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Ms. Cristina PopaYerevan, Armenia – Birthright Armenia’s international reach just keeps getting broader. This fall, the organization welcomed Ms. Cristina Popa – its first participant from Transylvania.  Popa is a bright, energetic and spunky 21-year-old volunteer from Gherla, a Transylvanian city located in present-day central Romania, and built by Armenians.

Outside of Romania and Hungary, few people know much about Transylvania except that it is the setting of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but the region is also known for the scenic beauty of its Carpathian landscape and its rich history. Gherla had an Armenian population as far back as the 13th century, when it earned its second name, Hayakaghak, or Armenopolis. The modern city was built in the early 18th century by Armenians who had originally settled in Crimea and Moldavia, and moved to Transylvania around that time. Soon thereafter, in exchange for the privilege of settling and a certain degree of autonomy within the Hungarian Kingdom, the Armenian population of Gherla converted to Catholicism – a move that many believe marked the end of the perpetuation of Armenian cultural values and the beginning of assimilation.

Today, the city of Gherla is home to a meager 149 people with Armenian roots, and as Popa tells us, only a few of them speak any Armenian at all. “I know a father and son who learned Western Armenian with the Mkhitarians in Venice,” she says, “I went to them to learn the alphabet and the language.”

Popa’s Armenian heritage comes from her mother, who speaks no Armenian except for a few words she learned from her grandparents. “My great-grandfather’s brother was the General Abbott of the Mkhitarian congregation in Vienna,” Cristina explains, “And I’m very proud of this. My grandmother says I inherited my patriotism from him.”

Ms. Popa, in her own right, is a leader in Gherla’s Armenian community. A student of international relations, she is writing her thesis on the Armenian Genocide. Surprisingly, it is only the second thesis in all of Romania ever to be written on the topic. One of her aspirations is to get a dance group together to perform at the city’s Minority Festival, in an effort to keep Armenian cultural traditions alive. “If I can get people interested, I’m happy,” she says, “I don’t even care if they’re Armenian or not.”

She read about Birthright Armenia in Ararat, a Romanian newspaper that covers Armenian community news. She immediately took an interest in pursuing the unique opportunity that Birthright presented, and her decision to apply was made considerably easier after corresponding with an alumnus in Romania. Upon arriving in Armenia, Ms. Popa thrust herself wholeheartedly into her work and into broadening her cultural horizons, trying to absorb every aspect of Armenian life and make it a part of her.  In October, as her two-month volunteer stint came to a close, the young Transylvanian-Armenian was feeling an emotional urge to stay. She had an extremely enriching experience volunteering at the non-profit organization, International Center for Human Development (ICHD), taking traditional dance classes, living with a warm, welcoming host family, and building bonds with new friends from Armenia and around the world.

Tevan Poghosyan, Executive Director of ICHD in Armenia, was Cristina’s job placement supervisor. He was extremely pleased with Cristina’s contribution to the organization, both through her hard work, and the unique perspective she brought to the table. “Cristina’s most significant contribution to our organization is a paper she wrote on Karabagh’s current political dilemma,” he said, “It brings a fresh new perspective and really demonstrates her expertise in her field. ICHD will soon publish the paper and it will be a useful addition to the literature available to educate people about Karabagh.”

Poghosyan added, “Cristina is very bright and conscientious. I am happy to know that there are Armenians like her in the Diaspora, who are interested in understanding their roots. She is not only here to contribute through her academic specialty; she is fully immersing herself culturally in Armenia.”

Cristina’s home-away-from-home in Yerevan was the Hovannisyan household, where she lived during her stay in Armenia. Host mother Gayane enjoyed Cristina’s company and was sad to see her go. “I have seen Cristina progress in her appreciation and understanding of the country, its people, our culture and native tongue,” she said, “She spoke Armenian well enough when she first came and she always tried very hard. Now she understands more quickly. She fit in well here.”

And as for Cristina, the talkative Transylvanian finds her experience in Armenia hard to put to words. “In short,” she muses, “I’m in love.” She plans to come back to Armenia next year and will encourage other young Armenians in her community to do the same.

Photo: Ms. Cristina Popa, in Yerevan, is hopefully the first of many more young volunteers to follow from Transylvania. 

Birthright Armenia
Contact: Linda Yepoyan
Phone in USA: 610-642-6633
E-mail: info@birthrightarmenia.org
Website: www.birthrightarmenia.org
November 10, 2008            

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Posted on Tuesday, November 18, 2008 (10502 reads), comments: 0
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