Monthly Archives: September 2012

In the Line of Fire.

Dangerously beautiful: Joghaz Lake & Berqaber Village on the border with Azerbaijan.

On my second day in Armenia, we went to the border town of Berqaber (which means “Bringing Fruit Harvest”). It was the end of a long day we’d spent visiting other youth groups and Heifer projects in regions northeast of Yerevan, but Vahe, my Heifer guide, was intent upon taking me to visit this one family before we made the 2-hour trek back to Yerevan.

The Gasparyans have been involved with Heifer for several years.  The father Gorik works in the border patrol, on a small lake that is half-owned by Armenia and half-owned by Azerbaijan (and yes, that is a recipe for disaster). The military is the only industry the town has, so Ella stays home with her three sweet children and mother-in-law, raising food and animals.

Valeria, Hrachya and Veronica Gasparyan

In late 2011, Ella received a heifer that gave birth to twins (a rarity); she’ll pass on the baby heifer to another needy family in a few months. Veronica, Ella’s beautiful daughter, received a turkey as part of her Heifer Animal Husbandry training – which she’s now parlayed into 6 turkeys, 17 turkey chicks, 10 chicken hens and 30 chicks.

The household is full of animals, the yard is laden with fruit and flowers, and the setting is beautiful – except that while we were sitting there having coffee, we heard gunfire (it sounded like firecrackers). Ella’s children told me that when the guns start firing during the school day, they push their desks back from the window and keep studying. And then they showed me the bullets they’d pulled out of the walls of their house.I guess this is what it’s like to live in the Palestinian territories or the settlements. It was simultaneously frightening (not for myself, but for the beautiful children, whom I never wanted to let out of my sight) and totally surreal. You have to wonder how the heck it’s ever going to end and what could possibly be the point of prolonging this age-old conflict.

Across the lake and in sight: the Azerbaijan Border Station

Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, a former Soviet Republic like Armenia, and a big country with untold riches in oil and gas. Its conflict with Armenia is over Nagorno-Karabagh, the predominantly Armenian territory that was made a special autonomous administrative zone under Azerbaijan control by Stalin in the 1920′s, but then sought independence from Azerbaijan when the Soviet Union disintegrated in the 1990s. The resulting conflict was a bloodbath on both sides, with 30,000 killed and countless others displaced (most all the Azeris fled their homes in Karabagh and moved east). In 1994, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabagh won the war and declared their independence (though the republic hasn’t been recognized by any other country in the world). Yet the Azeris have not forgiven, forgotten – or even accepted this secession, and troops are still dug in trenches on both sides.

Turkey, in solidarity with Azerbaijan, closed its borders with Armenia, effectively cutting it off from trade and commerce development – and yes, this whole saga is like listening to somebody telling you stories from a bad divorce. You just want it to stop already.

Veronica’s grandmother, who’s lived through the aftermath of the genocide, the Soviets, and the Azeri war.

But for Armenians like the Gasparyans, this is life. Their small village of 450 people has dozens of boarded-up houses, as neighbors flee the violence. Yura, Berqaber’s devoted community leader, is working with Heifer to try to stabilize and empower the village with income-producing animals, but it’s hard not to listen to the words of Veronica’s grandmother and feel some despair.

“My husband’s family came from Western Armenia (now Turkey). We went through the genocide and still they shoot at us. Why our government doesn’t let us shoot back?”

It’s a raw feeling. Two months ago, Heifer visitors were scheduled to come see Veronica’s thriving turkeys but it was too unsafe. She was heartbroken with disappointment. Today, she’s holding my hand and hugging me fiercely as we walk through the gates. I don’t want to let her go. As strong and competent as her mother is, I simply cannot imagine raising my children in this culture of war – and nothing seems destined to change.

I’m so happy Heifer is helping families in Berqabar survive, when no one else is coming to their aid. But until peace comes, I’ll be worried sick about Veronica. She’s in my heart now.

Categories: Heifer International | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

Smells like teen spirit.

