Five Armenian Guys in NYC and Delaware
The first photo they sent me was from a Five Guys in New York City. Four teenage Armenian boys sit around a table chomping on their inaugural American cheeseburgers. Although we sent the four boys and their mentor to attend the Diamond Challenge final competition at the University of Delaware, we arranged for two nights in NYC first - what I anticipated would be the highlight of the trip. I armed them with a list of must-eats, emphasizing the essentials: cheesecake, bagels, pizza and American bacon. The photos poured into our facebook messenger group of them gazing wistfully out from the Brooklyn Bridge and celebrating a 16th birthday by posing next to Kurt Cobain’s broken guitar at the Hard Rock Cafe. When they finally returned to Armenia safe and sound, toting a ‘Most Tenacious Team’ award from the competition, I expected the awe that NYC always inspires in me, and an appreciative if muted note on Delaware.
“Delaware is the best place in the US!” One of the boys proclaimed, shrugging his shoulders nonchalantly at NYC. “The buildings, so high. The cheese, no taste. And the air, not clean. Only pizza was liked by all.” But Newark, Delaware - that felt like the sleepy resort town of Dilijan, Armenia. Delaware felt like home.
Last September, long before our five Armenian guys went to the US, I sat down with Sona, my counterpart at the Dilijan Community Center (DCC). We needed to figure out what exactly this whole Diamond Challenge business was about. DCC had signed up over the summer. In the shuffle of vacations and other projects, it rested on the backburner until a slew of emails from Delaware reminded us that we should probably be doing something. Sona and I knew the basics - The University of Delaware Horn Entrepreneurship Center organized a massive international youth entrepreneurship competition, and we were responsible for bringing the project to Armenia for the first time. The winning team in Armenia would receive $1000 USD to start their business and be invited to the US for the finals. It was like the television show Shark Tank, but with Armenian teenagers. We loved the idea, but we hadn’t written the partner application ourselves and didn’t know the details. When we were asked to take it on, we agreed and began a rollercoaster ride ultimately resulting in the trip to the US. And, through it all, Sona and I forming a relationship that I can only describe as sisterhood.
But back in September, as we combed through the MOU and various partner instructions, a panic descended. Bi-weekly reports, seemingly insurmountable participation quotas, late-night partner calls, a Live Pitch Event and sending the winning team to the US to compete in the finals - we were responsible for it all. Including a big chunk of money. Every other partner country had already been working for months.
We managed to hit every quota, delivering infosessions in most major cities and many smaller ones. Teenagers from across the country submitted their business ideas, and international judges narrowed down the competitors to the top ten. We had a Live Pitch Event in Dilijan. After almost two hours of deliberation, the judging panel named Arahet - a youth eco-tourism startup - the winners. They were the home team, a group of four boys from Dilijan who we didn’t even know would compete in the first place. In an attempt to not provide any unfair advantages, we had refrained from even reading their concept. So, it was as much a pleasant surprise to us as anyone when they wowed the judges and audience. Our next mission was to get them to the US - to Delaware. We agreed early on that nothing would stop us, that we would not rest until they returned triumphant! We were at least right about not resting...
Sona and I stayed at the office well after closing hours for weeks to get it done, pulling each other through every obstacle. Finally, on a Thursday evening, we got the funding green light. We rushed to the accountant’s office with the four boys in tow, helping them fill out the visa application. After three hours, it was time to pay and book the interview appointments. And that’s when tragedy struck - the earliest available slot was April 11th. They needed to fly out on the 9th. Our hearts were broken. But not our ambitions.
Sona called the embassy the next morning to beg for an expedited appointment. The very kind woman from the consular office gently explained that we were out of luck - expedited appointments were only awarded in the case of family emergencies. Her only consolation was the advice to keep refreshing the page. Maybe someone would cancel, and a new slot would become available? But even then, it was unlikely that we would able to secure slots for all four of them. It was Friday afternoon, and we wondered if we had finally hit an obstacle that couldn’t be broken through. Sona and I hugged tightly before I left the office, and reminded one another that we had done all we could. We would resume the battle on Monday morning, somehow.
Five minutes later, Sona called me. As she was packing up her stuff for the weekend, she signed in. She had no expectations, just a random decision inspired by hopeless desperation. But there on the computer screen in an empty office, a miracle happened. April 2nd, a slot for four. Just enough time to get the visa. She rushed to the accountant. I was in a shared taxi on my way out of town when she called to confirm it was done, and must have terrified the other passengers with my outburst.
Honestly, nothing about organizing this project has been easy. It was hard to explain entrepreneurship to youth. It was hard to motivate teenagers to do the extensive application. It was hard to organize the event, and to rally effect PR around it. It was so shockingly hard to organize their travel to the US, and even harder to irrationally agonize over their safety while they were there. But when they came back and began regaling us with all they had done, all they had learned, it was so amazingly worth it. Sona and I linked arms and soaked in their stories, their lessons learned and their renewed enthusiasm. They were bros with the Pakistan team. A squirrel attacked Hayk in Central Park. Five Guys fries were okay. A chinese film crew interviewed them in Times Square. They taught all the international teams how to do traditional dance. They tried American bacon, the first bullet point on my must-eat list.
“It was okay, Emily jan. But be honest - dolma or bacon?”
Dolma is a traditional Armenian food, with or rice wrapped in grape leaves/cabbage. It’s objectively delicious, and they know it’s one of my favorite Armenian foods. But…
“Sorry boys, bacon all day every day.”
“Vaiiiiii,” they shot their hands up in that classic moment when one culture can’t understand another that I know so well as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Until one of them turned to the others with full understanding dawning on his face.
“No, no. Look. Bacon is her dolma.”
They nodded, letting out a collective “Ohhhhhh.” Before agreeing that bacon is indeed my dolma. And so my loyalty to bacon was understood, a cross-cultural bridge built. That moment was one of the proudest of my Peace Corps service. Sona and I didn’t just send them to the US for the cheeseburgers. We sent them to learn how to build that bridge. And they did. As Sona and I celebrated later that week, we cheered with wide smiles on our face: To bacon and dolma!