Christine Abrell (20) is seeking to help people reconnect with their heritage in meaningful ways.

In 2022–23, she volunteered for Birthright Armenia, a program that seeks to connect young diasporan Armenians, those who are living far from their traditional homeland, back to Armenia and its culture. In addition to discovering more about her family’s history, she was able to serve as a translator, cultural educator, and teacher of traditional Armenian dance for youth organizations. 

Now, Abrell is studying through the Erasmus Mundus scholarship program to earn her International Master in Museums & Heritage. She began her studies at the University of Glasgow in Fall 2023, continued at the University of Tartu in Estonia in Spring 2024, and will continue learning in a new European country each semester. She’s pursuing work in the heritage preservation field in Europe.

Armenian Heritage

Many people are raised with a deep familiarity with their heritage. For Abrell, her Armenian heritage was something that she was able to discover for herself.

“Growing up, I was never really connected to my Armenian heritage,” Abrell said. “I was always curious about what it would be like if I had had that opportunity, and I’ve always wanted to explore that.”

One of the first things that piqued Abrell’s interest in PLNU was a video about LoveWorks. It gave her assurance that PLNU would be a place that prioritized things that were important to her.

“When I was thinking of coming to Point Loma, I was looking at their YouTube videos they had about their LoveWorks trips to Armenia, and I took that as a sign,” she explained. “It’s not a place that a lot of people tend to go.”

PLNU and LoveWorks

At PLNU, she majored in History with a Music minor. She was part of the honors program, participated in PLNU’s choral groups, and took a special interest in historical preservation.

During one chapel, PLNU announced they were having another LoveWorks trip to Armenia. Abrell was immediately on board.

“I [thought], ‘I absolutely have to go, I have to do this,’” she said. “Because for me, I had always been interested in traveling there, and I saw it as the only way to gain a real understanding of the culture and heritage.”

A group of students standing by Armenian statues.

Abrell found the trip an interesting experience because she was the only Armenian person on the trip.

“For me, that was the beginning of understanding what the country was like, what the people are like, and actually feeling this connection,” she said. 

Abrell described that despite its location, Armenia is not a western country, and understanding the historical context of Armenia can help diasporan Armenians and other visitors to adjust their mindset more effectively. 

“Armenia is located in the Transcaucasia area, but it’s not a European country, it’s not strictly middle eastern, it’s not a Slavic country either,” she said. “It’s kind of a mix over the centuries of lots of different Empires and cultures.”

When she was there, they served in several cities, including Yerevan, the country’s capital. At one town, there was a brand new Nazarene church forming, with VBS, a young adult group, and a group for young mothers. The LoveWorks trip connected with each of those groups for spiritual support.

One of the women who hosted the LoveWorks at the church told Abrell about the Birthright Armenia program.

“She was a diasporan Armenian from the U.S. who had moved back to Armenia and was building a house there in the city,” she said. “She took a special interest in me because I was an Armenian on the trip, and she told me about Birthright, [especially since] she saw that I was happy to be there but didn’t have much knowledge and couldn’t speak the language.”

Birthright Armenia

After she traveled back to the U.S., Abrell decided to participate in Birthright Armenia. However, as she graduated in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed that trip. 

She ended up working in development and fundraising in Balboa Park in San Diego, but soon realized she wanted to shift back into historical work and preservation. She decided it was time to participate in Birthright Armenia.

Birthright Armenia was started in 2003 by Edele Hovnanian, a diasporan Armenian who noticed that there were a lot of young people who grew up disconnected from their heritage. The program sought to instill that sense of pride as well as connecting people directly to their homeland, as well as to provide volunteering opportunities to help people invest in the country. 

Armenian Dance

Early in the program, Abrell took classes in traditional Armenian dancing. It resonated with her so much that later in the program, she ended up teaching it to students. Although she had experience in music and contemporary dance, this style of dance was out of her comfort zone. 

“For me it was kind of perfect because it combined the things I cared about — history, heritage preservation, trying to revive traditions that have recently been lost.

 “I was a little intimidated, because it was very different from anything I had done. Western dance is very different from indigenous dance around the world.”

Six women in a line holding hands while dancing.

She described that most of what people commonly view as Armenian dance has in fact been very influenced and westernized, especially by Russia. There is currently a movement in dance groups through the diaspora and Armenia to revive true traditional Armenian dance, something Birthright Armenia volunteers have the opportunity to participate in.

“For me it was kind of perfect because it combined the things I cared about — history, heritage preservation, trying to revive traditions that have recently been lost. It was a learning curve but I would go twice a week for two hours, and over time I wanted to become more involved.”

Abrell ended up teaching dance at several youth organizations. She said it was a large part of her experience there.

Discovering Her Family History

Abrell explained that there’s shared experience a lot of Armenians have about their family history — especially history that has been lost. Exploring personal and national heritage is a central part of Birthright Armenia. 

“It was very meaningful for me, because every Armenian in the diaspora wants to do research on their family, but it’s very difficult to do,” she said. “A lot of our families lived in Turkey, and… they purposefully don’t allow access to archives, or a lot of things were destroyed 100 years ago.”

She reflected on the tragedy that caused so many Armenians to leave their home country.

“For me, I think being [Armenian] is really amazing, and is something really important to me, especially because the only reason I live here is because of the Armenian Genocide that forced all of us to leave,” she said. “If that had not happened, our whole family would be so different—we’d be more in touch with our culture and traditions.” 

“In a lot of ways, it felt like a place where God had been leading me to all along.”

Despite the challenges, Abrell researched to discover whatever she could about her family. She found out that one branch of her mother’s side of the family lived outside of the Ottoman Empire, which meant it was more likely for family records to be intact. She was able to conduct research in Gyumri, the city where she was staying.

She described a bit about Gyumri, which was one of the hardest-hit cities in the 1988 Armenian earthquake and is still redeveloping structurally.

“There are old parts of the city that still exist,” Abrell said. “The earthquake destroyed a lot of things, but mainly it destroyed the soviet parts of the city that were built poorly, but the older part of the city that was built in the late 18th and 19th centuries were built with ancient Armenian building methods, and those were designed to withstand earthquakes.”

Christine Abrell sitting with a view of an Armenian city behind her.

During her research, she was able to make a special discovery about her family.

“They don’t have a lot digitized, so a lot of the [Armenian] archives are written by hand,” she said. “But through the research, [we were] able to find that they were from the city I was living in while I was there, Alexandrapol, which is now called Gyumri.” 

“I just had this weird feeling that led me to guess that [they lived there]. But I didn’t find that out until March or April, so I’d been living there 6 or 7 months before I found out this place that I loved so much that had become a home for me and felt so connected to, my family really was from there.

“In a lot of ways, it felt like a place where God had been leading me to all along.”

Now as she earns her International Master in Museums & Heritage, Abrell is preparing to ensure that heritage, on both individual and larger scales, is preserved.

“[I’m] looking to help people connect to the past that is within and all around them,” Abrell said. “Whether through their own roots or the heritage that surrounds them.”

Toby Franklin is the copy editor for PLNU’s Marketing team. He is a reader and writer of speculative fiction and comic books.