Suzy Daghlian ’81 used to promote the exploits of fictional characters, from Lemony Snicket’s orphaned children to the colorful Fancy Nancy. But when she was downsized from her job as a marketing director at HarperCollins in 2011, Daghlian rewrote her own story—and turned it into an adventure.
The prologue began in 2006, when Daghlian visited Armenia for the first time. A lifelong New Jerseyan born to first-generation Armenian Americans, she joined a two-week Habitat for Humanity trip and built houses in a rural section of the former Soviet republic. She liked it so much that she returned the following year—and the year after that, too.
“Every time I left, I would cry and then start counting the days until I could come back,” she says. “I felt so attached to this country.”
When she left HarperCollins, Daghlian immediately began planning her next trip to Armenia—another two-week stint volunteering with Habitat. She followed that up with four months in the Armenian Volunteer Corps. A few weeks in, she says, “I knew I wasn’t going home.”
She now lives in Yerevan, the capital city, and leads building trips for the Fuller Center for Housing. The families being helped work alongside Daghlian and her American volunteers, who do things like carrying rocks, insulating ceilings, mixing concrete, and spackling walls.
She sees destitute living conditions in the villages where she builds: families living without running water, electricity, heat, or insulation. Some people were moved into shipping containers after a 1988 earthquake destroyed their homes. “Most of them are still there,” says Daghlian. “But now they’re on to a second generation of people who grew up in those shipping containers.”
“The people here can be very poor,” she says. “But they are joyous. It’s a warm, inviting place. If someone asks you to coffee, you have to count on it being two hours and including at least one full meal.”
If Daghlian’s new life were a children’s book like the ones she used to market, the lesson would be obvious: Sometimes the hardest challenges lead to the sweetest changes. For now, at least, she’s leaving the ending unfinished. “I don’t have a long-term plan,” she says, “but I can’t imagine going home. I love my life here, and I love this place.”