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Birthright Armenia: Familiar goal, but with Caucasus twist

Participants of Birthright Armenia plant a tree in the Aragatsotn region, near the village of Sasunik, as part of the Armenia Tree Project. Since its founding in 1994, the project has planted more than 6.5 million trees throughout the country. (Photo courtesy of Birthright Armenia)
Participants of Birthright Armenia plant a tree in the Aragatsotn region, near the village of Sasunik, as part of the Armenia Tree Project. Since its founding in 1994, the project has planted more than 6.5 million trees throughout the country. (Photo courtesy of Birthright Armenia)

YEREVAN, Armenia — Aimee Keushgerian, 28, spent her childhood in the Italian city of Florence—where her Syrian-born Armenian father was a vintner—then attended high school in Maine and college in Massachusetts.

Despite her heritage, however, Keushgerian grew up in a secular environment and didn’t speak the language of her people, nor could she decipher the unfamiliar letters of its ancient alphabet.

So in mid-2015—between her junior and senior year—the young woman did a three-month Birthright internship, volunteering for both the European Union and Impact Hub while taking Armenian language classes twice a week. A year later, Keushgerian bought a one-way ticket to Yerevan and has never regretted her decision.

“I really didn’t feel Armenian until I went on Birthright,” she said. “I was looking to do something interesting for the summer, and exploring my Armenian roots was a perfect fit.”

Keushgerian isn’t Jewish, of course, and the Birthright she’s referring to isn’t Taglit.

Rather, it’s Birthright Armenia—a heavily subsidized immersion experience aimed at inspiring young people of Armenian origin to discover their Biblical motherland with the potential of relocating permanently to the Maryland-size nation, whose existence is continually threatened by hostile neighbors.

In fact, its stated mission is “to strengthen ties between the homeland and Diaspora youth.”

Entrance to the Birthright Armenia office in Yerevan. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

If all that sounds familiar, it should. Birthright Armenia proudly takes its inspiration from Birthright Israel, the popular yet controversial program founded in 1999 by Jewish philanthropists that has since brought more than 750,000 young Jews to Israel on free 10-day excursions throughout the country.

Sevan Kabakian, the program’s country director, explained the difference during a lengthy interview last week at his office in Yerevan, the capital of this Caucasus republic of 2.9 million.

“Our concept varies quite a bit from the Birthright Israel model,” he said, noting that participants come to Armenia for anywhere from nine weeks to a year. “The overarching goal is the same, obviously, to connect people to their heritage. But ours is a longer-term immersion program than Birthright Israel, and we do have the Birthright Lite component, which is four to nine weeks for fulltime professionals who can’t take a longer vacation.”

Participation is open to anyone of Armenian heritage between the ages of 21 and 32. That heritage is defined as having at least one Armenian grandparent. Those who come for less than nine weeks get 50% of their airfare reimbursed, while participants who stay longer qualify for 100% reimbursement. If they stay with a host family, daily breakfast is included in the price.

‘The more you’re immersed, the more you understand the reality’

Since its inception, Birthright Armenia has brought 2,300 participants to Armenia from 51 countries. Last year, 40% of its volunteers came from the United States, with the rest mainly from Russia, Lebanon, Canada, France, various Latin American nations such as Argentina and Brazil, and other ex-Soviet republics.

Sevan Kabakian, country director of Birthright Armenia, at his Yerevan office. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Eligibility for Birthright Israel, by comparison, is for young Jews 18 to 26 who have never been to Israel, or whose previous trip had lasted less than three months (until recently, the upper age limit had been 32). Operating on a $150 million annual budget, it’s been funded mainly by wealthy donors including Michael Steinhardt and the late Sheldon Adelson, as well as the Genesis Philanthropy Group and the Israeli government itself.

Likewise, Birthright Armenia is supported by the Yerevan-based Hovnanian Foundation, a charity headed by founder and board chairwoman Edele Hovnanian.

Kabakian was born in Beirut and came to the United States in the 1970s, living most of that time in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, which is more than half Armenian. An aerospace engineer for Boeing, he joined Birthright Armenia in 2006—the second year of its existence—and has been here ever since.

“The concept is that the more you’re immersed, the more you get to understand the reality of the country,” Kabakian said. “Every aspect of the program is meant to enhance their connection with the people of this country. For instance, we invite volunteers to live with host families. We pay for and we encourage it, though of course, this is optional.”

Birthright Armenia can accommodate up to 105 participants at any given time, with an annual minimum of 60. The focus is on Armenia’s three largest cities—Yerevan, Gyumri and Vanadzor—though volunteers are often placed in other cities on an as-needed basis.

Sarah Artin participates in a 3D fashion design workshop in Goris as part of her Birthright Armenia experience. (Photo courtesy of Birthright Armenia)

Volunteers are expected to work 30 hours a week, Mondays to Fridays, in fields ranging from marketing and advertising to healthcare and high-tech, depending on participants’ backgrounds and interests. Knowledge of Armenian is not required, though about two-thirds of Birthright volunteers do have a reasonable command of the language.

One of them, Araz Chiloyan Janbazian, 27, was born and raised in Watertown, Massachusetts, where her parents had settled after emigrating from Syria in the early 1990s.

She grew up speaking both English and Armenian—partly thanks to her attendance at an Armenian private school until age 10—and went on to graduate from Boston University with a bachelor’s degree in cellular and molecular biology as well as genetics.

Chiloyan Janbazian did Birthright for six months in 2016, working at the Homeland Development Initiative Foundation—a nonprofit that teaches women living in rural villages to knit and crochet, generating badly needed revenue for them. She then went back to Boston University and earned a master’s in public health, returning to Armenia for good soon after that.

