Allen County was host to a unique group of international young people Thursday.
They were visiting from the Republic of Armenia, a landlocked country in the mountainous Caucasus region once part of the Soviet Union.
Although the Armenian group hailed from the other side of the globe, two things were quickly apparent. First, the challenges facing their small country had much in common with those facing rural Kansas. And second, the same goes for the solutions.
Armenia has seen a great deal of upheaval in recent years, from social and political uprisings within the county to a steady “brain drain,” where qualified young people depart their home country in search of better opportunities in western Europe.
Their visit was sponsored by the Open World Program, whereby emerging leaders from the post-Soviet bloc swap ideas with counterparts in the U.S. Their visit limited to a scant 10 days, the Armenians have embarked on a whirlwind tour, spending most of their time in Wichita, where their sponsors, the Rotary Club of East Wichita, have ferried them to a myriad of organizations dedicated to community service, from the Kansas Leadership Center to local universities, youth centers and public radio stations.
One thing quickly stood out to Fred Heismeyer, a former Iolan now living in Wichita and who served as the group’s coordinator: the Armenians needed no lessons in motivation. “These young leaders have an enormous passion for helping their communities,” remarked Heismeyer. Such energy, it seemed easy enough to observe, is what has helped them accomplish so much, and bestows optimism for their country’s future.
WHILE IN IOLA, the delegates and their facilitator, Hasmik Mikayelyan, presented to Iola Rotarians projects they were working on at home and then took part in a discussion at Thrive Allen County to learn what community projects were taking place across southeast Kansas.
Delegate Dr. Samvel Grigoryan works with the National Institute of Health in Armenia as a policy researcher. He presented to Rotary on health and wellness issues facing the country, along with current projects he’s involved in. Of particular interest was a robot he is working to design that assists physicians. The robot interacts and plays with young patients, helping to lower stress and help children feel more comfortable while receiving medical care.
Another delegate, Emilya Voskanyan, is part of the Eurasia Partnership Foundation, a group dedicated to promoting, among other goals, freedom of religion and economic opportunity. She shared with Rotary her passion for psychology and teaching.
She works with the American Library and Training Center as well, working with Peace Corps volunteers to instruct people how to read and write in English, create video blogs and more.
Emilya is also involved with an initiative called MICE, Media for Informed Civic Engagement, that teaches young people how to critically analyze and implement different forms of media.
Akin to Thrive’s efforts to make Allen the healthiest rural county in Kansas, Voskanyan works to “empower people in the Tavush, Lori and Shirak regions to affect change for social justice and economic prosperity … helping them to improve their communities and their own lives.”
Delegate Vahe Khachikyan is a project manager, youth worker and civic journalist.
One project he’s involved with is the Armenian “NGO Center,” which provides social organizations across his country with key information so they can effectively address a broad range of concerns affecting communities.
The Center also provides “training, consultancy, research and awareness” to bring about positive social interventions.
DURING the discussion at Thrive, Khachikyan said he was inspired to get involved in Armenia because when he was younger, he felt as though he “lived in a foreign county, not in a country [he] would like to have.”
In order to bring about positive changes, Khachikyan highlighted the importance of youth leadership, the power of music and repeatedly engaging in social and political efforts until you succeed.
He and Marcia Davis, who works through Thrive Allen County to assist LaHarpe, found common ground while delving into the complexities of motivating people in small communities.
On this point, Thrive CEO Lisse Regehr chimed in as well, noting the importance of finding people’s skill sets and passions, thus empowering them to move things forward.
Delegate Zuzan Khuboyan shared with Rotary her sadness that many have come to know of her ethnic group — the Yazidis — only because of the genocide of her people committed by ISIS in northern Iraq and Syria. The mass slaughter, enslavement and human trafficking of the Yazidi people resulted in approximately half a million refugees. The United Nations estimates more than five thousand Yazidi were murdered, with thousands more kidnapped, between 2014 and 2017.
These horrors have not dampened Khuboyan’s pride in the history of her people. Far from it. Armenia has a Yazidi community of over 35,000, and Khuboyan provided multiple examples of her efforts to strengthen her community, working with youth and women’s groups to provide opportunities for exercise and employment.
She now focuses on journalism and politics, and serves as a social worker in order to protect children’s rights.
Finally, delegate Lusine Karapetyan has worked to create a youth center in Armenia, and is president of a non-governmental organization called Solution Hub, which focuses on community development.
During the discussion at Thrive, when asked how to bring about positive changes in one’s community, Karapetyan said “energy comes from ownership” and suggested that people, no matter where they live, must feel a sense of belonging in order to get involved.
This point in particular seemed to summarize the challenge ahead of these bright young leaders. Their task — to create an Armenia where all feel welcome, and young people feel ownership of their communities and invested in their country’s future — is a daunting one.
Yet after talking with Thrive and sharing their hopes and dreams — as well as challenges — these young leaders seemed to have a lot in common with their American counterparts.
It would seem the notion that our countries should be “of the people, by the people, for the people,” is something that inspires citizens not only here at home, but around the world.