For 81-year-old Helen Holmes of Edmonds, Washington, going to Armenia to work with The Fuller Center for Housing was about more than building houses.
The Global Builders trip led by her niece Cynthia Erickson was about family for Holmes — the Kharatyan family in the village of Dsegh that she helped, as well as about her parents and the extended family of Armenians around the world.
Holmes’ father had fled Armenia before the Armenian Genocide began in 1915, while her mother survived the death marches into the Syrian desert. Between 1 million and 1.5 million people are estimated to have died in extermination camps, massacres and deportation marches from 1915 to the early 1920s.
“My mother did not talk much about the genocide,” Holmes said. “I felt, in her quiet thoughts, she was carrying pain for the loss of her family, home and friends when she would periodically light candles in their memory. Only one time that I was aware of, she mentioned witnessing atrocities during the march through the desert. The only comment she would make regarding the genocide was ‘leave it to God.’ God was her strength.”
The genocide is a defining moment in the modern history of the Armenian people and the nation itself. That’s why The Fuller Center for Housing Armenia has launched the “Honoring 100 Years by Saving 100 Families” campaign. The goal is to build 100 homes for Armenian families by the end of 2015, the 100th anniversary of when the brutal genocide began. (Click here to support the campaign.)
Surviving the genocide shaped the way Holmes’ mother raised her children.
“She taught us to be grateful for whatever we had and not to be wasteful,” she said. “Because she experienced such hunger, leftover food would never be thrown out. She always made sure the family had plenty to eat. She would share food with strangers that would appear at the door regardless of the hour. And education was important to her; she had so little of it. She would make sure we attended school, church and Sunday school.”
Holmes, whose great-grandson also made the trip, worked for two weeks during June … once she got over the thrill of landing on Armenian soil.
“I’m in Armenia — the homeland of my parents!” she recalled of her feeling upon arriving in the world’s first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion ( in AD 301). “I couldn’t believe it, and I am still in awe. Time was precious — we had only two weeks to help a young family work toward their goal of being in their own home by Christmas. It was so gratifying to help meet that deadline.”
Holmes has a way with words and waxes poetic about the scenery still so fresh in her mind.
“The day after our arrival, we were at the worksite in Dsegh, just outside of Vanadzor,” she recalled. “The ride to the site was picturesque. The mountain slopes were blanketed with colorful wildflowers; the forest of trees appeared as protectors of the villages nestled in the foothills. Cows and sheep roamed freely on the roadside and upper grassy areas.”
When the bus stopped at the worksite, they got down to business.
“Working at the construction site was an experience for me, and it was fun,” Holmes said. “We were assigned to do the finishing work on the dirt floors. Bucket lines were formed for transporting sand, gravel, rocks and cement to tufa bricks. It was amazing to see how much was accomplished by our team of 10 people. The younger members worked hard and were humorously entertaining. It was a pleasure to work alongside them.”
Holmes raves about the food the team enjoyed both at the worksite and during their evenings in Vanadzor and visit to the capital of Yerevan. She said the off-day tours were memorable and included the Charents Arch, Garni Gorge and the “Symphony of the Stones”, Geghard Monastery, the Orran Center home for at-risk elderly and socially vulnerable children, and the Genocide Memorial, which she describes as a sobering but beautiful tribute.
Of course, the bonding experience during the build was not unusual for Holmes as Armenians remain a tight-knit community no matter how far flung throughout the world they may be. And those bonds are strengthened even further, she said, on a trip to Armenia.
“The church, genocide, culture and food are bonding factors among the Armenians,” she said. “Their children at a young age learn the language, are taught to achieve. Armenians visit with the entire family; many were there representing three generations. A common bond seems to be strengthened and deepened when they visit their homeland together with their loved ones.”
And now that she has had a taste of the homeland, she hopes to return.
“It was so meaningful to me to meet relatives that we had ‘met’ only through photographs,” she said. “We were greeted with such warmth. We ate, drank — to a limit — danced as Armenians do; such a wonderful way to get acquainted. This was so thrilling not only for me but also for my great-grandson. It would not have happened if it was not for The Fuller Center and its home-building projects.”