Back Home Again
Children’s centers are replacing orphanages and institutions in Armenia, and helping to get children back in the classroom. [Also in Russian.] by Sara Khojoyan 10 May 2006
GYUMRI, Armenia | Every day a sister and brother walk through the bustle of reconstruction in Gyumri, the main city in Armenia’s northwestern Shirak region, the poorest in Armenia with a poverty rate of nearly 50 percent.
After school, 15-year-old Parandzem and 10-year-old Levon come to town from the nearby village of Akhourian and head to the Center for Community Development and Social Support to do their homework, draw, or watch television.
Like most children, Levon plays, runs around, or even brags about the progress he’s making in his lessons. Seeing how diligently this cheerful little boy does his homework, it’s difficult to believe that he would never have gone to school but for this center.
“Levon used to go begging. … His father wouldn’t let him attend school. Our psychologist worked with the father for two months. After a lot of effort we finally managed to persuade him,” says Geghanush Gyunashyan, the center’s director. “When Levon came out dressed in his tidy school uniform to go to school for the first time, his father got very emotional.”
Photo by Sergey Fidanyan
At the age of 12, Parandzem started school with her brother. “Levon and I are in the fourth grade now. Studying with the little kids doesn’t bother me; instead, I can read and write now,” she says proudly.
There are five children in their family, but only Parandzem and Levon are old enough for school. “They helped two of my children to go to school, at least, and that’s good,” their mother, Alisa Grigoryan, says gratefully.
The Center for Community Development and Social Support in Gyumri, founded by UNICEF in 2001, has already helped 150 children considered “high risk,” with 45 of them currently under the center’s care.
Gyumri, a major industrial city of more than 200,000 people in Soviet times, was heavily damaged by the December 1988 earthquake that killed an estimated 25,000 people. Scars from the earthquake are evident today despite international aid for reconstruction. Efforts to rebuild the economy and provide jobs and opportunity have been slow.
“A family’s extreme poverty, parents’ unemployment, a child not attending school, begging – all these are criteria for being listed in the high-risk group,” Gyunashyan says. Today in Armenia, there are about 1,300 children in state and private orphanages, although about 60 percent are not orphans. In addition, more than 10,000 children attend special schools, about 40 percent of whom are boarders.
"For a country as small as Armenia, the number of children in orphanages is very big,” says Naira Avetisyan, manager of UNICEF’s Children's Rights Protection Project in Armenia. “And for a long time, the government, instead of helping poor families so that they wouldn’t send their children to orphanages, encouraged such institutions.”
Government policy has changed, but parents still need more options. “Parents prefer taking their children to orphanages because conditions are better there than in their own homes. We tried to find an alternative,” Avetisyan says.
That’s where the community centers come in.
UNICEF supports nine such centers in Armenia, addressing slightly different needs.
In Vanadzor and Alaverdi, in the north, the centers help children who, for various reasons, are not in school and who have family problems, such as parents who do not pay attention to their children’s studies or keep track of their school attendance.
Four centers operate in the northeast region of Tavush – in Berd, Ijevan, Dilijan, and Noyemberyan. The one in Dilijan is among the first centers founded by UNICEF, in 2002. There, disabled children have an opportunity to socialize with their peers who do not have disabilities.
“If a child hasn’t started school at the correct age, they do their best in the center to help him overcome that psychological barrier. A child is provided with elementary knowledge as well as skills to help him eventually enter school. Younger children receive help with getting ready for school because there is no preschool institution for children with disabilities. This way it’s easier to start attending school,” Avetisyan says.
The Tavush centers offer physical and psychological therapy, and social and legal aid to disabled children as well as disability pension registration. And, most importantly, it tries to integrate disabled children into society at an early age and raise awareness of the problems that disabled children face.
With UNICEF’s support, centers were opened in 2005 in the southern town of Masis and in the Avan community in the capital city of Yerevan. In Masis most children in the center have serious disabilities and were not given the opportunity to attend school. They are taught skills, such as weaving or embroidery, that might help them contribute eventually to their families’ incomes. The center in Avan houses younger children with disabilities, mainly ages 3 to 6.
“These are not called day-care centers because many people associate those with care only. The centers encourage the idea of a child staying with his or her family. At the same time parents are provided with basic instructions on upbringing, care, and rights,” Avetisyan says.
A GROWING NEED …
After the earthquake of 1988, the number of at-risk children rose considerably, according to Diana Martirosova, a specialist at the National Statistics Service. “Today it’s children who suffer from poverty most,” she says.
