One of the most distinctive memories I have from that day was not of the mountainside or standing underneath the clear sky. I had seen these views countless times during my stay in Armenia. By the time I reached yet another mountain hike, I was not very interested. I instead focused on a different issue, my poor clothing choice for that day. I was wearing a sundress and flip flops. The sundress was not too much of a concern, but as I stood at the bottom of a rock covered mountain, I questioned whether my shoes would be reliable for the hike.
It was a series of random circumstances that brought me and my shoes to that mountain. I was living in Washington, D.C. shortly before the financial crash in 2009. My life was nice. I had a cute little apartment wedged between Dupont Circle and the Whole Foods on 14th Street. I had a nice job and decent savings when suddenly the markets crashed, and I found myself unemployed and scrambling to plot out a new plan for my life. During my time working in D.C., I had plans to eventually travel. After I lost my job, I figured I had no reason to wait.
I spent the next six months temping and searching for an opportunity abroad. In my research, I happened to land on a program that provided work placement for people interested in traveling to and learning about Armenia. Quite frankly, I knew almost nothing about the tiny country in the middle of the Caucasus region, but I figured why not. I packed out my apartment and left D.C.
Once I got to Armenia, I had spent several weeks working for Counterpart International when I was randomly encouraged to join a group from the organization Birthright Armenia on a tour of the region of Karabakh. At first I was not at all interested in the trip. I was comfortable living in Yerevan and did not feel like trekking across the country on group bus with a bunch of people I did not know. It was at the absolute last moment that resisted my doubts, dropped off my passport, and paid for the visa to Karabakh.
Standing at the foot of that mountain, placing one foot on the rocky ridge, I was keenly aware that despite my casual interest in the hike, this was a moment that might not have materialized if I had not turned in that passport. As my foot slipped many times while walking up the rocky ledge, I held the hands of several friends I had made during the bus trip. There were so many small transformations that were taking place in me while I made the trip to the top. Little did I know how many more transformations lie ahead.
As we reached the half-way point to the top of the ridge, Sevan, the director of Birthright Armenia, instructed us to stop and observe the view. Sevan took this moment to explain the historical significance of the place where we stood. He explained that Karabakh was a region that was considered to be part of the Armenian ancient lands. In 1991, after the fall-out of the Soviet Union, the Armenians were able to take back control of the land during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. For a country that is under 3 million people, it was not a small feat for the population to win the war against what many considered to be a stronger Azerbaijan.
While Sevan explained the tale, you could see him filling with pride for his people. He stood over the mountain ridge that overlooked the horizon and turned to our group saying, “Do you see those buildings in the distance? The ones with the metal roofs. That over there is Azerbaijan. The land that you are standing on is now controlled by Armenians. Your people fought and died so that you could be here today. You have a responsibility to your people and this land.”
I was completely transformed again upon hearing these words. I am not of Armenian decent. The story was not about my ancestors, but a part of me truly connected to this experience. I thought about my own background. I thought about how my ancestors came from a distant land many years ago. I thought about how my ancestors were unwillingly packed on ships like sardines and sent to places unfamiliar. I instantly began to wonder about those lands and that experience, and about the global legacy of my ancestors.
I had never been so connected to the idea of history and what the means for personal identity. There is something very instinctual about one’s connection to a particular land or community. The experience with Birthright Armenia challenged my idea of self and instantly made me think about how powerful it could be to connect other populations to their ancestral homelands and history.
As we made our way back down the mountain, every unsteady step I took made me think more about what I had experienced. I was beginning to understand the true power behind the experience I just felt, and how meaningful this could be for an individual, even more so for a young person who is not able to see beyond the confines of their own neighborhood. As I continued to hold onto new friends for stability, I began to speak with them about my idea, and consider how that opportunity might look.
Now, over three years later, the idea that began on a ridge in Armenia has transformed into a non-profit organization called Atlantic Impact that provides opportunities for urban youth to understand a global history and the lasting legacy of the transatlantic slave trade. Youth who are a part of Atlantic Impact gain a better understanding of how it impacts their lives today through community and international trips.
Each month, our organization takes youth on community exploration trips that allow youth to better understand the history of their local communities. This gives our students a more comprehensive understanding of their hometown and allows them to see past the violence, crime, and abandoned homes that often cripple their neighborhoods. Once they have a better understanding of their own community, they take a step outside of their neighborhoods to experience the global context and deep connections that countries around the world have to the lasting legacy of the slave trade.
Last year, a group of our youth visited England, with the experience based around the port city of Bristol, which benefited greatly from its central role in the slave trade. This summer, another group of youth will be visiting Barbados to experience a different aspect of the impact of the trade, where slave labor took place. This is a global history in which the lasting legacy had a direct impact across the four continents that touch the Atlantic Ocean. Similarly to the way Sevan explained the lasting impact of the experiences Armenia faced many years ago, the history we share has a lasting history that can be seen all around us today.
When I look back on my Karabakh experience, I am reminded of how important it is to challenge oneself. Whether it be traveling to a new place, taking a hike in terrible shoes, or opening oneself up to new people, the challenge oftentimes leads to an experience much greater than imagined. Armenia transformed me completely, and that one experience has now led to an opportunity much greater.