Yerevan – They are three and four year olds who excitedly run over to me with ear-to-ear smiles as I arrive at the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR) Children’s Center in Yerevan. Their cherubic faces are aglow with the happiness that only children of this age can express unabashedly.
But their joyous greeting belies a darker history of the 38 children at the Center – aged 3 to 18 currently, of possible abuse, abandonment, homelessness, sexual trafficking, or simply parents so poor they cannot afford to raise them. Though the number of children at this Center is very small, it nonetheless exposes a condition that is on the rise due to the severe economic conditions in Armenia.
It was during my recent trip to Armenia that I had the privilege of visiting this amazing institution which is supported by the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR). The buildings are nestled among trees, playground areas, and fragrant flower beds planted and cared for by the children. There is even a sandbox for the more aggressive youngsters to relieve their frustrations, anxieties and fears.
In one building live the younger children, and the teenagers are housed in the second one, both kept in immaculate condition. During my walk-through, a class was taking place with an instructor questioning the older ones about Armenian history. In another room, a therapist was counseling a weeping child. And in a nearby bedroom, two teenagers were quietly discussing personal issues. In the two art rooms, the drawing, painting, and sculpting talents of these youngsters were proudly displayed.
The usual stay for a child at the Center is 30 to 40 days, after which some return to their biological families (65 percent), go into foster care (with funds from FAR and UNICEF ended), or stay with relatives. The last option is either an orphanage, night care, or special educational schools. More than 400 youngsters go through this Center, and find a better life every year.
Change of concept
Started in 1937, the Center was run by the police as a refuge for lost children during the Soviet era. Before 1999, the idea behind this Center was isolation and punishment. In 1999, the Center was given to FAR which undertook a complete reconstruction and renovation. Through the vision of an American philanthropist, Barbara Lorinci, and the influence of FAR Board of Directors member Annette Choolfaian, the concept was changed, and in 2000, FAR hired social workers, psychologists, therapists, creating a new team where the police had a minimal role.
“Most of the children have come from poverty or family difficulties, and have found an organized, devoted family life here,” said the energetic and dedicated Director of the FAR Children’s Center, Dr. Mira Antonyan who has a PH.D. in Social Work, and has been with the Center since August 2005. “All children have the right to live safely, to enjoy life freely in secure environments.”
Before independence, there were 600 children in institutions, Dr. Antonyan continued. By 2002, the figure had escalated to 12,000 due to extreme poverty (over 50 percent of the country), the Karabagh war, and the lack of services. The current era is much more child-focused, but it depends on each situation. Since 2000, more than 6000 traumatized children have been cared for at the Children’s Center.
From 1999 to 2004, approximately 2000 children were found begging in the streets, along with their mothers, Dr. Antonyan revealed. The fathers had either been killed in the Karabagh war, were separated, or had gone to Russia seeking work. Some parents were drug users, or had mental illnesses.
And some of the traumatic conditions that these children have been subjected to include behavioral problems, drugs (including using petrol as drugs), child prostitution (a nine-year old boy), sex trafficking (two sisters 13 and 14 years of age), stealing (218 cases), children working in dangerous conditions (40 percent). This is in addition to the 8000 in orphanages, and 800 in day care.
Dedicated attention, support needed
Today, each child receives individual and caring attention, and the premises evoke a feeling of coziness, and warmth. The professional staff of the Center includes social workers, psychologists and nurses who give individual care and support to each child and family.
On an honor roll in the foyer of one of the buildings were listed the benefactors who are supporting the Center, including the names of several Armenian-Americans. Just recently, the Mardigian Family Foundation gave a generous donation to establish the FAR Child Protection Fund. Dr. Antonyan pointed out that the needs of the Center are much higher than the support that is given.
“This is the only such shelter for all of Armenia and Karabagh,” continued Dr. Antonyan who pointed out that “there is no social support for these at risk children when they are living with their families. But in these institutions, the state, the diaspora, and charities will support them.
But it has been proven that children who have been in institutions, and therefore do not have a close bond with their families, retain many behavioral, developmental and personality problems, including a lack of social skills, and low self esteem when they reach adulthood.
The Children’s Center is for many of these children their only home, and their hope for a more stable future. “Their past is the past and cannot be changed,” said Dr. Antonyan. “We are doing our best to make their future as bright and secure as possible.”
For more information on the Yerevan Children’s Center, or to make a donation, readers can contact the FAR office in New York at (212) 889-5150, or at email@example.com