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Armenia’s Children, Left Behind

Migration and social challenges threaten Armenian families

In a chilly and damp room, 12-year-old David does his homework near a pile of books. “Do you know what I want to become,” the fair-haired boy asks, looking up from his assignment. “An archaeologist, in order to study animals that are extinct.”

“But there are also other things I want,” he adds, “but won’t have.”

The dreams of David, and those of his 9-year-old brother and 26-year-old sister, are varied and often changing, but they all hold one element in common — the return of their father.

David last saw his father seven years ago; he had given David a kiss goodbye at the door as he left for Russia in search of work. He has not returned since.

“He makes telephone calls, but I don’t speak to him. I think he doesn’t even remember me,” the boy says, trying to hide his tears.

Many men in the northern Armenian town of Tashir leave the country to work abroad; unemployment tops 50 percent in the region. Many who work in Russia provide the minimum means of subsistence for their families back home, but some never return. As a result, women are left behind to shoulder the burden of running households and rearing children on their own.

David’s 49-year-old mother, Tatyana Dilbaryan, wears a smile, but the lines on her brow mask the difficulties she endures. The question lingers: Why has it come to this?

“I don’t know the answer. Perhaps he saw that I managed to do everything myself,” she says of her husband. “I raised livestock, worked in the fields, did everything for my children,” says Tatyana, still smiling despite a welling of tears in her kind eyes.

“We are good. We’ll get through this, my children will grow up and everything will be alright.”

Optimism such as hers, however, is in short supply in Tashir and elsewhere in northern Armenia, where many children grow up fatherless.

Although the small town nestled high in the mountains has an official population of about 9,000, in fact the community currently consists of fewer than 5,000 people. Once home to the Molokans — a Russian sect exiled to the region by the tsars in the late 18th century — the area today is populated largely by Armenian Catholics, who share the rites and traditions of the larger Armenian Apostolic Church but remain in full communion with the bishop of Rome.

The town, with its surrounding Alpine-like meadows and fields, was once an important center of cheese production when Armenia was a part of the Soviet Union. Today, the only evidence of this legacy remains a half-ruined, dilapidated cheese factory. Traditional cheesemaking in Tashir is preserved in the form of several small creameries owned and operated by families. Such enterprises provide few jobs, however.

“This town has become a town of elderly people and women — poor, alone, struggling to make ends meet,” says Lida Gasparyan, who works as a teacher at one of the town’s three schools.

“My husband also goes abroad for work. Every time I close the door behind him, I feel as if the walls of the house are collapsing on me. The entire burden falls on my shoulders, and the worst thing is that you never know whether your husband will return or not,” says Mrs. Gasparyan, adding: “It is twice as difficult for the children.”

The underlying conditions causing these trends are structural and deep. Nevertheless, in this difficult environment, some do as much as they can to ease the burden of those left behind.

For many Armenians, leaving home has become a last resort to deal with their unemployment.

Officially, 18.5 percent of Armenians are unemployed, but studies suggest significantly higher rates of joblessness. This is borne out in the number of Armenians who live at or below the poverty line; around a third of all Armenians in the small nation (who number about 3 million) live in poverty. In the country’s northern provinces of Lori, Gegharkunik and Shirak, nearly half of the population, 46 percent, lives in poverty. Of the half a million residents of Lori and Shirak, up to 60,000 people, mostly men, go abroad every year for work. Typically, this migration pattern is seasonal, as most return to their families for the winter and leave again in spring. But about 10 percent of those who depart each year never return.

According to the United Nations, since 1992, when Armenia achieved independence from an unraveling Soviet Union, about 1.1 million people have emigrated from the country. For years, those Armenians working abroad have provided remittances — the money wired back home by individuals working abroad — worth about $4 billion annually, which exceeds the budget of the Armenian government.

Such findings mainly consider the effects of labor migration on the country’s economy; left unaddressed is its impact on families.

“No one speaks about other impacts,” says Aharon Adibekian, who heads Sociometer, an independent center for social studies in Yerevan. “According to a very approximate estimation, labor migration has caused divorces in about 10 percent of the labor migrants’ families.” The negative effects of this, he adds, fall disproportionately upon former wives and their children.

Mr. Adibekian focuses his studies on the two major cities of Gyumri and Vanadzor, where social ills are acute and poverty, high. Many migrants from these cities do not return. Although individual reasons for this will always vary, the underlying social conditions remain a constant.

“Conditions here are so awful that after living in Russia and elsewhere for several years people no longer want to come back.

“Even missing their children,” the sociologist concedes, “does not bring them back.”

Amid this climate of abandonment, Armenia’s tiny Catholic Church offers help — providing day care centers for children and supporting programs to assist their parents procure food, clothing and an education.

From the entrance of Our Lady of Armenia Education Center in Tashir, one can hear the clamor of children halt abruptly, as those standing around tables begin to pray while the scent of dinner fills the room. For a majority of children who gather here, this is the only hot meal of the day.

“At home we often have nothing to eat, but the meal here is very delicious,” says 14-year-old Mikael, whose father died in Russia, leaving his mother, 38-year-old Rima Ghazaryan, alone to care for two boys.

“It’s been difficult with the boys,” says his mother. “I was afraid they would be brought up the wrong way without their father.” The center, Mrs. Ghazaryan says, has done much to ease her fears. “It’s a great support. Here they give children the right direction.

“I don’t know what I would do without this center,” she says.

It is due to the center that Mrs. Ghazaryan has time to work in order to earn some money to support her family.

