ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Kid’s Camps in the Caucasus

Two very different youth programs restore childhood

One early summer afternoon, beneath the gentle slopes of Mount Teghenis in central Armenia, 200 children stood quietly before their lunch plates at Our Lady of Armenia Camp. They were waiting for Sister Arousiag Sajonian, the camp director, to lead them in grace.

Typically, one would expect to find an abundance of rowdiness and mischief-making in a canteen full of children. But not here: At Our Lady of Armenia Camp, or Diramayr for short, relaxed order reigns.

Having just wrapped up its 13th year, the camp brings together 850 needy children, ages 7 to 14, for three weeks of rest, exercise and physical and spiritual nourishment. Divided into four three-week sessions in the months of July and August, Diramayr is a refuge for Armenian orphans living in state orphanages as well as children invited by social workers and the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, an Armenian Catholic community that sponsors the camp.

For Sister Arousiag, who returned to the land of her ancestors in the summer of 1990, the camp strengthens the emotional well-being of children scarred by abandonment and poverty and deepens their exposure to their Armenian culture and heritage.

“I like to think that here the children are camping with Christ,” Sister Arousiag said. “Many of the kids had never been to church before coming here.”

Religious devotions and catechism constitute a significant portion of the day at Diramayr. Days begin and end with prayer, while catechism class is a daily feature. Sunday mornings are reserved for the celebration of the Soorp Badarak, the Divine Liturgy.

Because few Armenians belong to the Armenian Catholic Church (just 220,000 of its 2.9 million citizens), most of those who attend the camp nominally belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, the historic faith community of the Armenian people. The two churches share the same culture, liturgy and traditions (only full communion with the Church of Rome distinguishes Catholic from Armenian Apostolic Christians), thus sparing the camp from religious discord.

Sister Arousiag said she would not let a child’s religious background become an admissions factor. “How can I turn down a needy child just because they aren’t Catholic?”

Summer camp would not be summer camp if the campers had their heads stuck in their Bibles or catechisms all day. Children study languages (French or English), art and computers and also have plenty of time for sports and outdoor activities such as hiking and canoeing. They also take day trips to nearby Lake Sevan and visit the ancient historical monuments that dot Armenia’s countryside.

While most of the day is scheduled, the campers also have free time to horse around in the playground or chat with their friends.

Diana Ptroysyan, 14, said that while prayer is her favorite time of the day, she also enjoys gymnastics, singing, dancing and watching the theater performances the children stage each night. This was her second year at the camp. “If there’s a possibility, I’d like to come back and volunteer,” said Diana, who wants to become a primary school teacher.

Camp staff includes salaried professionals and volunteers, including an oral surgeon and a pediatrician. Many are Armenians who live outside the country.

“I didn’t realize until I came here how enriching it is to see how every living thing brings joy to these kids,” said Gayane Khodaveerdi, 24, a student in Italy who teaches math at the camp. “The Western world has lost that. We take everything for granted. The children are all so well mannered and disciplined, and I see it’s because here they are given good role models to follow. They never had any before.”

Termine Harutunyan, 23, has been involved with the sisters for 14 years, beginning when she was a student at the Boghossian Educational Center in Gyumri. This summer, she was camp leader for the youngest — and most rambunctious — campers, ages 7 to 9. She admitted that sometimes it was difficult to work with the children, many of whom had emotional problems. But it also brought her great satisfaction. Ms. Harutunyan recalled a child who thanked her for her work in the camp. “I can’t begin to explain how that makes you feel,” said Ms. Harutunyan, who plans to enter the sisters’ novitiate in Rome.

Most of the campers’ health cases are not serious, said Dr. Nune Nadarian, an ear, nose and throat specialist. “Sometimes a child will come with psychosomatic problems, and I provide psychological help,” she said. “Lots of kids just need to talk.”

Along with square meals, catechism, education and fun, the camp also introduces children to peers from different regions of Armenia. The camp’s program manager, Vartuhi Baloyan, said they are trying to reach out into the hinterlands, including the impoverished border villages near Turkey. But some of the parents there are wary of sending their children away. “But when kids who went return and tell of their experiences, more parents will send their kids.”

