Kamo is one of eight founding members, all disabled, of Equal Rights, Equal Opportunities, an NGO based in Vanadzor. He walks with difficulty, using a walker on wheels, from the main street of the largest city in Lori province down a pot-holed alley to the back of a building.
At the first entrance, he parks his walker at the bottom of a ten-step stairway. Two members of EREO who are also disabled, but physically able to walk up stairs, come down to help him up and into their first floor office. No independence there.
Yet this entire scene transpires with smiles and jokes. The mood is light and cheery, though it could have been solemn and sad.
These types of scenarios characterize the work done by Equal Rights, Equal Opportunities, or EREO for short, which works to improve the situation for persons with disabilities. They aspire to improve visibility and public access for those with with mobility hindrances, as well as help find or create jobs for their members; their job, as a result, is not nine to five, but round the clock.
Anush Aslanyan is EREO’s president, a young woman with an iron will. The organization has 12 disabled members, a gaggle of volunteers and dozens of beneficiaries. Their disabilities include multiple sclerosis, hearing impairment and visual impairment.
Asked what the biggest challenges facing disabled persons in Vanadzor are, she says firstly, it is that they need to get out of their homes and have a place to socialize; a place where they will be accepted as they are. Secondly, they need a professional education. Many have not completed their education, being mostly isolated in society. And of course, there is always the need for jobs, which are difficult to find in Vanadzor for most people, disabled or not. So one can imagine that, for a disabled person, it is next to impossible.
EREO works out of an office that is 36 square meters, ten steps above street level. Crammed into that small space are sewing machines, with each their table, a corner area with a computer, an embroidery machine and a hot press printer. Another table along the back wall displays the products they make and sell to support themselves – bags, coffee mugs (which, for the sake of full disclosure, are produced for an organization I run, called Homeland Development Initiative Foundation) and other gift items.
These products are an effort to provide an income to the disabled artisans who make them and also to EREO itself. Paying the rent for the office is always a struggle. Anush has put her desk in a corner of the tiny kitchen. This is the fourth office they have had in their four years of existence. After being bounced from one to the other, this was the best they could do.
But perhaps most challenging is the fact that a wheelchair cannot move around the office. Neither can a walker. Those must be left at the bottom of the staircase, and if no able-bodied person is available to help them up the steps, they wait. Kamo waited half an hour the other day to get upstairs, as no volunteer happened to be in the office to help him up.
Despite the challenges, Anush is determined. “I can’t stand a disabled person who plays the victim,” she says. “We are what we are, and we have to work with what we have and are.” She brings out the best in everyone in the office, be it staff, volunteers, members, beneficiaries. And she does it with laughter in her voice.
“Don’t focus on me, focus on them,” she says with a big smile. It’s hard, her personality is contagious; her determination, evident.
Anush wrote to me last week. She said that the owner of that cramped, little apartment had sold it. She and her colleagues must vacate by September 15. I posted this piece of news on Facebook. I could not have imagined what come of such a seemingly simple gesture. My post somehow reached someone I had never met in Florida, who was moved to spontaneously start a GoFundMe campaign in order to collect funds and buy EREO a permanent: their first ground floor, zero steps office space. Asked why he got engaged, Shahe said that he had stumbled over my post about the eviction, saw a comment by someone saying ‘why don’t we start a crowdfunding campaign,’ and just decided to take action.
The campaign, which launched August 8th, is off and flying. Contributions are coming in from around the world. Anush herself went door to door in Vanadzor to collect small amounts of money, and contributed them: $157. Asked why, she said, “Because we need to show those who support us that we are able to help ourselves. We want to show the donors that we are serious about getting a new, permanent home for EREO.”
The plan is to secure a new first floor office space that has a garden patch for gatherings; a wheelchair-accessible ramp, toilet and kitchen; and a space for craft production, offices, private consultations.
If they succeed, Arman will have space for his graphic work on the computer and embroidery machine. Aren will have room to properly set up his hot press machine. Shushanik and Mariam will not have to dismantle the sewing machine each day to make space for other activities. Hovhannes and Astgh will have space to do their exquisite illustration paintings which they do at home now. Anush, the psychologist, will have an office to do her counseling sessions. And Anush, EREO’s president, will have some breathing room to run the organization smoothly.
Most important of all, the new home of EREO will be a positive, supportive space for everyone—whatever their situation.