Independence!

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I’m slowly getting settled into my new apartment and am so happy with it! It’s not so bad for not having been remodeled and I think it’ll be easy to keep warm in the winter since it’s so small. I also have an extra room I’m going to use as an “exercise room” though it’s a little too small to jump rope so I’ll have to come up with another exercise routine. I could jump rope in my entryway to the building, but I haven’t gotten up the nerves to do that yet! Luckily I’m on the first floor right above a store, so any exercise noises won’t be bothering anyone below me!

I’m still figuring out the water schedule and other quirks of the place, but overall I’m pretty happy with it. I spent all day yesterday cleaning and just have the floors left to do before I feel like I’ve done what I can. Since the building’s old it just feels dirty no matter how much I clean, but at least I know I’ve done my best!

This weekend I’ll venture out to buy more necessities and I will attempt to cook my first “real” meal tonight. Luckily I eat dinner with my site mates often, so I have been able to have home-cooked food for most of the week until I could get everything cleaned and sort out my kitchen.

I’ve posted more pictures of the apartment online here: http://s1150.beta.photobucket.com/user/lizinarmenia/library/My%20Apartment but I’ll post a few here for you to take a look at!

My kitchen

My bathroom–actually not that bad for one that hasn’t been remodeled!

My exercise/sun room

View from the sun room of my living/bedroom

My living/bedroom 

Culture Corner

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On Armenian Independence Day I went with the two European Volunteer Service volunteers who are here from Austria to a concert dedicated to the holiday. I was happy to be able to capture some of the performances to share with you all to show some traditional, but still widely celebrated, cultural activities from Armenia. Unfortunately I can’t post videos on this blog, but head to photobucket to see videos of dancing and singing.

I especially enjoy the traditional dancing, but some of the videos of the individuals singing show how most Armenians dance in clubs, at weddings, etc. Pay special attention to the arms and wrists. It is so difficult to do and not look ridiculous but I see small Armenian children do it so naturally!

The traditional dancing does a lot with the legs and feet. Pay attention to how much the dancers jump and keep their feet off the ground. I’ve heard that this is done on purpose to represent the desire to be closer to God, so the traditional dances have a lot of jumping and staying light on the feet as a representation of trying to stay up and closer to God and heaven. It also makes it VERY difficult! I am not rhythmically challenged, but it is very difficult for me to feel the beat in the music and actually successfully do the traditional dances. The easier dance moves are still done at modern events, weddings, parties, etc. and I’ve tried to learn, but it’s very difficult!

Enjoy!

Daily Life in Vanadzor

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I have finally managed to take some photos of where I’ve been living for the past two months. Of course I’ll be moving into my own place in a week (woo!!), but here are some photos of my life with Eleonora, my second host-mom.

We have 4 trees in the small garden, two apple and two pears. The pears are pretty much done for the season, though we were only able to pick the pears from the smaller tree. My host-mother has a gigantic pear tree but it is so tall we can only eat some of the pears that fall and aren’t too damaged. Only one of the apple trees produces fruit, but they are big! Sometimes the neighbor will lend us their picking stick tool, but usually we just shake and collect.

Our kitchen

Other half of the kitchen–you can see my water filter in the corner

Eleonora has a beautiful house. She has lived here for decades with her husband, his parents and her two children, a son and a daughter. Her husband passed away 5 years ago and her children both live abroad in Ukraine and Russia. Her daughter begs her to come live in Kiev with her rather than stay to take care of the huge house by herself, but she loves her home and just goes to visit for a few months out of the year. Now she’s gotten a small netbook and I’ve helped her figure out Skype, so even more so she doesn’t see the need to go to Kiev since she can see anyone and anything she wants on Skype!

Our “baghneek.” Often the bathing area and toilet are separate and there are separate Armenian words for each. The room the toilet’s in is called “zookaran.”

Most of Vanadzor is on a water schedule unless the apartment has been remodeled and the owner has invested (somehow) in having water all the time. Here we have water until 10am and then 7pm later. However, this summer they’ve started work on a city-wide water project that will bring water to everyone all the time after 2013. They’ve been digging (and re-digging) up our streets since I came in August so we’ve experienced some unpredictability in the schedule–sometimes having it when we’re supposed to, sometimes not, sometimes having it for much of the day, sometimes not having it for days. My favorite is when we finally get water, but then it only lasts long enough to collect water, do the dishes and then it turns off again (which makes showering and doing laundry–yes, by hand–difficult).

right from the front door

Entryway from the front door

This is an example of a separate house in Armenia. While I have seen houses this big in the village and elsewhere, she has obviously lived well and is most likely more well-off than most of the community. It is a beautiful house and I’ve enjoyed my time here. It’s in a quiet neighborhood in the southeast of the city close to the mountains and forest. We spend most of our time in the guest room, where we’ll drink coffee in the morning together if we have time and I’ll sit and read while she watches TV in the evenings.

