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ONE Magazine
God • World • Human Family • Church

Conquering Poverty With Love

The Mission of Caritas Armenia

with photographs by Nazik Armenakyan

Deep creases move across the animated face of Seda Arshakuni, revealing the suffering and pain she has endured in her 92 years.

“My ancestors fled from [the city of] Kars during the exile,” she says of the Armenian Genocide, when Ottoman authorities deported and exterminated more than 1.5 million Armenian and other Christian minorities from the crumbling empire between 1915 and 1923.

She was born and grew up in Gyumri. But while she was a young woman, storm clouds gathered. Soon after her marriage and the birth of her first son, the nightmare began. On one day, 14 June 1949, Stalin ordered the deportation of some 12,000 Armenians, including Seda, her husband and their 10-month-old son, to southern Siberia.

“We never learned the reason,” she says. “Most probably because of my father-in-law, who had been a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation,” a banned political party that predated the founding of Soviet Armenia in 1921.

“We remained in exile for seven years and I gave birth to my second and third sons in Altai. We were a cheap workforce,” she remembers. They constructed buildings, grew wheat and carried wheat-filled bags, some 200 tons among six women on a daily basis.

The work took a toll. “We were embarrassed by our hands,” she says. She adjusts her black scarf with her curved fingers. “But we overcame that, too, and came back home. [Looking back], “I’d have rather stayed in Siberia,” she adds, her voice trailing off.

In 1956, when she returned to her native city, she thought she had overcome a lifetime’s worth of challenges. She raised a family and later returned to work as a cook for a nursery school. But again, one day changed everything. On 7 December 1988, an earthquake devastated northern Armenia. In less than a minute, 25,000 people lost their lives, tens of thousands were injured and an estimated 514,000 people became homeless. The earthquake killed Seda’s three sons.

“My sons were renovating a building at the time. The building collapsed, leaving my boys trapped in the rubble. Each of them had two children, and I took care of them. Now, each of them has three, four children and it’s their turn to take care of me.

“They do it well, and respect me a lot. That’s my destiny, my sorrow, but I’ll live it through with God’s help.”

She remains positive — and grateful.

“I have experienced many good things in life,” she says. “Twenty years ago people from Caritas knocked on my door to see if I needed anything.” Soon after Caritas established a support center for pensioners, and Seda was enrolled.

“I have lived my life,” Seda explains, and “I have helped my children and grandchildren as much as I could. I live on a small pension now. There is one thing in my life that is lacking — compassion. And I get that at Caritas.”

Caritas Armenia is part of the Caritas Internationalis family, a network of Catholic national social welfare agencies that works to eradicate poverty and carry out Catholic social teaching.

“The social teaching of the Catholic Church — with its main goal of a fuller human development — is one of the best vehicles to find common ground among people of various ideological and denominational backgrounds and deepen mutual understanding,” says Father Hovsep Galstyan, the spiritual director for Caritas. Most of those whom Caritas in Armenia serves belong to the country’s historically dominant faith community, the Armenian Apostolic Church.

This gives Caritas Armenia, as a social service agency, a unique platform to engage in ecumenical dialogue, Father Galstyan says. We “must be motivated by faith … as we are agents and collaborators in bringing messages of hope and relief to people in need.”

The Caritas program Mrs. Arshakuni attends every day lies in the heart of Gyumri. Established in 2006, the center hosts more than 50 seniors from 11 in the morning to 5 in the evening. It has become indispensable, particularly during cold weather; the program provides hot meals, nursing care and companionship. 

Some spend their time watching television — mostly news or soccer matches. Men usually play backgammon and chess in one corner of the multipurpose room; in another room, the women make themselves comfortable on their couches, playing cards or reading a book. Others make clothes and send their work to people in need — to soldiers or the underprivileged.

Araksi Demirchyan, 82, does not even watch her fingers as she sews, a lifelong hobby. She says she has been doing it for 70 years now.

As she sews, she recounts how a “lifetime of circumstances” brought her here.

“My husband passed away and since I don’t have children and felt alone, I decided to move to Gyumri, where my sister resides,” she says.

“I have survived many hardships, but the center is a safe place where you can fully enjoy your day and escape loneliness.”

Armen Martirosyan manages the centers for pensioners in Gyumri as well as its sister facility in the village of Tashir. He says the centers focus on those who do not have mobility issues, but adds that the Caritas program for pensioners also includes regular home visits to more than 400 people confined to their homes in municipalities such as Artashat, Gavar, Gyumri and Vanadzor.

“We provide food and supplies, and we also offer them access to use the public baths,” adding that the centers also provide laundry facilities and visiting nurses.

“We also try to fill their day with activities so they get together and don’t feel alone,” he says.

Winter, however, is the most critical time of the year. Particularly in the county’s north, temperatures can plummet to –22°F throughout the long winter season.

“The extreme climate conditions, as well as the housing conditions of the elderly, make daily life for them practically impossible,” says Gagik Tarasyan, who directs Caritas Armenia. To keep warm, “they burn whatever is flammable: pasteboard, cardboard, garbage, paper, plastic, old clothing, shoes and young tree saplings.”

Some of these substances produce toxic fumes that can be harmful, even lethal.

To combat this cycle, and save lives, Caritas established a Warm Winter Campaign, which CNEWA has supported for a number of years. Caritas focuses on those living in crumbling or temporary housing, such as containers and other makeshift solutions. First, Caritas’s social workers and volunteers provide fuel to more than 700 households, rushing firewood or providing gas or electric heat through utility companies. Beneficiaries also receive food, hygiene supplies, first aid and medicines.

