We Are All One Family: Community Joins Hands to Save Armenian GirlBy: Laura Michael
At the tender age of nine, Diana Atabekyan has already been through more than many of us will ever see in a lifetime. She is truly a survivor and is blessed with so many guardian angels in Armenia and here in the United States. So many people—who were often strangers at first—banded together to help this little girl and her family, and they continue to do so to this day.
The Atabekyan family is originally from Goris, which is located in the Syunik region in southern Armenia. Several years ago, they relocated to Tairov, a village in the Armavir region, just outside of Yerevan. Mr. Atabekyan felt there would be more job opportunities for a day laborer around Tairov while his wife, Loreta, a former nurse, could stay at home with their two young daughters.
On Dec. 19, 2007, in the village of Tairov, some children were having a Christmas party at school and were putting on a play for their families. Diana, the eldest Atabekyan child, was one of those children. During the play, sparklers were lit and Diana’s synthetic costume caught on fire. Everything happened so fast and everyone tried as best as they could to extinguish the flames. Diana’s mother was in the audience and rushed to her daughter’s rescue. At the hospital, it was determined that she had suffered from fourth-degree burns on 48 percent of her body, mainly on her face, hands, torso, back, and legs. Some people cannot even survive with such a great percentage of burns but Diana’s journey as a survivor started here.
Diana was brought to a burn center in Yerevan where she underwent three surgeries, each costing 130,000AMD (approximately $361), and skin grafting. The local doctors at the burn center were responsible for saving Diana’s life and deserve so much credit. In addition to the surgeries, there were necessary medications that added to the family’s medical bills, as well as psychological counseling for Diana at a fee of 100,000AMD (approximately $278). Heating the Atabekyan home was also a great expense; the house had to remain very warm at all times because Diana’s burns prevented her from wearing much clothing. The school, family, friends, and the village of Tairov contributed a great deal to these initial medical bills. The “Hye Tsmer Bab” (Hye Santa) Charitable Foundation, led by director Armine Petrosyan, also got involved right away. Petrosyan, along with Dr. Lusine Avagyan, were responsible for organizing and coordinating the efforts to help the Atabekyan family and get Diana the medical attention she so desperately needed. It is so amazing and inspiring how the local Tairov community, the doctors at the burn center, and the Hye Santa Foundation all worked together to save Diana’s life.
A couple of months after the accident, Dr. Avagyan contacted Laura Simonyan of New Jersey. Several years ago, Simonyan had spent seven months in Armenia. “During that time,” she explains, “I noticed that many indigent children who were entitled to free or low cost medical care were not getting that care. During my seven months there, a few local Armenian friends and I started helping some children in the orphanages to obtain necessary medical treatment.” Upon her return to the United States, Simonyan and friends continued to help Armenian children. Although they never formed an organization, they worked as a team of individuals and sometimes partnered with larger organizations to assist children in need. Simonyan and others still continue this charitable work, which is why Avagyan contacted her. It had been determined that Diana would need to come to the United States for medical treatment. Immediately Avagyan, Petrosyan, Simonyan, and others worked intensely to bring Diana and her mother to the U.S. Mike Balabanian, who lives in Armenia, was also instrumental in assisting the Atabekyan family, whether by visiting local doctors for consultation, arranging doctors’ appointments, or spending time with the family. In the meantime, Diana’s doctor recommended that the family apply to the Shriners Burn Institute for Children in Boston, a long and arduous process, but no one gave up. There were many pieces to the puzzle including travel visas, paperwork, and fundraising. Focus Armenia and various individuals raised money for Loreta and Diana to travel to the U.S. Balabanian was instrumental in coordinating the visa application process. Throughout this whole ordeal, Diana’s mother continued to stay strong for her daughter. She never gave up and everyone who knows her says she has always been her daughter’s number one advocate and guardian angel.