So that’s it for now! As soon as I’m settled in my new place I’ll post updated photos of my new living arrangements. I am also hoping to do a “day in the life” post of my daily routine, walking to work, etc. to show some more of the city.

Civil Society in Armenia

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Concert for Armenian Independence Day. There was singing and dancing!

Last Friday September 21 was Armenia’s 21st anniversary of independence from the USSR. So I’d like to take this opportunity to do my part to bring awareness to civil society in Armenia and its role in the past 20 years in Armenia’s transition from Soviet-style government and economic system to democracy and a free market economy.  This topic is what I conducted an independent study on the last months I was in Denver for my Master’s. But I’ll try to keep it brief here!

In 1991 Armenia’s independence was officially recognized as the Soviet Union collapsed. To understand more about the Armenian culture today, it is important to note that in 1988 a devastating earthquake occurred in Spitak, a village about 30 minutes to the west of Vanadzor. The earthquake leveled much of the surrounding villages and towns and killed at least 25,000 people. It is rare to hear from an Armenian in this area that they did not know anyone who lost someone in the earthquake. My current host mother’s brother lost his 14 year old daughter in the earthquake and was so devastated he left Armenia.

The earthquake can be seen as the start of the dark times in Armenia. The infrastructure crumpled and there was no gas or electricity, which threatened many peoples lives as the earthquake happened in December and the Armenian winters are harsh. Many countries including the US sent relief teams to help in recovery efforts. Three years later the Soviet Union fell, taking away the most stable aspect of the Armenian recovery. During Soviet times Armenia was a large manufacturing sector for the USSR. I have not been to a city, town or village yet that does not have remnants of Soviet-era factories that had provided plenty of jobs for Armenians. When the Soviet Union fell, Armenians were unable to support these manufacturing hubs themselves and jobs started disappearing.

Not only did Armenia face the same problems transitioning to democracy as many post-Soviet states (economic difficulties transitioning to a market economy, political instability, etc.), but also a violent political conflict erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan over disputed territory called Nagorno-Karabakh. If the effects of the earthquake hadn’t reached the rest of Armenia, all Armenians felt the impact of the war. Country-wide resources were limited. My program manager who is only in his 30s remembers his mom standing in line all day to receive a tiny amount of bread to feed her entire family. In Vanadzor people went to the forest (which is what the north of the country is known for and very proud of) to cut down trees for fuel. The forest is still recovering. Another Volunteer in Vanadzor, Debra, is living with a host family in the apartment they acquired just after the earthquake. During these dark times her family burned all their furniture and later wood from the forest in their apartment to keep warm through the winters.

The conflict reached a cease-fire in 1994, around about the same time USAID started its development programs in Armenia. This is where civil society comes into play in Armenia. USAID’s strategy for democracy strengthening focuses in large part on civil society strengthening. Civil society is difficult to explain, but is most simply defined as the arena outside the family, state and market where people associate to advance common interests.  Through much theoretical debate during the time of the “third-wave” of democratic transitions in Latin America and Eastern Europe, many western organizations linked civil society nearly exclusively with Non-Government Organizations (NGOs). This meant that in order to strengthen democracy in Armenia (and other countries), organizations such as USAID decided to start programs to assist NGOs, which were seen as the main actors in civil society.

So what does this mean for Armenia? As I’ve described above, the early 1990s were an economically challenging time for Armenia. When western organizations, including the USAID as a major actor, started giving money to these organizations that were a new concept to Armenians, NGO registration went through the roof. Quickly NGOs came to be seen as a family-business serving as the livelihood of families rather than truly growing from the demands of civil society for a formal way to advance the community’s common interests. Establishing NGOs came to be a survival mechanism for this country that had been devastated from the earthquake, Soviet collapse and a difficult war.

Though not all NGOs were started merely as a way to survive, Armenian NGOs became stereotyped as family-businesses rather than community-based organizations existing to serve the community. The ramifications are still seen in Armenia’s NGO sector today. Often NGOs are mistrusted, seen as corrupt or not well organized. This makes it difficult to find financing outside of applying for grants offered by international organizations. NGOs and non-profits in America to be considered public charities must demonstrate that at least one-third of its funding comes from the public. Any conversation I’ve had with Armenian NGO members usually immediately turns to the impossibility of relying on public support for financial sustainability.

Unfortunately this means that many small NGOs work from project to project, grant to grant and see financial sustainability as receiving a long-term grant. An NGO might find a grant to apply for, THEN develop a project to meet the grant requirements rather than develop a project that fits with the organization’s mission first THEN find a grant that matches the project.  As you can guess, this leads to a lot of mismatch between a community’s needs and what activities the NGO actually pursues and also a problem with lack of focus. An NGO with a mission to promote human rights might undertake activities and projects relating to a completely different topic such as environmental issues.

Another impact of this is that many community members don’t actually know what NGOs exist for. If an NGO is created out of personal interest rather than a demand from what is often called “grass-roots movements,” the community will not be invested in the organization. So, coming back to Civil Society Day, it was a great joy for me to see how many people came out and learned about what NGOs existed in their community and what services they provided. Sure we could have had more organizations present and more people from a more diverse cross-section of the community, but you have to start somewhere, right?

I want to emphasize again that these views are mine, stemming from personal interest and research, and do not reflect the opinions of the US government, Peace Corps or any other US governmental agency. The views here also only paint a very general picture of the NGO sector in Armenia and by no means fully represents the complexity of the issues faced by NGOs in Armenia. I merely wanted to share with you, my family and friends, a little background on the country in which I am working and the work I am doing here.

Civil Society Day 2012!

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This Wednesday, September 19 was Civil Society Day in Armenia. One of the organizations I’m working with, the NGO Resource Center, organized a celebration in one of Vanadzor’s parks. They invited other NGOs in Vanadzor, had a DJ, an “I am Vanadzorian” photo contest, arts and crafts for kids and a forum for bringing awareness to civil society in Vanadzor. You can see photos from the day here. (These photos also show a good example of a typical Soviet-era park, of which there are plenty in Vanadzor. This park is one of the less-overgrown parks. Others are larger, more lush and have broken down carnival-type rides in them. Every time I walk through one I try to imagine what it was like 30 years ago in Vanadzor’s hay-day…)

I was happy to be a part of this event as it really brought out some key aspects of civil society in Armenia and also made me admire the NGO Resource Center so much more. The organization is so well run and they are on the ball with planning, monitoring and evaluating everything they do–even an event of 100 or so people. From hearing the experiences of my other Volunteer friends, I know that I am lucky to be placed with such a strong organization. For many Volunteers, getting their organizations to organize an event of this scale and do simple things like keep a sign-in sheet to track not only how many people come (to be able to measure success concretely) but also to use for public relations and advertising in the future is a HUGE step. My role in the event was mostly just logistics on the day-of, and it was so inspiring to see how the organization put everything together and thought of all the small things that I would have suggested they do next time had they not done it.

I will soon post about civil society’s role in Armenia, but I just want to share the day with you for now. There are also more new photos from my first two months in Vanadzor!

Here we are walking from the office to the park to set up

Over 100 people came and signed-up for updates

NGO Center’s banner

Youth gathered around the banner where community members were writing down their wishes for Vanadzor. Some of the young men here are students I work with at the Youth Foundation

My co-workers announcing the top three photos from the “I am Vanadzorian” photo contest

The lovely ladies of the NGO Center!

A good shot of the park with a typical Armenian apartment building in the background

Kids painting and playing with play-do

People would read quotes about civil society and the importance of community mobilization (on the colored papers) and pin them to the board

My counterpart, Hermine, and I manning the Facebook updates

The End of Summer

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Summer is ending, school is back in session and I feel I’m reaching the end of my “Introduction to Armenia” chapter. In two weeks I will move out of my current host-family’s house and into an apartment of my own. Peace Corps’ strategy of gently easing us into life as a Volunteer has been helpful with integration and feeling more comfortable with Armenian culture and customs, but I am looking forward to being on my own again. After living as a guest for four months, I can’t wait to cook for myself, do my own dishes and wash my clothes whenever I want. Most of all, just being able to count on what I have planned for myself for the day will come about just as I expect it to, and not be waylay-ed by a well-meaning host mother. It’s the little things, that is, that I most look forward to once I am on my own again.

Other than this, the past month (since my last post–wow) has been filled with a lot of uncertainty and frustration, but also some great moments as well. I’ve been working with my organizations trying to figure out my place here and where I can be of the most assistance. With each organization there is a different challenge. One organization is well-organized and has multiple projects running at the same time. The other organization has a lot of down time between projects and as a branch of the main organization in Yerevan, operates a little differently than an independent organization would. In the first case, I have a hard time figuring out where I fit because the organization is already run so well. In the second case, I’m having a hard time meeting with staff members and successfully expressing and exchanging my expectations of my service with them.

