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Kid’s Camps in the Caucasus

Paul Rimple reports how summer camps are restoring childhood to needy children in Armenia and Georgia

by Paul Rimple with photographs by Justyna Mielnikiewicz and Armineh Johannes

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One early summer afternoon, beneath the gentle slopes of Mount Teghenis in central Armenia, 200 children stood quietly before their lunch plates at Our Lady of Armenia Camp. They were waiting for Sister Arousiag Sajonian, the camp director, to lead them in grace.

Typically, one would expect to find an abundance of rowdiness and mischief-making in a canteen full of children. But not here: At Our Lady of Armenia Camp, or Diramayr for short, relaxed order reigns.

Having just wrapped up its 13th year, the camp brings together 850 needy children, ages 7 to 14, for three weeks of rest, exercise and physical and spiritual nourishment. Divided into four three-week sessions in the months of July and August, Diramayr is a refuge for Armenian orphans living in state orphanages as well as children invited by social workers and the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, an Armenian Catholic community that sponsors the camp.

For Sister Arousiag, who returned to the land of her ancestors in the summer of 1990, the camp strengthens the emotional well-being of children scarred by abandonment and poverty and deepens their exposure to their Armenian culture and heritage.

“I like to think that here the children are camping with Christ,” Sister Arousiag said. “Many of the kids had never been to church before coming here.”

Religious devotions and catechism constitute a significant portion of the day at Diramayr. Days begin and end with prayer, while catechism class is a daily feature. Sunday mornings are reserved for the celebration of the Soorp Badarak, the Divine Liturgy.

Because few Armenians belong to the Armenian Catholic Church (just 220,000 of its 2.9 million citizens), most of those who attend the camp nominally belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, the historic faith community of the Armenian people. The two churches share the same culture, liturgy and traditions (only full communion with the Church of Rome distinguishes Catholic from Armenian Apostolic Christians), thus sparing the camp from religious discord.

Sister Arousiag said she would not let a child’s religious background become an admissions factor. “How can I turn down a needy child just because they aren’t Catholic?”

Summer camp would not be summer camp if the campers had their heads stuck in their Bibles or catechisms all day. Children study languages (French or English), art and computers and also have plenty of time for sports and outdoor activities such as hiking and canoeing. They also take day trips to nearby Lake Sevan and visit the ancient historical monuments that dot Armenia’s countryside.

While most of the day is scheduled, the campers also have free time to horse around in the playground or chat with their friends.

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Tags: Armenia Armenian Apostolic Church Armenian Catholic Church Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception