The Great Global Cleanup

War, Hope, and The Great Global Cleanup in Armenia

After hiking up the limestone staircase of The Cascade in Yerevan, Armenia, I turned around to catch one of the most beautiful sights I have ever witnessed: Mount Ararat.  In the distance, looming over the ancient capital city of Yerevan, it was like looking at a scene out of Lord of the Rings. Its two iconic peaks are like  sentinels — protecting Armenia — even if they are not on Armenian land anymore. The two peaks, Great Ararat and Little Ararat, are covered in snow and perfectly clear on the horizon, on this special April morning.

Michael and Hrachya at the Envrionmental Summit at American University of Armenia
Cleanup volunteers at Lake Yerevan

“I forget how beautiful Armenia is…” Hrachya said, “I’m always reminded of it whenever visitors come here and see it for the first time. It always catches them by surprise. It’s so pure looking.” Hrachya Sahakyan is the 19-year-old founder of Maqoor, an organization rapidly growing into a  movement, with the goal of solving environmental issues in Armenia and around the world. In just under a year of existence, Hrachya has completed over 200 cleanups globally and is active in over 100 countries. 

Hrachya’s comment underscores his reason for starting Maqoor, which means ‘clean’ in Armenian. A few years prior, when friends had come to visit him, Hrachya and the organization’s other co-founders, Gevorg, and George, began to see Armenia through their eyes. Both the beauty of the environment, the culture, and the history — but also the trash and plastic pollution problem, that felt like it was engulfing Yerevan. They decided to do something about it, and with a real entrepreneurial spirit guiding them, Maqoor came to be. 

Michael looking at Mt. Ararat
Hrachya and Michael at Lake Sevan

When you realize that Armenia has been under almost constant threat from its more powerful neighbors for decades and recently saw the conflict blow up in Artsakh, resulting in Armenian deaths and 100,000 refugees fleeing their homes and leaving everything behind, you can better understand how starting an environmental movement right now is so brave. 

EARTHDAY.ORG and Maqoor became partners just this year, and I was privileged to join several of their cleanups in Yerevan for the month of April. As the lead coordinator of The Great Global Cleanup at EARTHDAY.ORG, I discovered Hrachya through our global network of organizers and his passion for the environment was obvious. It was a no brainer to support the fire of this new green movement in Armenia. Plus, full disclosure: I am an American-Armenian, so this trip had added poignancy for me

Hrachya and his team ended up planning cleanups all over Armenia throughout April, and together we visited three of them in Yerevan on April 20th. 

The week before the cleanups began, we explored all over the city, confirming the exact locations for the cleanup, making sure there was enough trash for volunteers to pickup to warrant the site’s inclusion and organizing supplies and people. This strange juxtaposition of cleanup organization always makes me laugh — we want a clean environment, but we always get slightly annoyed when a place we have ear-marked for a clean up is, well, too clean

Maqoor leaders getting ready to lead their sites
Maqoor Leaders and Michael before the Lake Yerevan Cleanup

During this time I got to see Maqoor in action. It’s entirely volunteer-run but, despite this, they manage it as if it was a small start-up, with a human resources team, volunteer coordinators, and an impressive social media team made up of fiery high schoolers.

All of the 14 to 17-year-olds were passionate about taking care of the environment and, at a young age with so many other things to worry about, perfectly understood the importance of this mission. They realized that this goes beyond just picking up trash as they want to make a real  difference in their community and their country. It was their way of defending their homeland and it was emotional to witness. I was genuinely moved by it. This group of incredible highschoolers led really successful cleanups and even did trash-audits, to separate the brands we were finding so that we could track the worst offenders. 

One of the most memorable sites I visited was Lake Yerevan, just south of the city center near the US Embassy. The river bank had piles of trash all along it and we had to grab large sticks to scoop it out of the water. Immediately, the team began picking up plastic Coke and Jermuk bottles, a kind of Armenian sparkling water, that were floating by. There was also a weirdly large amount of shoes — never pairs of shoes, but just a single shoe — which left us all a little baffled! While our high school volunteers diligently removed the trash and sorted through it, the city municipality then took it away to be properly disposed of. That one day, these amazing volunteers collected over 750 pounds of trash across Yerevan.  

Throughout my time in Armenia it became clear to me that the environmental movement here, while new, is built on real fire. Maqoor’s team highlighted it. 

Michael holding a snail covered in Plastic

While many older Armenians are traumatized by the fighting and geo-politics that centuries of never ending persecution brings, the youth are already on board and I wondered if, in a way, it was a relief to be doing something active and positive. Which brings me to this nascent movement’s other great passion (which I promised to mention): tree plantings, which fittingly have deeper historical roots. The Armenia Tree Project celebrated their 30th anniversary this Earth Day with tree plantings across the country. Their leaders are again the youngsters who are, naturally, aiming bigger than ever before. 

Hrachya told me a story about one of the youngest volunteers helping out at a recent cleanup – a young boy who was about 8 years old. His mother came outside and called for him to come home for his dinner. He turned to her and defiantly yelled back, “Mayr, I can’t come home — I need to be here, cleaning up my country.’”

For me this summed up my entire experience: Armenia may be an ancient nation and it may be facing an uncertain future, but the youth of Armenia are determined, passionate, and committed to making it a green one. I felt blessed to meet some of them.