Every time 20-year-old Ara opens the creaky door of his small, dilapidated house, he grows in his conviction that he must do his best to help his family move out of the “iron jail” they call home.
After the earthquake of December 1988, which devastated the northwestern part of Armenia, Ara’s family was left homeless. His grandparents, father and uncle found shelter in a 430-square-foot iron container, called locally a domik.
Located in the heart of Gyumri, the second-largest city in Armenia, Ara’s family’s domik was supposed to be an emergency measure, housing them for only three years. However, time passed. Ara’s father and uncle married and lived with their wives in this shelter. Soon after, their children were born there, too. Today, Ara, his sister, parents and grandparents continue to live in the domik.
“My grandpa and grandma, as well as my parents, have health issues. They put effort into renovating the shelter. However, it’s getting more and more dilapidated with time, and when it rains most of the water gets into the house through the roof, no matter how hard you try to fix it,” says Ara.
The metal house heats up in the summertime. In the winter, “it’s so cold that you can’t heat the house,” he adds. “We often see a mouse and a rat and, although we keep it as clean as possible, they have become ‘regular’ family members.”
Since childhood, the young man has been carrying burdens that would have staggered many. He has shouldered them without complaint, and cares for his family with love and dedication. He also looks after his grandfather, who is almost immobile.
The many medals Ara has won at different sporting events are meticulously arranged in the domik’s tiny living room closet. Despite his harsh and unfavorable life situation, Ara has invested his efforts in school. He is convinced he will break his family’s generational poverty through education.
“Now, more than ever, I put a high value on education, especially after the recent war,” he says. “If I don’t receive an education, I may stay in this domik my whole life.”
While the family’s finances would not permit them to invest heavily in Ara’s education, he learned about a scholarship program through Caritas Armenia that covers university tuition for students from underprivileged families.
“My friend used to be a volunteer at Caritas, and he told me about the organization, so I decided to volunteer for them as well,” he says. “We prepare and deliver food and humanitarian packages to the most vulnerable. Helping people is interesting and rewarding. Moreover, you learn a lot and make friends.
“Soon, I learned about the scholarship and decided to take the six-month computer programming courses,” he says.
Ara believes programming will allow him the flexibility to work remotely from home, so he can still care for his family. He sees programming as the future of work.
“This profession is in high demand and requires lifelong development,” he says. “Hopefully, I will be able to promote the well-being of my family and fulfill my ultimate goal — getting out of this domik.”
Caritas Armenia, as the charitable arm of the Armenian Catholic Church in the Republic of Armenia, upholds the principle that everyone should have an equal right to education. So, this year, the organization initiated several small-scale educational programs, including scholarship programs for dozens of students who cannot afford tuition.
Gagik Tarasyan, the program and executive director of Caritas, says the programs were inspired by their volunteers, who could not go to school due to cost.
“We have volunteers who live in poor social conditions,” says Mr. Tarasyan. “One of the volunteers wanted to learn, so he could eradicate poverty. His statement touched me.”
According to the most recent demographic data available, in 2019, 26.4 percent of the Armenian population lives below the national poverty line. Shirak, of which Gyumri is the capital, is the poorest province in Armenia, with 48.4 percent of the population living in poverty.
Within the scope of the scholarship program, funded by CNEWA, thus far 69 students from low-income families in the provinces of Shirak, Lori, Ararat and Gegharkunik have been granted tuition for post-secondary education.
When selecting a scholarship recipient, a young person’s social circumstance is given consideration over academic performance, and priority is given to Caritas’s extensive network of volunteers. Each student receives an average of $415 — potentially enough to cover a full semester, depending on the school.
Mr. Tarasyan says these young people must be provided “an opportunity to execute their rights to an education, which should become their key to overcoming this social crisis.”
The Rev. Hovsep Galstian, spiritual director of Caritas, often holds talks with young people and emphasizes the importance of education.
“We consider education a process for self-development, for self-knowledge,” says the Armenian Catholic priest.
God created human beings in his own image and “commanded human beings to self-improve throughout life to serve both themselves and the Creator,” he adds.
