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     Volume 2 Issue 106 | February 15, 2009|


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My Fellowship Program in Norway and Armenia

Veronica Costa

AS a fellow of the YWCA, I had an opportunity first to visit Norway and then Armenia in 2007-2008, as an international volunteer funded by Fredscorpset (Norwegian government). The YWCA is an active international voluntary organization throughout the world. Indeed, my fellowship program started from July 2007 in Norway with an initial training period, which gave me an excellent opportunity to experience international livelihood for about two months. The Norway part of my visit was a kind of preparation for subsequent, large, and main assignment in Armenia. The Norway hosts briefed and trained me and other grantees for a variety of volunteer and cultural activities stretched over eight weeks in Lillehammer (Norway), which gave me a forum to meet and interact with other participants from Europe, Asia and Africa. True, I took a few days before I got used to the Norwegian food, a bland cuisine, not easy for someone accustomed to spicy dishes. I greatly enjoyed the stay in Norway; more importantly, the experience of international living was a solid preparation for my next 8-month long fellowship period in Armenia that was knocking at my door.

Going back to past centuries, Armenians traveled all over the world and they built churches and schools in what is Bangladesh today, hundreds of years ago. There are still remnants of those institutions in Bangladesh, particularly in Armanitola, Dhaka. I knew that much of Armenian history before I actually went to Armenia. Nevertheless, that was not enough for the challenges of living in Armenia for so many months. I realized that gradually, since I landed in the strange country.

During the 8-month stay in Armenia, slowly and steadily, I came close to a good number of Armenian people, whom I knew through my work and voluntary services. I learned from their history, and did my best to adjust myself with their culture, food etc. I do not know how many Bangladeshis visited Armenia before me. But I came to know about the country, its people and their way of life gradually, although I was at times nervous and homesick. However, slowly, my Armenian hosts accepted me as one of them; the colleagues welcomed me and I felt the warmth of their feelings even though language was a barrier. I can still recall that day,10th September '07, when I put my feet in Armenian airport; it was a strange feeling in an unknown land. Though I had a proper visa, the immigration officer at the airport took a long time to check my travel document when she saw my Bangladeshi passport. Moreover, I could imagine then that she had lot of questions about me. Possibly she wondered why a Bangladeshi girl would come to Armenia all by herself. Then she called some persons wondering if they could facilitate our language barrier. At that moment, I realized that I had to learn a bit of Armenian language for my day-to-day survival in the country. Moreover, for Armenians, Russian is their second language; so, most people there are not fluent in English.

Let me go back to my first experience at the airport. The Armenian immigration officer had to put the entry visa seal in my passport when they could not ask me any questions because of the language problem. Soon, I had a smile on my face! It was a relief to meet two other volunteers at the airport; I knew one of them from Norway. They took me to my new home in Vanadzor city. It was a very old building made of concrete with a distinct Soviet architectural influence, very different from the buildings I have seen in Bangladesh and elsewhere.

Later I made some new friends; they told me as far as they knew; for sure, I was then the first Bangladeshi in Armenia. I had a funny experience--whenever I went shopping with my Armenian friends, the shopkeepers would ask them where I came from. Of course, they replied that I was a Bangladeshi. However, they would still ask--is she from Yerevan's Bangladesh or Vanadzor's Bangladesh? There are two places in Armenia named Bangladesh, may be they thought about that Bangladesh first. I asked my friends why they named those two places Bangladesh.

They replied that long ago their government promised to build some flats for the officers.

Those flats were far from the city, and then the officers were joking that they lived as far as Bangladesh, so they might as well go to Bangladesh instead of living in those apartments. In course of time, people started calling these places Bangladesh. What began as sarcastic humor became popular names of those two towns.

The people whom I met in Armenia were very kind and helpful. They took time to show me their tourist sites, important places, and explained their long history, local customs and traditions, often mixed with cultural influences from the neighboring countries. In many ways, the Armenians are very much like Bangladeshis; they are very hospitable to the visitors and they are proud of their traditions. I felt like it was my second home, and I will always remember my stint in Armenia.

I started liking the Armenian barbeque, which they call 'Khorovats'. They make khorovats with fish, lamb and pork; they marinate meat especially with some spices, onion and salt before cooking it on metal skewers. Actually, there are some common items of food between Armenia and Bangladesh. For example, the Armenian kebabs reminded me of Bangladeshi kebabs. They are a little spicier in Bangladesh. The Armenian Dolma has also its cousin in Bangladesh.

I told my Armenian friends about the Armenian traders, Church in 'Armanitola' in Bangladesh. Since I returned from Armenia, I read news, stories and history about the Armenians including their roots in Bangladesh. More recently, I have seen two articles in Dhaka newspapers about the last of the Armenians who is in Bangladesh, mainly in the neighborhood called Armanitola in Dhaka.

Among several places that I visited in Armenia, I had been to the Ararat Mountain. It is a Biblical place. The Noah's ark is believed to have disembarked here after the great flood that changed the earth in many ways.

I also visited Karabakh, a neighboring country of Armenia. Mountains surround the whole country, and I was sad to see the ruins of the war devastations that rocked the country. Armenian people were not sure if I am the first Bangladeshi in Armenia or not, but they were sure I was the first native Bangladeshi in Karabakh.

It was autumn season when I first arrived in Armenia. Sometimes, the colorful trees seem to be on fire. However, the Armenian winter scared me, as I did not live in a cold country before visiting Armenia. The whole of January was minus 25 degrees Celsius. But I was thrilled to see the snowfall in November; it was amazing to see snow coming down like scattered cotton from the sky.

It was a bit strange for me that Armenians celebrate Christmas on 6 January because all the Armenians are Orthodox Apostolic Christians and they follow the old calendar. I was invited at a Christmas party in Armenia. Actually, the Christmas celebration started from New Year night that lasted until 6th April. For the special dinner, they cooked different dishes like Dolma, Kyuftah, Pork roast, Turkey roast and I have seen an unfamiliar dish made of chicken roaster and cakes. My hosts laid the dinner table and when it is 12 a.m., they took drinks and wished the family members Happy Christmas, and started eating.

Another experience to remember was when Gayane, one of my friends, invited me at a wedding. The marriage ritual was long; it started at 11 o'clock in the morning, and ended late at night. They have the old custom of going to their Godfather's house, bride's house and groom's house; as the old practice continues, Godfather pays for most of the wedding cost. He would bring gifts, sweets and drinks to the bride's house. They have music and they dance outside before entering the houses. After the wedding mass, they go to groom's house and do some other rituals; like breaking plates, and eating salt. After that, they go out to the street by car and roam around the city for sometime.

A pleasant surprise for me was that Indian films are very popular in Armenia. As I attended some public functions and parties and met people, I tried to introduce Bangladeshi culture and dresses, to some extent. I wore Saree at a party and it was something for neighbors and the Armenian friends to talk about. For a while, I worked with some orphan girls; they would ask if I knew Shahrukh Khan, the Indian movie idol.

I miss that country and the people. They gave me a lot of love, and I have learned a lot from them and from their history and culture.

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