The situation is overwhelming. The facilities are falling into disrepair. The staff members are few and not always qualified. The needs of the children are innumerable. The funds just aren’t there. These are some of the challenges that orphanages in Armenia are up against today.
Fifty percent of the population in Armenia lives in poverty and often people cannot care for their children due to financial reasons. The orphanages provide a safe residence for these children and their parents can visit them or take them on weekends. These children are what we call “social” orphans as they have at least one living parent who is unable or unwilling to take care or them. There are also “natural” orphans who do not have any parents.
This summer while I was in Armenia, I met many orphans—both natural and social—while visiting some of the orphanages around Yerevan. At home in Boston, I am a member of the Society for Orphaned Armenian Relief (SOAR), a 501 (c)(3) non-profit that provides humanitarian relief to orphanages in Armenia. In 2005, after observing the conditions of orphanages in Armenia while adopting their daughter, George Yacoubian, Jr. and his wife, Erica founded SOAR. According to Yacoubian, “SOAR’s mission is to distribute much-needed food, clothing, medicine, educational supplies, and other essential resources to orphanages throughout Armenia. The greatest challenges for the orphanages are providing for the long-term stability and successes of the children. Although the children receive basic material and educational support, most institutions fail to care for the emotional, spiritual, and psychological wellbeing of the children. As a result, the children are often ill-prepared for life after the orphanage. One of SOAR’s challenges going forward is providing support (e.g., tutoring) that will enable the orphaned children to become accomplished, educated, and self-supporting Armenian adults.”
SOAR has created a board of trustees in Philadelphia to assist with annual reviews, and the organization’s total distribution to Armenian orphanages in 2009 reached $111,508. Not too shabby for an organization founded four years earlier. Since its inception in 2005, SOAR has also added seven chapters, in Chicago, Los Angeles, New England, New York/New Jersey, northern California, Washington, D.C., and Yerevan. Yacoubian goes on to explain, “Some of our volunteers are parents of adopted Armenian children; others simply recognize the significance of our contribution and want to help perpetuate our mission. The bond that exists among our national and international volunteers is the recognition that orphaned children represent the most vulnerable population of Armenian society. We all work toward the betterment of the Armenian orphan population and look forward to expanding our efforts in the years to come.”
I became involved with SOAR after a visit to an Armenian orphanage in 2009, and while in Armenia this summer I made plans to meet with some of the orphanage directors to discuss their needs and problems. I had the pleasure of connecting with SOAR Yerevan volunteer Siranoush Hovhannissian, who is always busy assessing the needs of nine orphanages in Armenia. Hovhannissian had facilitated the adoption process for the Yacoubians as an interpreter five years ago and as soon as SOAR was born, the Yacoubians knew they wanted Hovhannissian to be a part of it.
Hovhannissian describes, “When the Yacoubians asked me to join [SOAR] as a volunteer, I agreed as I love children and always want them to have smiles on their faces.” Besides reviewing the orphanage’s needs, Hovhannissian acts as a liaison between the orphanages and SOAR’s national board, prepares financial reports, distributes donated items, organizes parties at the orphanages, and sets up meetings and accompanies SOAR members from the United States to various orphanages just like she did for me. Hovhannissian is a real gem and SOAR is so lucky to have her. In addition to all of the volunteer work she does for SOAR, she has a full-time job at a Yerevan hotel and takes care of her teenage son.
One orphanage that Hovhannissian and I visited is Kharberd, just outside of Yerevan in a village that the orphanage is named for. It stands out in particular because I not only met the children but also met many adults who depend on Kharberd. The orphanage cares for around 275 people ranging from toddlers to adults in their 30s who all have severe mental or physical disabilities. The law regarding orphans in Armenia states that once they turn 18, they must leave the orphanages and basically fend for themselves. Because of this law, most orphanages try to prepare teenagers for their independence by providing training in a field or craft. But Kharberd has a different situation because of the orphans’ severe disabilities. These orphans would never be able to take care of themselves independently and Kharberd director Harutyun Balasanyan has made sure that they remain under the orphanage’s care.
According to Balasanyan, “Kharberd is all that many of these handicapped children and adults have. It is their only chance for survival. How could we turn our backs on them?” I never got a chance to meet Balasanyan in person because he had taken some of the children on an outing to Lake Sevan on the day that I visited Kharberd. However, after visiting the orphanage, where Balasanyan devotes so much of his time and energy, I feel like I know the kind of person he is. He and his staff go above and beyond every day. They have one of the toughest jobs I have ever seen and they come to work with a smile and a can-do attitude despite the difficult circumstances. They will do whatever it takes to ensure the wellbeing of so many who are not able to take care of themselves.
