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September, 2019
Volume 45, Number 3
17 July 2018
Gayane Abrahamyan

The Emili Aregak Center provides personalized support and resources for young people with disabilities in and near Gyumri. (photo: Nazik Armenakyan)

In the current edition of ONE, Gayane Abrahamyan takes readers on a journey to A Source of Light, the Emili Aregak Center in Armenia, which helps children with disabilities. Here, she reflects on some of the political upheaval facing the country during her visit.

This is Gyumri: the second city of Armenia, with still-visible traces of the earthquake 30 years ago — temporary metal huts, homeless people and around 40 percent living in poverty. It is difficult to go there; the stories are mostly sad, with the main cause of problems being the earthquake itself.

This time, however, the atmosphere was different.

I arrived in Gyumri on 6 May, just ahead of elections that would see the people’s candidate, Nicole Pashinyan, become Prime Minister. This was the first and most explicit victory of the people in the 26-year post-Soviet history of the independent Armenia.

It was a hard struggle for the people. In recent days, there had been massive protests, with more than one thousand people detained by police. The country was facing a time of challenge and change.

Against this backdrop, I found myself heading for one of the brightest spots in Gyumri: the Emili Aregak Center, established by Caritas Armenia, with support from CNEWA, to help care for kids with disabilities.

This day, before the coordinators of the center received me, I toured the building. Pashinyan had been to Gyumri a few days earlier, so everyone was talking about the election and the hopes for a revived Armenia. Shortly after I arrived, a boy slowly walked up to me with a scrutinizing look, and as he accompanied me into the room he asked if I have seen Nicole Pashinyan. Without even waiting for my response, he said, ”I attended the demonstration. I saw ... it was raining, I stood there for four hours.” Michael, a young man with Down syndrome, looked into my eyes and cried. I hugged him.

Nearby, 18-year old Edward, one of the ”old timers” of the center, was sitting by the table. He offered me cookies. He has infantile cerebral palsy. He kept on distracting me, making all efforts to talk in a way understandable to me. He said, “You know, his mom helps him a lot, my mom, my dad also help me a lot, but there are kids whose parents have abandoned them and sent to orphanage, because they are sick. It is difficult for them, but we are lucky.”

His enthusiasm is infectious.

At the center, these young people have a sense of hope, a feeling of independence and possibility.

Those are sentiments, I think, shared these days by many in Armenia.

Read more about her visit to Gyumri in the June 2018 edition of ONE.

And watch a video about the center below.

Tags: Armenia

3 August 2016
Gayane Abrahamyan

Arpineh Ghazaryan lives with her two boys in Gyumri, Armenia. (photo: Nazik Armenakyan)

In the Summer 2016 edition of ONE, Gayane Abrahamyan writes about fatherless families in Armenia. Here, she reflects on a visit to one family in particular.

The long search for subjects for my story took me again to Armenia’s second biggest city of Gyumri, which seems to have consolidated all the issues challenging the country — it’s where the poor are even poorer than in any other province of Armenia, where every other child suffers from malnutrition, where the highest number of homeless people live, where the survivors of the 1988 devastating earthquake are still enduring its consequences...

Even 28 years after the earthquake, more than 4,000 people are still residing in what was intended to be temporary shelters — tin structures referred to as “domiks,” provided as part of the humanitarian aid; several generations have been born in them, lived, grown old. Meanwhile so much has changed in the city itself: beautiful new squares have been built, statues and monuments erected on almost every corner. But, sadly, nothing has changed in the domik districts, and only the presence of cell phones points to the fact that it is, actually, the 21st century.

Two years ago, when I was working on my piece about seniors living alone with no families, Shaken by the Earthquake of Life, it was beyond agitating to enter each home, listen to each story. Tears of frustration and fury, born from the sense of helplessness, were choking me — fury that two decades later, they still lived in extreme poverty in the domiks that were the earthquake legacy, while an Armenian official’s most basic housing costs a few million US dollars.

Injustice is so striking in this city in particular, where holes in the walls and the floors of these tin structures — by now in complete decay — are patched by tin cans in a futile attempt to protect residents from rat attacks.

The bitter sense of injustice and unshed tears kept choking me until I could no longer resist when I stepped into another house of poverty, famine and destitution, where 32-year-old Arpineh Ghazaryan resided with her two boys, their eyes mirroring a lost childhood and hunger and yearnings, yet full of so much warmth and love.

It was hard to write about seniors and their issues; it is, perhaps, an even harder task to write about children and their pain. This time, my search was for children who lost their fathers due to unemployment. The fathers went abroad as migrant workers, leaving their families behind — wives hoping one day their husbands would return home, children waiting for fathers, waiting for so long they no longer remember the faces they are waiting for.