The first day after I arrive in a country, I’m pretty much in a semi-delirious jet-fog. So when my trusty  Heifer Armenia guide/guru Vahe told me we would be driving two miles north of the capital city of Yerevan to visit a bunch of teenagers, I was … speechless.

Inside Hairavank Monastery at Lake Sevan

We started at beautiful Lake Sevan – Armenia’s largest lake that is surrounded by lovely dun hills and ancient monasteries. These rural communities are challenged by high levels of unemployment and poverty, aging Soviet technology, low agricultural productivity, and for teens: the absolute lack of anything to do.After 70 years under Soviet rule, Armenia is still shaking itself awake from the soporific habit of socialist dependence. In 2002, Heifer’s dynamic country leader Anahit Ghazanchyan decided to kickstart that change with a clarion call to those most likely to respond: the youth of Armenia who are open to new ideas, full of fearless energy, and eager to flex their entrepreneurial muscles.

Change agents extraordinaire.

Heifer’s youth project, called YANOA– Young Agriculturalists Network of Armenia– is a huge undertaking, touching the lives of 4000 youth in 29 rural communities. In Lake Sevan alone, YANOA has produced 3 generations of kids who have been through a rigorous after-school program that teaches kids practical life skills in any one of 7 Directions: Animal Husbandry, Business Development & Management, Ecology, Health Education, Civic Education, Public Relations & Journalism, and Logical Thinking. It engages them in their communities doing everything from publishing newsletters to fixing holes in the street; debating gender issues to influencing town policies, starting small businesses to raising animals.

The sweet faces of the future of Armenia

YANOA is taught and managed by community volunteers like Osana Sahakyan who follow an established Heifer curriculum with the kids for three years and take them through a remarkably sophisticated and hands-on learning process that ultimately earns them the gift of cows, fruit trees, worms, seeds, or seed money from a $22,000 revolving business loan fund. Armenian kids respond to the opportunity like thirsty plants soaking up water; I saw the results in Metaqsya Matevosyan and the adorable entrepreneurs of New Original Beautiful.

Beekeeper Metaqsya and her YANOA mentor, Osana Sahakya

Metaqysa’s father is an accomplished beekeeper, and she chose the Business Direction because she wanted to focus on producing her own honey. After studying the market, competition, and developing a business plan, she qualified for a $100 loan from Heifer that she used for two fully-equipped hives with about 80,000 bees each. With favorable weather those hives will produce 20-25 kilograms of honey that she can sell at $6 to $7 a kilo.

Metaqsya and her hives

Metaqsya has branded her honey A+A for “Work Advantage” (in Armenian) produced great labels, and is selling in direct competition with her dad, which he loves. She’s on fire to get more hives and once she passes on the $100 loan to another budding entrepreneur in December, she is going to ramp up her business and really get going.

Where the New Original Beautiful magic happens – around the sewing machine, of course!

The five 15-year old friends who have formed the textile collaborative New Original Beautiful are equally articulate, confident and enthusiastic about their business potential. They’ve enlisted David’s mom, a skilled tailor, to help them understand fabric, sewing techniques and experience, but the creativity comes from the fab five. Ani is the best sewer. Mariam likes to write commercials and do marketing. Vahan is the distribution guy. And David & the other Mariam make sure work gets done on time, savings are put away to pass on the gift of their $100 Heifer loan, and their pricing is right.

Picking the fabrics is Ani’s specialty (with David’s mom’s help).

Recently, they realized that the bed linens they were producing were not profitable enough, so they’ve moved into producing tablecloths, which are very profitable.

Their slogan: “We work during the day so you can rest at night” has proven to be very popular .. and even though they’re all just 15, they feel they are an unbeatable team and plan to have their own factory one day .. and sell tons of stuff in America.

