It was day 12 of my family’s self-isolation in our small flat, trying to overcome the coronavirus, when I received an offer to write an article. Only 16 days had passed since I’d had a C-section and welcomed my second child into the world. Four days before the surgery, I had a fever and later found out that I had caught the coronavirus. Fortunately, my newborn baby was not infected, however, to protect him from the virus, we decided to live apart from each other for a while, leaving him in the care of my sister. The post-surgery pains and stress on the one hand, and the side effects of the virus on the other, had completely ruined my inner world and left me with seemingly endless tears. The offer to write the article offered me a new opportunity to gather my thoughts and overcome my uncertainty.
It reminded me of May 2018, when Michael, a young man with Down syndrome, was excitedly talking about opening the first inclusive bakery-cafe in Armenia’s second-largest city, Gyumri — which also has the highest level of poverty. This courageous idea commenced in September. Now, Gyumri’s Aregak Café, which primarily hires people with special needs, has become one of the symbols of the city.
While the pandemic has reminded us all of how miserable isolation can be, for some in society isolation has been present throughout their lives. This is often true of people with disabilities. But today, they have a unique opportunity to work with the public in the field of service at the bakery.
They do their job with love — with a desire to learn something every day, with a commitment to help someone every day. It is help that extends throughout the community — helping them to develop skills, helping their families to have some security and helping society to better recognize people with special needs.
A mother of one of the employees with disabilities frankly told me she had kept her child isolated for years, as he was often made fun of and bullied. The decision to work in the bakery-cafe did not come easily, but they trusted Caritas, which supported them tremendously. The child now has a specialty, earns money, and strives to do new things.
Even the pandemic, which is more dangerous for people with chronic diseases, did not stop these people who had been cut off from society for years. All the employees, along with other volunteers, contribute to supporting people being left in extreme poverty because of the pandemic. For a couple of months now, they have been baking more than a hundred loaves of bread every day.
When I visited, Anahit Harutyunyan, 47, was waiting for her family’s loaf of bread. She is unemployed and lives with her four children in a dilapidated building.
“There is no organization like Caritas in the whole world,” she noted. “They have been supporting us for years with school supplies, food, and clothing. There were days my children cried themselves to sleep from hunger. We live in hard and harsh times. This loaf of bread is a tremendous support for our family,” she said sorrowfully, taking the four loaves of bread out of the package and meticulously arranging them on the table, while the aroma of the fresh bread spread through the room.
There are days when they distribute fish along with bread, which comes as a result of cooperation with one of the city restaurants. It reminds me of Christ, feeding many with bread and fish.
I could see Michael’s smiling face emerge from the mask every time he passed the bread to a family. The enthusiasm he expressed to me all those months ago was still there — and so was something else. With each loaf, Michael was giving his love.
Michael and his friends changed a whole system and broke a lot of myths in our country regarding people with special needs. Moreover, in a time of crisis, they jumped in to generate and implement new ideas.
Looking back on it now, I think the pandemic, the quarantine, these self-isolations all had an impact.
They made us appreciate what we have.
Gohar Abrahamyan’s article about offering Our Daily Bread in Gyumri can be found in the Autumn 2020 edition of ONE.