change makers of the future

The sun won’t stay behind the cloud

Last November 2022, I went ‘back’ – for the first time – to my Armenian Roots for a very special occasion. To facilitate three events on Women’s Empowerment & Equal Rights. The purpose was to inspire, motivate and empower many students – girls and boys, female social entrepreneurs, and women in rural communities. These events were related to #OrangeTheWorld

The Orange The World campaign is an international 16-day campaign running from November 25 (International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women) to December 10 (International Human Rights Day). It symbolically links gender-based violence and human rights and emphasizes that such violence is a violation of human rights. The 16-Day Campaign is advocated by the UN as an organizing strategy by individuals and groups around the world to call for the elimination of all forms of gender-based violence. 

The Dutch Embassy in Armenia

Ambassador to Armenia Nico Schermers of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs – Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken – saw me at the Dutch TV program Kamp van Koningsbrugge. We met in The Hague and he asked me if I wanted to step in as a role model for Armenian women.

Schermers explained: “Two years ago I had the honor of opening an embassy in Yerevan. We now have a solid human rights program in which we mainly look at how we can improve the situation of women and girls (also many victims of domestic violence), and how we can ensure that they first of all know that they are able to make – their own – choices in life, and secondly, to know how to design and execute their desired choices or dreams. This requires a lot of motivation, so our program includes projects in the field of education & information, support of organizations and NGOs that can offer protection to women and for example create safe spaces to create a better future.

With you we want to go one step further: to let women think about what they really want to do in life, to not simply accept what their environment or family will think of their ambitions, choices, or goals in life, but to actually think for themselves about what they want to get out of life. And with a self-made Armenian woman who has shown that she can compete with the strongest men, and who overcame her own mental and physical challenges, we believe that we are bringing in someone who can reach women and truly is able to convince them to be courageous in all their endeavors.”

You probably understand that I could not say no to such an amazing purpose and also take on the compliment by heart. 🙂

Armenian Roots

Inside the Aghavnavank Monastery - Աղավնավանք
Inside the Aghavnavank Monastery – Աղավնավանք

A little explanation about Armenia. Armenia is a Christian country in the Caucasus, formerly part of the Soviet Union. Currently at war with Azerbaijan, an ally of Turkey. Armenia has a population of 3 million, of which 1 million live in the capital Yerevan, and the rest often live in quite primitive conditions in the countryside. In addition, Armenia has a diaspora of more than 7 million Armenians worldwide. This is the result of major massacres in 1915 when one and a half million Armenians were killed by Turks, which is known as the Armenian Genocide. Many survivors fled abroad. The wars with neighboring Azerbaijan and the economic conditions mean that many Armenian men are either in military service or work abroad (many in Russia) as guest workers and often do not come home for years. The Christian background and the isolation of the country mean that traditions such as early marriage and women who take care of children and household are still widespread here.

I am a so-called third generation in The Netherlands and I don’t have relatives in Armenia. Because of a certain intervention of The Red Cross and the Dutch Government back in the fifties, my grandparents moved with their 3 children – on their Nansen passports – from Athens, Greece to the Netherlands and became proud Dutch citizens. Even as their grandchild and born in NL, I have been fully raised in Dutch and I, unfortunately, don’t speak or understand the Armenian language. Also, my family history and the history of my Armenian roots were never taught so I did not feel a strong connection to the country and I didn’t have any inspiration to visit Armenia soon.

But when Nico Schermers reached out with explaining his true purpose, I immediately felt a spark and an innate connection, but also an inner doubt as I don’t speak Armenian. He confirmed to me: “you are Armenian and that is enough. The people will embrace you as one of their own.”

Agavni Jessaijan & Nico Schermers | Yerevan, Armenia
Agavni Jessaijan & Nico Schermers | Yerevan, Armenia

OK, let’s do it!

A few online meetings online upfront with the project team made sure I understood as much as possible about the different groups I would interact with and the goals we wanted to establish together.

Also, the broadcast company Avro Tros and the producer of the tv show Kamp van Koningsbrugge – Tuvalu Media – gave me official permission to use tv-footage during my talks, to inspire them with my crazy adventure. I used them as metaphors, to let them think about their own mental, physical, and emotional challenges and how to tackle them going forward in life. No matter how big the adversity or obstacle.

So I traveled to Yerevan, Armenia for the first time in my life. Excited to take on this adventure together with a team of amazing people.

The strong Armenian women all have a story to tell

Agavni Jessaijan as speaker
Photo credit: Yeva Mandalyan

Learning from other women should be a true virtue. It starts with examples that speak to the hearts and minds of many. So I did lead the way with my own stories, showing how I overcame limiting inner beliefs and how I worked with them. I was able to share my own personal and professional stories to inspire them and activate conversations. When women figure out what is holding them back from breaking barriers or overcoming limiting beliefs, it is easier to make wise decisions and tackle one challenge at a time.

I was in awe of the strength I saw in the eyes of all these women. All with their own amazing stories about why they started their NGO or their business. I let them think about the challenges they experience outside of them, in their culture, in the way of working, about not feeling, getting, or experiencing equal rights, and the perception they have about being able to tackle it or not. What has an outside challenge to do with your own behavior? Choose your battles wisely, but how do you do that? And what are the creative possibilities to work with them?

