By Lisa Manookian
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
YEREVAN — In her professional career, Edele Hovnanian has led more than two dozen companies in commercial real estate and health care for over two decades. As a leader in the Armenian community, she is or has been a trustee and board member of several institutions, including the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial, Inc., the Hovnanian Day School, the Armenian Assembly of America, the Land and Culture Organization, Junior Achievement International and the Armenian National Institute. But Edele Hovnanian’s greatest achievement is her devotion to volunteerism in Armenia. As the founder and prime mover of Birthright Armenia, Hovnanian has sowed the seeds of service and self- awareness in a vibrant and confident generation of Armenian youth, while concomitantly allowing them to nurture their own leadership skills by experiencing Armenia in a most humbling manner — as Birthright Armenia volunteers.
Hovnanian has been traveling to Armenia since the early 1970s. During that period, she participated in youth-oriented educational, cultural and volunteer service programs. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1981 with a joint bachelor’s degree in economics and engineering, she matriculated at Yerevan State University’s Graduate School of Oriental Studies where she concentrated in linguistics.
Hovnanian’s graduate study in Armenia from 1982-83 was a defining moment in her life, allowing her to discover her voice as an Armenian and set the direction of her future service throughout the diaspora and in Armenia. Although raised in a close-knit and prominent family, Hovnanian embarked on a quest in search of her own Armenian identity in her early 20s, and was welcomed with open arms in a country where she immersed herself fully, learning about their lives, language and customs, thus allowing her to see Armenia from the inside out.
In the summer of 1988, Hovnanian participated in a restoration campaign of traditional Armenian homes in Kessab, Syria, sponsored by the Land and Culture Organization (LCO). This experience motivated her to take the helm of the LCO for more than a decade. At this juncture in her life, Hovnanian decided that when financially able, she would create a structured program that encouraged young Armenians to not simply visit Armenia as tourists, but work as volunteers and live amongst the people.
Thus, in 2003, Birthright Armenia was born. Birthright Armenia builds bridges for Diasporan Armenians through volunteer internships in Armenia by providing roundtrip airfare, living arrangements with local families, educational excursions, language instruction, networking events and seminars — all designed to create a deeper understanding of Armenia’s complex cultural and political milieu, while contributing to the nation’s growth and development.
Birthright Armenia is also a concept that allows young adults in their formative years to undertake a journey of self-discovery and to share their talents with fellow Armenians from throughout the world.
Birthright Armenia’s only requirements are that applicants be of Armenian descent, between the ages of 20-32, and agree to a minimum two-month stay. Not required but strongly recommended is living for the duration of the service with an Armenian host family.
Hovnanian fully funds the administrative overhead required to run Birthright Armenia, allowing the annual funds raised by Executive Director Linda Yepoyan to go toward programming.
Some of the institutions that partner with Birthright Armenia include US-based organizations such as the Armenian Church Youth Organization of America, Armenian Youth Federation Youth Corps, Armenian Assembly of America, Fund for Armenian Relief, Fuller Center for Housing and the LCO, as well as Armenia-based organizations, such as the Armenian Volunteer Corps, Armenia Tree Project, Armenian Young Lawyers Association, Pyunic Association for the Disabled and the Women’s Resource Center.
By inculcating today’s younger generation with a hands-on understanding of life in today’s Armenia, Hovnanian has created opportunities for involvement and engagement in Armenia’s private and public sectors. During its first six years of existence, more than 500 volunteers from 28 countries participated in the Birthright Armenia experience. Thanks to new social media, the number of volunteers is only expected to increase.
When Hovnanian is in Armenia, she makes it a point to interact with the volunteers, many of whom express their appreciation for her generosity and its positive influence on their lives. But Hovnanian is more concerned with the long-term impact. In her eyes, it’s not just about sponsoring youth volunteers, but rather the need to further engage their minds so that they, in turn, continue to assist the homeland in the years to come. For Hovnanian, it is not simply important to share Birthright Armenia’s vision, but to communicate her witnessing of Armenia’s development throughout the past four decades and allow her to see the world through their eyes.
Hovnanian takes great pride in Birthright Armenia’s Alumni Program, which connects graduates via a newsletter, employment announcements and professional networking events. Further, grant opportunities encourage alumni to submit creative proposals aimed at Armenia’s advancement, with the added incentive of bonding closer with the homeland and her people. Hovnanian is of the firm belief that “the longer the stay, the deeper the roots.”
“It is my hope that the unique experiences of Birthright Armenia alumni will create a network of strong and compassionate diasporan leaders in the decades to come. It is a concept that speaks directly to my heart, and one which I believe is truly investing in people wisely,” says Hovnanian.
For this vision to be a true and lasting success, however, the Armenian community needs to do more to encourage young adults to devote their time and energy to Armenia. Those who have the capability to support and sustain these paths must step up to the plate and do their part.
While Hovnanian ventures to Armenia two or three times a year, she hopes to change that with the recent opening of the Hirair and Anna Hovnanian Foundation’s new office in Yerevan, a foundation which she strives to take to the next level.
Those close to Hovnanian describe her as an intelligent and astute businesswoman with incredible acumen, yet also charitable, resourceful and successful in any endeavor undertaken. She is considered a mentor among her peers, who is passionate in all that she believes. But perhaps her greatest asset is in her quiet humility, which has served to foster a unique bond with many volunteers that she does not personally know, thus allowing the minds and hearts of our Armenian youth to be opened by the endless possibilities that abound in service to Armenia and her people.
A Winston Churchill quote sums it up best: “You make a living by what you get, but you make a life by what you give.”
(This is the first in a series of three articles, exclusively for The Armenian Mirror- Spectator, focusing on volunteerism and its long-term investment potential in Armenia. Much thanks to Mihran Toumajan for contributing to this article.)