthquake which occurred primarily in Spitak and Gyumri, Armenia, basically ruining these cities. Imagine feeling the ground shake without warning, the machine on which you are working vibrating and the lights flickering off. Your world collapses into a chaotic abyss and the next few months and years are filled with devastation, war and death.    
       Our hostess lived through those times with her parents. For part of the time, her family fled to Russia with many other Armenians. She told of her home being in total shambles and disarray and needing extensive repair. Even so, after 5 years of tragedy, horror, hunger and displacement, the family returned to Armenia to rebuild their lives. Our hostess remembers the aid offered by the US, European countries and others. She remembers the clothes sent by Russia with sleeves missing or only 1 pants leg present. She recalls the terrible times, yet smiles with positive thoughts.
Memorial to Armenians killed in WW II   Kotayk, Armenia
       This Armenian woman survived, her parents and siblings lived, and now 23 years later she relates portions of her story to us. The history teacher at our gathering provided pertinent historical details covering the war which soon followed and added to the earthquake’s destruction. The Armenians were expected to be easy targets due to the losses of life wrought by the natural disaster, however, the Armenians are resilient and strong. They had already survived war, the genocide of 1915-17 and other horrors. They were not ready to succumb and become over powered again. Now today this woman is a well- educated teacher who works hard to help her students learn English. She has lived through much to achieve what she has.
Genocide Memorial  Museum in Yerevan, Armenia
memorializing victims of first Genocide of the 20th century

Hard- working Armenian woman tending her family's garden

         As we sit in her apartment together, our new friend expresses what she thinks of her country and of life in general and says it is currently perfect, just perfect. After her life of living in a poverty-ridden, war torn country and suffering so much loss in her life, she now sees beauty and happiness. Shocked to hear the story from our parents about sending money to “starving children in Armenia” during WW I, she could only speculate as to what these offerings of help might have meant to the Armenian people attempting to save their country.       
        We felt numbed yet inspired by this woman who lived through the imagery we received from television during the 1988 earthquake. We felt empathy for her relatives who suffered yet survived the wars and the genocide. For this and countless other experiences, we are grateful to the US Peace Corps for the opportunity to meet people in other parts of the world who share their world with us--the good, the bad, the horror and the hope. Through this exchange, our world becomes smaller and our understanding of people worldwide grows. So let it be, that we impact people positively by sharing ourselves, our knowledge, and our culture. In turn, we will share what we learn about Armenia with our contacts in the U.S.  That is our aim. That is our mission as US Peace Corps volunteers in Armenia.  Judy and David                              

Saturday, August 20, 2011


Peace Corps Model School classroom, Nor Hojn, Armenia
Photo by Peace Corps volunteer,  Tamara England-Zelenski
           Every day, small seemingly insignificant occurrences begin to take on a life of their own. They begin to add up, and compose a descriptive image of what life as a Peace Corps trainee is really like in Armenia. Life is made up of many small events.  “Little Things do Mean A Lot” as the old song goes.
            Last week marked the end of our Model School in which those of us who  are TEFL’s, or teachers of English as a foreign language, taught various ages of students different subjects using English as the focus.  We taught 6 different classes and during that time my teaching partner and I found that we can plan lessons and execute them in the classroom but need to work on classroom management.  We were “softies”, setting rules for behavior but not enforcing them, especially in one rowdy class of 9-11 year old students numbering 31. It is apparent that my first project upon reaching our new site will be to read more on techniques to deal with student behavior in the classroom setting. The reassuring part of this is that many of my peers will be facing the same challenge as TEFL’s who have not previously taught in a regular classroom.
            Just recently our household needed laundry detergent. I was actually recuperating from what is now called the “Peace Corps Bug” by our training group so David went to the village khnoot (store) and purchased a box of powdered laundry soap.  Upon return to our toon (house), he showed me his purchase. The large colorful letters on the detergent box read BARF.  The name definitely described how I felt. When our host Mother saw it she pointed to the fine print which said in English “for hand laundry”.  Since our family does have a real washing machine which they generously share with David and me, we do not do hand laundry.  BARF was successfully traded by our host Mother for Persil, another brand of laundry detergent.  Our washing machine was happy.

