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Birky getting back to her roots

September 21, 2009|By JANET HEIM

BOONSBORO -- For Michelle Birky, being part of Armenia Service Project 2009 was a homecoming of sorts.

"I would sum up the trip as finding my historical home. It was awesome to finally see all the things I had only seen before in pictures, to learn about the incredibly rich history and culture of this country, and realize that it was my heritage," Birky wrote in an e-mail.

Birky, a 2007 graduate of Boonsboro High School, is a junior at University of Maryland Baltimore County majoring in English.

She hopes to teach high school English after she graduates.

Birky, 19, is the daughter of Greg and Sevan Birky of Boonsboro. She has a younger sister and brother. Her father is American, of German descent and her mother is Armenian, but grew up in Lebanon before moving to the United States in the 1970s.

Birky had never traveled outside of the U.S. before this trip.

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She was one of 15 college students and one of three from Maryland chosen for the three-week service trip of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church in America.

The other students were from Virginia, Connecticut, Texas, Illinois, New Jersey, Massachussetts, Michigan and Minnesota. Birky was the only one from Washington County.

The trip included two weeks of visiting the historical, cultural and religious sites in Armenia and ended with a week of volunteering at a children's camp, where they gave English lessons to those ages 9 to 14.

The group flew out of John F. Kennedy Airport in New York the evening of June 21. Birky's group included two males and 13 females. Four were 100 percent Armenian and most of the others were half German like Birky.

She enjoyed the language and cultural differences, sampling the local foods. She found her knowledge of the Armenian alphabet and a few polite words was enough to read signs and say "thank you" and "excuse me," which she said people appreciated.

One of the most noticeable differences was the customs between young people of opposite genders. Birky said her group was warned about dating in Armenia because that meant the couple was expected to get married. As a result, "guys and girls traveled in packs of their own kind," Birky wrote in her journal.

She said her math skills were helpful in converting to the metric system, the 24-hour clock and monetary conversions. At the time of Birky's trip, one U.S. dollar equaled about 360 Armenian dram.

They saw snow-capped Mt. Ararat, visited Victory Park to see the statue of Mother Armenia and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War II, and went to the Genocide Museum, where they laid flowers at the memorial.

There were other museum visits and some in the group made a pilgrimage to a church across the Turkish border.

"I learned how I could possibly help my motherland -- by returning in the future and teaching English, which I might do," Birky said.

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