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How an Army of Bears Is Saving a Town

In the town of Berd in northern Armenia’s Tavush province, a group of women knit little arms and legs, strawberry-shaped torsos, round heads, and half-moon ears and snouts. When all the pieces are stuffed and attached, plump little bears stare back and smile. These are the Berd Bears, a small army of cuddly pals that could change the lives of their creators.

When all the pieces are stuffed and attached, plump little bears stare back and smile. These are the Berd Bears, a small army of cuddly pals that could change the lives of their creators.

When Arkansas native John Hart moved to Berd as a Peace Corps volunteer two years ago, his mission was to help develop the information technology (IT) in the region. He began working at Berd IT, a small company with a handful of employees. His job description constituted fixing computers and teaching planning skills. As time went on, he veered towards working with women’s and youth centers. Upon his return from the women’s centers in Gapan, Meghri, and Goris, he approached his co-worker, Anahit Badalyan, with an idea. “I said, I think perhaps instead of trying to do women’s projects under an IT banner, maybe we should start our own, Berd’s women’s organization—our own women’s resource center,” he told me. Within around three months, in February 2011, the Berd Women’s Resource Center Foundation (BWRCF) was established.

Around this time, Hart met Timothy Straight, honorary consul of Finland and Norway, and the founder of Homeland Handicrafts, an organization that supports job creation in rural Armenia, especially for women. Hart had a plan. “Unlike the other women’s centers that were using Homeland Handicrafts projects to develop funds, we were thinking of using it to develop membership,” Hart explained.

In March 2011, Straight visited Berd, and met with the two-dozen or so women who had assembled at a local school. The women sat around a stove at the center of a cold classroom. They showcased an array of intricately made crafts, from embroideries to tablecloths to carpets. The knitted bear, however, made by a woman named Seta, caught Straight’s eye. “I distinctly remember saying, ‘All of you, one year from now, will be doing something related to the teddy bear,’” he recalled, as Hart and I sat in a Yerevan café, surrounded by Berd Bears Straight had brought along.

Bear necessities

Berd is a mere nine kilometers away from the Azerbaijani border. The town was once a regional center, with a population between 12,000 and 14,000. Today that number has been slashed roughly in half. “The conflict came; the border closed; all trade stopped; and the jobs disappeared,” said Straight. “The choice basically is: become a hired soldier at the border and be shot at for $400 a month, or emigrate to Russia.”

Women have even fewer choices. They are primarily mothers and wives. Some are teachers, post office workers, or nurses. Most, however, are unemployed.

Tapping into their knitting skills made sense in a number of ways. First, the budget to teach them new skills was lacking. Secondly, knitting allowed the women to work at home. It adapted to their lifestyle.

Tapping into their knitting skills made sense in a number of ways. First, the budget to teach them new skills was lacking. Secondly, knitting allowed the women to work at home. It adapted to their lifestyle.

Hart realized the impact the bears were having on the women when one of the knitters pulled him aside one day and said, “I used to sit at home, wondering how I was going to pay for my kid’s medicine. Now, I sit at home and knit to pay for his medicine.”

Knitting teddy bears was first introduced 10 years earlier as a communal pastime by Sister Hannah, a German missionary nun, now 80, whose work with Armenians began in her youth in Anjar, Lebanon. The Berd women would knit during their get-togethers. After Sister Hannah left, the women continued making the teddy bears. “We went from 3 people making those bears for each other to 30 employed women today. And we have another 30-40 waiting to be employed if we can expand the sales of the bears,” said Straight, who added that within the past year, up to 400 Berd Bears were sold.

Hoping for job security

“Tim, is this project going to continue?” the women occasionally ask.

“They don’t believe that it will continue,” Straight said. “They don’t believe that it’s something permanent, that it’s something that will provide an income through time. They worry about this disappearing because everything else in their grown-up lives has: the Soviet Union disappeared; their jobs disappeared; many of their houses disappeared—in the villages at least.” Straight feels the pressure to provide them with a sense of permanence, but he is also realistic. “We can’t know that we are going to be able to sell another 500 or 1,000 teddy bears in the next three months,” he said.

However, Straight is doing his best to secure orders. Almost two months ago, Berd Bears was launched on Kickstarter, a crowd funding website, by the initiative of New Jersey resident Laura Bilazarian. Within the first 24 hours of being on the site, they had already sold $5,000 worth of Berd Bear products. By June 26, with only a few days remaining on the site, they had passed the $11,000 mark. The prices start at $55, which includes overseas shipping, and go up to $100 plus, for a design-it-yourself bear. “We’ve done a Chicago Bears uniform, bears wearing different uniforms, national costumes, and flags,” noted Straight.

“You need to believe in the story behind this teddy bear,” he continued, pointing at one of the teddy bears displayed on the table. “It is an excellent teddy bear. It is a high-quality teddy bear, but the maker is what makes this teddy bear special. It’s an amazing story, about an amazing group of women, and the series of coincidences that led people to Berd…”

“It is an excellent teddy bear. It is a high-quality teddy bear, but the maker is what makes this teddy bear special.

