Alumni Spotlight: Sophia Simonian


A Young Girl's Mission to Her Homeland
By Sophia Simonian

BC Magazine | Late Spring Issue | 2017

Imagine traveling halfway around the world to spend a week at home. Stepping off the plane I breathed in my country’s air. The land surrounding me seemed so familiar to my father and me, yet so foreign to my mother and my sister, Olivia, who have never visited the country before.

It felt so good to hear people speaking my native language, because it gave me a chance to reconnect with the words I rarely have time to rehearse. So far, I had only made it to the airport and already I felt as if this was where my 15-year-old soul was longing to be. 

Armenia is my motherland. It was a privilege to step onto its soil and onto the grounds of the country that fought so hard to keep a culture alive while it was on the brink of extinction.

The day after we arrived in Yerevan was the first day my family and I started our medical mission with the help of COAF (The Children of Armenia Fund) and AAHPO (Armenian American Health Professional Organization) – our reason for being in the country. While we started early in the morning, my energy was through the roof. Our first stop was at a polyclinic, Les Enfants de Jesus, in the town of Miasnikian.
I remember my first impressions of the clinic were that it was much cleaner and well built than I thought it was going to be. Later, I found out that COAF had renovated this clinic a year or so before. I looked at dozens upon dozens of before and after pictures and I was amazed to see what this organization has done to benefit the lives of hundreds of Armenians.

I worked with my parents and other volunteer physicians from 9:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. that day. My father and I cared for 46 patients in need of vascular attention in 104-degree temperature on the second floor of the small clinic. We looked at their varicose veins, checked their pulses, examined wounds, changed dressings and listened to many of the complaints they had about various ailments.

What would continue to shock me throughout this week was the fact that our team of doctors would work so hard that our lunch breaks were always around 4 p.m. This showed me the ongoing dedication everyone had during all hours of the day until our trip came to a close.

The second day of our mission was similar to the first. We were back in the town of Miasnikian at the polyclinic. At around 1 p.m., Olivia, COAF volunteer Bianca and I left the clinic to visit a school called Hatsig. I was so flattered to find out that the students there were going to throw a puppet show for us. The teachers had arranged chairs inside a cramped classroom and they sat us in the front row seats. I was thinking to myself how these village students who attended that school probably rarely have guests, especially from out of the country. It truly touched me to be treated as if I was a part of their community and to be regarded with such high respect just for visiting their school.

We arrived back at the clinic after our excursion and I was glad to hear that my father had arrived safely in the ethnically Armenian Republic of Karabakh. My father traveled there by car from Yerevan to perform vascular surgery and work in the clinic. The ride to Karabakh was long, windy and bumpy and once he reached the last checkpoint, soldiers went through his phone to delete every picture he had taken on the approach to the boarder with no explanation why. This was the most riveting news that I had received all day.

The third day of our medical mission would not be like the first two. At 8:30 a.m., our group of doctors got on a bus and we took a three-hour drive through the most scenic roads to get to the town of Lori.

The next day, when all the doctors went to work, my sister, one of the nurses on our team, Monique, and I went to visit a small orphanage. We went inside what seemed like an abandoned building, but we soon found a room of children who were waking up from their afternoon nap. The first thing I noticed about these four and five year olds were the numerous amounts of bed bug bites they had all over their tiny bodies. It was devastating to see how poor the sleeping conditions were for these young children and I was so glad to take on the privilege of dressing them since they slept in nothing but their undergarments.

Afterwards, we walked back over to the clinic and then headed to the bus to go finally have lunch. To my surprise, I found out that we were going to eat at the “smart center” of the village. I felt as if I were in some building back at home because of how modern it was. Here, we ate lunch at around 4 p.m., which included fresh mulberries picked from one of our patient’s yard. I loved how much respect we were being given in each town we traveled to. It made me feel whole and complete in that everywhere I ventured, I was being thanked and rewarded for a job well done.

My second day in Lori, which was the fifth day of my mission, would be the busiest day of the week. We headed for Vahagni village and had one oncologist, two OB/GYNs, including my mother, and a couple of nurses in the group that day. I helped Monique for about five hours straight. I took blood and urine samples of patients, measured their height and weight and checked blood sugars and hemoglobin A1c levels. There were no computers or online systems to document the patients’ names and health information so I wrote them all by hand in English and again in Armenian. Everyone would keep piling in the room where I was working, so it was very difficult to keep track of everyone’s names and information. It was a lot of work for just one person, but in the end, I knew that it was going to be worthwhile.
That day, I saw 45 patients, one after another. Our medical team walked across the road from the village clinic and went to visit a patient’s home. They indulged us with homemade desserts and coffee. There was never a single we visited where our group was not treated with endless amounts of admiration and honor.

Soon after our trip came to an end, my father finally came back safe and sound from Karabakh. My family and I concluded our weeklong mission of improving lives and benefitting the health of as many as we could.

“Sophia was the motivating force behind the whole trip, including Carla and I providing medical care in Armenia,” said Sophia’s father, Greg. “She essentially told us, quite passionately, that we were going to be doing this.”

I did something for my Armenian homeland, and it made me feel proud. I did something that my heart told me to do and I had fulfilled a quest. I also became even more thankful to the Hovnanian School that I attended for 12 years from early learning through eighth grade for making me fluent in our language, instilling a spirit to help others and teaching me the true nature of the word community.

As an American-Armenian, I left feeling worthy and accomplished for supporting that strong-standing country. I look forward to a return trip. The smiles on every villager’s face were brighter than imagined – an image that will stay with me for the rest of my life and one that I would not trade for the world."

Sophia Simonian, 15, attends the Saddle River Day School in Saddle River, NJ. Her father, Greg Simonian, is the executive vice chairman of the Heart and Vascular Hospital at Hackensack-Meridian Health and the assistant dean of Admissions of the Seton Hall Hackensack-Meridian Health School of Medicine. Her mother, Carla Simonian, is the faculty director of OB/GYN at Hackensack- Meridian Health. 

To view the full article spread from BC Magazine, click here.