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Interview with repatriated Lisa (Giragosian) Iskikian

Dear Lisa, please tell us a little bit about your personal and professional background?

I was born and raised in Rhode Island (in the United States). Upon graduating from Wellesley College, I moved to Los Angeles, California. I started my professional experience in a lab at UCLA where we conducted clinical research on methamphetamine addiction, and then I transitioned to the University of South California (USC). There we conducted research on cigarette addiction. In 2010, I transitioned into the field of speech-language pathology – I first completed several post-baccalaureate courses before applying to the graduate program. I completed graduate school in 2014, and then worked as a speech-language pathologist at an elementary school. My caseload was comprised of students with moderate-severe disabilities, including autism and intellectual disability, and students with high-functioning autism, articulation, fluency, and/or other language deficits.

How did you see Armenia, Yerevan and the regions when you visited Armenia for the very first time?

My very first time in Armenia was in Summer 2004, when I volunteered with Birthright Armenia. I loved Armenia so much that I became upset with myself for not seizing past opportunities to see Armenia before then. I had several opportunities to come here with my mom, who volunteered in Armenia for many years in the field of disability rights. As a 20-year-old, I found Yerevan to be an interesting and “easy-to-navigate” city. I enjoyed walking to work in this city, living in an apartment with my friends, and exploring restaurants and nightlife here. I also had a chance to visit the regions, including through my work with the Armenian EyeCare Project (AECP, my internship placement). Thus, I had a very memorable two-month introduction to Armenia.

Did anything change in you when you went back to the States? Did you keep in touch with your friends and the people you worked with?

Yes! After my first visit in Armenia, I kept in touch with new friends and colleagues from Birthright Armenia and AECP. My next visit was in 2013, though only for 10 days. Oh gosh … Yerevan had changed so much compared to 2004! I felt like a tourist here. And then, since 2013, a wheel in my mind started to turn. I had nervous energy to work and volunteer, and I kept on thinking about doing so in Armenia in the back of my mind. I returned to Armenia in 2015, this time with my husband for only 3 days, at the end of our honeymoon. I felt like something began to switch: thoughts and feelings moving from the back of my mind to the front. It felt like a tease to come to Armenia for such a short time. Finally, my three-week visit in the 2016 as a volunteer of Together4Armenia’s project significantly influenced my decision to move to Armenia.

How did you found out about Together4Armenia project? What did you do here and does your collaboration continue with the people from the communities you visited? Do you recommend others to apply? 

I learned of this opportunity through word-of-mouth and networking. I was eager to participate and share my skills and knowledge with local communities. My visits were organized and the project allowed me to see the regions from a professional perspective. My audiences were comprised of professionals in the fields of social inclusion, special education, and disabilities. I made connections with such professionals from “Bridge of Hope” NGO (in Tavush region) and with several school psychologists from Lori region. The use of professional translator made my presentation more accessible to the audience. This experience exposed me to not only the need for speech-language pathology skills in the regions of Armenia, but it also contributed to my professional perspective. It opened my eyes to how students with autism are serviced here, and how the institutions, NGOs, and projects working with them are structured. I had packed some lightweight speech therapy materials in my luggage - they not only enhanced my presentations, but they were gladly accepted by audience members. These materials included token reinforcement boards and parts of a picture exchange communication system (PECS). They are relatively time-consuming to make and somewhat expensive in the US, so I was happy to give what I could to the dedicated specialists. I kept in touch with a few specialists via Facebook and email. I was also contacted by colleagues of other audience members who would like to collaborate on future projects.

What do you think, in which fields of work can you be engaged in? How, do you think, your skills can contribute to the development of Armenia’s local communities in the future?

I see myself working in a variety of environments. I see my speech therapy skills being put to direct use, for instance, carrying out therapy, assessment and intervention. I would definitely welcome the opportunity to continue working as a specialist with the Together4Armenia platform in some capacity, be that as a regional trainer or consultant. I would enjoy using my native English language skills in conjunction with my speech pathology background, for example, being a resource for service industry personnel. I see a great opportunity in the area of integrating Syrian-Armenians in the workforce; they are a valuable asset to Armenian society. I look forward to exploring various employment options here!

So to sum up our conversation, dear Lisa, how did you finally make up your mind to move to Armenia?

It was a relatively easy and a mutual decision between my husband and me. Upon returning from Armenia in summer 2016, I was continually distracted by Armenia. As I mentioned, the idea of moving to Armenia had shifted from the “back” of my mind to the “front” of my mind. Before, whenever I had returned to the US from Armenia, I missed Armenia, but, you know, I had adjusted back to my typical routine. This time, the adjustment never really happened! My husband and I both started to daydream about living in Armenia, and we randomly discussed it together. But one day in October -  I remember it well, it was a Monday evening after work - we sat down and started to consider the potential positives and negatives of moving to (and living our lives in) Armenia. We talked about the timeline, a trial period, success stories and not-so-successful examples, special considerations, and professional opportunities. We discussed raising a family in Armenia. And, at the end of the day, we thought, “Hmm… looks like this might happen.” My husband interviewed with various local and international companies and received job offers, one of which he was especially excited to get. The process happened quite fast. We moved to Yerevan in February 2017.

What was the decisive factor in moving back?

When I reflect back, I think it’s the realization that being Armenian in Armenia is a natural way of life, as simple as that sounds. My grandparents and great-grandparents lived in Western Armenia, as did their relatives (to my knowledge). My family lived in America because of events that happened over 100 years ago. As much as I loved living in America, Armenia started to feel more and more like home. It’s certainly more complex than that explanation, but that’s one way to describe it.

Thank you very much, dear Lisa!

Lisa (Giragosian) Iskikian delivered workshops on speech language pathology for 40-60 specialists on 20-21 July 2016 in Lori and Tavush regions of Armenia as part of the Together4Armenia initiative.  

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