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Targeted Twice

Protecting vulnerable families in Armenia through awareness

Hovhannes sits up with difficulty in a bed set up in the garden of a half-built house and opens the parcel his brother brought home. Hovhannes is filled with curiosity, but his mother scolds his brother for bringing food home again from a store in the village.

“I have warned both of them and the shop not to give them anything, but they are kids. They want something and take it, adding to my debt,” says Armine, waving her hands in exasperation, choking with emotion.

Armine, 40, is a single mother of three boys, 16, 13 and 11 years old. When she married a distant relative years ago, she was confident she would be in reliable hands. However, blissful married life only lasted until their firstborn son turned one, when they learned he had a hearing impairment. The illnesses of their two younger sons would only aggravate the family situation further, and her husband decided the only solution would be to find better paying work abroad.

“He went back and forth for a few years, helping us with everything. We had everything we needed,” Armine recalls. “In 2017, he convinced me to get a divorce, so he could make a better career abroad and help us more. Many people were doing that, but he went and forgot about us.”

Armine continues to live in the home they built together in Armenia’s Ararat region, sharing a roof with her ex-husband’s mother. Relations are strained between the two women and Armine endures daily arguments.

Her mother-in-law occupies one of the three bedrooms; the boys occupy another bedroom. The coldest room, covered with a concrete roof, is Armine’s. The walls in the house are faded, like their dreams. They have no toilet, but an outhouse, which fills quickly.

“Sometimes I just don’t want to live anymore,” says Armine. “But then I look at my children and realize I cannot leave them alone in this life full of hardships.

“I am able to work, and I feel bad that I can’t do anything,” she says defeatedly, as her efforts to keep a job have failed repeatedly.

“When my children were younger, they would always get sick, leaving me with a lot of debt. I was forced to leave them alone for a few hours every day to work, but I would come home and find they had either damaged the house or injured themselves.”

Her family’s sole income is her son’s monthly disability pension of 39,000 dram (about $100), and other state benefits that equal the same amount. She does not receive the $150 monthly alimony from her former husband ordered by the court. For the past three years, Caritas Armenia, the charity of Armenia’s Catholic community, has stepped in to provide her with money for utilities, medicine, food, hygiene products and stationery through a program focused on improving the social conditions of single mothers.

Armenian mother poses with her two sones who are hugging her.
Armine, 40, poses with two of her sons. The single mother struggles to raise her three sons in the Ararat region of Armenia. (photo: Nazik Armenakyan)

Armine says she also benefits from the psychological support she receives from Caritas Armenia and the informative discussions on various topics, which have helped her to overcome her hardships and avoid exploitation.

Although Armenia has improved its efforts in the fight against human trafficking, more needs to be done, including in the investigation, prosecution and conviction of traffickers, according to reports on the state of trafficking worldwide.

The U.S. Department of State’s 2023 Trafficking in Persons Report for Armenia states that in the past five years, “human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Armenia, as well as victims from Armenia abroad,” including “some Armenian migrants who seek employment in Russia often through recruitment fraud and recruitment fee-related debt bondage by labor brokers.” In addition, children, as well as men in rural areas with little education, are vulnerable to labor trafficking.

Tatevik Bezhanyan, a migration program expert with Caritas Armenia, notes that trafficking is a highly latent crime, making identification very difficult, and exploitation is rarely disclosed.

“Seventy to 75 percent of work migrants are men, and as a rule they don’t want to accept that they have fallen victim to exploitation,” she says. In 2020, up to 87 percent of all labor migrants from Armenia were men, according to the International Organization for Migration.

“Respect for human dignity is the fundamental principle and motivation for the church’s work to end human trafficking.”

“They don’t want to admit it because they consider it to be a disgrace,” she adds.

While Armenia does not have many recorded cases of human trafficking, it has been classified as an “exit country” for trafficking and exploitation, explains Ms. Bezhanyan. In other words, Armenians who migrate abroad often fall victim to trafficking. It is also an “entry country,” whereby people who migrate to Armenia may be recruited for trafficking or exploitation within the country, as well as a “transit country,” which trafficked persons are transported through to a destination country.

Turkey and Arab countries are where Armenian women are most likely to fall victim to sex trafficking, while Russia is where Armenian men are most likely to succumb to labor trafficking.

“Since Armenian independence, only highly qualified experts have migrated to the United States and the European Union,” says Ms. Bezhanyan.

Russia is the most common destination for Armenian labor migrants. The National Statistical Service of Armenia estimates 90 percent of Armenians who migrate to Russia go for work.

“First, the two countries were [once] part of one state [the Soviet Union]. As a result, people still have connections there,” explains Ms. Bezhanyan. “There are far fewer issues pertaining to language. The country also does not require a visa.”

Priest holding a rosary.
Father Hovsep Galstyan is the spiritual director for Caritas Armenia. (photo: Nazik Armenakyan)

Despite these ties, Armenians are not protected from being trafficked or exploited in Russia.

“In many ways, they do not go prepared,” says Ms. Bezhanyan. “They unconditionally trust the person who invited them. As a result, we have cases where people’s trust is abused.

“There are cases where they are not paid as promised. There are cases where they are not paid at all, or where they do not do the work for which they were invited. There are cases where the employer takes the passport and does not give it back.”

