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Working with the Armenian Volunteer Corps

Monday, 17 December 2018

Richard Crooks
Trainee Clinical Scientist (Clinical Bioinformatics)
Wessex Regional Genetics Laboratory

As I’m sure every trainee does I wondered what I should do for my elective. I wanted to do something exciting and rewarding, something that’s a change from the usual NHS hospital. Some of my colleagues have volunteered abroad for their electives, so I thought why couldn't I do the same, and where would I go?

I decided to go to Armenia, a country in the Caucasus Mountains between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, where Europe meets the Middle East. How could I volunteer there? I googled "volunteering in Armenia", and found the Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC). Armenia isn’t a very well-known country and some of my colleagues hadn't even heard of it! I know of it from my girlfriend's family, who have Armenian ancestry, and my visits to Manchester's Armenian Taverna, which is just off Albert Square.

AVC have a huge variety of volunteering opportunities, I met lots of other volunteers who were volunteering in so many places in Armenia and from so many different backgrounds in their home countries and their own reasons for coming to Armenia. AVC set me up with 2 placements, which I worked at on alternate days. These were the Institute of Molecular Biology and For You NGO in Nor Kharberd, which runs a home for children. These placements were excellent for my training in England, as they covered the complete range of what a healthcare scientist does.

My main placement was at the Institute of Molecular Biology, where I joined the bioinformatics group of Arsen Arakelyan. Being a bioinformatics trainee, this was great way to apply my skills in a new environment. Being new to the group and staying a relatively short period of time, I wanted to be useful quickly in order to make the most of my time during my elective. I identified a couple of projects that I could quickly make myself useful in, and also gave me an interesting way of completing some of my third year specialist modules. I also gave a talk to some Armenian high school students about how interesting science is as a career, about how the UK’s health service runs (it is very different in Armenia) and the role of healthcare scientists within it.

My smaller placement was with For You NGO, where I helped look after children, a lot of whom had disabilities that our patients at the WRGL have. I’ve not had much experience with very young children before, so this was a completely new experience for me. I helped feed and play with some of the children and took them horse riding (known as hippotherapy) and for walks around the grounds. Over time I developed bonds with some of the children, and I now feel better able to empathise with patients who I meet home. As a bioinformatics trainee I don’t tend to have much patient contact, so this was a rewarding experience for me, and allowed me to complete some of the professional practice competencies.

Armenia is a beautiful country. I was staying with a host family (as AVC encourages us to do) and my host mother was lovely, making me lots of delicious Armenian food. I especially enjoyed the dolma (stuffed vegetables), khorovats (kebabs), harissa (a wheat and chicken porridge) and khash (cows feet soup, much better than it sounds). She also encouraged me to explore Yerevan in my spare time, which I did, visiting Tsitsinakaberd, the Ararat brandy factory, Erebuni and Sardarapat. AVC also has lots of events and excursions I could take part in. I had Armenian language classes twice a week, discussion forums and visits to things in Yerevan (such as the Impact Hub), and at weekends there were excursions outside Yerevan, which were a great way to learn about and explore more of the country. I went to Smbataberd, Areni, and on a bike ride from Amberd to Ashtarak. Best of all Armenians are incredibly hospitable, and I have made so many friends in Armenia.

I was sad to leave Armenia and I will definitely be back! I will especially miss the children at For You NGO who I could see how much they appreciated my service, but also all my colleagues from IMB and For You NGO, the other volunteers and staff at AVC, and my host family. Until I return, I’ll have to see if my butcher can get some cows feet for me to make khash at home!