Ms. Barsoumian’s article, “Ending the Era of Orphanages in Armenia,” offers a curious alternative—foster care—to managing the orphaned population in Armenia. While the idea of foster care is beneficial in theory, there is no empirical evidence to suggest that foster care in Armenia would provide any advantages over the current orphanage system. Moreover, the short- and long-term problems are so potentially crippling that the foster care proposal does not even merit serious discussion.
To begin, orphanages in Armenia are not part of some bygone “era.” The significance of orphanages in Armenia trace back to the 1915 Armenian Genocide, where hundreds of thousands of children found peace and security in these safe havens. During the genocide, a large “Orphan City” was established in Alexandrapol (the name of Gyumri at the time), playing a key role in rescuing a generation of children who later contributed to the rebuilding of Armenia during the Soviet period. When the 1988 earthquake destroyed the same city, orphanages again became the means to rescue Armenian children who had been left without a home and parents. The historical and emotional significance of orphanages in modern Armenia, therefore, spans nearly a century.
The problems associated with implementing a foster care system include, but are not limited to, the stigma in Armenia of raising children that are not your own family; poor governmental oversight; economic instability; few placement alternatives should a foster care family choose to relinquish its responsibilities; the emotional trauma associated with movement from orphanages and between foster homes; and the potential circumvention of international laws that protect human trafficking and other crimes against children.
There are currently 16 facilities in Armenia that house orphaned children. Are they perfect institutions? No nationally run system that relies on minimal financial support from the government could possibly address, to absolute perfection, every possible concern of children whose parents are unable or willing to care for them. But, tales of abuse and other malfeasance by orphanage officials are broad generalizations made by self-serving zealots. Ms. Barsoumian’s article fails to highlight, for example, the exemplary work of Sr. Arousiag Sajonian at the Our Lady of Armenia Center in Gyumri, a private facility that houses approximately 80 orphaned children. The center, founded by the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception after the earthquake, has been a Godsend (literally and figuratively) to thousands of Armenian children during the past 25 years.
The solution is not “ending the orphanage era,” but rather expanding the current orphan system to allocate resources for more intensive supervision of the existing facilities and the establishment of housing that facilitates the transition from orphanage adolescence to adulthood. The support for such an endeavor must come not only from the national government (as a way of inspiring young adults and encouraging them to remain in Armenia for school and work), but also from the global diaspora. There are Armenian humanitarian organizations that can help launch and facilitate such a long-term plan. In 2006, the Society for Orphaned Armenian Relief (SOAR) (www.soar-us.org) was created to provide humanitarian relief to orphaned children in Armenia. Today, SOAR has 23 chapters worldwide and has expanded its mission to orphaned Armenian children throughout the world, including Javakhk, Nagorno-Karabagh, and Lebanon. Since its inception, SOAR has provided more than $750,000 in humanitarian assistance to the orphaned Armenian population, with mechanisms designed to assist the children’s short- and long-term needs. Within the past year, for example, SOAR has funded the construction and furnishing of computer labs in 12 orphanages, stressing the need for academic development. In addition, SOAR’s Child Sponsorship Program provides child-specific funds for tuition (or a savings account for future tuition), educational books and supplies, musical tutoring, medical care, and other items for the child’s personal growth.
SOAR not only assists with short-term needs, but also helps to prepare the children for life post-orphanage. The development of transitional housing is critical to this continuum of care. Such housing would ideally be a private facility where adolescents could transition from orphanage life to full-time school and/or employment. Whether such a facility comes to fruition depends on the generosity of those who realize that orphaned children represent the most vulnerable population of Armenian society.
Advocates of a foster-care approach are reflexively advocating for such a system in reaction to the hysterical rants of people who are unfamiliar with the successes that have emerged from Armenia’s orphanages. Pointing to isolated incidents as grounds for dissolving a historically successful and important institution is dangerous. A more careful approach is warranted, grounded in objective evidence, to best identify a system that will provide orphaned Armenian children with those advantages to which they are entitled.
George S. Yacoubian, Jr., Ph.D., LL.M.
National SOAR President