Camp attendance has grown slowly; a lack of funds has hindered it from meeting its full potential. Supported by private donors, including CNEWA, expenses have increased dramatically. “What a half million drams [about $1,500] bought yesterday,” Sister Arousiag said, “costs one million today.”

The funding situation is no different in Armenia’s neighbor, Georgia, where Caritas, the social service agency of the local Catholic community, also runs summer camping programs for disadvantaged children. Funding difficulties this year forced Caritas to modify the program. “We’re getting less money each year,” said Nazi Kvarchia, deputy director of Caritas Georgia.

Caritas had to leave its original camping site (which the agency had rented since it began in 1996) in the resort town of Bakuriani. For 10 summers, the camp drew between 350 and 500 children from all corners of the country.

This year, Caritas Georgia — which relies on CNEWA and other donors for support — opened four regional camps. Each offered four two-week sessions accommodating 30 to 40 children between the ages of 7 and 15. Altogether some 500 campers participated — as many as the now-shuttered Bakuriani camp.

Father Witold Szulczynski, who directs Caritas Georgia and founded many of its works, said the cumulative numbers mask the significance of the change, which he regrets. More diversity is possible in a larger group, he said. “We want these children, who come from a wide range of ethnicities and religions, to have the opportunity to become friends and respect each other in a healthy atmosphere. You achieve this aim better when you have 150 children together, instead of 30.”

Unlike campers in Diramayr, who reflect Armenia’s ethnically and culturally cohesive population, campers in Caritas Georgia’s summer program come from many ethnic groups, reflecting Georgia’s diverse mix — Azeris, Armenians, Germans, Georgians, Greeks, Kurds and Russians. And though 85 percent of Georgia’s 4.6 million citizens profess Orthodox Christianity, some 10 percent are Muslim. Catholics, evangelical Christians and Jews are small but influential minorities.

Because of this diversity, it would be impossible to implement a unified religious program, Father Witold said. While clergy from various faiths are invited to the camp for weekly prayer meetings, the camps stress inclusion and tolerance — not separation.

“Caritas was the first organization in the country to take such a step,” said Father Witold, who based the camp on similar operations in his native Poland.

At the Caritas camp held at the Samta Park Sanitarium in Nunisi, a mountain town in Georgia’s Karagauli region, guests were apprehensive at first to learn that they would be sharing their vacation with orphans and street children. Their anxieties proved unfounded. “Everybody was surprised at how well behaved the children are,” said Tamara Sharashidze of Caritas Georgia.

Most of the 30 campers came from a Caritas youth center in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. The children typically have one parent or guardian who cannot support them. Instead, they rely on the shelter, which doubles as a boarding home and day care center.

On a typical day last August, the children rose at 8 a.m., exercised and played before breakfast at 10. There are day hikes and numerous night activities, including movies, karaoke, dancing, games and campfires. There is even a fashion show. At the old, larger camp in Bakuriani, the children used to do chores to help keep the facility running.

“I think for kids who live with families, the old camp was better,” said Leban Biganashvili, 23, a Caritas staff member who grew up in a Caritas-sponsored children’s home. “There were regulations and restrictions, and most of those kinds of kids need discipline.”

“But for our institutionalized kids,” he continued, “this type of camp is better because at the shelter they have discipline every day.”

For all the campers, Samta Park represents a soothing escape from their hardscrabble lives in Tbilisi. Many have suffered severe psychological or physical traumas. Lela Mezrishvili, 13, has scars all over her body, but several sessions in the sanitarium’s waters have allowed her to extend her arm fully for the first time in years.

“Many of the children come from very troubled families — very poor,” said Zizi Inadze, a staff member who grew up on the streets and, like Mr. Biganashvili, received assistance from Caritas. “Some had never seen fish or butter before, and even others never had seen a toilet. I was so shocked to see kids using a bucket, I couldn’t believe it.”

The camps of Sister Arousiag Sajonian and Father Witold Szulczynski are different in structure, but their aim is the same. They offer disadvantaged children a quintessential childhood experience that is normally available only to the more privileged. And it is a testament to the camps’ success that so many former campers have returned, as adults, to help educate the next generation.

A mere two carefree weeks can have an outsized impact on the children’s lives, said Ms. Inadze, the former street child who now works for Caritas.

“Here at the camps, they learn to open up and share a sense of warmth. They receive love and attention.”

Paul Rimple is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.

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