HARTFORD, Conn. (A.W.)—It is a warm, calm Sunday afternoon, the kind that makes you want to doze off in your backyard hammock. It is coffee hour in the basement of St. George’s Armenian Church in Hartford. Sitting at a table is Julie Ashekian, the founder of “Mer Doon” (“Our Home”), an organization that lends a brighter future for aged-out (18-22) female orphans in Armenia. Sipping on her Armenian coffee, Ashekian reflects back on her work with the Mer Doon girls or, as she calls them, her “children.”
Ashekian has been involved in charity work in Armenia for most of her life. Yet it was after the 1988 earthquake in Gyumri that left behind thousands of orphans that she became the national coordinator of the Children of Armenia Sponsorship Program (CASP)—a position she held for the following 10 years. In 2006, she founded Mer Doon with Tigranoohi Karapetian, who lives there with the girls.
“Our mission is to provide these girls with the means to become normal, productive members of society. We do this through teaching them independence, surrounding them with a stable social environment, and in making sure they get an education,” says Ashekian. Their daily routine is regimented, but they are allowed free time to cook, sew, or engage in other domestic activities that they enjoy.
“In the summertime, when they’re not in school, is when we need to plan activities,” Ashekian continues. “There are a lot of guests in the summer because of tourists, and the girls love to mingle and perform for them. It’s really strict, with 24/7 supervision.”
As expected, dating in the home can get a little difficult. If a man chooses to go on a date with a girl from the home, he must first receive permission from Karapetian. He and his parents have to be introduced, and approved, and the girl must really like—even love—the man prior to any relationship. “We are really protective of our girls because of their fragile backgrounds. We don’t want them to be taken in and used as housecleaners for the in-laws,” says Ashekian.
Furthermore, she aims to change the reputation of orphans in Armenia. “They were like outcasts before this organization. Now because the reputation of Mer Doon is so good, we get calls from parents that want to come for their sons… This is not a store where you go and try on shoes and pick which one you want to buy. You really have to love the person… The girls that have been married have wonderful in-laws, and they still come and visit Mer Doon. They bring their babies!”
Mer Doon has become their home. Ashekian and Karapetian decided to have the home in Etchmiadzin because they thought Yerevan was too glitzy and fast-paced. “We wanted them to have a more intimate support system, to be in walking distance of everything on a regular street, and mix with the older people. They have become a part of the neighborhood, and the neighborhood has become a part of Mer Doon,” explains Ashekian.
The mayor of Etchmiadzin, Karen Grigoryan, has been very supportive of the organization, and encourages the girls to take part in major town-wide events, says Ashekian. One such event is the annual Christmas decorating competition; Mer Doon has taken first place there for the past four years.
Another political figure that has shown her support for the home is Rita Sarkisian, the current first lady of Armenia. In fact, Sarkisian has met with the ladies at Mer Doon so often that she has become a de facto ambassador for the organization, notes Ashekian.
This year, Artur Grigoryan, Armenia’s minister of labor and social affairs, presented Karapetian with a medal; Ashekian was awarded the same medal a year prior. Grigoryan told her that Mer Doon is proof-positive about what can be done when people are serious about helping others in need, and that the program should stand as an example for his own ministry.
Although the Armenian government is in favor of this program and its mission, it does not contribute financially to its success. To raise funds, Ashekian and the rest of the U.S. board try to collect donations from the United States all year, to keep up with the growing expenses of maintaining the program. “People ask why we only have 14 girls. But that’s all we can afford. We are operating on such a minimal budget—everything on $5,000 a month! What we need is a harousd [rich] benefactor,” she chuckles.
Several churches and organizations have donated to Mer Doon. Last summer, a group of visitors to Armenia came back and threw a fundraiser in their home in Burlington, Mass. In November, they will be fundraising again at a dance in St. James’ Armenian Church in Watertown. “We wanted to do a walkathon, but that takes time, it’s not easy. We’re small apples over here, in Connecticut, so we’re very appreciative of people who want to have a fundraiser or cocktail party—of those who talk about the program and spread its message to others.”
Ashekian’s devotion to these girls and this program is heartfelt. There is passion in her voice, and also frustration at her inability to do more. “I can never live without doing something for Armenia,” she articulates. “I come from a very hayaser [patriotic] family.” (It’s true. Her father named her sister “Hayasdan.” Ashekian’s reaction? “Dad, why didn’t you give me that name!”)
When asked what she considers to be her biggest contribution to these young women’s lives, she thinks for a moment, then says, “The most important lesson that I want them to learn is to discover their self-worth. They know now that they’ve been given the chance at a good life, and they realize that they can return that in different ways. They can give back to their community and to their country in their own ways.”
To learn more, or to make a donation, visit www.mer-doon.com. Tax-deductible checks may be made to Our Home-Mer Doon, Inc., c/o 84 Ellsworth Blvd., Kensington, CT 06037-2728.