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Shaken by the Earthquake of Life

Challenges for seniors in Armenia’s poorest region

With trembling hands and great care, 82-year-old Ophelia Matevosian recalls the brightest memory of her life: receiving the Order of Lenin — the highest civic honor of the Soviet Union — for her lifetime of work and service to society.

“In 1971 they called me, and [First Secretary of the Communist Party Anton] Kochinian handed the award to me personally. I worked well, I loved my job, was very active, but so what? What’s left of it now? Everything was destroyed; the earthquake took it all,” says the woman, fixing a wistful gaze on the platinum medal.

“I was 14 when I was brought to Gyumri,” says Ms. Matevosian, who grew up in an orphanage. “Back then many orphans were brought here to work at big plants. This city was once the country’s industrial center and we were used as a workforce.”

She began working at the textile factory, and continued for most of her life. After she outgrew the orphanage, the state gave her a room in one of the city’s best hostels as a temporary residence. She has lived within those same walls, encompassing just 170 square feet, ever since.

“I moved into this room the day Stalin died. It was not a good day. Stalin did not forgive me for celebrating. That is why I ended up spending my entire life in this tiny room, never having a family,” she jokes.

A moment later, she bursts into tears.

“I have been alone since the orphanage and until today,” she says, swallowing back her emotion; the bitterness and sadness of her solitary existence reflect in her gray eyes.

“I am not crying because I am alone. Please, believe me, these are tears of joy and gratitude for the people I have by my side today — for their kindness, their warmth.”

The “kind people” entered Ms. Matevosian’s life in 2002, when a team from Caritas Armenia found and enrolled her in a home care program that has since become a lifeline for seniors living alone and without anyone to care for them.

Armenia’s second-largest city, Gyumri was flattened by a devastating earthquake in December 1988, taking the lives of 25,000 people, about 40 percent of whom were children. In the Western media, photographs of the ruined city — then known as Leninakan &mash; became a source of humiliation for a crumbling Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; the quality of construction was so poor almost every building erected in Gyumri in the Soviet period was destroyed. A quarter century later, the city and its environs are shaken by a “different kind of quake.”

“This is an earthquake of life, of terrible social hardship and of moral values,” says Vahan Tumasian, who advocates for earthquake survivors’ housing rights and implements housing programs in northwestern Armenia. Even 25 years after the calamity, he adds, “poverty and homelessness are even more acute.”

Shirak, in northwestern Armenia, with Gyumri as its capital, stands out as the poorest province in a nation crippled by poverty. National Statistical Service data for 2013 reveal a 46 percent poverty rate, while other regions of the country report an average poverty rate of nearly 33 percent.

“After the earthquake, everybody was sort of in the same state — homeless, poor. However, those living in temporary housing were isolated and alienated as years went by. The districts turned into ghettos, where poverty is a little short of hell,” says Mr. Tumasian.

“If anybody wants to see what hell looks like, they should come visit the domik districts.”

From a distance, the temporary shanty homes referred to as domiks call to mind a scrapyard: ramshackle heaps of rusty, decayed tin structures — initially meant as temporary shelters — in which people have somehow survived for 25 years while waiting for proper housing.

“The domik conditions are to a large degree responsible for the acute challenges of caring for the elderly in Gyumri,” he says. “Some 700 seniors live alone in these worn-out houses, without so much as bathroom or toilet facilities.”

Since the earthquake, the population of Gyumri has dropped by about half. In 1988, some 220,000 people lived in the city. But by 2011 — due to the earthquake and the country’s economic collapse after it achieved independence from an unraveling Soviet Union — Gyumri’s population declined to 121,500. Many are convinced the actual number of people living in the city is less than 90,000.

According to the United Nations, Armenia is among the world’s “aging” nations. Pensioners constitute some 14 percent of the country’s 2.9 million people. In Gyumri, the average age is trending upward as more and more of the young and capable pursue employment abroad, usually Russia.

“Imagine how things stand with the frail elderly if men leave their children to go find jobs to earn their living, if unemployment is 40 percent in the city during the summer, and rises to 60 percent in the winter due to fewer seasonal jobs,” says Sister Arousiag Sajonian of the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception.

“If the young cannot survive, how can seniors?” asks Sister Arousiag, who arrived in northwestern Armenia soon after the earthquake. She later founded the Our Lady of Armenia Boghossian Educational Center in Gyumri, which since 2011 has also included a center to care for the elderly.

Observers say pensioners in northern Armenia are left alone with no caretakers for a variety of reasons. Some may have lost their children in the earthquake. Others lost their children to emigration. But alone in Gyumri exists the phenomenon of orphaned children brought by the Soviets to work in factories — orphans such as Ophelia Matevosian — who never married or created families and remain alone.

Though two of these factors find their roots in the past, one remains an ongoing concern.