Mariam loves writing& recording commercials, and New Original Beautiful was her name creation

What makes this particularly moving to me is the unvarnished excitement and full engagement of the kids. They can’t wait to talk about their big plans and what they’ve learned so far. Like teens everywhere, they’ve also had a trickle-up impact on the adults that work with them — like Osana, their YANOA mentor, who has evolved from a quiet housewife into a committed civic leader as she’s helped these kids develop enormous new confidence, vocabulary, ideas and perspective—and learned from them the feeling that anything is possible.

Armine and her son Ishkhan, 16, who wants to become a farmer and extend the family lands.

Instead of thinking they need to migrate or marry to have a promising future, these Armenian teens are learning they can develop a business in Armenia, be successful, and  control their own destiny. Says 16 year-old Ishkhan of Chkalovka, “Before we were counting on the state. Now we count on ourselves.”

How New Original & Beautiful!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

(And to read more about MY beautiful Classy Weekend, click here...)

Categories: Armenia, Children, Heifer International, Inspiration, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Getting girly wit’ it.

Never judge a person until you’ve walked in her shoes.

We interrupt the compelling, sensitive & fascinating tale of Betty in Armenia to bring you this breaking story:

Betty is going to Beverly Hills!

Specifically, to Heifer’s amazing celeb-filled fundraiser this Friday called Beyond Hunger to honor Mary Steenburgen and Ted Danson, both longtime donors to and advocates for the poor and hungry. What a great cause!! But let’s be honest…this is also star-gazing at its FINEST!

My fave!!

The evening will be hosted by Diane Lane, as well as Nina Jacobson, producer of “The Hunger Games”; Jane Fonda, Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt and Tracey Ullman, with a live auction and live entertainment by Colbie Caillat. Other stars on the dinner committee include Ed Asner, Ashley Judd, Kirsten Dunst, Mia Farrow, Adrian Grenier, Patricia Heaton and David Hunt. Allison Janney, Anna Lappe, Amy Madigan and Ed Harris, Susan Sarandon and Keisha and Forest Whitaker are also part of the committee.

WOW… so of course you’re thinking: What is Betty going to wear? Those cargo pants and orange sweater that I’ve seen in every single country she’s been to?

Yep, that’s the outfit.

New improved BettyOh, ye of little faith! I actually have been on a three-day sprucing up campaign (yeah, it was like chopping thru a forest) and now have pretty nails and toes, genuine evening bags, awesome shoes, and seriously-considered outfits to wear for EVERY one of my occasions – as I am also going out to California for the fabulous CLASSY Awards, where I am the South Region Finalist for Volunteer of the Year for this blog– whoeeeeee!

Here’s the pile of fabulous clothes I will wear…(and no, I don’t pack like this for my Heifer trips)…And here are the list of the events on tap. Can you match them up?? (ha!!)

  1. Friday 9 am: CLASSY Symposium at the New Children’s Museum, San Diego
  2. Friday 6:30 pm: Heifer’s Beyond Hunger Event at the Montage Hotel, Beverly Hills
  3. Saturday 5 pm: CLASSY Awards Red Carpet & Finalists Announcement, San Diego Civic Theater
  4. Sunday – Los Angeles for an Oglethorpe University Alumni Event and possibly crashing the Emmy Awards

I am SO SO excited!! I promise to tweet and post photos from the above events …but most of all, THANK YOU for voting for me for the Classy Awards and being my ever-supportive, super awesome bloggy friends!!!

(And afterwards, I promise I will get back to the serious, wonderful story of Armenia!)

Categories: Heifer International, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 54 Comments

Barev, Armenia!

A beautiful land with a harsh history.

When I told people I was going to Armenia with Heifer, the most frequent response was, “Wow, um.. where is that?”

So – first the geography lesson: Armenia is just east of Turkey and bordered by Georgia to the North, Azerbaijan on the East and Iran to the South. Which basically means Armenia is a raft of Christianity in a sea of Muslim countries (Armenia was the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion in 301 AD). And that has pretty much defined and shaped its turbulent history through the ages.

Armenia is a mystical place – filled with monasteries, pagan temples, prayer stones and churches, most tucked away in wildly remote places to protect them from destruction. (It didn’t.)