At the core, we touched upon the challenge of creating more awareness around their missions and challenges, how to address them, establish collaboration and find common grounds, and how to communicate and be more visible within their surroundings. And I saw the opportunity to establish peer-to-peer interventions as a step forward so that they are able to guide each other in steps they already have taken, maybe to teach each other some shortcuts, but also to have a trustworthy circle of women to truly connect with. Together you’re way stronger than standing alone in your endeavors. They are able to empower and support each other too. Unite forces and create change together.

Changemakers of the future: how to engage students of this generation?

I found it interesting that many of the students – approximately 100+ students between the age of 14-20 – walked in a bit shy and a lot had their faces down. I observed their behavior from the start when they walked in, to really see if I could make a shift during the session.

Ambassador Nico Schermers - introduction students
Ambassador Nico Schermers – introduction students

It was really a joyful session to empower these young students – both girls and boys. To be successful in their endeavors they will need to question themselves and each other so that they are able to start to understand their own personal leadership skills, also in relation to others. By sharing inspirational examples I broadened their perspective, and through interacting and some play, they gained more awareness about their own motivation, capabilities, powers, and innate beliefs – good and bad. I did teach them the core essence and wisdom of true compassion, creativity, and courage. The way of working and integrating the innate wisdom of your head, heart, and gut-brain.

Injecting a Heartcore Belief 🙂

“Truly generative and adaptive leadership today requires whole new levels of self-awareness and self-facilitation” – Grant Soosalu – Founder of Multiple Brain Integration Techniques & Leadership (mBIT)

Within a few hours, I saw the change on their faces. The students came out of their comfort to have discussions, to speak their hearts out and at the end, a girl stood up and said: “I am a very shy girl. Previously I would never stand up and say something. But now I am standing up to thank you for your inspiration and motivation. I want to be as strong as you and from now I will integrate your lessons and have the courage to dream big and make them come true.’

All young people in the audience
Photo credit: Yeva Mandalyan

I felt deep compassion in my heart for this girl and was so proud of her to speak up. This is why I did it. To see this shift happening. When the session ended no one stood up. Haha. They just sat there. It gave me a very humble feeling that the students didn’t run away :)) but instead when they left I stood at the door and I gave every single student a double high five. Heads up, smile, eyes on the horizon, and go make your environment proud. And some… were courageous enough to give me a big strong hug.

Mission accomplished!!

The deep compassion I felt for women in rural villages

No keynote. No visible examples of my journey in Kamp van Koningsbrugge. Only my stories, challenges, and lessons learned speaking by heart, leading the way, and guiding these women into safe talking circles. With one of my favorite playground activities, I made sure that these women were able to come into the same frequency really quickly, and from there on to truly connect on conversations that matter.

Women rural villages

Do you believe that the environment that you live in, and the surroundings or situation you have been raised, will dictate your path or outcome in life? For many people, it probably will, for others it won’t. It totally depends on the challenges you experienced, and if or how you overcame them or not. The possibilities you had or may not have had. This session was about exploring and connecting with other women in the community they live in. Finding out that they all have a story and maybe not being able to shed light on it.

Ellada on the left translating my stories
Ellada on the left translating my stories

Facilitated by our project team, Ellada Alaverdyan – who owns an NGO and already does great work with women in rural villages, Larissa – the policy officer of the Dutch Embassy in Armenia, and Rima – a teacher of the Armenian language, I asked them to facilitate these circles of women and their own language and talk about their past and future dreams, aspirations they had but didn’t come true, the future of their children, the awareness of possibilities no matter age or situation, how they relate to their parents, grandparents and ancestors and the goals they have for their future. But also stories of their situation at home came across. You can imagine that relating to the purpose of Orange The World, also women in these communities experience hardship.

This was a very intense and emotional but deeply compassionate session for all of us who were present. It is very humbling to see these women share their stories and to guide them into a safe space to talk or just be amongst other women who possibly had kind of the same experience in life. Now they felt the inspiration deeply how to connect and that this is an opportunity to explore together how they could support each other going forward, also being mindful that there are different generations within the villages, with different dreams and aspirations. No matter the age.

One of the key takeaways within this group was the awareness that young people are able to study, have great jobs these days, and yet, still could play a role in the village they were raised in. To support the needed development in one way or another but also to make sure that they reach their own full potential. Both can go hand in hand, we just need to facilitate inspiration and direction.

Արևը չի մնա ամպի հետևում. Arevy ch’i mna ampi hetevum: “The sun won’t stay behind the cloud.”. This is an Armenian saying and Life Lesson. It means that truth will not always remain hidden and will reveal itself sooner or later. 

This is not the ending. I felt so unbelievably welcome and really felt the warmheartedness and kindness of all the people I met during my visit. I am looking forward to seeing more of this amazing country and connecting even more with my Armenian roots. So yes, I’ll be back to do more Heartwork and hopefully with that inspire even more Hearts and Minds, facilitating others truly, really, and deeply connect to their innate wisdom so that they can be the change themselves.

In my next article, I will go more in-depth about what this experience taught and brought me on a personal level.

Agavni in Armenia

Thank you Nico Schermers for inviting me to visit Armenia and to be of inspiration and motivation to all these beautiful people I have met. You included! I am deeply grateful for a week full of true connectedness, beautiful conversations, and joyful tours around the country. We meet soon again!

Running up the Cascade with the entire team!
The End: running up the Cascade with the entire team!