“The growing migration of the young is aggravating the issue with pensioners,” says Theresa Grigorian, who heads the social affairs department of Gyumri’s municipal government. She says thousands of childless seniors now live in Gyumri, the majority of whom were orphans themselves. Between 300 and 400 have lost their children in the earthquake and more than 2,500 are now left without a caretaker because of the emigration of their surviving children.

“When the young can hardly take care of their own families, the elder care issues double. If it weren’t for the programs implemented by various organizations — the day care centers and charity canteens — these people would have simply died,” says Ms. Grigorian.

Hamaspryur Nazaretian, 85, recalls with excitement the winter day when she happened to meet a team from Caritas.

“I was chopping wood. They came up and asked me a few questions: ‘Grandma, don’t you have a son to chop wood? Why are you the one doing it?’

“I told him, ‘Eh, sweetheart, I have no one at all. I am completely alone.’”

Her voice breaks with emotion, eyes start glowing with tears. “God sent them to me, otherwise, I would not have survived that winter.”

With a childlike joy and excitement she shows one by one all the garments and towels and warm blankets Caritas has provided her.

“They give everything — food, clothes, medical assistance. They take us to see places. They celebrate our birthdays. Most importantly, we are no longer alone,” says the elderly woman, who for 25 years has lived in a 160-square-foot “all-in-one” shelter, which serves as a bedroom, kitchen, bathroom and living room, with concrete floors and walls moldy from damp. The moisture is so severe the cycle of freezing and thawing has opened large cracks in the walls. On some winter days, to leave the bed is to risk freezing to death.

“Every day, I extend my prayers and thanks to God for these people.”

Since 2002, Caritas Armenia has been implementing a home care program for some 140 seniors living alone. About 60 more attend the day care center, where they spend the greater part of the day — eating, enjoying various activities and receiving routine medical checkups, even basic medicines.

“To the majority of our seniors, this center is not simply social. It also gives them psychological support. They often tell us, ‘When you come, we feel we are worth something, that there is someone who cares how we are faring,’” says Caritas’s Flora Sargsian, who manages the program.

She says mental issues are very common among the elderly, and some attribute it to their social conditions, posttraumatic stress related to the earthquake or to prolonged loneliness.

In Gyumri, various organizations care for pensioners, but Caritas Armenia offers the most comprehensive of services, including rudimentary health and home care, social assistance and daily activities. Often, these activities are the difference between life and death to seniors living alone.

The 2008 Report on Aging Survey, released by the National Statistical Service of Armenia, indicated more than 70 percent of Armenia’s population aged 50 years or older receives a pension lower than the minimum subsistence threshold — with some significantly below that line.

“Of course, it is no news that one cannot survive on their pension,” says Anahit Gevorgian, who heads the department of senior issues at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. “Seniors mostly cope through their children’s support.”

Olichka Simonian, a woman with four decades’ experience as a teacher, recalls the time before a day care center brought order to her interior life:

“Those were truly days of sorrow. I was alone and lonely, and kept wondering what the point was in living at all.”

“After the earthquake I became detached from God. Such hardship made me doubt; if there was a God, all of this wouldn’t have happened. Here, I have rediscovered myself and reconnected with God,” she says as she crosses herself.

“It was God’s doing that I came here, my life has changed completely — they are so caring and considerate, trying to bring joy to us.”

Three years ago, Ms. Simonian found new meaning at Gyumri’s Nadine Basmajian Day Care Center, established by Sister Arousiag with support from Armenian donors and organizations in Switzerland.

“There was an urgent need for a day center for elderly people, because the issue is getting more and more acute,” says the indefatigable nun.

The Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception work in a variety of apostolates throughout the Caucasus and the Middle East. Yet, they are best known for their schools and programs for vulnerable children, especially girls.

“Only 10 among our 44 charges are parentless orphans,” says Sister Arousiag of the children cared for at the community’s center. “The other children are simply ‘social orphans,’ children who cannot live at home for lack of the basics. How can these parents take care of their aging parents when they have no means to take care of their own children?

“Serious social challenges lead to the loss of family values,” she concludes. “We are losing our families, and that’s the beginning of losing our nation.”

At the Nadine Basmajian Center, 35 elderly people currently find company and sympathy as they spend their days there; some 200 seniors have benefited since the sisters launched the center.

The most energetic participant, Hamazasp Hakobian, 85, divides his life into three phases: orphanage, the end of World War II and the earthquake.

“I overcame the postwar famine, but the earthquake destroyed everything,” he says of a calamity that killed his wife, leaving him to rear his three teenagers alone. Now he is alone again.

“They all have left the country, looking for sources of income and means of survival,” he says of his children. “We are here in this center so we don’t lose our minds with loneliness, hunger and cold. We couldn’t bear to be away for even a day,” he says, with a kindly look to his friends.

“Believe me, being alone is the cruelest punishment in this life.”

Gayane Abrahamyan’s reporting has appeared in The Atlantic, EurasiaNet and ArmeniaNow.

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