Nanor Balabanian asked the middle and high school students of Salem Academy to turn to the person sitting next to them.
“Can you remember your very first friend who wasn’t from the United States?” she asked the Friday assembly, instructing them to briefly share their stories.
There was an uproar of voices as the students started telling each other about their friends, some of whom were sitting with them in the crowd.
Balabanian then told them to imagine how it would feel to uproot their life and travel to a country where they didn’t know anyone and others didn’t speak their language, eat their food or dress the same way they did. Imagine how that would feel.
The nearly 375 students were quiet.
Balabanian, 25, had to experience such a thing when she was growing up. Her grandmother had survived the Armenia genocide and though she was completely stripped of her clothes, she walked for miles to another country to raise her family.
Balabanian’s parents also faced horrific conditions. In the midst of war, the couple paid a taxi driver $1,000 to get them to another country where they would hopefully be safer. They were detained at the border, but allowed to pass because her mother was in labor. The Middle Eastern countries could not be named for the safety of modern day Operation Christmas Child volunteers and recipients.
She was born in this new country, but still grew up in hidden, war-torn areas. She remembers the sound of bombs, rockets and bullets surrounding her as she hid in bomb shelters. To this day, Balabanian jumps at the sound of fireworks and yelling.
But when she was 5, she received a gift from a young girl in Ohio. The box contained an African-American Barbie doll, a Lisa Frank stationery kit, soap, a necklace and a picture and letter from the girl who sent it.
Growing up, Balabanian remained in contact with the little girl who sent her the box — through letters, then emails, then Facebook. To this day, they send each other messages, pictures and prayers.
Twenty years after receiving the box, she still has it.
Balabanian said that many of the children who received boxes when she did were orphans who had never once received a gift in their lives until these Operation Christmas Child boxes came in beautifully wrapped shoe boxes.
One of Balabanian’s best friends growing up still recalls receiving the box.
“It’s a different feeling,” Balabanian said, reading a message from her friend. She said the box gave her friend “hope for humanity and kindness” in the world.
Balabanian moved to the United States with her parents in 2005. She now teaches ninth grade world history in Palo Alto, California.
Every year she and her students put together Operation Christmas Child shoe boxes to be sent to children around the world, even though many of her students are low-income students and don’t have much they can give. She also speaks about her experience with the organization at about 20 events a year.
Cheryl Pierson, the northwest regional manager for Operation Christmas Child, has worked for the organization for 13 years. She said the students seeing a recipient speak is extremely significant.
Balabanian “is the child they thought they would never know,” she said.
She said the students learn there is a real child at the receiving end of their donation, a child whose life could be changed by their gifts.
Pierson will travel with Balabanian to various churches and schools around Oregon over the weekend to tell her story.
Balabanian said she is honored to share her story and feels a responsibility to do so.
“This is not just my story,” she said. “It is also the story of those who couldn’t be here today from my country.”
She said it is also a spiritual story.
“Most importantly, it’s God’s story,” she said. “If it wasn’t for him, my grandmother wouldn’t have survived the genocide, my parents wouldn’t have survived the war, I wouldn’t be here. I am here in Salem, Oregon, because of a lineage of miracles.”
And it was clear that her story left an impact on the students.
When speaking to the elementary students of Salem Academy earlier on Friday, the head of the Barbie fell off when Balabanian showed it to the kids.
Overwhelmed with sadness at the supposed loss of such a significant memento, Balabanian said she began sobbing.
But when she started crying, the children in the audience began crying with her.
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