Armenian octogenarian Marjik lives with her son in a converted shipping container in Artashat, Armenia. (photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
Ofelia Poghosyan administers a checkup to an elderly patient. (photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
Psychologist Arpine Sargsyan chats with a child at the Little Prince Center. (photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
David Safaryan displays one of his paintings from art class. (photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
Children pray together before their meal at the Little Prince Center in Artashat. (photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
Eighty-year-old Marjik waits in her doorway in Artashat, Armenia, until she finally catches sight of the vehicle she has been expecting: a white car with “Love” painted in red on the side. She greets the arriving caregiver, Nelly, as she emerges from the car.
“Oh, dear Nelly, what a good thing it is that you’ve come,” Marjik says.
“Come, my girl, be my guest,” she says, inviting the woman into her home — little more than a shack.
Marjik has lived here for 30 years with her son, who suffered serious injuries in the war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990’s. A former shipping container, her home is about 20 feet wide and has been partitioned in half. To the left of the entrance is a living area that also stores dishes, pots and bottles containing collected water. On the right side stand two beds, a small cupboard with a television on it and an iron stove.
The shelter has no running water. Marjik and her son go to a nearby florist to procure water for bathing and cleaning, and they use the toilet at their next-door neighbor’s house.
By any measure, their lives are a struggle. “We live off my pension,” she says of her subsidy that totals about $75 a month.
“We are not included in any social program. They say they give that pension to me, not for my family. My family is just my sick son, and I must take care of him. He fought in Karabakh — he spent years in trenches and at outposts in cold conditions,” she explains. “Now he is unable to work. He has poor health, but receives no pension.”
As she speaks, her breathing grows labored, overcome by the dampness of her surroundings.
Her life has not always been this way. Earlier in life, Marjik worked as a clerk in a department store — a job she held for 35 years. When she speaks about the past, her blue eyes shine brightly; when she returns to the present day, they become misty.
She is not used to complaining, she explains. She wipes away her tears, composes herself and smiles at Nelly.
“They are my only hope,” she says of Caritas, the charity of the Armenian Catholic Church.
“Once, I went to the florist’s to fetch some water. The owner of the place asked about how I lived, and I told him about my situation. He told me about an organization whose workers can come and see me. Hardly an hour passed, and then they came, and they enrolled me.
“They are doing everything for me,” she says cheerily. “We need them very much. Nelly is a great help, and the doctor helps with medicines.”
Her story is echoed by dozens of Armenians who have come to rely on the generous work of Caritas Armenia — work that now spans generations.
“My only hope is this organization. Only they help with anything. This,” she says, looking around at the darkness, “is the only light in all of this.”
In October 2016, Caritas Armenia, led by its chair, Archbishop Rafael François Minassian, and its director, Gagik Tarasyan, expanded its services to lend help to those in need in Marjik’s hometown of Artashat and the neighboring villages in the country’s southwestern province of Ararat.
According to the National Statistical Service’s 2016 data, the Ararat province has a population of about 260,000 people; some 37,000 are pensioners, and nearly 11,000 are unemployed. There, Caritas Armenia extends its work in two distinct directions. First, it provides home care and medical services for single elderly people, many of whom live in poverty and barely survive on their modest pensions. About 60 of Artashat’s elderly currently benefit from these services. Second, it cares for the young through the Little Prince Center, which aims to provide some security to Artashat’s children. This initiative now serves 40 young people and their families.
The manager of these two projects, Gayane Vardanyan, emphasizes that the need is great. “Elderly people and children are vulnerable and in need of support everywhere,” she says.
Ofelia Poghosyan and Karine Ghazaryan, two health care professionals who provide medical services to the elderly, echo these sentiments and stress the importance of Caritas’s efforts.
“The problems are significant,” Ms. Poghosyan says.
“We have elderly women who have no bathrooms and toilets at all. We have an elderly woman who lives on the ground floor and whose wall is half-damp. The dampness is terrible. She has to spend the entire winter wrapped in warm coats.
“There are people who have shelter, but suffer because of their loneliness,” she adds.
There is a great need for psychological support, although as yet they do not have a psychologist on staff to provide a clinical perspective. “We ourselves act as psychologists to the extent we can. People not only need our professional support, but also our compassion.”
Often, Ms. Poghosyan says, they long for something as simple as a conversation.
Ms. Ghazaryan attaches special significance to the role of caregivers.
“Besides their primary duties, our caregivers also act as friends, as someone people can talk to,” she says. “Our elderly people like them very much. They are happy during their visits, as it gives them new hope.”
She adds: “Much depends on the caregiver, as he or she has to be able to communicate differently with each person.” This role, Ms. Ghazaryan explains, requires compassion and sensitivity.