Back in Gyumri, one of those children is green-eyed Hovhannes, who writes a greeting card to his late mother. “Dear Mother, I want you to be happy. I hope that you never get sick or leave me alone: In a word, I congratulate you on 8 March,” International Women’s Day.
Hovhannes’ father left the family when his mother was still alive. After she died, his only caregivers were a grandmother and the center’s workers.
“I like drawing most,” Hovhannes says. He draws what he misses in real life – a fairytale, three-story castle, painted in red and orange, with open windows. A spruce stands next to the castle, with the two peaks of Mt. Ararat, Sis and Masis, in the background.
Sometimes it’s the parents who must be helped before the children can be. Fair-haired Gohar is in the second grade, though she should be in the third: Her mother kept her out of school for a year so she could beg. It took the center’s workers a year to convince the mother to let Gohar attend school. The center helped her mother register for her state allowance and find seasonal employment, and Gohar was sent to school. “Today Gohar reads a lesson right after the teacher,” says Gayane Sahakyan, a social worker at the center.
Apart from doing lessons and drawing, children here learn to weave tapestries and work with computers.
Artyom is an Adobe Photoshop fan and has combined a photo of himself with those of his favorite car and his favorite actress, Angelina Jolie. He was taught the skills by a student volunteer from the Gyumri campus of the Yerevan State Academy of Arts.
“We have 15 to 20 volunteers, as a rule,” says director Gyunashyan. “But we have fewer paid employees: two psychologists, two sociologists, two tutors, a doctor, and a lawyer."
Artavazd has been in the center since the summer of 2005. He quickly became one of the best pupils in the weaving club and a favorite of Marine Avetisyan, the teacher.
“It’s especially boys who like weaving,” Avetisyan says. “We weave three days a week, four hours every time. The purpose, however, is not to make them masters but merely to distract them, make them forget their family’s concerns, as well as those put on their weak little shoulders.”
The center’s administrators have worries of their own. Gyunashyan’s first concern is the lack of a permanent home. “We’ve been renting this damp two-story house for $800 a month. It would be great to get some support for building a new house for the center,” she says.
Food is another concern. The center gets only 150 drams (U.S. 34 cents) to feed each child per day. “We’re thankful to the German Red Cross, who allocates that money, but it’s way too little,” she says.
UNICEF’s Naira Avetisyan says, “Such centers are highly effective. In the Tavush region, for example, where the centers provide services to disabled children and encourage them to live at home, very few children are sent to orphanages. The same is true in Gyumri: If it hadn’t been for the center, most [of the] children would have been in orphanages a long time ago.”
Gyunashyan estimates that her center is 60 percent to 70 percent effective; only four children have been sent to orphanages in the past four years. “But we’ve managed to withdraw Andranik from there, and taken little Siranoush’s case to court,” she says, recounting the stories of these four children one by one.
… AN AMBITIOUS PLAN
What UNICEF has started, the Armenian government plans to expand, with 25 such centers slated to open in the next 10 years, according to Avetisyan.
Filaret Berikyan, Armenia's deputy minister of labor and social affairs, says serious reforms are under way in the area of children’s rights and the government is anxious to redirect needy children from orphanages and institutions into community centers and foster families.
“Unlike in the times of the Soviet Union, when orphanages and other similar institutions were built for these children, now [the solutions] are family-based. Human history has proven that the best place for children to grow up is with their family,” Berikyan says.
The first two government centers are being established under a pilot program of reform in children’s care supported by Japan’s Social Development Fund.
One of the centers, in the Ajapnyak district of Yerevan, opened in November while still under construction. Through March, staff there compiled a database of more than 300 children who fall into the high-risk category.
“We’ve been working with the first hundred children on the list,” says center director Seda Ghaltaghchyan.
As in UNICEF’S Gyumri center, here a team consisting of a social worker, a psychologist, a tutor, and a doctor and lawyer, if necessary, works with each child. The center has 20 employees and is guided by a governing council that meets monthly.
“We make headway every month and children are removed from the high-risk list. Sometimes 19 children of the 100 are withdrawn, sometimes 20 are, and sometimes none are. We keep updating the list,” Ghaltaghchyan says.
The state budget allocates 500 drams for a child’s food each day, and 2,100 for other expenses. The center gets around 8 million drams a month, or $18,000.
The center in Gyumri, which performs more functions than that in Ajapnyak, gets about $15,000 to $20,000 a month, Avetisyan says.
The second state-financed center will also be in Gyumri, where construction is almost complete. A director will be chosen at the end of May and the center will open in June.
Seeing Hovhannes and Gohar on their way to school in the morning, few would suspect that these two children, neatly dressed in black and white, are in the high-risk group. With help of the day-care center in Gyumri, today they are pupils instead of beggars.