Brittani Howel, one of our Global Builders’ team members shares her great experience in Armenia with Fuller Center for Housing Armenia:
We came as strangers. We came as volunteers: the Mercer Service Scholars, the FCHA’s first university group. We came as odars — as non-Armenians, as outsiders. Only one of our group of fourteen students and two professors had any ties to the country: our fellow student Jessie Boloyan, whose grandmother came from Armenia decades ago. By the time we left we were no longer strangers, and while we may still be odars we no longer feel that way.
The people there amazed us with their generosity, their kindness, and their cheerfulness in the midst of hardship and hard work. Through the Fuller Center we worked with the Ghazaryan and the Avetikyan families, and though we thought that we had come to serve them, they actually gave us more than we could ever repay. Through kind smiles, laughter, patience on the work site, and some truly fantastic Armenian home cooking, the families showered us with hospitality and friendliness. The highlights of our days on the work sites were playing with the unforgettable children of the families, who quickly stole our hearts. We will be telling stories about Siramarg, Siuzi, Suren, Vahan, and Samson for years to come.
With the Fuller Center we had the privilege of working with, not for, the people we had come to serve, and we came to admire their strength and resilience. Once, when I was shoveling cement for the floor of the Avetikyan family’s new house, their oldest son Samson approached me. To my astonishment, this ten-year-old boy took my shovel and began scooping the cement into buckets more quickly and more accurately than I could. Armenia, clearly, is not a place that “needs” help. It is, however, a place that graciously accepts helping hands when they are offered, and that values partnership and friendship. Being allowed to work on their houses alongside them was an honor — an honor, we learned, that not many non-Armenians get to experience.
One phrase I heard several times during our stay was this: “No one there understands what it’s like here.” Most Americans without an Armenian background know very little about the country’s rich culture, its struggles, or its triumphs. One of our Armenian friends had studied in the United States for several months, and she expressed her frustration that some of her American friends had been so ignorant about what Armenia is actually like. There is a gap between the two cultures, and it is typically only those who occupy both worlds—that is, Armenian-Americans—who set out across the ocean to close that gap. But my impression of the Armenian people is that they want to understand as much as they want to be understood, making the distance between our cultures seem very small indeed to those who are willing to cross it.
We started out as odar, but by the time we left Armenia we had, by the grace of the people we met, been invited to be so much more. We were guests, partners, unofficial babysitters, playmates. Occasionally—particularly with our driver, Melik—we were co-conspirators in playful, good-natured pranking. We were no longer strangers to Armenia; we were friends.
I don’t think any person on our team can express just how grateful we are for what Armenia and her people have given us. We can’t describe just how beautiful a place it is, and I’m not just talking about the landscape. Armenia defies description. If you want to know what we mean—if you want to understand the amazing country and people we encountered on our journey—then you will have to go yourself. If our experience is anything to go by, rest assured that you will not be odar for long.