Noravank Monastery, in a gorgeous bedrock canyon that reminded me of Utah.

These Christian monuments are the pride of Armenia, as well as testament to a seemingly endless parade of invaders: conquering Persians, rampaging Mongols, invading Turks, totalitarian Soviets, as well as the ravages of devastating earthquakes. For over 600 years, Armenians knew themselves to be a distinct people, and yet were not a sovereign country. Faced with hostility from all sides, Armenians held fast to their identity and managed to survive into the modern era with a faith as deep and constant as the obsidian stone that is part of this beautiful landscape.

Even Armenia’s beloved Mt. Ararat, where Noah’s Ark supposedly landed, is now part of Turkey.

Although the Kardashians are undoubtedly the world’s most famous Armenians, they are not typical of the Armenian character (sorry, Kanye) – although I did see an awful lot of beautiful women in the modern capital of Yerevan. Actually, it’s a bit hard to get a firm grasp on the Armenian character because it’s full of such deep contradictions.

Armenians are enormously proud, highly educated (with a literacy rate of almost 100%), and hospitable beyond your wildest expectations. In centuries of life along the Silk Route, Armenians became known for their business savvy in commerce and trade, and they interacted easily with almost every European and Asian culture. But Armenia’s psyche is indelibly haunted by the memory of great loss (1.5 million annihilated in 1915 alone) and like all the Caucasus’s states, the people have experienced centuries of brutal conflict that staggers the imagination and continues today.

Woman deep in sorrow at the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital.

Armenian people are tough; they’ve had to be to. But they are also joyful, sweet people who love to garden, to eat, to talk and to welcome visitors — particularly if you’re one of the 8 million Diaspora Armenians who’s coming back home.

An Armenian rule: If you walk by when someone’s baking bread, you have to eat some. (Oh, twist my arm!)

Armenia was a part of the Soviet Socialist Republics for more than 70 years, and has only been independent for 21 years. Like Romania, Armenia’s economy was far more robust and productive under Soviet rule, and the country is still struggling to establish a modern economy with almost no natural resources (and with its two borders with Turkey & Azerbaijan closed). While the capital of Yerevan is bustling, elegant and thriving,  in the countryside there is little besides subsistence farming to support the villagers, and the poverty rate approaches 35%. Many men have immigrated to take jobs in neighboring countries; in fact, three times as many Armenians now live outside the country as inhabit it.

But Armenia is hardly depressing. For one thing, the country is beautiful. The food is incredible ( a big fat blog on that later), and the people are totally endearing.

Even their blooming Christian cross never features a Christ, because Armenians believe in the rising.. not the suffering.

And that’s as good a prescription for moving forward as anything I can imagine!

Categories: Armenia, Heifer International, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 32 Comments

Lulu’s View.

I’m taking the photo, but they’re all looking at Lulu.

My daughter Lulu is a lulu. She’s 21, smart, sweet, street-savvy, beautiful, funny and kind. And I’m not taking credit for that. She came that way.

See what I mean?

I was totally jazzed about taking Lulu to Rwanda with me, because I wanted her to experience some of what I’ve been seeing and learning all year long on this amazing journey with Heifer.

But I was a little worried that it would be too emotionally intense or just too physically exhausting. (And of course, we hadn’t been getting along all that well for most of the summer.)

Turns out, I had nothing to worry about. Lulu was a complete trooper — she never complained about having to get up at 7 a.m. and be out in the countryside til 7 p.m., never seemed bored for a minute, and was polite and sweet with everyone (even me!).

I was so proud of her, and so happy she could share this experience with me.

These are her favorite photographs from Rwanda.

And here’s an English proverb she loves:

“The soul is healed by being with children.”

Hope we’ll be back soon!And now…. I’m off to Armenia!

Categories: Children, Heifer International, Inspiration, Mothers, Photography, Rwanda, Travel | Tags: , , , , | 33 Comments

Blog at WordPress.com. Customized Adventure Journal Theme.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,248 other followers

%d bloggers like this: