Peace Corps volunteer Ryan Ahari, 28, warns in a phone interview that the line might go dead at any moment.
Martuni, Armenia — where he’s stationed — is experiencing a strong winter storm. Periodically, static drowns out his voice, but otherwise the call is clear.
Since landing in Martuni for his service early last year, hen houses, cows, goats and other signs of rural life have become common sights to him. It’s not unusual for a flock of sheep to block a road, causing a traffic backup while irate motorists honk their horns in frustration.
Martuni is located in eastern Armenia, just south of Lake Sevan. Considered the coldest region in Armenia, winters can last six to seven months.
It’s a far cry — and drop in temperature — from the urban life Ahari led as a Glendale resident before joining the volunteer program run by the U.S. government and intended to promote social and economic development abroad, as well as cross-cultural understanding.
While Ahari, who is of Iranian descent, said he misses the palm trees, the Hollywood sign and hanging out at the Glendale Galleria and Americana with his friends, he’s taken to his adopted country.
“I’m definitely homesick for all of that,” Ahari said. “But I constantly say that Armenia is my home now, and my host family is my real family. I love them and they love me.”
Ahari, one of 71 Peace Corps volunteers currently in Armenia, will stay in the country until late spring or early summer of next year.
As a community and youth development volunteer, Ahari wears a variety of hats. In the morning, he and his co-workers often socialize over coffee and pastries — where he gets his “daily Armenian” — before heading out for work.
With many community members citing a need for English-language instruction, Ahari focuses a good portion of his time leading a high school English club. The primary goal is to help students improve their speaking skills.
“This is our way to get them to … feel more confident,” Ahari said. “[The approach is similar to] when I speak Armenian incorrectly — people are very nice because there’s a point where if the correction is harsh enough, it discourages you from bettering yourself.”
He also works at a youth center launched by a previous volunteer and is overseeing the creation of a local Little Free Library where both English and Armenian books will be stocked.
Lately, he said he has been interviewing locals to inform the development of long-term projects that he hopes will continue after his service completes in a little over a year. Leaders at the high school where he works have voiced an interest in an English-language resource center. There have also been talks with local stakeholders about potentially creating a hiking trail in the area to boost local tourism.
By the time Ahari leaves, “I just hope that, in any way, that I have somehow made a difference in someone else‘s life. It could have been through a club or conversation, or something as normal as coffee,” he said.
“Maybe they’ve learned something new, gained a new skill or even just had a greater cultural understanding,” he added.
Born and raised in Orange County, Ahari said he’s dreamed of joining the Peace Corps since he learned about the program while a junior in high school.
A bachelor’s degree is needed to be considered for the volunteer program, and Ahari began preparing to apply as his graduation from UCLA in 2016 drew near.
Equipped with a degree in political science, Ahari was accepted as a volunteer in Botswana. However, clerical errors prevented him from going. The next year, Ahari reapplied and was accepted as a volunteer in Ghana. Around the same time, Ahari’s mother was faced with medical issues. He stayed home to help.
By the time Ahari applied next, Armenia was available as a volunteer site. During college, Ahari had moved to Glendale and made several Armenian friends. He said they encouraged him to go to Armenia and insisted that as a Persian speaker he had an advantage in learning the language. They convinced him, and he applied and was accepted.
In January of last year, Ahari began studying Armenian while still in the U.S. He didn’t speak a word of the language at the time, and when he attempted to practice what he was learning with his friends’ grandparents, they at first didn’t understand him.
After living for nearly a year in the country, Ahari said he’s become conversationally fluent. He plans to move back to Glendale when his service ends, so he can keep his recently acquired language skills — as well as reconnect with his old friends and lifestyle.
“I also need to live near Zankou Chicken,” he joked.