Today, she heads the risk communications program for COVID-19 at Armenia’s Ministry of Health, coordinating the procurement of Sputnik, AstraZeneca, Pfizer and other vaccines with the World Health Organization, UNICEF and half a dozen other relief agencies.

Students learn the Armenian language as part of their Birthright Armenia experience. (Photo courtesy of Birthright Armenia)

Success stories, from wine cultivation to biotech

Another is Gohar Shahinyan, 32, a fellow New Englander and Birthright alumna from Hampden, Connecticut. In 2013, she volunteered for eight months with the nonprofit Researchers for Bio Heating Solutions while also modeling passive solar greenhouses in high-elevation areas. After her internship ended, that same NGO hired her, enticing her to remain in Armenia.

Shahinyan now works as a geographic information system (GIS) and remote sensing expert at the Ministry of Economy in Yerevan. She attributes her success to Birthright Armenia, which, she said, “allowed me to see and experience Armenia in ways I would never had the opportunity to otherwise.”

In addition, she said, “weekly trips to remote villages and unique locations enhanced my feeling of belonging and awe for Armenia’s nature and resources.”

Such success stories are common. Among Birthright Armenia’s most prominent alumni is Sisian Boghossian, an Iranian-born woman of Armenian descent who grew up in Canada and earlier this year was appointed head of Armenia’s state tourism committee. Likewise, Danish-born Tatevik Revazian heads Armenia’s civil aviation committee.

Yet another is Armen Kherlopian, a professor at the American University of Armenia. He’s also a scientific advisory board member of the NASA-backed Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH), based in Houston, and a biophysicist by training.

Birthright Armenia volunteer Mariam Manoukian with her host dad. (Photo courtesy of Birthright Armenia)

Kherlopian, 38, did Birthright Armenia 18 years ago, interning at Yerevan’s Nork-Marash Medical Center and also at the international affairs office of Armenia’s Ministry of Health.

“The first class was 2004, and I was in the second class. Back then, there were 10 alumni. They now have thousands of alums,” said Kherlopian, interviewed over an Ararat apricot brandy at Yerevan’s trendy Compot restaurant. “Close to 20 years later, I’m actively involved with health tech startups for Armenia. It’s an example of the mission effectively being executed.”

Yet Birthright Israel has run into problems. Among other issues, Genesis is bankrolled by three Russian Jewish oligarchs who could now face sanctions because of Russia’s war on Ukraine, JTA reported.

More seriously, Birthright has faced criticism for its unabashed pro-Israel agenda from progressive Jews and others who say the trip downplays Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and treatment of Palestinians.

Many countries now replicate the Birthright brand

In much the same vein, Birthright Armenia makes no secret of its disdain for Azerbaijan, with which Armenia fought a vicious war in 2020 over control of the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. More than 7,000 combatants died in the fighting on both sides; in its aftermath, Armenia was forced to cede control of territories it had occupied since 1994 to Azerbaijan (which received considerable military support from Israel).

Volunteers at the Foundation for the Advancement of Science and Technology (FAST) in Yerevan. (Photo courtesy of Birthright Armenia)

The peace deal signed by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan ended 44 days of brutal war, sparking anger nevertheless by those who saw it as a betrayal. Yet Birthright Armenia makes a point of steering clear of domestic politics.

“We are absolutely apolitical, though this doesn’t mean we’re disconnected from the country,” Kabakian said. “To us, Armenia’s security and success is a top priority. We’re hardcore Armenia, but we’re not conservative or liberal and we’re not politically affiliated. We work across the aisles.”

He added: “With the recent war, we’ve seen the opposite effect of people feeling useless staying abroad and just looking at social media feeds. The urgency to be here now is very clear.”

Armenia certainly isn’t the only country to have jumped on the Birthright wagon. Ireland has its Irish Way summer study abroad. There’s also a Birthright Unplugged for those of Palestinian origin, as well as similar programs for Greek, Hungarian and Macedonian youth. In addition, Azerbaijan also offers its own summer program and has already held meetings with Birthright’s Center for Israeli Innovation to exchange ideas.

In the end, like Birthright Israel—which strongly encourages aliyah—Birthright Armenia aims for much the same.

Participants of Birthright Armenia enjoy a hike in the forest. (Photo courtesy of Birthright Armenia)

“To have people move here is a high priority,” said Kabakian. “I call it mental repatriation, even if they don’t physically live here. Right now, about 13% of our alumni live in Armenia. That’s much higher compared to the general diaspora; they love Armenia, but this never becomes part of their agenda.”

It certainly did for Keushgerian. After her graduation in 2016, she moved to Armenia and joined the family sparkling wine business.

“At the time, nobody in Armenia was making quality wine. It was all Soviet technology, and very outdated,” said Keushgerian, who helped her father establish a custom crush winemaking service. Eventually, the young woman founded her own wine brand, Zulal.

“Birthright definitely helped me find my Armenian identity,” she said. “A lot of Armenians are introduced to Armenian culture in their churches and diaspora communities at a young age, and then they get burnt out. For me, it was very much a choice to come to Armenia. It gave me a sense of community and helped me assimilate into the local culture.”

Adds Chiloyan Janbazian. “Until you come here and see the situation for yourself, it’s very easy from the outside to judge and make comments, and not really get a full grasp of everything. But once you volunteer, you realize how many great things are here—but also how difficult it is for a country that’s had independence for only 30 years. I can’t imagine my life anywhere else.”

About the Author
Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017.
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