In August, the U.S.-based NGO Rebirth Armenia organized a fundraising campaign to support Ayo!’s recently completed Backpacks for Berd project. The history of the FAR-Rebirth Armenia partnership, however, goes back to 2015 when Rebirth’s mother-daughter team of Araxie and Anahit Cass first visited the Berd Region where FAR implements the Breaking the Cycle of Poverty Program (BCPP).

“After our first visit to Tavush, we wanted to use our skills to do something for the people who were living on the border, and [to recognize] the incredible strength that they have to do so. We wanted to give back in any way we could, including by raising some money and letting people’s stories be heard in the U.S.,” said Anahit.

After meeting with FAR Deputy Country Director Margarit Piliposyan and Ayo! Community Director Helena Melkonyan, the Borderlands Under Fire project was born with the aim to get Americans to hear the stories of the Armenian people.

Rebirth Armenia is a forum for travel and other information for visitors to Armenia, as well as those interested in economic ties. Projects documenting the rights of indigenous people and frozen conflicts that have developed as part of Rebirth Armenia include Borderlands Under Fire and Not On Any Map, as well as others.

Araxie, 19, was born and raised in Chicago, to an Armenian family. After the Hamidian Massacres in the 1890s the family fled to Kharberd, where they lived until they emigrated to the U.S. around 1910.

“My grandmother’s family name is Semerjian and my grandfather’s is Pridjian. Members of our family were lucky to survive the horrific events during the genocide. We grew up knowing that we were Armenian, and are proud of our ancient culture and our enduring history. Fulfilling a promise to my grandmother, I took my family to Armenia,” recollected Araxie’s mother, Anahit, who was also born in the U.S. They traveled specifically to Berd to learn more about FAR’s BCPP project, as well as to other border regions and Nagorno-Karabakh.

According to Anahit and Araxie, the situation they witnessed during their visit last summer to the eight border villages that had been nearly destroyed by Azeri shelling was stunning, however people were hospitable and generous and there was no sense of fear. “Being in Berd definitely inspired us because of how friendly and generous everyone was to us, and it challenged us to act despite the danger. There were moments when we were afraid, such when the mayor of Aygepar told us that we could not stand in the middle of the road or the Azeris would see us and fire at us. We felt a deep affection for the people we met, and we wanted to give back in any way we could,” Araxie said.

To meet their mission and raise money for Backpacks for Berd, Araxie and Anahit used photography, writing, blogging, video, documentary, speaking, and whatever opportunities they could develop to share Armenian stories with people in the diaspora, the Chicago community, and beyond.

Thanks to Rebirth Armenia, as well as other donors’ generous support, Ayo! successfully completed Backpacks for Berd and 333 first graders were able to start this school year with new backpacks and school supplies.

Araxie and Anahit have a definite desire to continue their cooperation with FAR, and to continue to try to raise awareness about Berd through the project, as they want to see Armenia thrive and preserve its culture for the world. “Armenia gave us life and our history. This is our way of giving back,” they said.

Breaking the Cycle of Poverty Program (BCPP) is a multidimensional FAR project addressing child poverty in the region of Tavush, sponsored by the Edward and Helen Mardigian Foundation.