Sister Hakinta Muradyan, an Armenian Sister of the Immaculate Conception, directs the center. She has a reputation as a woman supportive of everyone in Tashir. She understands the difficulties each of the 26 children at the center face. She knows what they like to eat, what their marks at school are, why they are sad or happy — she lives by the emotions of all these children.

“There are lots of problems in this town,” says Sister Hakinta. “Sixty percent of the children have no fathers around. They are either dead or haven’t returned from abroad.” Their mothers, she adds, struggle to stay out of poverty.

“We have tried to take at least this care off their shoulders,” the sister says.

It is through such efforts that Tashir becomes a “paradise” in the summer, when the center runs a camp for some 250 children.

“I very often say that this center is Tashir’s paradise. I do not exaggerate. This is a rare bright spot where children learn, experience proper human interrelations, where they see justice and receive maternal affection and care,” says Samvel Sukiasyan, a father of two boys, who has reared his children alone since his wife left — an unusual reversal of roles.

“I don’t know what I would do without this center. I do everything for my boys, but I can’t give them maternal affection,” Mr. Sukiasyan says, adding that they enjoy the center so much it can be difficult to convince them to go home. “My sons have totally changed; they grow up here as responsible and righteous people.”

Children often arrive after school. There, they complete their homework, then are assembled into different groups — language, dance, song, handicrafts, religion and physical education.

Importantly, the children also receive a free meal. Recent studies indicate one child out of five in Armenia suffers from malnutrition. According to the Ministry of Health, this figure rises to one out of three in northern Shirak and Lori, as well as southern Syunik.

Tatyana Dilbaryan, whose son David dreams of being an archaeologist, speaks of the center in glowing terms.

“They assist us in every matter, not only in social issues, be it food, clothing or even medicines, but also in helping provide the right education and training to our children.

“David used to be so reserved,” she says of her son. “After his father left, he felt abandoned and guilty. But after he started attending this center he changed, everything has changed.”

Migration has also affected many families in Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri, alongside other, older problems.

During the Soviet era, Gyumri was Armenia’s largest industrial city, where about 70 percent of the population was employed in more than 50 factories. A devastating earthquake in 1988 destroyed almost the entire city, killing 17,000 people in Gyumri alone.

Today, nearly 28 years after the earthquake, more than 4,000 people still live in the shabby metal huts, or domiks, first designed as temporary housing for those left without shelter by the earthquake.

“The social issues present throughout the country are doubled in Gyumri,” says Vahan Tumasyan, who for the past seven years has headed the Shirak Center, advocating for earthquake survivors’ rights and implementing humanitarian aid projects.

“I know everyone who lives in these settlements and about 60 percent of these families have no fathers. Men have left for Russia and elsewhere to work; some still maintain ties with their families, and others don’t. They feel they’ve finally left behind inhuman conditions.”

Over the past two decades the population of Gyumri has dropped dramatically. According to official data, the city has a population of 123,000, roughly half of its pre-earthquake level. But according to Artashes Boyajyan, head of the Armenian Studies Center of Gyumri, the real figure does not exceed 70,000.

The displacement of workers and heads of households has “simply changed the model of our families,” Mr. Boyajyan says. “This is not just a social crisis; this is also the disruption of the family model, a serious psychological crisis that affects our children.”

This crisis weighs heavily on 14-year-old Susanna, a bright, cheerful girl whose voice nevertheless wavers when she discusses her parents. They had made the decision ten years ago that her father had to work in Russia to support their four children. He left and never returned.

She describes her last contact with her father — a phone call.

“I asked my dad whether he remembered me and whether he would recognize me if he saw me. He did not say anything. We haven’t spoken since. I don’t want to; he’s left my mom alone,” Susanna says, hugging her mother, 48-year-old Gyulizar Araqelyan.

Mrs. Araqelyan’s eldest daughter is now married, while her other three children are of school age. In order to provide for their food needs she has enrolled them in a boarding school where they receive two meals a day.

“Every time I take my children to that school, I cry. Why should I rely on school food? Why shouldn’t my children be at home? I don’t know what else to do,” says the emaciated woman, who suffers from a chronic kidney disease and is unable to work for long hours. The main source of the family’s income is the state allowances for the children that total $100 a month.

Susanna spends much of her day at the Little Prince Center, where she attends classes in cooking, painting, theater and sewing, and even receives counseling and social support.

“The center has become a sort of new home. We learn so many things that we couldn’t learn either at school or at home,” says Susanna, showing off certificates of merit she has received for good grades.

Founded in Gyumri in 2009 as an initiative of Armenian Caritas, the charity of the Catholic Church in Armenia, the Little Prince Center provides comprehensive care and support for 12- to 18-year-olds of vulnerable families.

“It is very important to help these children overcome their feeling of being miserable, their low self-esteem. Getting food here or attending different groups is just the formal part of it,” says the center’s coordinator, Anna Martirosyan. “We work in different ways to help them feel more integrated in society, help them trust in their own abilities and strength, because all of them have a need for that.”

Little Prince centers operate also in other towns of northern Armenia where there are similar problems — Tashir, Vanadzor, Gavar. They provide assistance to more than 235 children and their families.

In the midst of the crisis afflicting these cities, these programs may appear as little more than a drop in the ocean. Yet, these life-affirming drops offer something few other sources provide — hope.

“When Susanna comes home from the center with a smile on her face, I know she is not hungry and that she has been in a positive environment, so my heart is at peace,” says her mother, Gyulizar Araqelyan.

“I know that not everything is hopeless yet, and that there will still be a bright day someday.”

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