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From Isolation to Opportunity

A center in Armenia provides vital skills to orphaned youth

“There are many of us here, but we are all alone in this world,” says Irina, an orphaned 19–year–old now living at a boarding vocational school in Gyumri, Armenia’s second–largest city.

If not for this Youth Development Center, operated by the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, Irina might have found herself homeless a second time in her short life. As is the case for orphans in Armenia fortunate enough to have found shelter in an orphanage, Irina was expected to leave — whether or not she had a place to live — at the age of 18.

Irina was not always an orphan. Until the age of 16, she lived with her mother and attended public school. But when her mother died after a short illness, Irina’s world fell apart. Without any family or friends to turn to, the terrified adolescent wandered the streets before authorities finally placed her in an orphanage.

“I had no idea what was going to happen, just took what the day brought, thinking that I would not exist tomorrow and everything would be over,” she recalls, wiping away tears from her dark round eyes and smiling weakly.

Now a student, Irina counts herself among the fortunate.

According to Anna Mnatsakanian, project manager at the Fund for Armenian Relief, approximately 1,200 children live in 11 orphanages around the country. Each year, roughly 50 “age out” of these institutions. Most, says Ms. Mnatsakanian, cannot find jobs and many end up on the streets.

“These children are in danger,” she says. “Unless they have a chance to further their education, the information we have gathered about former orphans is not comforting at all.”

Since 1991, she and her colleagues have been tracking orphaned youth who have aged out of the system — currently more than 150.

“Thirty percent are homeless, sleeping in basements or attics of buildings or whatever they could find,” she says. “Ninety percent do not have permanent jobs, and some of them don’t even have identification papers. As a result, prostitution, theft and trafficking are quite common among former orphanage residents.”

Orphaned youth face a bleak future in a nation where young people in general have few opportunities. Persons between the ages of 16 and 30 make up nearly a quarter of the country’s population of 2.9 million. Some 22 percent are unemployed, according to a 2007 study conducted by Armenia’s Ministry of Culture and Youth Affairs in conjunction with the United Nations Development Program and the Armenian United Nations Association. In the economically depressed province of Shirak, of which Gyumri is the capital, half the youth are jobless.

Gyumri was a thriving industrial center at the height of the Soviet era, where numerous manufacturing plants employed some 70 percent of its residents. But the city has declined dramatically since 1988. Once bustling factories now languish, decaying. Gyumri, as does the rest of the province, grapples with one of the country’s highest unemployment rates, endemic poverty and a myriad of social problems associated with both.

By the same token, signs of better times abound. Though Shirak remains the poorest of the country’s 11 provinces, its capital has enjoyed some of the benefits of the country’s consistent annual double–digit growth during the five years before the start of the global recession in 2008. Its new apartment, office and municipal buildings as well as vibrant commercial districts indicate a firm recovery from the 1988 earthquake and the brutally hard times characterizing Armenia’s early post–Soviet years.

Nonetheless, ruined, skeletal edifices, dilapidated houses and clusters of temporary metal shelters, or domiks, mingle with the city’s newly constructed buildings and freshly painted facades, serving as constant reminders of the calamity that occurred more than 22 years ago.

On 7 December 1988, a catastrophic earthquake devastated the region, killing some 25,000 Armenians and leaving another million homeless. Gyumri (then called Leninakan) emerged as the tragedy’s epicenter. The largest numbers of casualties and displaced persons were city residents. Tens of thousands of buildings and homes lay in ruins.

In response to the crisis, Soviet authorities with assistance from foreign governments and international organizations pitched tents and built domiks to house the homeless. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the economic and social void that followed, forced many displaced families to remain in their temporary shelters. Today, some 4,000 families in Gyumri continue to live in the domiks, many of which are occupied by several generations.

“We still feel the consequences of the earthquake,” says Lusine Ginosian, head of the Shirak provincial government’s children’s rights protection department. “There are quite a lot of children in orphanages because their parents live in terrible conditions. There are also many who are children of those who as children lost their parents in the earthquake and could not get their lives together.”

