In April, like many New Yorkers, Lorraine Simmons was enjoying the blooming cherry trees and lilac bushes.
But Simmons wasn’t in Riverdale. She wasn’t walking her two large dogs in Van Cortlandt Park or meditating at her home on Saxon Avenue.
Instead, Simmons enjoyed the mild spring weather in Armenia, a former Soviet republic in Asia that is now home to some 3 million people. It was part of a humanitarian mission with the non-profit Meaningfulworld, a network of organizations that promote individual and collective healing and violence prevention.
Simmons moved to New York City from Maine more than 30 years ago, first working as an art educator, then as a parent coordinator in the city school department. It wasn’t until five years ago she began volunteering with Meaningfulworld.
“I wasn’t working at the time, and I needed to find some meaning in my life,” Simmons said. “It just so happened that I met the right people.”
Those “right people” were from her small meditation group that met once a week for more than 20 years. A woman from the class introduced Simmons to Ani Kalayjian, founder and president of the non-profit, and the two immediately clicked.
While Simmons now holds the vice president position, it was a slow learning process for her. It took more than a year to complete intensive training that included understanding the importance of self-care, emotional intelligence among other things.
It wasn’t until 2015 she went on her first-ever mission trip to Haiti, which proved to be a wake up call for the mother of three. There she found the nation to be in desperate need of economic and social support after an earthquake in 2010. Simmons recalled trash burning in the city, people sleeping on the sidewalks, and sewage spilling down the streets.
“It was very rewarding, challenging, exhausting,” Simmons said. “I supported the team a lot, but I felt like I wasn’t as supportive as I could be.”
After that trip, Simmons decided to focus her volunteering efforts on humanitarian missions, leading her to find herself in Yerevan, Armenia, on Good Friday this past April. She was one of four members traveling to the country’s capital where a local family hosted them.
While there, the small group enjoyed traditional Armenian foods prepared with ingredients fresh from the family’s garden. They spent much of the Easter weekend acclimating to the city and surrounding countryside.
“You see a pink hue all over the place,” Simmons said, due to the color of the rock they use to construct buildings. “When we rode through the countryside, you can share the road with flocks of sheep.
That beauty was paralleled with an immense amount of trauma. In Armenia, the main focus was to transform trauma into healing by establishing a suicide hotline and helping Syrian refugees in the area.
“When you see how depressed the Syrian Armenians are because they’ve been displaced, that’s very emotional,” Simmons said. “When you see children who can only maybe get one meal a day, and you see them struggling, that’s emotional.”
The rising suicide rates among older men and adolescents in Armenia clearly emphasize the need for a prevention hotline, Simmons said, and her team has put things into place for the network to be established, like getting an endorsement from the U.S. embassy, and gathering volunteers to man the hotline once it is up and running.
The Armenian government, however, did not see the immediate need to fund the project and its price tag of between $18,000 and $20,000 per year.
It was a situation Simmons described as frustrating.
“We did a lot of work going from meeting to meeting to meeting, and we hustled the whole time,” she said.
The team also worked with Syrian refugees displaced from their homes and resettled in Armenia. Simmons explained they prefer to be called “Syrian Armenians” as the term “refugee” implies they are not making any contributions to society.
One problem for Syrian Armenians is they are finding it difficult to get the jobs and health care they need. Simmons recognized an even bigger issue for the minority population: “I’d say bullied. They’re bullied.”
The Syrian Armenians are teased about their different dialect, and their education and qualifications are not taken seriously, Simmons said. While they are legally accepted in Armenia, they are not always accepted by the country’s people.
It was hard for Simmons not to notice the similarities between the treatment of Syrian Armenians and of the immigrants and refugees in the United States.
Friends and acquaintances often ask Simmons why she travels to different countries to volunteer when there is so much work to be done in our own backyard. Of course, she reminds them Meaningfulworld has been first responders in America many times during tragedies like Hurricane Katrina and the 9/11 terrorists attack. But she also offers another response.
“I guess that’s what we are trying to teach, that everyone is human,” Simmons said. “People are people. It’s humanity that we want to heal.”