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An Armenian organization is trying to step in where state support programs for the integration of orphans fall short. From JAMnews.by Gayane Mkrtchyan 1 June 2018
The kitchen in the two-story building fills with a tempting coffee aroma as the brew is poured into snow-white cups. Young ladies gather in a corner to discuss the latest news, and talk about their lives and future plans over a cup.
All of them lived their entire lives in orphanages in different parts of Armenia. Then, when they turned 18, they had to take their possessions and leave.
“Many of us had absolutely no place to go; we would have had to go live on the street,” says Margarita Grigoryan, 25, who has resided at the Our Home organization for over four years. She came from an orphanage in Gavar, a town in eastern Armenia.
The organization has been trying for many years to help the girls who have had to leave orphanages. They can live in a house in the city of Echmiadzin, 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Yerevan, while studying or looking for a job – until they start their lives, in other words.
“It’s a perfect opportunity, offering us temporary housing and a chance to get some education. We are also taught housekeeping skills that will come in handy when we have our own families,” says Margarita.
Armenian orphans have to leave the institutions at the age of 18. Once they enter adulthood, they face many problems and hardships, the main one – housing. Many literally find themselves on the streets.
Between 1991 and 2012, 498 young adults left the country’s orphanages, and, out of them, 193 received free accommodation. Up until February 2016, another 217 orphans were provided with so-called social housing.
This housing is rather a continuation of life in an orphanage. The difference is that utilities are covered by orphanages and donors, while the residents have to buy food and clothes themselves and live as one family. Those who are employed help the others.
A mentor also lives with them, helping create a transitional stage between an orphanage and independent living.
In 2009, the Chamber of Control, an independent auditing agency of the Armenian government, looked into this provisional housing for orphans and revealed some startling deficiencies. The living conditions in most of the apartments (149 apartments in total, purchased before 2008) left much to be desired. At least 28 flats were unfit for living, and the young people had thus rejected them.
“Those large-scale irregularities deprived children of a chance to live a normal life,” Ishkhan Zakaryan, the chairman of the Chamber of Control, said in parliament at the time. According to him, a total of 1.5 billion dram (approximately $3.1 million) had been squandered.
Orphans can also wait many years for their turn to receive housing. Until then, many of them live in hostels or in social houses. Those with good earnings rent their own places.
By comparison, the Our Home organization looks like a good opportunity for these young women.
Before they move here, they conclude a contract with the organization’s administration, stipulating the two parties’ rights and commitments. Those willing to get an education and enroll in higher education institutions receive priority.
The girls vow to “behave decently, observe the organization’s internal rules and code of conduct, as well as to respect a schedule.” The organization, in turn, is committed to providing them with the essentials.
Our Home was set up in 2005 and received its first occupants in 2006.
The program was sponsored by Julia Arshekyan, an American benefactor of Armenian descent. After she died, her son continued her endeavors. Consequently, the organization’s head office is located in the United States.
“They are supported by the state until they turn 18. But where are they supposed to go after 18? What are they to do, what fate awaits them?” says Tigranuhi Karapetyan, the head of the organization. “It was painful to see our girls from the orphanages choosing the wrong path – one that was on a slippery slope. I saw that many of them dreamed of an education.”
She says that at first they had the idea to set up a separate branch for boys.
“But then we realized that the expenses would have been higher than what we could actually afford,” says Karapetyan.
Since it opened, 63 girls have found shelter in the Our Home organization, and 19 of them have gotten married while living there. The latter have already “rewarded” the organization with as many as 26 grandchildren. Karapetyan says that, when she was setting up the organization, she never thought that anyone would ever come to ask for one of the inhabitant’s hand in marriage.
“It was a big challenge for us, but we have overcome that, too. Our girls have managed to break stereotype that orphans can’t become good wives, daughters-in-law, and mothers. Due to those marriages people now think more highly of us,” says Tigranuhi.
Adjusting to Life Outside
Ani Tsarukyan, 28, has been living in an orphanage since the age of six, and after that she went to Our Home. She has been married for four years already.
In her words, she was scared at first that her orphan childhood would be a source of reproaches, but her husband’s family has never touched upon that issue.
“It’s unusual to find yourself in a new environment, among new people, but you get used to it quickly if you are treated well. At first they were against our marriage, but then they met me and gave their consent to it. My husband, Hayk, had told them: ‘Whether you like it or not, it’s my final choice – I’ve chosen her.’ ”
Ani Arakelyan, 32, who also came to Our Home from an orphanage in Gavar, got married a year ago.
“I’m sure I will never be like my father or my mother. There were cases when our girls were criticized for being orphans. If they don’t like it, they shouldn’t marry them, but once they marry such girls, they should not reproach them,” says Ani.
After growing up in orphanages for various reasons, these young women appreciate their new families. For them, the notion of family is of great value.
“They come to visit us with their babies or while pregnant, it’s very touching,” Tigranui says. “They often share [their feelings] with us, saying they do not understand how their mothers could have abandoned them when they were about the same age as their children [now].”
Lena Petrosyan is 21 and had lived in different orphanages as far back as she can remember. She returned to her mother after she had stayed in the 18th one, but later she went back to an orphanage again.
“I left of my own free will, since I had no future there. I didn’t want such a life. I had been living in the orphanage since childhood and that’s probably the reason why my mom and I couldn’t understand each other. What brought me here was a great desire to get an education. Now I’m studying to become a nurse,” says Lena.
As Karapetyan noted, they are planning to implement some business programs, so that their mentees could work in their organization.
“We give them an education, but if they fail to find a job, then what are they supposed to do? Should they wait for marriage?” says Karapetyan. “I wish they could work and understand the importance of it. We are planning to start up a business. Our girls are good at everything, be it cooking or carpet-weaving, and they even have foreign-language skills.”
Margarita Grigoryan says that she is an example of the fact that dreams can come true. During the four years she spent at Our Home, she attended and then graduated from the faculty of cultural studies at Yerevan State University and then took a tourism course. She is looking for a job now. Her sisters, Arpine and Marietta, also came here recently from an orphanage in Vanadzor, a city in northern Armenia.
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