“Many of these students are our volunteers,” Father Galstian says. “They travel with us when helping those in need and they see with their own eyes that the root cause of poverty is lack of education.
“With time, these young people vigorously integrate themselves into the social and religious life of the community, which I think is very important.”
The emphasis of Caritas Armenia on education also guided its decision to fund of the installation of a solar photovoltaic panel on the roof of the State Academy of Fine Arts in Gyumri.
Vahagn Ghukasyan, who became the academy’s rector in 2019, was seeking ways to reduce costs at the academy and advanced the idea. The institution was then facing huge financial difficulties and had to choose between paying for utilities or investing in educational programs.
The outcome of the solar panel project has been better than expected, says Mr. Ghukasyan. With the new solar panels, the academy has not received a power or heating bill since mid-March.
“We thought we could have achieved a zero-dram electricity bill, and we did. Moreover, we have produced more energy than needed, so the government will provide bill credits for this excess power,” he says, as he checks solar meter monitors to determine how much electricity is being stored at the moment.
Furthermore, the academy is expected to save up to $2,060 in utility costs, which will be invested into computer labs and other programs, such as a graphic design program for young men who fought in the war in Nagorno-Karabakh last autumn, he says.
The majority of male students took part in the 44-day war. Many of them were wounded; four were killed.
The lab will be built on the ground floor to facilitate access for the students who were injured during the war or who have other mobility issues.
“Equality in education is of utmost importance and it should be available to everyone, especially now when we have so many wounded soldiers,” he says.
As of May 2021, the academy had 114 students enrolled and 23 graduates.
The cooperation between the academy and Caritas does not end there. Five students from low-income families have been admitted to the academy on scholarship.
Moreover, the academy held an art contest this past spring, highlighting one of the current program areas of Caritas: “Improving Social Conditions for Single Mothers.”
The theme of the contest was “Single Mothers,” and the contest sought to raise awareness of the struggles of this population in Armenian society.
The “language of art is very important,” says Mr. Ghukasyan, a painter himself, and the students are encouraged to use art to express themselves about important social issues.
Fourteen students from different departments participated in the contest. The 17 pieces submitted included paintings and sculptures depicting different aspects of the reality of being a single mother in Armenia.
Seven students were awarded prizes. Mihran Aslanyan, 20, who took first place, painted a portrait of a woman with features only on one side of her face, leaving the other half blank.
“I wanted to show how much a single mother bears within herself, part of which is visible, though most of it is concealed,” says the second-year art student.
Mr. Aslanyan admits he had never reflected on single motherhood before and is more aware now of single motherhood as a significant social issue in Armenia.
“I think it’s so hard for single mothers, especially after the war, both physically and mentally,” he says, adding that the death of many men on the war front made the struggles of single mothers more obvious.
“However, difficulties can be overcome,” he says.
Narine Aghasaryan, a program manager for Caritas, says the “Improving Social Conditions for Single Mothers” program is currently assisting 14 families from Shirak, 10 families from Lori, and five families from Gegharkunik and Ararat provinces. Families were selected through a vetting and application process that began locally.
Within the scope of the program, the beneficiaries have been receiving food packages, as well as financial support for utilities, medication, clothing, bedding, hygiene items and school supplies.
“The number of single mothers is quite high, especially in Shirak, meaning the program was an emergency there,” says Ms. Aghasaryan.
“We often have requests for humanitarian support, so we check them, do home visits to understand whether they are a potential beneficiary or not,” she says. “Today, we delivered food packages and found there was some money left, so we admitted six more single mothers into the program.”
Ms. Aghasaryan notes that medication support has had the most significant impact, as several families have had to suspend treatment for one of their members for financial reasons or due to lack of medicine.
“We have a beneficiary with five children. Three of them have cerebral palsy and one child has arthritis, so we provided a lot of medication to this family,” she says. “You should have seen the happiness of these people when we distributed the medication. They were so grateful.”
Amalya Alaverdyan is divorced and cares for her three children. The 37-year-old woman lives with her mother and sister, who also is divorced and has a baby.