Mr. Martirosyan is certain all areas in Armenia need such programs. However, the situation is more acute in the north, where the National Statistical Committee (N.S.C.) estimates that 44 percent of the people live below the poverty line. Nationwide, up to a third of all pensioners subsist below the poverty line.

The causes are many, ranging from the 1988 earthquake, the imposition of a blockade during the Nagorno-Karabakh War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and, throughout it all, the harsh and unforgiving climate.

“The country’s current problems on one hand and its extreme weather conditions on the other make the area insecure for even agriculture,” Mr. Martirosyan explains.

Poverty hits children especially hard. The N.S.C. reports that in 2017, 30.8 percent of the nation’s children lived in poverty. In the Shirak province, of which Gyumri is the capital, the percentage of children living in poverty is an astounding 51.8 percent, the highest rate in Armenia. 

Caritas knows these statistics all too well. It has already established programmatic centers for children — all known as Little Prince centers — in Shirak, two in Lori, one in Gavar and one near Ararat. Here, children between 10 and 18 learn, play and heal. They eat together, mingle with each other, and receive social and psychological services if needed. Caritas’s child care program also promotes healthy lifestyles for the children, helps working families and sponsors educational and life-skills training.

Currently, around 450 children are involved in the program. To visit one of these centers is to see a place of possibility, where Armenia’s youngest citizens get a glimpse of a brighter future.

“We can break the chain of poverty.”

The Little Prince center in Gyumri is located in the Ani district, or as Gyumri residents call it, the 58th district. Prior to the earthquake, the neighborhood was full of gardens. After the earthquake, 58 acres of gardens were replaced by multistory residential buildings — homes for families who had lost everything in the earthquake.

Many of the children from the area have found another home at the Little Prince center.

Armenuhi Sargsyan, a social worker at the center, says parents at first did not even know what was going to happen. They thought it was a yet another financial aid program.

“Things were different from the very beginning,” she says. “The children were shy to make use of the center’s services. They were shy to eat; they would pretend they did not need it. But many of them had not eaten meat for years.

“They — parents and children —soon realized the importance of the program,” she continues. “We highlight the importance of interaction among children, we teach them how to overcome conflicts, we also work on their creative and critical thinking skills.” The center takes the children on outings, for tours or to visit cultural centers. Children keep in touch with each other even when then finish the program.

Ten-year-old Sevada has been attending the center for about a year with his brother Sevak, 12, and sister Emma, 14. He plays sports and does not like to talk.

“We play football and basketball here,” he shouts as he runs to continue a match, adding, “I like to come here.”

Sevada is one of ten children — four boys and six girls. They live together in a small house. Emma dreams of becoming a famous pianist. She started playing the piano at the center. Her instructor notes that when Emma approaches the piano, she reverently cleans it, then washes her hands and begins to play.

“We recognize the child’s potential and start working on enhancing it,” Anna Martirosyan, the center coordinator, says. “By widening their horizons, we can break the chain of poverty.” She says, too, that the children remain connected to the Little Prince Center, often returning to volunteer or to staff programs.

Gohar Karapetyan, 19, is one example. She attended the center with her younger sister and is now a volunteer. When their mother died in 2013, Gohar and her sister were devastated. They rarely heard from their father, a seasonal laborer who lives abroad. They helped their grandfather’s second wife to care for the family. But by attending the center, a world of possibilities opened up to them.

“I wouldn’t talk to anyone when I first enrolled,” she recalls. “I was shy and only had one or two friends. With the help of the center psychologist and social workers, I became more social and began to attend drawing and sewing classes. It helped me overcome my self-consciousness and now I volunteer and offer programs of my own.”

Together with her friends, she has begun to care for the birds in the neighborhood. 

“We have already built ten bird houses and feeders. We have painted the houses in original ways, benefiting both the birds and the city. We have also planned a greenhouse, and now we’re looking for a convenient place to make it happen.

“Although I study at the medical college, I am expanding my interests and activities,” Gohar says proudly. “Little Prince has become a home to all of us,” she says.

Caritas success stories have helped this charity of the Catholic Church in Armenia become a recognized cornerstone of social outreach in the country — especially in the north.

“Of course, Caritas can’t solve global issues, but our role has increased significantly,” says Gagik Tarasyan, director of Caritas Armenia. “We are transparent in our work, so trust in us has never faded.”

Members of the Caritas Armenia family — employees, beneficiaries and partners — are developing a “deeper understanding of Caritas,” adds Father Galstyan. And that understanding is rooted in the Catholic community and the Gospel. “Its mission,” he says of Caritas, “is to offer abundant love, without any discrimination, privileges or restrictions, love given freely and unconditionally.”

A communications specialist, Gohar Abrahamyan manages issues of justice and peace in the Caucasus for local and international media.

The CNEWA Connection

CNEWA has partnered with Caritas Armenia for a number of years, helping to support a variety of projects and programs that have given compassionate care and dignity to people for whom life has been particularly unfair and cruel.  Earthquakes, political upheaval and war have left deep scars. The very old and the very young have been impacted the most — and for several winters now, CNEWA has provided funds for Caritas’s Warm Winter Appeal.

We are doing it again this year. The appeal provides firewood, heating, warm clothes, food and medicine to hundreds of Armenians, many of them elderly, living in the northern reaches of the country where the winters are especially harsh. A significant number of these poor men, women and children live in homes that are little more than sheds or shipping containers — structures that were intended to be temporary after the 1988 earthquake, but which have become by necessity permanent. Volunteers and staff members of Caritas Armenia reach out to those in need to help them know security, safety and, above all, warmth. 

They also seek to help these people know they are not alone and they are loved. They witness to the Gospel simply by being present to them in their greatest need.

Help us help them this winter — and give Armenians dignity and warmth.

Click here, or call: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada).

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