In the diaspora, despite our good intentions and ability to stay informed, we tend to view matters in the homeland from a distance. Our two sources of information are essentially what we read and what we hear from informal sources. There is a third option which can be quite enlightening. We can go to Armenia and experience the challenges on the ground. We came to Armenia a few days ago to work on behalf of our beloved Paruyr Sevak village located directly on the Nakhichevan-Azerbaijani border. The first centralized heating system has been installed, which means the secondary school students will not have to wear winter coats and boots in the classroom. We are meeting with the village officials and school administrators to review the status of a variety of projects implemented, including those in progress and plans for the next few years. These border villages are vital to Armenia’s national security with education for their children and economic viability the key components to their stability and prosperity. It is a remarkably invigorating experience to be amongst people with such resilience, warmth and commitment.
We had an unprecedented experience on Tuesday. While in Yerevan, arrangements were made to visit the Armenian Soldier’s Home, which opened in 2018. This is a rehabilitation hospital dedicated to the physical, mental and social recovery of those injured in the wars with Azerbaijan. We were met at the lobby by the dedicated director of the home, Haigouhi Minasyan. In five short years, the Soldier’s Home has become a state-of-the-art center for rehabilitation. The physical plant is impressive with world-class equipment and therapy capabilities for amputees, brain and spinal injuries and other medical challenges. The facility does not feel or look like a hospital with its warm and inviting decor, yet it functions with impressive capability. They are constantly upgrading for the benefit of the veterans. Near the front entrance, they were completing what will soon become a chapel for the soldiers and others to pray and find solace. The workers were ready to lift in place a beautiful wood carving archway that was inspired by the stonework of the Noravank monastery. We quickly learned that working at this facility is not simply a job, but a mission. You can feel the passion and commitment from every staff member we encountered. “We will do everything for our soldiers,” stated Haigouhi. No truer words have been spoken. Haigouhi’s story is quite interesting. She was working as a radio journalist and began helping the wounded soldiers. This led to work with the hospital’s founder and eventually her role as the director. She represents the facility with professionalism, passion and factual presentations of their mission and commitment. While they attend to the extensive physical rehabilitation needs, they also offer a variety of speech and psychological therapy services. In addition, the hospital focuses on significant job training and placement to ensure that these wounded heroes become productive members of Armenian society.
One example is Movses Saribekyan. Originally from Russia, he volunteered to serve in Artsakh and received services at this Home as a result of the war. When he recovered, he received training in photography and now works at the Home in that capacity. His bright happy face met us in the lobby and shadowed us during our visit taking pictures of our interaction. Haigouhi told us that as a matter of practice, we will receive pictures of our visit and further information about the Soldier’s Home.
Frankly, our mood was somber as we entered the facility. After all, this was not a visit to see the happy young faces of a secondary school. We weren’t quite sure what to expect. Initially, the staff’s remarkable dedication to the soldiers shielded our emotions from the tragedy these young men have experienced. Our tour began by viewing some of the beautiful restoration work and the exquisite interior of the hospital. As we entered the first rehabilitation room, many of us were overcome with emotion as we saw these young men with their injuries working so diligently to recover. My eyes welled up with tears as I looked at their young faces; we were witnessing examples of the price of freedom. There are two places that come to mind: Yerablur, where many of the heroes from the Azeri wars are buried and this Soldier’s Home, where the commitment of a nation to save lives is on display. It is said that we learn a great deal about a society from how it treats those who sacrifice for the freedom of that nation. In America, we embarrassed ourselves with the poor treatment of the Vietnam Era, often blaming those who fought for the unpopular war. American society has sought to redeem itself with veterans from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. We now rightly honor veterans as we proclaim frequently, “Thank you for your service.” In this hospital in Yerevan, we get a view into the soul of Armenia. They pray for those who were lost, and they offer resounding support to those who survived but returned with challenges. It was a moment of pride and inspiration to be amongst these people. There is so much good going on that it is humbling to experience.
The rehabilitation center has about 80 beds at two locations for in-patient activity and outpatient care. We observed state-of-the-art equipment in every therapy area for the needs of the soldiers. We marveled at the determination of the veterans to walk again, gain strength and recover from a variety of devastating injuries to take their place in society. The compassionate yet professional approach of the staff is a major contributor to this motivating environment. They are constantly challenging themselves to find new ways to better serve the needs of the soldiers. We went up to the third floor where the Armenian Relief Society (ARS) Western Region was a major benefactor to the installation of a surgery center that will open when a few more pieces of equipment are secured. This is a significant addition in capability to the already impressive array of services the Soldier’s Home offers. Everywhere we went in this building we saw plaques honoring several American-Armenians who donated to this life-giving facility. The needs, of course, are significant because they are tied to sustaining the services and expanding into other vital areas. I have met many Armenian-Americans who express a dilemma about donating to Armenia. They want to give, but they are either lacking knowledge or more often than not are concerned about how to ensure the security and impact of their generosity. If you are interested in making a difference in the lives of those who have paid a price for Armenia’s freedom, then please consider this mission. In order to move the mountains they have in five short years, there have been some major donors. But interestingly, Haigouhi stated that smaller amounts that are sustained monthly are equally important because they offer revenue predictability. Capital projects are essential, but contributing to the operating budget is equally important. All amounts are graciously appreciated.
There have been a few times when my emotions have been overwhelming during our times in Armenia. The first time was when we viewed Mt. Ararat after a lifetime of pictures on walls and keeping the name alive in our diaspora life. This is fairly common. Several years ago, I attended badarak at Soorp Gayanne church in Etchmiadzin, and during the topor (procession), I was overcome by the spiritual beauty of the moment. Here I was standing on a 7th century stone floor thinking about all the faithful who had stood where I was. Their participation with the faithful offering khoong (incense) while seeking blessings gave me an intense rush of emotion. Several years later, we now observe the price of freedom and the commitment of these people to ensure that all lives are important. Their commitment to recovery is both inspiring and effective. No soldiers are turned away. They have finite resources, but they are determined to serve these wounded heroes. Despite the tragedy of the circumstances of these young men, it was a very positive environment. They prefer to call it a home (doon) because it serves as that for these soldiers. Even after they leave, they assist the soldiers in their reentry into society. We learned that over 100 homes have been renovated to meet their needs from upgrading to refurbishing homes for their new life. When you visit Yerevan, do yourself a favor. Take the time to visit these brave men and the dedicated staff of the Soldier’s Home. It will be a life-changing event that will add to the list of difference makers that need more visibility. Our headlines from Armenia are sometimes completely dominated with fearful and disappointing news. Taking the time to seek out stories that describe the Armenia we love and reflecting its values would be a refreshing improvement. It is too easy to find depressing or negative news. Balance your perceptions with the quiet miracles that are happening every day. The media has a responsibility to make that balance public, and the public has a responsibility to consume this information that feeds our opinions. I viewed the Soldier’s Home as heroes serving heroes. For the staff, it is a mission, not simply a job. For those who sacrificed, they are expressing the same determination and dignity that they displayed on the battlefield defending the sovereignty of Armenia and Artsakh. In the United States, we understand the tragic circumstances when wounded veterans are unable to re-engage in their civilian life. The Soldier’s Home is literally saving lives every day. They understand that the price of freedom can create difficult challenges for those who serve and stand ready to ensure that these heroes are rightfully given the finest treatment and supported to continue a productive life.