Judith Arvidson-Berg and David Smith, Peace Corps Volunteers

          One of our fellow trainees is a delightful 71 year old lady who has worked and lived all over the world. She is a trooper in the truest sense of the word. Judith lives with a young family whose 5 year old son actually had a bicycle with training wheels, a rarity here in our village. The child was still relying on the training wheels when Judith suggested taking them off. The family, though hesitant, followed her suggestion. The child was riding the bike independently within a week. Now that’s a sustainable Peace Corps project!                 
             We were trying to have a photo made of our village volunteers and language trainers on the last day of our language classes. We were all gathered in front of the school, looking for someone to take the photo when the principal arrived. I motioned to him and thought I asked him if he would take our photo.  It was obvious that my communication failed when the principal smiled broadly and stepped onto the steps in front of his school with all the volunteers, ready to have his photo made with the group!  I believe I still need lots of work on my Hayeren!
 Peace Corps volunteers with Principal at Kotayk School
             Our host Mother and older son share a computer. She has been very interested in our blog, photos and other computer related subjects. Although she knows a bit of English, she certainly can not read a lengthy blog in English.  A younger volunteer told me about GOOGLE Translate so that we could have the blogs translated into Russian which hour host Mother reads well.  She was thrilled to read of her family as described in my first 2 blogs and wants to continue with the GOOGLE process on her own. What a great cultural exchange that has turned out to be.
Armenian rug- making loom with rug in progress
     Recently several of the women in our group visited a local family who makes beautiful woolen Armenian rugs. Their huge loom is set up in a small room in the home, apart from the living space where several rugs are displayed. We saw the mass of colors of yarn and a rug in progress on the loom. These young women already sell their creations in Paris and other international markets. One of the Peace Corps volunteers viewing the rugs has a friend in the US who sells handmade rugs and who may be interested in Armenian rugs. If that materializes and this small village rug maker is linked with a US outlet for her rugs, another cultural exchange has developed.
 Armenian wool in variety of colors for rug in progress
        Then, Ed, my TEFL teaching partner, was the recipient of a small piece of paper with the word “arrogant” imprinted on it. This paper was given to him by a 9-11 year old girl as she left our class the first day we taught. The next day the same child quickly slipped another piece of paper to Mr. Ed as she left the room. On it was the word “confident”. We will not be teaching these children again. Who was this child and where did she learn those words?---or did she even know what the words meant in her limited understanding of English? Mr. Ed will never know, but liked “confident” better.
          These happen-stance occurrences are only a few to be shared and these are during our Peace Corps pre-service training.  Wonder what will occur during our next 2 years to prove that indeed, little things do mean a lot?     Judy

Bari Gisher (Good Night) little Armen.............