While the Kharberd orphans are extremely needy, the condition of the facility is another huge problem. There are plumbing issues, leaking ceilings, crumbling walls, and loose floorboards. It seemed they were everywhere I turned. In addition to building renovations, there is a constant need for basic supplies and toiletries. While Kharberd receives government funding and aid from SOAR, it is not nearly enough to maintain a safe environment for the orphans or provide basic necessities for proper hygiene. And this is only one orphanage. There are similar situations at many if not all of the orphanages.
As mentioned, other issues that Armenian orphanages face are security and staffing. These problems are often linked and create a domino effect, as I observed at Mari Izmirlyan Orphanage. My first visit to Mari Izmirlyan was during the summer of 2009 and it was after this visit that I became involved with SOAR. I went back to Mari Izmirlyan this summer, and it was wonderful to see the how much the children had grown over the past year. It is very apparent that the teachers and staff are so caring and want what is best for the children there. Unfortunately, there are not enough employees and not enough funding to hire more qualified people. This also becomes a security issue because there are not enough personnel to watch over and protect the children. On top of all of this, the fence surrounding the facility is falling apart and it is very easy for intruders to enter. Earlier this year, the biological mother of one of the orphans came to visit but she ended up kidnapping her child. The parent has the right to visit the child at the orphanage but was not allowed to take the child off the premises. The mother is mentally ill and cannot properly care for her child, but was able to sneak out of the facility due to the lack of qualified security personnel and due to the disrepair of the fence. Luckily, the police found the mother and child, but only after a few days; by then, they were hundreds of miles from Mari Izmirlyan. Besides security and staffing issues, this example also presents the challenge of psychological trauma in the orphans. Many of the orphans come to the orphanages with psychological issues for a number of reasons, and they do not receive the services or help they need to deal with these problems, again because of the lack of qualified staff or even simply because the orphanage cannot provide regular transportation for the children to visit trained professionals. Then there are situations like the aforementioned kidnapping that cause even more psychological trauma.
Although the orphanages face a grim situation, they are trying to do the best with the few resources they have. One asset is the role of volunteer organizations such as Birthright Armenia and Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC). Orphanages often receive diasporan Armenian volunteers from these organizations, and these volunteers often bring skills and knowledge in various fields such as education, psychology, and healthcare. Ric Gazarian, who is originally from Boston and now resides in Chicago, volunteered at Zadik Orphanage through AVC. “The first time I volunteered at Zadik was in 2004. I spent four months there. With assistance from Armenian Volunteer Corps, I was placed at Zadik. I was inspired to volunteer in Armenia after my first visit that I took with my father in 2003. I met a volunteer during that trip and became interested in the concept. I do believe diasporan volunteers do make a difference. Volunteers make a contribution by building bonds and relationships with the children. Volunteers can also help the children by teaching art, English, or organizing games.”
Zadik director Ashot Mnatsakanyan also expresses his appreciation for the volunteers. “It makes me so happy that volunteers come here and want to help us. My hope is that they always return and maintain a connection to us at Zadik.” Mnatsakanyan’s wish has come true with Gazarian, who returns to Armenia every summer to host a festival for the children of Zadik complete with goodies from Grand Candy, a moon bounce, and other fun activities and treats.
While fun activities for the children are always on the agenda, Mnatsakanyan and his staff are still hard at work being proactive and trying to respond as best as possible to their challenges. One such challenge is the lack of government funding for children once they turn 18. Gazarian explains, “A big challenge for the ‘graduates’ of Zadik is when they turn 18. They are technically no longer supported by the government or by Zadik, but they still require a supportive ecosystem. They still need guidance and financial support. It is tremendously difficult for these children to be completely independent at this young age. Rainbow House attempts to fill this need. Rainbow House is a facility that is set up to support the recent female ‘graduates’ of Zadik. Twelve women over the age of 18 currently reside in Rainbow house today. Some of the girls who live there are attending university or working.” Zadik is helping these girls become independent young women in Armenia. Many of them have also received college scholarships through the Fund for Armenian Relief. The children of Zadik are also known for their beautiful artwork. They create stunning, one of a kind pieces including greeting cards, paintings, hand-painted scarves, and handbags. The girls from Rainbow House also work at the Teryan Cultural Center in Yerevan where they sell their artwork. It is inspiring to see these young women operating their business.
As overwhelming as the challenges are, the devotion of the orphanages’ staff shines through. They tackle each obstacle, always putting the needs of the orphans first. A small amount of assistance—whether it is service, resources, or supplies—can go a long way.
Secure donations can be made through the Society for Orphaned Armenian Relief at http://www.soar-us.org. For those who would rather make a donation of goods such as toiletries and hygiene products, SOAR is also able to ship all donated goods to Armenia. Local support can be given by attending one of the upcoming SOAR events in Glendale, Calif., Philadelphia, Pa., or Arlington, Mass. Refer to the Armenian Weekly’s Calendar of Events for further details. Any support Armenia’s orphanages receive will help diminish the problems they face each day.