Authors: Amila Alidžanović, Ambroise Lescop, Paulius Jakubčionis, Michele D’Orazio and Moritz Clauder
It was a very dark and very late Sunday night, when the five of us landed, north of Mount Ararat, at Zvartnots International Airport in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Although it was late and most of us had not slept more than three hours, there was a real enthusiasm to get to know each other, get active and start implementing the campaign “More EU in Armenia”! The purpose of “More EU in Armenia” was to reach out to youth and the general population in an engaging way, to inform them about what the EU does in and for Armenia, as well as presenting the Young European Ambassadors initiative. To convey the message “More EU in Armenia”, we the EU YEAs from Italy, France, Germany, Lithuania, and Sweden, organised a programme of activities, together with YEAs from Armenia, focusing on school and university visits and Euroclubs.
The next morning, we got acquainted with our Armenian YEA counterparts, while preparing the presentations for the upcoming days. When the campaign actually kicked off on Monday morning, the YEAs from the EU and Armenia split into three groups, with each group allocated a university visit. Amila from Sweden and Moritz from Germany went to the State University of Yerevan, Ambroise from France and Michele from Italy visited the French University in Armenia, and Paulius from Lithuania and Maria Pia from Italy were hosted by Yerevan Brusov State University. During the presentations we had the opportunity to share some interesting facts about our respective EU countries, talk about the European Union and its institutions, as well as discuss potential EU-Armenia cooperation. In addition, we outlined the opportunities available within the framework of Erasmus+ and informed everyone about our valued network. The school visits concluded on a more lighthearted note, with a quiz about EU-Armenia relations, the winner of which received a special prize.
During all our visits, we could see and feel how enthusiastic the Armenian students were. They had a lot of questions and were generally very eager to interact with us. The last pictures were still being taken, the last contacts were still being exchanged, but we had to move on. After a short (but very welcome) stop at a typical Armenian tavern, allowing the group to discover delicious Armenian cuisine, the programme continued at the seat of the Eurasian Partnership Foundation, a fascinating institution whose goals and projects we had the chance to learn about.
This was only the first of the several study visits we would take part in during our days in Armenia. In fact, the next day, we went to Gyumri, a picturesque city located in the almost desert-like plains of Northern Armenia, and visited the seat of the Youth Initiative Centre – Amila joined us later, as she went to a ceramic’s workshop, Gohar’s Pottery Studio in nearby Hatsik village. The studio is supported by the EU-funded initiative, LEAD4Shirak, which funds innovative projects in rural Armenia in the areas of agriculture education and tourism. The visit ended with an interview for Armenian television. This was followed by another series of visits to different schools and universities in Gyumri. Here, we met with high school students who, despite their young age, were not only very interested in the opportunities offered by the European Union, but also very knowledgeable about the topics discussed. The reflections that emerged from these meetings highlighted the strong ties between Armenia and the European Union and the desire on both sides to strengthen relations. The rest of the day was dedicated to visiting Gyumri, where the cathedral, entirely built in the black stones that are typical of the region, was unlike anything we had seen before.
The next day, we set sail for Vanadzor, a long and narrow city stretching along a valley between green and misty mountains. The day began with Paulius, Michele and our fellow Armenian YEAs being interviewed by Armenian television. After that, we went to the Technical University, a very nice modernist building, where many eager students were waiting for the presentation. We, however, weren’t quite sure about what to say – Azerbaijan had attacked Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh) the day before – crushing the uplifting and carefree atmosphere that had previously prevailed. The presentation still took place and again was a great success, with the promise of new members joining our network. We then visited the Children of Armenia Foundation (COAF) SMART Centre, which was set in a beautiful building sitting in the middle of an extremely scenic valley. The institution is an educator’s dream, providing Armenian students with the opportunity to attend extracurricular courses to develop hard and soft skills. However, the atmosphere was heavy, and we were told that our campaign would not be continued, and we would have to go back to Europe that very night.
Understanding that we would have to leave the next day in the morning, two days earlier than planned, wasn’t a surprise as we knew about the escalation of the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh, but it was still unexpected. In the moment it felt like the wrong thing to do, leaving the moment things got a bit too hot, but of course we understood the reasoning behind the decision. Earlier that day all the Armenian YEAs had decided to continue the programme, and when it was announced that our mission “More EU in Armenia” would be suspended, everyone was very understanding – the last days had tired everyone, physically as well as emotionally.
The bus ride back to Yerevan was mostly quiet, but we also had interesting and moving conversations with fellow Armenian YEAs about their country’s history and culture. It felt as if the knowledge of the termination of the mission also opened everyone up. Late in the evening, we arrived in Yerevan, six hours before we would fly back to our countries. Before that, however, we and the Armenian YEAs tasted different kinds of sweets from our home countries and we were given Armenian sweets as farewell gifts. Boarding the plane later that night, it still felt like we had missed out on a great opportunity to demonstrate further unity and support between Armenia and the EU, but feelings of gratitude for our new acquaintances in Armenia and respect for their strength and resilience prevailed.