Ms. Bezhanyan underlines the importance of the awareness and prevention programs Caritas Armenia is running, in cooperation with the Armenian government and other nongovernmental organizations. Caritas Armenia also has been a member of the Armenian Inter-Governmental Commission Working Group on trafficking issues and a full member of COATNET — Christian Organizations Against Trafficking Network — since 2006.

“Our biggest issue is stereotypes. Many think that something like this could not happen to them. However, everyone can become a victim of trafficking and exploitation. No one is insured against it, and no one is at fault.”

“Our biggest issue is stereotypes,” Ms. Bezhanyan continues. “Many think that something like this could not happen to them. However, everyone can become a victim of trafficking and exploitation. No one is insured against it, and no one is at fault.”

Respect for human dignity is the fundamental principle and motivation for the church’s work to end human trafficking, says the Reverend Hovsep Galstyan, spiritual director for Caritas Armenia.

The very first social encyclical, “Rerum novarum,” written by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, addresses the protection of worker rights, he points out. Every papal document that addresses labor issues states explicitly “that we must respect and protect the rights of workers, and especially migrant workers, otherwise, this means exploitation of people,” says Father Galstyan.

The church “does not accept” such exploitation, he adds, and is acting “in a very practical way” to bring an end to it.

The Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception have been serving in Armenia since a December 1988 earthquake devastated northern Armenia. The community of seven women religious welcomes children from vulnerable families to their center in Gyumri, the second-largest city in Armenia. Twenty children aged 3 to 18 currently live there, and another nine children are enrolled in their day care program.

“Armenia has adopted a policy of deinstitutionalization of orphanages, but there are citizens who are unable to take care of children. We take care of them,” says Sister Narine Simonyan, who heads the center.

The children are not required to leave the center upon reaching maturity. They may stay after high school while they learn a trade or profession. Others pursue higher education in Yerevan and reside at the sisters’ center there, which currently has 24 students. After graduation, the young adults will sometimes stay on or get married.

“Thus, we keep them away from violence, from being trafficked,” she says. “We ensure their safety, monitor their studies, help them to navigate in a new environment.”

More than 300 disadvantaged children have benefited from the sisters’ care, including children who exhibit high-risk behaviors. Today, these children are successful and self-sufficient, and have found their place in life, says Sister Narine.

“One of our children is currently working at the consulate in Italy; we have surgeons, dentists, we have many students who graduated and got married, and most importantly, they formed good families,” she says.

“The idea of family was distorted for them. We were able to help them alleviate that pain, understand the importance of the family and promote their participation in a healthy family life. The most important thing is that the child can take the right path in life.”

The sisters also organize summer camps for children from the border villages in the Tavush and Gegharkunik regions, as well as for children of fallen soldiers or from disadvantaged families.

“The idea of family was distorted for them. We were able to help them alleviate that pain … and promote their participation in a healthy family life.”

“During the 12-day camps, we try to provide a quality vacation for about 800 participating children, to organize their rest, nourish them physically and mentally,” says Sister Narine.

“Of course, this is not dependent on our strength. It is our mission that God gave us, and we want to be useful. We, as sisters, have a mission to educate and help the vulnerable. When we help, we don’t know the religious affiliation of our beneficiaries. If we have to help, we help. People are at the core of our activity,” she says, adding: “I do everything for the love of God.”

A religious sister puts a cross on a youth while other youths observe.
Some children attending the Armenian Sisters’ summer camp are baptized at St. Grigor Lusavorich Church in Tsakhadzor, Armenia. (photo: Nazik Armenakyan)

Gayane, 32, is a single mother of three living in Lori region. Her 10-year-old son is enrolled in the camp, which is a great help for Gayane, who struggles financially and who knows that, at least for a few days, one of her children will eat nutritious food and be in good hands.

About three years ago, Gayane’s husband left to work abroad to care for the family’s needs, but he never returned.

“After the birth of my third child, we decided to buy a house with the money allocated by the state and make the down payment. My husband went abroad to earn the rest of the money to buy the house. However, he lives there now with another woman, and he has forgotten about us and the plans to buy a house,” Gayane says through tears.

Her middle child was diagnosed with a double hernia a few days after birth. The hernia was not treated in time due to the family’s financial difficulties and the boy developed complications. Now 9 years old, the boy has developmental challenges. He attends school but has fallen behind in his studies and acts far younger than his age.

Rem Parshkova, a single mother, poses with her three children in front of her domain, where she lives with her elderly mother. The family relies on the support of a Caritas Armenia program, funded by CNEWA.

“There are children who love him and play with him,” says Gayane. “There are those who despise him and do not communicate with him.”

As with Armine, the only income for Gayane’s family is her 9-year-old son’s monthly disability pension of 39,000 dram and the same amount in disability allowance. She is unable to find employment as she has no one to care for her children should she find work. She, too, has benefited from Caritas Armenia’s program for single mothers for the past several months.

“They help me with everything,” she says. “They give me food, stationery, wood, bedding, which is a great help for me and my children.”

As a beneficiary of Caritas, Gayane says she has gained knowledge and awareness of her vulnerabilities, potential risks and societal dangers. She feels more equipped to face the difficulties of life as a single mother, increasing her confidence that she can protect herself and her children from a life of exploitation.

Read this article in our digital format here.

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

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