     As the saying goes, “blood is thicker than water” and there is no better place to see that demonstrated than in Armenia where families are strong. Work that must be done, misfortunes to be faced, and joys to be celebrated are all shared by resilient Armenian families. To be a part of an Armenian family is to be accepted, to be trusted, to be held responsible and to be encircled with love.                                                                                   
    David and I feel that we are, indeed, a part of our Armenian host family. We have quickly become aware of how the family functions, the gender roles which prevail and the daily stresses placed upon each member of our Armenian family. Although they initially wanted to treat us as guests, catering to our every need and schedule change, we soon became uncomfortable with that and gradually began sharing in small portions of the household routines. As an older couple, we were probably able to make the transition from guest to family member a bit earlier than some of our younger peer volunteers.  From our hosts’ perspective, they probably weren’t sure what to do with their resident volunteers---their 2 year- old child’s new, American Papik and Tatik. We were soon introduced to extended family including our host father’s mother, brother and other family members who also welcomed us into their home as if they’d known us forever.  Our host mother’s sisters and children were met early- on in our stay and we soon shared fun-filled experiences with them. Many of the other relatives and employees of the family’s dairy farm became regular acquaintances with frequent presence in our lives. 
      We certainly did not want to act insensitively to the culture of our family but gradually we began helping to clear dishes from the table and then making our own breakfast so that Anahit could sleep later when we had early classes. I helped prepare a few meals and found that occasionally washing dishes after we ate seemed both to be appreciated and not too intrusive. Our host father was frequently away from home tending his herd of dairy cows that graze in the Armenian mountains during the summer months. 2-year old Armen misses his Papa and quickly began developing a relationship with David and then with me.  Recently we took Armen to a local village playground where his Mother says she rarely has time to visit. We felt like grandparents as Armen climbed on the play equipment and slid down the slide with us watching and interacting when he asked.  It was basically a non-verbal communicative process with us saying “shat lav” or very good when he accomplished a new feat on the playground. There were no behavior issues and our trip ended with a walk across the street to the local khnoot, store, for ice cream.  Sounds like America, doesn’t it? That 1 ½ hour excursion and bonding experience with Armin gave him exercise and fresh air, a chance to play with other children, and a chance for his Mother to enjoy a bit of personal time without a 2 year-old in tow.                              
      Earlier in the day, David helped our host father and older son to unload a huge truck of hay bales. At this time of year, Armenian farmers are working from sun- up to sun- down cutting and baling hay to feed their cattle during the long, harsh winter soon to come to mountainous Armenia. David was accepted and respected as a family member willing to help with this farm task just as the other men in the family were.                          
        I have been obsessed with finding a child’s hardboard dictionary with items labeled in Hayeren (Armenian language). We now have this book so that Armen and I can “read” it together. He also “reads” it with his mother, David and anyone else who will spend time with him and his dictionary, a word he knows and pronounces in English.  Unfortunately the 2 year old knows many more words than this Tatik who has to sound out every letter in some words, using the not totally memorized Armenian alphabet. As Armin snuggles closer and points to pictures in his new book, I feel part of his family.  His mother and father tell us we are family, and that’s as good as it gets for us in Armenia.      Judy                                                                                             

Sunday, August 14, 2011

English as a Foreign Language: Teaching in Armenia

    I’m sitting in a Model School classroom with 5-7 year old Armenian children. It is an English class for students recruited by the Peace Corps so that we TEFL’s have students for our practice teaching. We are evaluated by trainers and more experienced Peace Corps volunteers then given feed-back on our work. As trainees, we also alternate teaching classes with evaluating our peers as they do the same.  TEFL’s are teachers of English as a foreign language. That will be my job with Peace Corps Armenia along with 21 other trainees in my group. Soon we will each be assigned to a different Armenian town or village, so this practicum is invaluable preparation for what lies ahead.
   Today, I am evaluating 2 young women volunteers, peers who are teaching the 5-7 year old class about colors and farm animals. The children in their class demonstrate a wide variance in use of English because they are young and have experienced minimal instruction in English up to this point, plus most families here do not speak Angleren (English) in their homes.  With pony tails swishing and voices purposefully clear, the teachers review 5 animals and 8 colors which the children began learning during the previous lesson. As I observe and listen to these 2 young teachers, I can’t help but think of “Ding Dong School”, a television show in the ‘50’s which featured Miss Frances, the epitome of an elementary school teacher.  Her methods may be outdated, but she knew how to keep her audience of young viewers interested.  And, so did my 2 peers who were presenting the class today for very young students.  Speaking slowly and very distinctly, the sounds made by each farm animal are added to the older material. Then, “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” is posted on the board in large letters and introduced to the children. The Armenian children follow the lead of their teachers and sing the song, adding an animal and its sound as they go. Their pronunciation is unique, not quite “Angleren”, but close. The children’s laughter adds to the fun of the lesson.
   I wonder, did these young children understand the words they are reading from the board, saying—or singing? That is one challenge each of us who teaches English as a foreign language must overcome. Just as in the US, many Armenian children do a great job of reading words in English yet comprehension of what is read often falls short. Only with time and repeated interaction can a teacher be certain of a child’s abilities. From there, a lesson may be planned and further learning occurs. That is the aim of all TEFL’s---to teach a child to listen to English, to read English, to write in English, to speak English but foremost, to understand English. Then we will be successful.
    The young children in the class today are potentially learning 13 new words in 1-2 days.  David and I haven’t done nearly this well in our Armenian (Hayeren) language class. If during our 2 years of service in Armenia we learn 3-5 new words each day, our vocabulary will increase by 2190-3650 words.   That is a huge number of new words to learn.  ( I think we’ll wait to start learning them until after we swear-in on August 16.)    Judy and David
                 Students receiving certificates at conclusion of Peace Corps Model School                                            