About half of the profits go to the knitters, who get paid 440 drams an hour, or $160 a month if they work full-time, which—in Straight’s words—“in a village in Armenia today, is quite a decent salary.” Around 15 percent of the profit supports BWRCF projects, such as reproductive health and domestic violence awareness. A percentage covers raw materials, including the imported joints and eyes that meet safety standards.

Straight envisions a contract with an upscale toy store in the U.S., with a steady flow of orders. “This is not about sympathy, this is not about feeling sorry for these women, or feeling sorry for Armenia,” he said, adding that his purpose is to empower the Berd women. “If an upscale toy store in the U.S. were to latch on to this and make it a permanent thing, and order 1,000 bears every three months, that’s when my job is done. It’s all for the women, so that they can go and have a happy life. I would really like them to have their own customers in Australia, Europe, and the U.S.”

From stuffed teddy bear to a TV show

Straight’s efforts to popularize the bears took on a new form when he approached his friend and animator Vrej Kassouny. “We have environmental issues in Armenia, and we have job creation issues—can’t we just combine those somehow? Can you make an animated television series that has these teddy bears as the heroes of this television show?” he remembers asking Kassouny.

“Nobody is doing environmental education on Armenian television. There’s very little of it in the schools,” added Straight. For him, it was a win-win situation: Kassouny’s show would provide environmental education to children; the show’s characters (the Berd Bears) would become popular; and the Berd women would be employed.

Kassouny agreed. He created the characters of Archo and Arsho, two bears; Gargar the crow; Meghou the honeybee; and Titer the butterfly. Now the phase of finding funding for the show’s production is being strategized. There already have been interested parties in Russia, France, and the Middle East. If all goes according to plan, the Berd women will have a lot on their plate—in a good way.

“We will need to start making these bears, and the honeybee, and the butterfly, and exporting them to those countries. It’s going to be dizzying for the women in Berd,” smiled Straight.
To learn more about the Berd Bears visit them at www.BerdBears.com or support them on Kickstarter. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/525757888/berd-bears-old-world-meets-new (they will be featured on Kickstarter until July 1, 2012). 

 

9 Comments on How an Army of Bears Is Saving a Town

  1. This is great news! We love to hear about such positive progress! Thanks!!

  2. What a fantastic and uplifting story. Nanore… just a great job in bringing these types of human interest stories of hope. This is what it’s all about when we talk about building Armenia… creating hope, creating jobs and creating a sense of self worth. This story should be circulated widely and Armenians with distribution and toy/gift industry influence need to help get this to the next level. The best investments in Armenia are the ones help our people to realize their capability.

  3. avatar Mike Mirakian // June 27, 2012 at 3:32 pm // Reply

    Delightful story! It just goes to show how a little bit of imagination and creativity can go a long way to improve the lives of many. So why haven’t we seen any of these bears at ALL of our church bazaars?

  4. avatar Sylva-MD-Poetry // June 28, 2012 at 3:10 am // Reply

    Very nice Nanore…You made us happy …Let us forget few months our unhealable pains…Let us enjoy your article and our Bears…
    Armenian hand made them…

    See many types of Bears …
    Armenian… Scottish…Italian…American… Scandinavian…Canadian
    from each place…But Armenian hand made…
    Why not Arabian to sell to Arab countries…!
    But never Turkish
    One Turkish bear will eat all the bears…!
    Let them sell it in the Armenian airports…

    Sylva

    What is the stamp of the company…!!!
    “Araratian” Bears not Agri

  5. Thank you so much for the article, Nanore! And to Mike Mirakian (and everyone else), we would LOVE to provide Berd Bears to be sold at church bazaars around the world, or at the airport, or any other places with an appreciation for this wonderful craft. Please contact us and we’d be happy to discuss any possibilities. Email: caroline@berdbears.com

  6. avatar Eva Medzorian // June 28, 2012 at 9:14 am // Reply

    Having just returned from Armenia working on humanitarian projects which took me too Berd, Chinari, and Artsvaber which are neighboring villages. I was introduced to the Berd Bears, met their director and was thrilled to see their excellent accomplishments. The bears are truly adorable and have such a beautiful story that goes with each bear. I wish that this could spread to the other nearby villages who need something like this too. Congratulations to everyone involved to make this become a reality. Bravo Bears and the women in these villages who are the real hero’s sticking it out under the very difficult conditions which they are living under daily.

  7. avatar Sylva-MD- Poetry // June 28, 2012 at 10:40 am // Reply

    Please write your ideas to this factory…
    Every parents and grandparents wants to buy such a toy…

    I had a Lion with the same knitting and colors…
    Six decades ago
    My mother knitted…I have a photo with it …
    The knitting can easily tear…
    So you must find something to protect the hard work…
    or cover with special material to protect…
    I have another idea to make toys according the birth month of the child…
    Like my mother did for me…”A Lion…”

    Lion will look beautiful…
    Gives power and courage to the child…

    Sylva

  8. The Berd Bears vision must be one of most inspiring self-help initiatives that has emerged from Armenia. A great start. It does have tremendous potential. Compliments and more power to all concerned.

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