The family is currently living in a mid-20th-century single-story building, which seems to be falling apart. Rainwater leaks through the roof into the house. The walls are so damaged that stones and mortar fall from time to time. The house does not have a bathroom, so family members bathe outside by a corner of the house, even in winter.
“The house is very damp; it gets worse in winter and it’s always cold inside no matter how much you heat it,” says Ms. Alaverdyan. “My sister and I do not have permanent jobs, but we do some small stuff upon request. We clean houses, wash windows. Our main job is taking care of our kids.
“My child has pneumonia, my mother has high blood pressure, she is also diabetic and she has gone blind, so we cannot leave our kids with her. Our hope is the monthly state benefit — about $80,” says Ms. Alaverdyan, who benefits from Caritas’s program for single mothers.
“Food is important so our kids can grow, whereas clothing is secondary. People often donate clothes, but food and medication are essential, and this initiative by Caritas is a tremendous support for us,” she says.
Ms. Aghasaryan, the Caritas program manager, says the number of single mothers has increased since last year’s war and so have their problems.
“There is a human rights awareness issue as well,” she says. “We’ve had cases when people used to live together as a couple without being married. And now that the man has died [in the war], the family doesn’t receive any compensation.”
She says Caritas is also trying to help single mothers by raising awareness about their legal rights and encouraging them to exercise these rights.
Rem Parshkova, 29, is struggling due to this exact situation. Her children’s father was killed on 22 October 2020. He was 31. Their third baby was born after his death on 9 November.
Ms. Parshkova does not receive any state benefits because she was not in a civilly recognized marriage. Neither did she receive the state’s parental benefit after her baby was born.
The young woman lives with her children and disabled mother in a small domik, which has become increasingly dilapidated with time. It has no bathroom. She and her children have health issues, and she is unable to work. Their meager income is her mother’s $50 pension and a state benefit of $75.
“Caritas is a tremendous support for us; they have never left us,” says Ms. Parshkova, who benefits from the program dedicated to single mothers. “[For] three months we have been receiving this support, and we’re very grateful for it.
“My youngest child has dermatitis, while my oldest daughter has psoriasis, and the medications are very expensive, so we have to spend all our pension on medicine. However, Caritas has also helped us with this; it’s the second time they have bought medicine for us,” she says.
“I have gone through incredible obstacles but I’m still smiling like a true optimist.”
Ms. Aghasaryan, the program manager, says the pandemic and recent war required Caritas to increase the number of its programs by nearly two dozen in order to respond to the need.
Despite the huge physical and psychological burden this increase has placed on the Caritas team, “looking at the grateful and smiling eyes of our beneficiaries, we become stronger,” Ms. Aghasaryan says.
“I like our charity very much, and I’m especially fond of our activities,” she says. “However, I dream about a developed country, where there will be no need for charitable organizations.”
A communications specialist, Gohar Abrahamyan manages issues of justice and peace in the Caucasus for local and international media.
The CNEWA Connection
For generations the Armenian people have endured genocide, natural calamities, war, poverty and social upheaval. The Armenian Catholic Church, which the Soviets violently suppressed, has labored to address the needs of the most vulnerable — especially the very old and very young — since its restoration 30 years ago. And CNEWA was there, building the Redemptoris Mater Hospital in the remote village of Ashotzk, some 7,000 feet above sea level.
CNEWA has continued its work in Armenia, partnering with the Armenian Catholic Ordinariate, the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception and Caritas Armenia to help families gain access to health care, support child care programs and offer assistance to those with special needs.
Significantly, CNEWA has also provided aid to ensure that thousands of elderly Armenians living in sheds and containers, many of them forgotten by their families, are fed and kept warm during the harsh winters of the Caucasus.
These and other programs have given the people of Armenia — people of profound, resilient faith, even under the harshest of circumstances — a renewed sense of possibility and dignity.
Your support helps that spirit of hope prevail. Call 1-866-322-4441 (Canada) or 1-800-442-6392 (United States) to learn more.