    Dave’s watch, which serves as our alarm clock, beeps at 6:30 am but our day really begins at 7:30 am when we hear the low mooing of many cows as they cross the road near our open window.  Nose- to- tail, they amble, headed for greener grass to graze on the nearby mountain.  Along side the cattle is a farmer, stick in hand but his voice the tool most useful in keeping the cows in line.  If one strays to the side to munch on a patch of tempting grass the farmer quickly pursues the animal, taps the ground with his stick, utters a few loud sounds and occasionally throws a rock at the wandering cow. They usually move quickly back with the herd, the mooing becoming louder as these cows patiently make their way methodically up the mountain. This process is repeated exactly twelve hours later. Around 7:30 pm every day, these cows are herded back to their barns where the Armenian women who milk them wait to do their work. One wonders who is happier for that return to the barn—the cows who’ve been in the hot sun, grazing all day and now coming home with udders seeking relief, or the women who tend to the cow’s basic needs and understand only as a woman can, how important their work is.
        We enter the downward stretch in our pre-service training for Peace Corps Armenia. Preparations are being made for our official swearing-in ceremony. Soon after that we move to Dilijan, Armenia which will be our home for the next 2 years.  We will leave our sweet host family, the dairy farm life and the neighbor’s cows who serve as our alarm clock. We’ll leave at summer’s end as our family and most others are preparing for the long, cold winter ahead. Now farmers are busy baling hay and storing it for their animals to eat during the winter. Women are canning fruits and vegetables in great numbers and making muraba(jam)  from the fruits so available during the summer. Herbs are being dried; apricots, peaches, cherries and other fruits are being preserved for later on when only root crops and a few other vegetables are available. In mid-September our family’s large herd of cows will be driven from their mountainous summer home back to the place where we now live. Fat, sleek, and ready to face winter, they’ll be cared for by our host father and his workers.                       
           It is strange though that living on this dairy farm, we never have milk to drink. The milk produced by our cows is trucked down from the mountains and sold to a local company which produces matsoon (yogurt-like dairy product), sour cream, tan (similar to buttermilk), butter and other products. As the cobbler’s son did not have shoes in the tale of long ago, this dairy farm family does not drink milk although they do have cheese, butter, matsoon and other milk products. We take it in stride and supplement our diet with calcium tablets provided by the Peace Corps.
            In the summer, our family’s cows and our neighbor’s cows thrive in the grassy, cooler mountainous areas of Armenia. They survive the cold winter closer to home. Just as it is for their owners, life is tough in Armenia, but the people are strong, resilient and able to handle challenges which face them. And so preparation for winter has started even as our days are hot.  In our new town, we’ll miss the procession of cows passing our window, morning and night. We’ll recall the gentle moos and the farmer’s voice, but we’ll trust that it will all be repeated next season, because that’s how Armenia has survived.  Despite the tragedies of war, genocide, earthquakes, poverty, religious intolerance, and lack of freedom as a country, Armenia prevails and is proud.   May this resilience continue to serve the people of Armenia.       Judy