When I arrived at the Specialized Children's Home of Kharberd with three other CYMA participants, I knew very little about the institution. With slight trepidation, I walked up the ramp at the entrance of the "mangadoon" (orphanage), and so my nine-day, eye-opening experience began. Upon walking into the first room with disabled children, a girl waddled up to me and tightly wrapped her arms around my legs - I struggled to swallow my tears while I stroked her hair and patted her on the back as comfortingly as I could. As the first day went on, I soon was able to open up to the children, wheeling them around while taking walks, feeding them, and entertaining them with song and dance. Even though the majority of the disabled children in the mangadoon do not have normal motor functions and cannot speak, they emit love.
The little one I connected with the most is named Mariam, and she is a perfect example of what I mean. She cannot speak - she can barely make eye contact with the people who try to engage her - but when I would stand by her wheelchair for extended amounts of time and speak to her, sometimes she would allow her hand to fall from its propped position by her cheek onto mine, and my heart would ache for her. Spending time with Mariam allowed me to think in a more meaningful fashion than if I were to speak to a person who did not have such a debilitating condition. I would mull over what could be going on in her mind at that very moment - was she processing my words? I wasn't able to tell. Sometimes while I was feeding her, she would burst into tears for no apparent reason and look at me earnestly, as if pleading me to fix whatever was wrong. No matter how long she cried, when she stopped, she would retreat into her quiet place and grasp my hand when I offered it to her. I grew to love her very much; hopefully I successfully reciprocated the love I was shown by all of the children in the mangadoon.
After spending a month in Armenia, one moment in particular, which took place outside of the mangadoon, stood out to me. I was standing outside of the kindergarten building we were helping reconstruct in the village of Tzovinar when two boys rode up on a bike and started speaking to us. One of the boys asked me how long we are staying in Armenia, to which I responded, "We are in this village until Tuesday, then we return to Yerevan for three days before we go home." He immediately responded, "But this is your home." I considered his statement for the following four days we spent in Tzovinar, feeling mixed emotions - at first touched that a native Armenian considers Armenia the home of diasporan Armenians as well, then reflective. Why hadn't I come to that conclusion myself? Do I not feel that Armenia is my home? Before spending time in the motherland, before sincerely experiencing the Armenian culture, I thought I did consider Armenia my home. Now that I have made a true connection with this spiritually rich country, I can honestly say I am returning to America with the intention of returning home soon.