So that being said, I have latched on to what I know I can do now to be of assistance and started an English Discussion Group at one of my organizations. Though I’m not here to teach English, as a native-English speaker, just offering a space for Armenians who have learned English in school to practice speaking it is a tremendous service. I’m hoping to get a good group going and hopefully in the future to be able to use the connections I make with the youth who come to the group to do other community development oriented projects/seminars.

With the other organization I have attempted to start a professional skills development seminar series. The first seminar will be this Thursday on business planning. I will be presenting in English and Armenian hopefully with the help of my counterpart. We’ll see how this goes and hopefully I’ll be able to continue the series for a few months.

Outside of work I am also attending my site mates’ events. David has a Spanish language group and Matt has a current event discussion group. Combined with Armenian tutoring and my own two groups, my evenings have started to become busy and I’m coming home later. I have something to do every evening after work and often Matt, David and I and sometimes our near-site mates just outside of the city will cook dinner together.

Hopefully with the start of a new month in a new place I will be able to finally get a routine down. My attempts at a routine beyond meeting my basic needs has so far just added more stress to my life rather than the usual comfort I take in routine. I think this is largely due to feeling like a guest still and not quite being in control of my every-day life. So here’s to the end of summer and the start of my independent life in Armenia!

Silver Linings

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I have hesitated to post about this because of how what happened might reflect poorly on my community and my experiences here. But recent developments have made me happy to post about a misfortunate event that happened while I was in training. About a month ago, two weeks until swearing in as a Peace Corps Volunteer, the trainees in our village organized a community event on the local soccer field (which I talked about in this post). We arranged a number of games and succeeded in bringing in about 25 kids to the event. We were having a great day until I lost track of my iPhone for a few minutes—just long enough for it to go missing. I’m happy to say, a month later, that the local police successfully retrieved my iPhone this week!

At the time I was devastated. I am a very careful person and not careless with my things. Though I was disappointed in myself for getting too “comfortable” in the village I called home for my first two months in Armenia, I was most upset that it happened in my community and the potential that a community member took it. We exercised every morning at the soccer field, the local kids knew us and it was just a big blow to think that someone in the community would have done something like that.

Though it was awful to have lost my phone, in my final two weeks I truly felt a part of the community. Within minutes my host brother was out with his friends trying to find anyone who might have seen my phone or anyone take it. My host dad spent days out on the main marshutni (public transportation) stop that serves as the town square and information exchange. My host mother and sisters made me eat tons of food and candy and drink lots of coffee—my favorite. When I’d walk around the streets close to my home neighbors—even those I hadn’t formally met—would ask me if there was any news.

I consider myself a fairly independent person and like the anonymity of living in a big city. However, after this experience I’ve learned the importance of community and how wonderful it feels to know that everyone is looking out for me. I might not have realized this as fully had I not lost my phone and it made me think of some challenges I might face in my permanent site, the third largest city in Armenia. I was initially, and still am, happy to be placed in a large city where I don’t have to worry (as much) about having water, indoor plumbing, gas/heat and grocery supplies. But after this happened I knew that living in a larger city would make it more difficult to build the community ties that I had made in the village. Not that I will never feel part of the community, just that it might take more work to get there.

At the suggestion of my host father, I went to the police to file a report about the incident. As most would think about the legal/justice system in transitional countries, I wasn’t too confident going to the police would help my case. Things like this are dealt with within the community and going to the police can just make things more complicated. If something doesn’t come up within the first few days, pretty much all hope is lost. However, I went and filed the report. They took the serial number of the phone so if anyone were to use it the police would be alerted and could retrieve it. Aside from that they would question the community to see if anyone could provide information about what happened.

So you understand how happy I am to hear that the police system in Armenia successfully retrieved my phone a little more than a month after the incident occurred. Not only am I happy because I have my phone back—which doubles as my camera and triples as my lifeline to the ones I care about most—but I am happy that the police here worked so efficiently and effectively to get the job done. In America we take for granted the service the police provide the public. Often in developing and transitional countries, when something happens no one thinks to call the police because they are so ineffective—for many reasons which I won’t go into. So it is a breath of fresh air to see the local police work so well!

On that note—expect more photos of my permanent site up soon! I’ll also be posting about some experiences I’ve had so far. I did finally manage to put up photos from the end of training and swearing in, so make sure to check those out here: http://s1150.photobucket.com/albums/o605/lizinarmenia/.

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