Arpineh is raising her two boys as a single mother. Providing food is the biggest challenge, along with the fight against rats. During winter, when the temperature can drop to -22F, there is the additional challenge of trying to heat the 28-year-old rusty tin structure with cracks in walls.

“Sometimes, I just want to no longer be alive and free myself of these problems, and when they start asking questions, I feel completely lost,” says the beautiful young mother, too skinny and exhausted from hardship and lack of nutrition.

Questions were asked by the two fair-haired boys with eyes as deep as the sea, for whom the happy thoughts of toys and cartoon characters had long been replaced by concerns that are impossible to solve. They have the desperate desire to help their mother; they also have dreams of being equal to their classmates at school, dreams that just can’t come true.

Nine-year-old Artyom walked me out and gave me a warm hug by the door, concealing his tears behind my shoulder. He was silent for a moment — then, suddenly words burst out of him.

“I am so happy you came,” he said. “At least my mom was able to vent and feel a little better. If we had a house, perhaps, my mom would be smiling,” he added and gave me another hug, so that I would not see his tears. Meanwhile, my own tears were burning my eyes.

Every time I visit Gyumri, I feel broken. Solving its enormous issues seems an impossible task, and that’s the worst feeling. It makes me want to give up reporting, forget about being civilized, take all the seniors and children, all the mothers forced to put starving children to bed, take them all and break into the luxurious offices and houses of our officials and make them face these people, look them in the eyes, and confront the heavy challenges of the country under their rule.

Read more about Armenia’s Children, Left Behind in the Summer 2016 edition of ONE. And visit this link to learn how you can help the suffering people of Eastern Europe.

24 September 2014
Gayane Abrahamyan

Seniors gather for lunch in Caritas Armenia’s day care center. (photo: Nazik Armenakyan)

In the Summer edition of ONE, writer Gayane Abrahamyan describes the challenges facing senior citizens in the poorest region of Armenia. Below, she offers her personal impressions of her visit to the area.

Every time I visit Gyumri, my emotions won’t let me be for days.

In the second biggest city of Armenia, I’m struck by the courage and endurance of the people. This time my visit left me with an even heavier heart as I went there to write a story about the issues of the elderly living alone.

All of them divide their lives into two chapters: before the earthquake, and after. All of them have earthquake memories; there is none among them who did not lose a child, wife, parent, friend. There is no one living a decent life: 25 years after the natural calamity turned the once beautiful and thriving city into ruins, thousands still somehow survive in rusty tin-houses, so utterly worn-out, having no bathroom and toilet facilities.

Approaching each of these houses, commonly referred to as domiks, one can’t help thinking “I wouldn’t last a half hour here.”

In these wagons — that’s what the domiks basically are — people live, have children, grow old, yet their turn on the housing list never comes. Death comes faster.

Every time I witness this, I feel the same astonishment and admiration.

My destination this day is the poorest district in Gyumri, the poorest city in Armenia; and its poorest part would be the Savoyan district. It used to be a resort and recreation area during the Soviet times, surrounded by blooming gardens and a most beautiful fountain. Savoyan is currently a domik district, more like a scrap metal dump with its rusty and tumbledown houses, dirt, litter piles everywhere and heart-breaking human glances of despair and misery.

The only thing that comes as an affirmation is the sound of children. Geghetsik Yenokian, 72, is raising her late son’s three children alone, somehow surviving on her $100 a month pension. My questions pierce her mind like nails; answers released and rushing from different corners of her memories get stuck in her throat and won’t pass through, as she fights back the unwanted tears.

The state budget has no money for these seniors; the country has not yet overcome theeconomic crisis, they say. Meanwhile, the prime minister decided to allot $310,000 from that same depleted budget to purchase two composting toilets in 2013. That money would buy at least 15 apartments in Gyumri.

There is no money in the budget, but the cabinet members needed new cars for work. In 2013 the government was considering allotting $1 million from the budget reserve fund to buy new cars.

Rita Babaian, 44, mother of three, living in Gyumri’s other Avtokayan (bus station) domik district, recalls how President Serzh Sargsyan made a pre-election visit to Gyumri in 2013. She tried to approach him and ask a housing-related question, but the bodyguards would not let her. They told her to shout the questions from where she stood.

“They said ‘shout, and if you are lucky, he will approach’,” she says and mocks: “I was not lucky.”

“They are simply afraid to look into our eyes, afraid to see that we have run out of patience.”