“I Am So Glad You Came”:
Visiting the Fatherless Children of Armenia

In the Summer 2016 edition of ONE, Gayane Abrahamyan writes about fatherless families in Armenia.

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.

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