Twenty seven-year old Arsen Vardanyan was born and raised in Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city. He trained to be a lawyer, but only worked in the field for two years, from 2013 to 2015. Vardanyan quit to devote his life to improving his hometown, as one of the co-founders of the “Gyumri Is Our Home” initiative.
“At the end of 2013, my friends and I participated in the meeting of the Council of Elders of Gyumri and announced that we want to build a skating rink in our city. There was one in [the capital] Yerevan, but we wanted to have ours. And we succeeded,” recalls Vardanyan.
Initiatives like Vardanyan’s are an important part of Gyumri’s long struggle to rise again from the ruins. Thirty years ago, this north-western corner of Armenia was struck by a 6.5 magnitude earthquake. Gyumri and the surrounding Shirak Province were devastated; 25,000 people were killed, many of them buried beneath the rubble, and 130,000 were injured. While the earthquake prompted humanitarian aid from all across the world, subsequent years brought new hardships with the collapse of the Soviet Union and eruption of conflicts across the South Caucasus.
Today, Shirak remains one of Armenia’s poorest regions. Gyumri, the regional capital, has few opportunities for young people. If they can, many chose to leave the place when they grow up, just like I did. Those turbulent years in the 1980s and 1990s deprived me and others like me of a proper childhood, while the bleak economic prospects led me to believe I would not be able to build a proper life in my hometown.
Nobody should have to write such things about where they grew up, and I hope that such thoughts need never cross the minds of generations to come. Fortunately, some young people in Gyumri are working hard to ensure that happens.
Vardanyan’s rink was a small step towards bringing the city back to life. From the beginning of 2014 onwards, evenings were for skating. Everyone regardless of the age and gender would come and visit.