When 3 years ago Michigan State University graduate Brian Leopold joined the Peace Corps as a volunteer and selected Eastern Europe as his destination, he didn’t know he would be placed in Armenia. In fact, he knew very little about that part of the world.
“Back in Michigan, I have an Armenian friend,” Brian says. “We had a party at his place before my departure and he told me a little bit about his country. That was it…”
When Brian arrived, he had to live in Baghramyan, a village in Ararat region, not very far from Yerevan. There, he learned the language for 3 months and then he was chosen to be placed in Tumanyan, a community in Lori region, to teach English to local students.
Soon after Brian moved to Lori, the COAF creativity lab was launched in the Tumanyan school. “That’s where I was first introduced to COAF, which was an amazing experience,” Brian says. “I began working with them, and it expanded my opportunities to teach students. I joined the English Access Microscholarship Program that is conducted within the framework of COAF – US Embassy partnership. My greatest memory will be having worked with Marine Miskaryan, a COAF teacher of English. She’s amazing! It‘s astonishing to see the progress that children from Tumanyan, Akori and Debet made! At first, they couldn’t even say their names, and now they are talking about diversity and other complex things. I’m even forgetting my Armenian because the kids speak only English to me… I also implement the monitoring of Rosetta Stone, a self-study language-learning project. Besides, I am in charge of girls’ soccer league in Lori.”
Brian really appreciates his experience with COAF. “I like the way COAF helps villages. You don’t just donate computers and money but you continuously work with beneficiaries. Before COAF, people in villages had no future. They often had to leave their communities to look for jobs. COAF came and instilled confidence in them… You gave them options to stay in villages, to survive and thrive. You gave opportunities to the new generation. You bring in American speakers that have different perspectives, which is very important. And I also like the fact that “Yerevan doesn’t always tell the villages what to do” but hires local professionals and contributes to their development.”
“As soon as I moved to Tumanyan I felt there were basically “two Armenias” – Yerevan and “outside Yerevan”, Brian adds. “The life in the capital is different; the pace is much faster. Whereas in villages everything is a lot more “personal.” It is very unusual – somehow you happen to know everyone in your community; you share your stories with your neighbors; they call Lori people – “the Loretsi” – are “miamit” (naïve) but they are just the kindest people in the world… When you enter the Lori region you come across the sign Dba Lavy, which means Towards a Better Life or Towards a Better Place. Lori is really a nice place. I was blown away by the beauty of Tumanyan. It was fantastic…I feel like I am “Loretsi.” In fact, people in my village call me “Loretsi Brian.”
Brian says that there are lots of things in Armenia that are different from the American culture. “Kids in villages had some stereotypes about Americans from Hollywood movies. They thought all Americans had blue eyes, blonde hair, were wealthy and had expensive cars… I had to explain that Americans could have “different shapes and sizes” … People here would often invade your personal space but that doesn’t bother me at all because I have Italian background, and many things are similar to my family culture.”
Brian adds that, at first, his family had some concerns about his life in a totally new place. “However, they stopped worrying very soon. My mother is quite religious and when she learned I was going to Armenia – the first nation that had adopted Christianity as the state religion – she was very happy about it,” Brian says. “Last summer my family visited me here in Armenia. We spent a few days in Lori, and they were surprised how kind everybody was. Now my mother knows I am in a safe place, and she is not scared anymore.”
Soon Brian’s volunteer experience with COAF and Armenia will be over – he will get back to the USA to continue his studies in comparative cultures and politics. “I hope my work will bring me back to this part of the world again,” he says. “I will always remember the days I spent here – the sound of the streams in my village, the birds, the peaceful nature and, most importantly, my students and “Loretsi” people…”