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Orphans of Independence: Shoghakn and Democratic Forum help the abandoned

By Mariam Badalyan

ArmeniaNow reporter

Irina Hovhannisyan, 34, kneels before an old wash-basin, which she placed in the center of a small hostel room of 12-square meters. The little room has enough place for a mother, a daughter and three animals – 2 cats and a dog, with whom they share their scarce bread.

Irina is washing her daughter’s toy puppy and says she has never had her own toys when she was a child.

‘State children’ is how Irina refers to herself and others from orphanages.

As a small child Irina dreamed of a happy adult life and a home of her own. Her independence started from the moment she appeared in the hostel, but she still dreams of a home.

Getting a home of one’s own is an indefinite and distant dream for many orphanage alumnae who continue to live in the old hostel building. In Soviet times they were temporarily placed in hostels to wait their turn, often for years, to get an 18×24-square-meter 1-room apartment. However, independence put a halt on their housing problem and many alumnae after 1985 are still waiting.

“When the orphanage headmaster Nalbandyan first brought us here,” Irina remembers,” he said ‘now you will see how sweet it was to eat the state bread and wear state clothes’.”

Irina works as a cleaning lady and has a monthly income of 20-30,000 drams ($45-67). This sum suffices for buying food for a mother and daughter. In winter time she gets less calls and her income shrinks. Fruit, she says, is a luxury for them.

“I study well, in order to be able to get a good job when I grow up, says Irina’s daughter Hasmik, 11, “I will buy a flat for my mom and many nice things to furnish it.”

While a small flat in the suburb of Yerevan is unrealizable for Irina, a 1986 orphanage alumni, Nune Simonyan, 31, a 1991 alumni, will soon be moving with her little daughter, to her own one-room apartment.

From her hostel room Nune shows two newly built apartment blocks glittering in the sunshine with their bright yellow color and says 12 other orphanage alumnae got flats there, too.

Having left orphanages after 1991 they fall under a program on State Assistance to 1991-2003 Alumnae of Children’s Guardianship Organizations, whereby orphanage alumnae of 1991-2003 will be receiving housing accommodations, specialized, college or higher education, medical assistance, legal, social and psychological assistance.

“After the Armenian independence, the field was left out of the state attention,” says Eduard Israyelyan, a leading specialist at the Ministry of Labor and Social Issues, Department of Family, Women and Children Issues. “Orphanage alumnae of these years got neither specialized education, nor jobs nor other social assistance in order to be able to start a new life. They were simply given a hostel room and forgotten. With this program, the state is paying off its debts. We chose 1991-2003 alumni, because it was supposed that the Soviet state took proper care of its alumni before 1991.”

Since 2003 the Department was able to find 320 alumnae, 295 out of which became beneficiaries of the project, designed to be completed in 2008. Since 2003 about 838 million drams (ABOUT $1,862,000) were spent on the health care, education, housing needs and legal assistance of the beneficiaries. In 2006 the budgeted sum is 350 million drams ($777,777). Since 2003, 99 apartments, 59 out of which are in Yerevan, have been bought throughout the country, based on the place of settlement of each beneficiary. 69 beneficiaries received specialized education or trainings, 8 out of which now study in higher state institutions and receive a pension.

“Being forsaken by one’s own parents is an unrecoverable stress for a child that is carried throughout his/her whole life, the questions is how to minimize it,” says Anahit Sahakyan, a psychologist at The Armenian Democratic Forum NGO. The Forum has been assigned the immediate project realization.

Sahakyan says many of their beneficiaries had difficulties conditioned by their psychological problems. “Forum” psychologists and social workers helped them overcome those problems.

Work with orphanage alumnae allowed “Forum” to conduct a serious research of orphanage children psychology, which will enable them to design new standards of education in orphanages.

Sahakyan hails the fact that since 2005 the state anticipates positions of a psychologist and a social worker at each of 8 state orphanages in Armenia.

Head of “Shoghakn” NGO Naira Petrosyan criticizes the state decision to take under protection orphanage alumnae starting 1991 only and ignore the ones of 1985-1990.

“The priority of the state program, at least, should have been those who had children,” Petrosyan says.

Petrosyan points out that hostel conditions are especially harsh for families with small children. Common kitchens and toilets are in dreadful conditions. Inhabitants cook food in their small rooms and bathe in public baths where tickets cost 700 drams (about $1.50). From Yerevan communities she gets limited number of free bathing tickets for hostel inhabitants. The NGO has been assisting hostel inhabitants in Yerevan with clothing, food packages, etc. This, however, does not solve their major problems. Among its beneficiaries are 52 orphanage alumnae and Petrosyan’s major desire is to raise money enough to build two 7-storey apartment-blocks able to house some 140 alumnae.

The Yerevan Mayoralty had agreed to allocate land for the construction in a Yerevan district, as soon as the NGO finds proper funds to start it – $5 million.

However, Petrosyan has little hopes to raise the sum using the methods she is familiar with – various benevolent concerts, marathons, or letters to rich locals. During the recent fund-raising, a spinning marathon organized in cooperation with Armenian Marriott Hotel, in assistance of Yerevan boarding school #4, they were able to raise 1,279,000 drams ($2,842).

“Can you think of people who had parents and who were able to buy apartments on their own money?” asks Petrosyan. “I am sure you will be able to mention few names. ‘Orphanage children’ had a difficult childhood, why they should be destined to lead a life hard as hell?”

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