The unforgettable UNHCR and YMCA summer camp for refugee and displaced youth

Seeing so many young people from different background and places of origin, young local Armenians and displaced youth from Syria, Iraq and Nagorno-Karabakh working, debating, relaxing and interacting together offers a sign of hope...

During 15-27 August 2017, a summer camp project was put together for refugee and displaced children and youth by the UNHCR Armenia and YMCA Vardenis NGO. A group of forty campers from Syria, Iraq and Nagorno-Karabakh, joined by local YMCA leaders enjoyed the YMCA camp located at one of the most spectacular sites of Armenia, Lake Sevan. The youth camp project aimed to promote social and cultural integration and improve the emotional and psychological wellbeing of the displaced and refugee youth, among them, new-arrivals, help them share their story, interact and befriend each other.

”I made many friends at camp. We were similar and different at the same time – similar with our stories of having lost our homes, and different with our language, traditions and culture,” says Aram, a boy displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) to Armenia due to the escalation of the conflict in NK in early April 2016.

The YMCA camp programme which was rich in activities and educational prograrmmes helped the children integrate into the Armenian culture, gave them the opportunity of expression and cultural exchange through theatre performances, music, art, team building and sports.

“I am confident that the YMCA camp experience will be worthwhile for the children. Promotion of universal values and cultural diversity and dialogue which we dwelled about with the campers in the past weeks will make a positive impact on the children leading them to a dignified future with self-confidence, respect towards others and sense of solidarity,” Ms. Varditer Hambardzumyan, Director of YMCA Vardenis NGO told us during our visit to the camp.

The camp programme was indeed very well thought over. It ensured promotion of life skills, leisure and team-building for the campers, and it was paired by the extra efforts the YMCA team had put into coaching Iraqi refugee youth in the new role that they were trusted with as camp counsellors. It was especially gratifying to see the happy faces of the campers and how they enjoyed the loyalty and friendship of one another. The children were very well looked after, they were enthusiastic and in action all the time.

“I had never been to Lake Sevan before,” Maral, a Syrian-Armenian girl, tells us her story. “What I liked most was swimming in the lake with my new friends, and our leader Nareg who was protecting us from the waves,” says Maral with a smile. “I can see Mount Ararat, I can swim in Lake Sevan and admire the stars at night. This is just blissful. I feel at home in Armenia and I am honoured to be part of my new homeland,” Maral says with excitement.

Indeed, the children seemed delighted by the camp. It granted them friendships and sweet memories about each day they spent at the camp.

“We are fortunate to have YMCA in such enthusiastic activities in Armenia,” says Nareg, a Syrian-Armenian camp leader from Australia volunteering for ‘’Aleppo’’ NGO through Birthright Armenia. “We appreciate the tireless efforts of UNHCR and its partner agencies, Mission Armenia and Aleppo NGO. The time we spent at the YMCA camp will remain unforgettable”, continues Nareg. “I heard the testimonies of the campers, and I am impressed by their spirit and strength. I am now full of empathy towards refugees in the world, I now feel different and I think different,” Nareg says with sadness while at the same time, some pride in his voice. 

“To make this difference, YMCA camp projects for displaced children and youth should be continuous, and we should jointly do our utmost to maintain the summer camp and other YMCA youth projects as such,” said Anahit Hayrapetyan, UNHCR External Relations Associate of UNHCR in Armenia.

On the last day, after the camp-end show, the UNHCR Representative in Armenia, Mr. Christoph Bierwirth, expressed his gratitude to Ms. Varditer Hamnardumyan, YMCA Vardenis Director and her team for the perfect organisation of the camp programme and the young crowd for an impressive performance that they had to offer, such as: Armenian songs and recitation, traditional dances, and pantomime with the presentation of a rich scope of other talents they shared among the participants. Acknowledging the difficult times that many of the participating displaced youth had to pass through, he praised the resilience of refugee and displaced youth, their optimism and successful efforts to find a new life and future in Armenia.

Mr. Bierwirth observed: “Seeing so many young people from different background and places of origin, young local Armenians and displaced youth from Syria, Iraq and Nagorno-Karabakh working, debating, relaxing and interacting together offers a sign of hope and shows that integration can work, if all are ready to engage.” He encouraged the young participants “to stick to the values of caring about others and working together learned and practiced during the summer cam” and concluded: “You are the future of this country.  I like to wish you to find your place and responsible role in the society. I like to wish you to find a profession you like and which offers you fulfilment. Everyone at his or her place; meaningfully.”

At the end of the camp project the children received certificates of acknowledgement from UNHCR and nomination awards for creativity and talents, intelligence and enthusiasm, mobilisation and leadership skills. The twelve days spent at the YMCA camp will truly remain one of the most enjoyable and unforgettable times for the campers.