Several weeks ago, I sat waiting for a cappuccino inside Gyumri’s new Aregak Bakery. A particularly earnest young barista was working the espresso machine, taking direction from his more experienced counterpart. After frothing and pouring the milk, the young man slowly approached me, focusing intently on the warm mug in his hand. Then, our eyes met and his teeth flashed into a proud smile. Little did I know, but this young man was proving something powerful: that people with disabilities are capable of learning, working and contributing to society, like anyone else.
In Armenia, where stigma lingers like a bad winter cough, the concept of a café that welcomes both disabled workers and patrons is revolutionary. But at Aregak, inclusivity is part of everything from interior design to job creation. Here, disability is neither a reason for shame nor a roadblock to entrance. Using the motto “Employ Our Ability,” Aregak is the first restaurant in the city of Gyumri to promote and celebrate the capabilities of young people with disabilities (PWD). Skeptical patrons have only to watch Grisha at work to rethink their stereotypes.
Grisha is not your average 21-year-old barista. He makes delicious cappuccinos, serves visiting dignitaries, takes out the trash, cleans tables, and trains fellow employees on the ins and outs of the espresso machine. But Grisha has cerebral palsy; so in fact, he’s better than average.
To be clear, Grisha did not get this job out of pity. Aregak’s director, Tigranuhi Akopyan says Grisha earned this job because of his stellar work ethic.
“When I asked Grisha to work in our bakery, he just nodded his head vigorously,” Akopyan said. “I became so emotional when I saw that he was literally shaking with excitement.”
In Gyumri, there are few employment opportunities, even for abled people. For Grisha, Aregak (“little sun” in Armenian) has spread rays of hope in an otherwise bleak horizon.
Aregak Bakery is supported by funding from the European Union, and it is affiliated with the Emili Aregak Center (EAC) of Armenian Caritas—a daycare for children with disabilities. Akopyan is also the director of EAC, which has been providing necessary support, resources, therapy and aid to families in Gyumri, a city still struggling to recover from the 1988 earthquake that claimed more than 25,000 lives. Houses, roads and sidewalks are still marked by the natural disaster; unemployment and poverty are still prevalent.
For families affected by disability, these difficulties are amplified. According to research conducted by Armenian Caritas in 2009, one out of every four disabled children in Gyumri does not have a father in the home. Many breadwinners are forced to relocate to Russia for work, while others flee the struggle and shame associated with disability. Single mothers stay at home as the primary caregivers, compelled to rely on meager governmental aid, support from extended family and NGOs like Caritas.
Dependency is both psychologically and financially taxing. So, in addition to providing therapies and care for children, EAC places a strong focus on empowering families through education and employment opportunities. Currently, four mothers of PWD children work as cooks and cleaners at the Center, while seven were recently trained in pastry-making at Aregak Bakery.
Nara and Anahit are two of the moms who now work alongside Grisha and four other youth with disabilities. They are thrilled for the opportunity; Nara called it a “miracle.”
“There aren’t many opportunities for women in Gyumri,” she explained, let alone women with disabled children. “I would only work at a place where the staff would understand and be flexible toward my family’s situation.”
If the labor market barriers are high for mothers of PWD, they are higher for PWD, who struggle even to enter the educational sphere. Although schools are legally required to accept students with disabilities, the concept of inclusive education is still being understood and implemented across the country. Many schools do not have properly accessible facilities or teachers trained in special education methodology; as a result, for many PWD, school is not a place that is conducive to learning.
As EAC worked to advocate for the rights of PWD in the classroom and to create spaces for tailored learning at the Center, another complicated problem arose. Opportunities were negligible when PWD reached working age.
So, staff took matters into their own hands. With input from the EU and Caritas Austria, they developed a multifaceted program to begin tearing down the barriers. EAC’s garden and handicraft workshops would provide an inclusive environment for skill development and the creation of marketable goods. Cooperation with universities and other institutions could equip people with disabilities with soft and hard skills for the workplace. And the creation of a bakery to employ PWD would be the perfect way to provide jobs for disabled youth while sensitizing the public to their rights and abilities.
As the bakery planning got underway, EAC Training Coordinator Marine Atayan reached out to various vocational schools and organizations in Gyumri, but it took some effort to change entrenched perspectives on the teachability of PWD.
“Our primary goal was to enable the educational institutions and employers to get acquainted with the capacities of people with disabilities,” Atayan said, “to ensure their effective communication and cooperation.”
After some time, Atayan and fellow staff had established more than 20 partnerships, as well as a course to help students adjust to the working world.
Grisha was one of the early participants of “Nine Steps to the Labor Market.” After completing the program, he began vocational school and put his newfound skills to work through EAC’s herbal gardening project. There, he wowed staff with his work ethic and was offered a barista position at the bakery.
“After watching Grisha work and seeing his positive attitude toward any task he is given, I’m 100 percent sure that I’d hire him over another worker without disabilities,” Akopyan said.
“I’m 100 percent sure I’d hire him over another worker without disabilities.”
“Grisha is working so hard,” she continued. “He wants to earn his job, and he puts lots of effort into showing his ability.”
Nara and the other mothers are equally thrilled about this opportunity for their young colleagues.
“It’s fantastic. They feel that they are fully part of society,” Nara said. This is no exaggeration. For marginalized PWD, a job is much more than a paycheck. As Pope Francis said, “Work is fundamental to the dignity of the person.”
After her interview, Nara approached me again, clearly with more on her heart. “Without the youth,” she said with emotion, “my work would be colorless.”
Grisha might not be able to express it clearly, but I know that he agrees. When I asked the young man what he likes about his work, his speech, though limited, was pregnant with meaning.
“Amen inch,” he told me. “Everything.”