“The sign! Did you see the sign?”

This makes a stir in the bus. The big green-lettered sign points to “Arménie, Terre de Vie” (ed. Armenia, Land of Life). Some 155 km away from Yerevan lies the border community of Sarigyugh in Tavush region.

“Our youths have prepared the sign. There are two more along the road,” says Hermine. Few more minutes and we are right at the entrance of Sarigyugh school. And again the sign reads “Arménie, Terre de Vie”. Two young men who welcome us have the same print on their T-shirts. They hug and greet Hermine like sons would hug their mother. She returns their affection. Five dozens of teenagers who have alighted from the bus are looking around in amazement. They are the participants of AGBU Discover Armenia 2017. This is another AGBU program handled by Hermine Duzian. They are here for “Arménie, Terre de Vie 2017” wrap up event. Change of scene in the school yard:

“Look at your eyelashes! You’ve got paint all over, Lerna!”

“Hey, Raffi! Why do you look so clean?”

“Alex, spill out, how many girls have fallen for you?

They all are like Hollywood stars here; all 30 of them - mostly from France, mostly Armenian by birth. Only 4 are foreigners. But what’s the big idea? Being from Armenia or Europe is not important here and at this point: all of them are from Sarigyugh for the time being.

“Yeah, really, you can say so! Do you think it’s easy? We’ve learned to relieve nature like locals,” jokingly says Ralph Helou from France, remarkable for his most Armenian appearance. A Lebanese, he was born and raised in France.

“Maybe I have rubbed shoulders with a lot of Armenians that is why I look like an Armenian?” says Ralph, takes a selfie with a local youngster, and then goes on with his story. “Living conditions are really bad here, catastrophically bad. Imagine how difficult it has been for us, Europeans! Now we can even give a master class, like how to use the loo or take a bath in rural conditions (we laugh)… But all these things are nothing to the kindness and humane attitude of local people to us. I don’t even know who helped who – we them or they us?

Two years ago Ralph, together with AGBU “Arménie, Terre de Vie” youths, has been giving a facelift to a school in another community. He will come back again, in two years. “Maybe with my Armenian wife this time around,” he says. He has his mind on someone already.

“How come two years have passed? Frankly, I did not realize,” says Simon, or Azad, as he is known among the Armenians, and goes to stand under the plate reading “Azad Landré Classroom” near the door of a renovated classroom to take a picture. Simon, two years ago, took an important step in his life and christened in an Armenian church and took an Armenian name – Azad (ed.- means “free” in Armenian). “I grew up in a family where everything was centered on what I wanted and what made me happy. So there was nothing surprising or strange for my parents when I wanted to have an Armenian name, christened in an apostolic church. Now, grade-schoolers of Sarigyugh will be studying in the classroom that we renovated. I would like very much that the kids, who are going to study in this classroom named after me, learn the most important thing in life – the art of never losing one’s inner freedom.”

There are 202 pupils in Sarigyugh secondary school. The school has three buildings with only one of them smelling like fresh paint. AGBU youths, before coming to Armenia, have organized a fundraiser in France, bought the necessary construction materials and chose to have a meaningful three weeks of summer both for themselves and for Sariguygh people.

Everything started in 2011. Raffi Der Agopian, who used to take part in AGBU France summer camps since childhood, was one of the first participants in AGBU Discover Armenia program. So upon completion of the project he had this notion of bringing together the AGBU youth program alumni. Thus the project “Arménie, Terre de Vie” was conceived. Young Armenians participating in the initiative come together once in two years to carry out a social project in their home country. Today “Arménie, Terre de Vie” program has expanded to include also foreigners for many of whom Armenia feels like a second homeland.

This year Lerna Bagdjian and Meline Ignatevossian are in charge of the program. They are welcome to tap into the expertise of their former counterparts Dikris Demir and Azad Landré.

“Why, we are going to miss you, kiddoes!” Mrs. Anahit would hug Alex, then Karine, then she would turn to explain the place of certain something to Simon, then Arax would jump in with a request. They have lived in her modest cottages for the first two weeks before being placed in Sarigyugh families in groups.

“Comrade Astghik, Comrade Arax, Comrade Meline, Comrade Lerna…” and so forth - all 30 of them have befriended and become very close with the elder and the younger equally. The last day is not over yet, but there is this feeling of heaviness hanging in the air. Instead of packing their suitcases they open them widely. Presents. They have brought stationary and clothes for the schoolchildren with them from France. And they are giving out presents so tactfully that neither them nor the residents feel awkward.

“This is not help. This is just a thank-you gesture. This is the least that we can do for the warm and hospitable attitude that these people have shown towards us,” Astghik speaks Armenian relatively better than others, so she has also taken the role of the interpreter involuntarily. “This is amazing, I mean, these people, with all their concerns and hardships, how do they manage to smile every day and even make others smile. Armenia is sure a land of life.”

“Tavush is not a place selected randomly, and then, it is not an ordinary place,” upon finishing the rite of consecration in the renovated building of Sarigyugh school Bishop Bagrat Galstanyan recalls the meeting with the “Arménie, Terre de Vie 2017” initiative group members months ago. “It was in April when Hermine, Raffi, Meline, Lerna, Simon, Dikris and Matevos came to Ijevan, we talked a lot, walked around these places. Then we had coffee in the world’s best café –“Cafe Extreme” by the lake facing the enemy footholds (ed.: community of Berkaber). Months ago you wouldn’t have thought that these classrooms would look like this. It was truly with heroic efforts that young people here transformed this place. What I see is not a mere renovation of some building; I see renovation of morale here.”

“You promise, right, to be a good student?” Vahagn gives a positive answer and also promises to see that the repaired classrooms are kept clean. The 8-year old boy shakes Azad’s hand with a mature man’s seriousness. The Armenian youth from Istanbul smiles, and encourages the small one – “Good for you.” “Why, this was worth to give over efforts to, put up with some domestic inconveniences, and at the end of the day, seeing the shining eyes of the kids, come to believe that life is not so dull, like the ruined, dusty rooms here before, that there are colors in life, humane colors.”

“Pour Sarigyugh, allez, allez, allez!,” The French toast bursts out in the schooldyard; they raise the plastic cups, sing and drink to the 3 most important weeks in their life, then take a group picture – the principal, the mayor, teachers and students, then only them together, and then separately. They promise each other to stay in touch, write often, call often.

“Come back, just come back, please!” The village men have already laid a barbecue table for the teens and youths of the two AGBU projects under the legendary tree of Sarigyugh - Armenia’s famous thousand year old plane tree. And right there under the tree, a few kilometers from the border, in the evening breeze even more mysteriously and meaningfully sounds the French toast so popular already in Sarigyugh:

“Pour Arménie, terre de vie, allez, allez, allez!”

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