It’s weird being away from home for Christmas. It’s even weirder being away from home for Christmas and having no one around celebrating. In some ways, I think that’s made it much easier. I don’t have to look around here and see everyone celebrating with their families while my family is halfway around the world. Instead, today was just like every other day. People went to work, kids went to school, and stores were open.

Nativity scene on Northern Avenue

When it comes time for Christmas to be celebrated here, on January 6th, I’ll be in Lebanon! I’m going to visit Badveli Nishan and Maria, family friends who moved there this year (shout out to Badveli’s blog for interesting musings on life in Lebanon). They came to Armenia for a week back in October, and we were able to meet up a couple of times. While they were here, they invited me to spend Christmas with them in Beirut! I’m super excited to get to see them, experience Christmas in a new place, and be surrounded by adoptive family for the holidays!

I made some earrings to get into the holiday spirit!

Even though it’s an adjustment not being home for the holidays, I have been making some new, good friends here which makes it easier. It was hard after a bunch of my friends from the summer left, and over the last month or so, things started falling into place again, both with brand new friends and reconnecting with some old ones.

At work, we have a really fun group! Besides me, there are three other people volunteering there, Hagop, Liz, and Olivia. They’re all nice, and two out of three of them are going to be here longer than I am! That means no hard goodbyes with Hagop and Olivia because it’s always easier to be the leaver rather than the left. I’ve started talking more with Yelena, one of the full-time staff at work, and she’s great too. Feeling like I have a little community there makes going to work much more enjoyable.

Ice skating with Zoe

I also made a new friend at church, Zoe. She’s going to be in Armenia for at least a year, so there’s another person who I don’t have to worry about leaving me! We went ice skating together a couple weeks ago, and once you’ve been ice skating with someone, your relationship reaches a whole new level… one hour of skating in circles, trying not to fall or skate over a child, and talking about anything and everything. It’s quite the friendship exercise (both physically and emotionally).

I think it’s cool to have friends from all different parts of life because then you get to bring them together and see what happens! My birthday was a perfect opportunity for that. For the opera, our group was me, Liz, Olivia, Zoe, and Gabrielle who is a friend from my old language class. Only Liz and Olivia knew each other ahead of time, and it was a ton of fun! When we went out for dessert afterward, Olivia and Gabrielle swapped out with Faith and Alina, a Birthright friend and an ex-BR friend who is now working in Yerevan. I like getting to see people connect, and when you’re friends with a bunch of different people, you feel like it’s only right that they meet and like each other.

Cake for Zoe’s Christmas Eve birthday

I’ve been trying to be less of a hermit (it’s too easy to let that happen when you live alone), and that requires an active effort which can be a struggle. That’s especially true when work nights are involved because all I want to do on non-language class days is go home and sleep! A couple weeks ago, I went with Hagop and Olivia to a screening of a genocide documentary called “Intent to Destroy: Death, Denial, and Depiction”. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, and it turned out to be incredibly interesting. I have seen and read plenty of things about the Armenian Genocide, but this took a different approach than most. It followed the filming of the movie “The Promise”. There were mixed reviews on the quality of the storyline in that movie, but that’s really not the point. The point is that for years, people have been trying to make a major, mainstream movie about the Armenian Genocide, and every time, it’s been shut down somehow due to pressure from the Turkish government. The US has strategic reasons for wanting to stay on Turkey’s good side, so rather than standing on the side of justice, the US government has failed to acknowledge and condemn the actions of the Ottoman Empire 100 years ago and has even contributed to pressuring production companies to abandon projects.

See? Don’t we look like old friends?

This documentary told the story of the genocide while also weaving in other stories: what happened to previous attempts to make a movie like this, people’s individual experiences during the genocide, impacts of the persistent denial, etc. It also gave some genocide deniers a chance to speak, and that was interesting because I’ve never heard anything like that before. I guess I should have known that such people existed considering that there are even people who deny the Holocaust happened, but it was strange to actually hear the voices of denial. They say that it was a war and that yes, many Armenians died, but that’s what happens in a war, and many Ottoman Turks died as well. Forget the fact that a huge number of the Armenians were women, children, and the elderly and that the Ottoman Turks were mostly able-bodied soldiers… Anyway, it was surreal and a little discomforting to hear people questioning something I’ve known as fact for my entire life. I strongly recommend checking it out if you get the chance!

Fountain lights in Republic Square. I love these!!!

I’ve also been making some new friends in my new language class. I haven’t talked about that yet, have I? I’m pretty sure that the last time I mentioned language class, I was raving about how awesome my class was and how well things were going with my teacher and how happy I was. Yeah… so probably the week after that, I was informed that I was switching classes. Devastating. I had the option of staying with my teacher and joining her new class but was warned that it would probably be too easy. After trying to stay with her for one class, I was forced to admit that I needed to get over it and move on. It was kind of cool to see how far I’ve come since my teacher’s new class was at the point where I was probably three months ago, but mostly I was just depressed because I knew that I had to get to know a whole new class and a new teacher.

Now, it’s been about three weeks with my new class, and it’s not so bad. This class is definitely at a higher level than my original class, and it’s pushing me to learn more. That’s good I guess. I’m still getting used to the teaching style and the other students, but I’ll get there. The best part is that everyone in the class can read Armenian which means no more transliterating words on the board. A recommendation for anyone seriously trying to learn a language with a different alphabet – learn the alphabet as soon as possible because it makes everything else SO much easier. At least with Armenian, there are a bunch of sounds that can’t be described with transliterated spellings, so you’re basically learning everything kind of wrong until you learn the correct sounds of the alphabet. Now that I can read, trying to do anything transliterated is a massive struggle because it all just seems wrong.

Anyway, things are going great for me right now. I feel happy and comfortable in my life here, and that’s exciting! It’s also good because I still have two months to go. If I was feeling unhappy, we’d be in trouble!

More Republic Square fountain lights. Don’t these look like Cinderella carriages?
Light tunnel in Republic Square
The memorial from afar

One of the must-visit spots in Yerevan is the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum (Tsitsernakaberd), and Sarah and I wanted to be sure that we would have as much time as we needed there. It opens at 11AM, and we were there at 10:45, taking advantage of the nonexistent crowds and visiting the memorial first.

The memorial wall

The memorial is very well done. There are three main parts: the memorial wall, the eternal flame, and the stele (I’m sure there are official names for these parts, but I don’t know them). As you approach the memorial, there is a 100m long wall with engravings of the town names where massacres took place. The eternal flame is housed in a memorial hall where the floor is 1.5 meters lower than the surrounding walkway, representing the 1.5 million Armenian victims. The area is semi-enclosed by 12 huge concrete slabs that slant in and up, representing the 12 lost provinces that are in modern-day Turkey. The tall stele symbolizes the Armenians’ survival and spiritual rebirth. It is partially split into two parts, expressing the unity of the Armenian people despite their physical separation/dispersion.

The outside of the hall with the eternal flame

It looks beautiful from a distance, and everything was so deliberately done. Sarah observed that the concrete slabs made you feel a certain heaviness when standing in the hall with the eternal flame, and I definitely agree with her. It’s a space that almost forces emotion and reflection. Who knows what exactly the designers were aiming for, but I’d say they did their job well.

The stele

There’s also a museum that gives a VERY thorough timeline of the repeated persecution of the Armenian people, starting in the 1870s and extending through the 1920s. I knew a good amount of the information presented there, but getting all of it in such a detailed, chronological format was really helpful. I’m going to do my very best to summarize while also doing the story justice, but I’d obviously recommend going to the museum if you ever get the chance because they do it 1,000x better than I ever could (which, whether you’re Armenian or not, come to Armenia for vacation! Sarah will be the first to tell you that you should).

1915 is the year that people think of as the beginning of the genocide, but that wasn’t the beginning of the Armenians’ problems. Minority groups in the Ottoman Empire, Christians included, had limited rights (there were even restrictions on what they could wear!) and high taxes. The 1876 Ottoman Constitution supposedly guaranteed some rights, but even that wasn’t followed. Even so, the Armenians thrived during this period and were successful in business and education. During the negotiation talks for the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, Armenians pushed to make their struggles known to the Western powers, and an article was put into the treaty saying that they should be treated differently but not including any real way to confirm that it actually happened.

Entrance to the underground museum

The sultan ordered the first round of massacres to take place in 1894-1896. The thought was that if there were no Armenians left, then no reforms were necessary. It was a convenient answer to the “Armenian Question”. About 300,000 Armenians were killed during this period, and many more were converted or moved. Any efforts made to get fair rights were met with aggression.

When the Young Turk party started, it called for freedom, equality, and justice, and many Armenians supported the movement, thinking that it would be better than the current government. Those policies were soon abandoned, and a “Turkification” movement started with the goal of taking back the Turkish homeland. In 1909, there was another round of massacres in Adana. Armenians were disarmed, their houses were marked, and Turkish civilians and criminals were given weapons and set free.


Elsewhere during this time, Armenians were gradually being scapegoated, accused of treason, and turned into the enemy in the eyes of the public. The government waited for an opportunity to move into the next phase of the plan and then World War I came. The Ottoman Empire joined sides with Germany under the agreement that their eastern border could be expanded. 60,000 Armenian soldiers were drafted, blamed for a battle loss, and put into labor battalions that were starved or killed once they were no longer needed.

On April 24, 1915, 235 Armenian intellectuals were arrested in Constantinople, based on a previously compiled list. That number eventually grew to 800 leaders in the Armenian community who were imprisoned. Political leaders and members of the clergy were killed. The property that all of these people left behind was considered “abandoned” and was confiscated by the government.

The view of Ararat from the memorial

After these two phases, the military-age men and national elite were out of the way, leaving mostly women, children, and the elderly. Mass deportations were organized. Any remaining men were usually killed first, and the rest were “spared” to embark on grueling marches through the desert where starvation, planned attacks, and kidnappings were the norm. There were group drownings, burnings, forced jumps from cliffs and bridges, and medical experiments. Those who survived went to concentration camps in the desert where many succumbed to infection or starvation.

The museum had pictures of big families, school students, etc., and the captions said which people in the pictures survived. The family pictures would have maybe 15 people in them, and the only person who survived was the baby in the picture. One school picture had probably 80 or so girls in it, and only two survived. That really put things into perspective.

On May 24, 1915, Great Britain, France, and Russia issued a joint declaration condemning the massacres and holding the Turkish government responsible, but it didn’t change a thing. It wasn’t until the end of WW1 that much of this was stopped. The government officials involved were tried and convicted, but after that, they were freed in exchange for the release of British POWs. Even after all of this happened, in 1922, Armenians and Greeks in Smyrna were killed in masses, and the city was burned to the ground. That same year, Armenia became part of the USSR.

To this day, the Turkish government denies that the massacres were genocide. Armenians are scattered across the globe, and the size of Armenia is a tiny fraction of what it once was. The museum ended on a positive note though, talking a bit about the people who helped to recover orphans who had been taken to be “Turkified” and rescue kidnapped women. It was a good reminder that even in the face of so much evil, there are incredible, selfless people who will step up and risk their own well-being to help others.

The museum ends with the classic Hitler quote, reminding us that if we don’t acknowledge and learn from history, it will repeat itself. “…who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Like I said before, the memorial and museum were very well done. We left feeling a bit sad but mostly hopeful and extremely well-informed. The amount of information and materials gathered there is amazing!