The minute you catch Hovo’s attention, his cheeks wrinkle, his eyes crinkle and his teeth flash into a huge grin. When I first met him, the young server thought I was Russian and greeted me with a handshake and jovial privet. I don’t speak Russian, and Hovo knows this now; but privet has become our inside joke. He always greets me this way, and we laugh every time.
Hired as one of the original employees at Gyumri’s barrier-free Aregak Bakery and Cafe, Hovo is slowly tearing down the stereotype that people with disabilities can’t contribute in the workplace. This is vital in Armenia, where inaccurate understanding of disability is widespread, resulting in fear and stigma. Shame and lack of support structures lead many families to keep children with disabilities at home or in institutions. While inclusive education efforts in the country are underway, they are still largely ineffective; employment opportunities are even more rare.
Despite these odds, Hovo is a waiter and part-time student at vocational college. Down Syndrome (DS) may be a reality of Hovo’s genetics, but Down Syndrome doesn’t define him; and it definitely doesn’t prevent him from having friends, working, studying and enjoying the beautiful realities of a normal life. It is not a cause for pity or special treatment. The young man is held to high professional standards and loved as an integral part of the Aregak team, where he works alongside others with and without disabilities.
Hasmik Topalyan, Aregak’s PR and Communications Specialist, thinks he’s one of the best workers at the bakery, which just celebrated six months of operation and currently employs seven other young adults with disabilities. Her colleague Diana, the head cashier and Hovo’s supervisor, agrees, noting that he “doesn’t know what it is to be tired.” Diana says that it’s a great joy to work with him. “He is very honest, very positive, very giggly.”
When he received his first paycheck, Hovo danced and cried and used his earnings to buy a fancy chocolate sampler for his colleagues.
Hasmik adds that he can work all day if there’s music, because Hovo loves to dance. I myself have seen him with a subtle head bob or sway if he’s actively working, and busting full out moves if he’s on a break. His joy just has to wiggle its way out through his feet and fingers.
When he received his first paycheck, Hovo danced and cried and used his earnings to buy a fancy chocolate sampler for his colleagues. Anahit, one of the bakers, was overcome with tears by his selflessness and joy. As the mother of a son with severe disabilities, it was beautiful for her to see this young man receive tangible proof that his skills are important and valued in this world. Hovo still cries every time he receives his paycheck – six months in – because, as he told me, he simply can’t believe that his reality is reality.
For a young man with DS living in a country where the stigma is still widespread, Hovo is living a dream he never thought possible. He even got to meet President Armen Sarkissian—twice. I was there during the President’s second visit in December, and I vividly remember Hovo’s level of excitement. By then, Mr. Sarkissian was a special friend of his. The president, like a benevolent Santa Claus, enveloped Hovo in a hug and presented him with a beautifully wrapped Christmas package.
When I asked Hovo why he loved his job so much, his answer was simple and sincere: serving and communicating with people brings him joy. It doesn’t matter if the guest is the President or a passerby; Hovo just loves people. Although he now attends the hospitality vocational college part-time, my personal opinion is that Hovo comes by the trade naturally. One smile from him as he deposits a steaming Americano before you, and you no longer need caffeine to help you see the world in perspective.
When I asked him about his goals, he tilted his head, seemingly stumped by the question. After a beat, his crinkly grin appeared and with a confident “Hishetsi!” (“I remembered!”) Hovo announced that one day, he wants to be a cook, not just a server. He already helps his family make dolma and salads. Khinkali, a traditional Georgian meat dumpling, is next on his menu of specialties to master. But most of all, he wants to pursue his dream alongside Mikayel, his close friend, Aregak baking assistant and fellow DS stereotype-breaker.
As I thought about Hovo’s answers to my questions, I realized that working at Aregak is not just a job for him, but actually a stepping stone toward his dream. Subconsciously, I had not really expected someone like Hovo to have goals.
In truth, this mindset goes part and parcel with the set of myths which so often surround DS. Contrary to popular thought, as the Save Down Syndrome organization reports, people with DS have emotions. They have intelligence and capability; they never stop learning, and they have near-average lifespans. They can be models like Northern Ireland’s Kate Grant, eight-instrument musicians like America’s Sujeet Desai and city councilors like Spain’s Angela Bachiller. And yet, unborn babies with DS across the world experience high abortion rates because many expectant mothers are given false information about their children’s future life prospects.
For me, the reality is closer to home. As the life of my friend Hovo proves, people with DS across the world not only can live fulfilling lives, but can make the lives of those they touch that much fuller. As much as I love the pastries and cappuccinos at Aregak, it’s Hovo who always draws me back.
Today, on World Down Syndrome Day, I hope that you’ll look at people with DS differently, befriend them and be willing to learn from them, as I have from Hovo. Let’s stand together for their dignity as individuals, their physical and emotional well-being, their rights to education and employment, and their inclusion in society. They have so much to offer if we’ll only let them.