Four of the country’s 11 orphanages are in Gyumri alone. Established after the earthquake, most of these institutions’ first residents were children who lost their parents in the disaster. However, as time passed, a different sort of orphan replaced them. Referred to as “social orphans,” these children still have one parent or both, but have been placed in the facilities as a better alternative. At present, more than half of Armenia’s orphans fall in this category.

The quality of public education in Armenia is poor; many international observers point to pervasive corruption as the primary factor, not the shortage of resources. According to Transparency International, an international nongovernmental organization that monitors corruption, Armenia’s system of public education ranks as the second most corrupt public sector after its health care system. As a result, while national law guarantees all children access to free education, including higher education, a significant number of young people are denied it, especially those living in child care facilities.

“Education is free for those who, from the very beginning, grease somebody’s palm,” explains Mikael Danielian, head of the Helsinki Association of Armenia, a leading human rights group. “Corruption is an evil that deprives young people of their future.”

As a result, students who do attend public schools generally receive an education that does not prepare them for the world’s rapidly changing economy. And, according to the Armenian Youth National Report, about 40 percent of those fortunate enough to attend college do not find jobs in their fields of study.

Orphaned youth often never complete secondary school and seldom make it to college. But the troubles they encounter when they leave the orphanage are numerous and complex — nor are they exclusively linked to a lack of education. What they in fact discover is a society largely unwilling to embrace them as full–fledged members.

“Even today, many people avoid marrying someone raised in an orphanage. Often, they limit their contact with them,” says Gohar Voskanian, a psychologist who has worked with orphaned children and youth for many years.

“When children raised in orphanages turn 18, they enter a society that stigmatizes them as ‘orphanage children.’ The child must hide it, and that’s why many of them also avoid going to school, as a means of avoiding society,” he adds.

Independent studies indicate that a majority of youth who have aged out of the orphanage system are poorly equipped to live on their own and have serious difficulties building families. The Armenian Democratic Forum, a nongovernmental organization, conducted a survey of 312 youth who left orphanages between 1991 and 2005. It concluded that most “needed help becoming independent.”

Sister Arousiag Sajonian — dean of Our Lady of Armenia Boghossian Educational Complex in Gyumri, which includes the Youth Development Center — understands the many psychological and social problems afflicting orphaned youth.

“They are used to having everything done and decided for them at the orphanage, and then they become unable to live independently. Even those children who come to us today from other orphanages and study at the center at first do not realize that they need to study, do not understand how important it is for them.”

Established to help orphaned youth adjust to life outside institutional walls and prepare them for successful careers, the Armenian Sisters’ Youth Development Center largely owes its existence to Sister Arousiag. Recognizing the need for it nearly a decade ago, she has worked tirelessly to make it a reality.

“Once in 1991, five girls from the Gavar Orphanage approached me for help to find them a job,” she recalls. “I asked what sort of training they had. The answer was unequivocal: ‘What education is there at an orphanage?’

“It’s terrible that these young people, who are not yet ready to face the challenges of life on their own, received neither a proper education nor were taught survival skills and then found themselves on the streets. The majority of boys end up in prisons, and girls mostly become prostitutes. Seeing this, I became determined to think of something for these young people.”

In 1998, the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception established Our Lady of Armenia Boghossian Educational Complex, which at first consisted of an orphanage and school for orphans and needy children. Since opening its doors, the sisters and staff have reared and schooled some 200 children, most of whom went on to study at public vocational schools. Currently, the complex cares for and provides basic education to 40 orphans.

Sister Arousiag, however, never lost sight of her aspiration to build a vocational school for orphaned youth. Indeed, her drive to make it happen only intensified as she watched her former charges exit public vocational schools and desperately struggle to find gainful employment.

“The kind of education these children get at Yerevan’s or Gyumri’s vocational schools is not applicable anywhere. They teach a Soviet–era curriculum and with manuals and methods not meeting today’s demands,” she explains.