In turn, this program has become important for the doctors and caregivers themselves. The work is challenging, they report, but also fulfilling.
“My beneficiaries call me more often than my relatives,” Ms. Ghazaryan says. “They are worried about every matter, are interested in every issue. I was sick for a few days, and they kept calling me and asking about how I felt. We have become close with them.”
And when the staff successfully helps to solve a problem, she adds, all share in the joy.
Sweet and savory smells waft out the door of a two-story house in a suburb of Artashat. Inside, children stand at two long tables and recite the Lord’s Prayer. They offer thanks to God for the meal before them, then sit in their chairs and dine as one big family.
“The children receive a hot meal once a day,” says Petros Gyulnazaryan, coordinator of the Little Prince Children’s Center.
“If some children are absent on a particular day, we send food to them. Sometimes, when we have a surplus of dry food, we give it to the children to take it with them. It is regrettable, but many of the children come here for the food.”
Even small treats, he adds, make a big impression. “The other day we were giving lemonade. You can’t imagine how happy the children were.”
Children between the ages of 6 and 17 attend the center after school. They enjoy a hot meal and then participate in classes, including cooking and art. After lessons, the children receive free transportation to their homes, provided by the municipality.
Today, the center has four lesson groups, but it plans to increase the number to six in the near future, says Mr. Gyulnazaryan.
“We help them do their homework,” he says, “as many of the children have problems at their homes. Some are unable to do their homework well and on time. We have cooking classes, where children are taught to prepare food. Most importantly, we teach them healthy eating. We also have computer classes and at this moment the children’s favorite one: art.”
In one of the large, bright rooms, children stand behind easels, refining pencil sketches and proudly presenting their masterpieces.
The teacher, Vanush Safaryan, is a member of the Painters’ Union of Armenia and a former director of an art school in Artashat. He teaches children not only the craft of drawing and painting, but also the history and appreciation of art more generally.
“Art will save the country,” he says of a country that savors its rich art and architectural heritage. “Let them love the art. Twenty of the children have already chosen this path, so it is already a victory,” he adds.
“We have very bright children; they need to be given freedom and they will reveal themselves.”
The center’s smallest pupil is a 9-year-old named David. David has drawn a picture of construction site, with a worker seated inside a crane and a still-unfinished building nearby.
David lives with his parents and a younger sister in a rented apartment in poor condition. The center offers him an escape, and a sense of hope.
“After school we come here,” he says. “We have dinner, then we play games, draw, do our homework. It is very good.” He stops talking so he can focus on bringing his sketched construction site to life.
The center serves a wide range of families, and not just those in financial need. Children with a single parent find a safe haven at the center, and many receive counseling and psychological support.
One psychologist and two social workers attend to the children. Psychologist Arpine Sargsyan says they tailor their help to the child, whether they are coping with stress, fears, shyness or grief.
“These are children from difficult families with different fears,” she says. In some cases, children may live with one parent after a divorce. Others may endure violence. “Many have seen their fathers beat their mothers, some have been victims of violence themselves. We have a girl who is very withdrawn. She is always afraid to see her father drunk. She says that when he drinks, they cannot leave the house, and he beats them all.”
Some children have even encountered death.
“We have a 10-year-old boy who last year saw his father commit suicide,” she explains. “He was in terrible stress. I worked with him and now I notice positive changes.”
The center’s staff keeps constant contact with the children’s schools, coordinating to monitor changes in the children.
Tangush, 11, attends the Little Prince Center. Her aunt, suffering from mental health issues, has repeatedly attacked and beaten the children of the household — especially Tangush.
“We are in a difficult situation,” says her mother, named Anahit. “There were cases when she attacked Tangush, wanted to smother her. Imagine what state of mind the child must have been in. Believe me, this center is a salvation.” Since coming to the center, she says, her daughter has become calmer, more relaxed and happier.
“I don’t know where we would be now if this all didn’t exist. I could never afford to take my child to a psychologist; we hardly have money for food. Here, we get everything. This is really salvation for all of us,” she says.
“It would be very good if there were more places available. I’d also like my son to attend, but the number of places is limited yet. If they expanded, it would be a salvation for so many children.”
Fortunately, there are prospects for the expansion of this children’s center. Archbishop Rafael envisions establishing a “children’s town,” where youngsters from the province will have an opportunity to learn and grow and see a better, brighter future.
“We are also cooperating with the municipality of Artashat, numerous local and international organizations,” the archbishop says, his enthusiasm infectious. “This is a major contribution, through which generations will be raised. Programs that help children will also help the province.”
He speaks with certainty — and with faith in the future of his homeland and its children.
“Soon,” he beams, “this project will become a reality.”
Gayane Abrahamyan’s reporting has appeared in The Atlantic, EurasiaNet and ArmeniaNow.