In this context, Sister Arousiag and her fellow sisters made the creation of the Youth Development Center a top priority. First and foremost, the center needed to offer youth a competitive education and training in relevant fields in which skilled labor is in high demand.

“I did thorough market research in order to understand which professions are in demand and, potentially, will be in demand for a long time, and decided on four — culinary arts, computer programming, electrical technology and plumbing,” Sister Arousiag says.

The sisters collected most of the funds for the $2 million center from individual benefactors — and CNEWA — and, in 2007, construction began. Three years later, the Youth Development Center welcomed its inaugural class. The facility is furnished with state–of–the–art equipment tailored to each of its four vocational programs. The sisters are also actively fund–raising to build a $400,000 concert hall and gym.

The center attracts and hires some of the region’s best teachers. And its staff collaborates with the French charitable organizations Fondation Orphelins d’Auteuil and Groupement des Retraites Educateurs Sans Frontières to train and supervise the faculty.

The center can enroll up to 80 students each year. Though it recruits orphaned youth, the center is open to other qualified residents of the province, regardless of age or background. The center’s core curriculum includes training in basic computer, professional interviewing, public speaking, bookkeeping and financial planning skills. Students also take English– and French–language classes.

The center charges students a nominal monthly fee of $15, which serves more as a life skills lesson for students than it does to offset the institution’s operating costs.

“It’s wrong when the tuition is completely free, because it’s the most precious gem. One has to pay at least something and feel obliged to study well,” explains Zaven Yahniyan, the center’s principal.

The center has quickly earned a reputation around the country for its quality education, excellent facilities and small class sizes.

“I have not yet seen Gyumri’s Youth Development Center, but I’ve heard that it is perfectly built and technically equipped, something that the state will not be able to achieve for a long time,” says Robert Abrahamian, head of the Armenian Ministry of Education’s vocational education department.

The government plans to upgrade 12 vocational schools next year. But, according to Mr. Abrahamian, retraining teachers and introducing new curricula will take years.

Some 7,000 students are enrolled in 29 public vocational schools across Armenia. These schools charge annual tuition and fees, ranging from $200 to $500. Yet, the curricula and equipment are outdated, having changed little since the Soviet era.

In addition, most of the classrooms and workrooms are too small, allowing for only a fraction of the students in any given class to work on their projects at a time.

In contrast, all students at the Youth Development Center have the opportunity to practice the skills they are learning on the spot.

“This is a unique place not only in Gyumri, but in all of Armenia, where practical skills are taught,” says 17–year–old Levon Serobian, a student in the center’s culinary arts program. “At state vocational schools, because of the lack of equipment and food for all to practice, the teacher prepares the food and students watch, especially when it comes to cakes and pastries, whereas here each of us cooks, bakes or does whatever is the subject of the class.”

The center’s modern and impeccably clean facilities amaze even the advanced students.

“I have never seen anything quite like it, save for in TV programs where they show how to cook. Only there have I seen such appliances,” says Levon.

The culinary arts program enrolls 17 students, and by all accounts it is as rigorous as it is enjoyable. In addition to receiving hands–on cooking lessons, students learn the entire range of subjects related to food preparation and service, including biology, food selection, food conservation as well as the culture and history of cooking and service etiquette.

“It’s a bit hard to study here than at other schools. It’s very strict and demanding,” admits Levon. “But, we are convinced that with the education we are given we will by all means find a job.”

The center’s other programs have similarly well–equipped classrooms and equally challenging curricula, designed for students to hit the ground running in their respective fields.

Monika Gevorgian, a 23–year–old student in the center’s computer programming course, knows well the center’s advantages. A student at the Gyumri Pedagogical University, she enrolled at the center to complement her humanities degree and improve her future career prospects.

“There is no comparison. I am studying languages there, but the quality of education is so low that I won’t be able to work even as a janitor … whereas the center equips us with in–depth knowledge and practical skills.”

Based in Yerevan, Gayane Abrahamyan writes on the Caucasus for a number of journals.

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