It was also necessary to start looking for a host family and volunteers in Boston. Simonyan began sending out many letters and emails as early as November 2008. By September 2009, a month before Loreta and Diana’s arrival, she found a host family, Jirair and Carol Babikyan of Belmont, and several volunteers, thanks to the help of Massachusetts resident Laura Purutyan. Purutyan originally found out about Diana’s case because of an ad for volunteers in a local church bulletin. She called Simonyan right away and played a huge role in facilitating the Atabekyan’s stay in Boston. She sent a letter to friends in order to find volunteers and, according to Purutyan, “Word spread, email offers started pouring in immediately and never stopped. My role at that point was basically to coordinate the schedule with the hosts, the Babikyan’s, who truly opened their hearts and home to Loreta and Diana.” Purutyan is still very active in Diana’s case today.
Diana arrived in Boston with Loreta on Oct. 28, 2009. She received medical treatment and underwent surgery at Shriners Burn Center during the fall of 2009. Loreta continued to stay strong for her daughter and was always by her side. Boston-based plastic surgeon Dr. Raffi Der Sarkissian also met with Diana and Loreta for a consultation. He has previously lectured to plastic surgeons in Yerevan and pledged to work with the Atabekyan family in the future as Diana will likely need many treatments over the course of several years.
Although the Atabekyans were in Boston for a serious matter, so many volunteers made sure that they also enjoyed their time in the U.S. as much as possible. Local volunteers, such as Jennifer Internicola, visited them, took them shopping, and sightseeing. As Internicola explains, “We couldn’t speak the same language but managed and became friends. As with others, I was asked to help make their time memorable and fun despite the medical reasons that brought them here.”
Heather Krafian and her four daughters, Araxi, Nairi, Anoush, and Knar, also developed a friendship with Loreta and Diana while they were in town. Krafian shares, “My family had the pleasure of meeting Loreta and Diana at St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School last year at the school’s annual Thanksgiving feast. The principal, Mrs. Houry Boyamian, had invited them and they spent the afternoon at the luncheon with all the students. From that afternoon we began a wonderful friendship.” Diana and the Krafian girls spent many fun days having play dates, shopping, and going to lunch. They still keep in touch and look forward to reconnecting this spring in Yerevan when St. Stephen’s takes their class trip to Armenia. Throughout the Atabekyan’s stay in Boston there were so many volunteers just like Internicola and the Krafian family right up until Dec. 20, 2009, when Loreta and Diana returned to Armenia.
Diana will eventually need to come back to Boston for more medical procedures, but for now, she lives with her family in Tairov. Loreta says, “It was a miracle to see all these people coming to aid Diana.” The Atabekyans have been moved by the outpouring of support from each volunteer in Armenia and in the U.S. They are so grateful for their local community, the Hye Santa Foundation, and the U.S. individuals who all played integral roles in taking care of Diana. Since settling in Tairov, they have had to move around 17 times because landlords have evicted them after finding someone else who can pay a higher rent. Unfortunately, this issue is not uncommon in Armenia and currently the Atabekyans are living in a temporary house that is more like a one-room garage with dirt floors. It is certainly not an ideal situation but hopefully they will have a new and more permanent home soon.
Father Dajad Davidian, who now spends nine months out of the year in Armenia, is working with the Fuller Center for Housing to help the Atabekyan family secure a house. The Fuller Center’s mission is to eliminate substandard housing worldwide and the Fuller Center for Housing Armenia was established in the spring of 2005. They help low-income families purchase newly built or renovated homes by offering them long-term, interest-free loans. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, there are approximately 800,000 families living in Armenia, and 40,000 of those families are without permanent shelter. Father Dajad hopes to eliminate one family from this grim statistic. In the Atabekyan family’s case, there is a home for sale on the outskirts of Etchmiadzin in the Zuvartnotz section. It is a one-room cottage with land for a vegetable garden and the Fuller Center is contributing $7,000 towards the purchase of this home. Still needed is $18,000, and when Father Dajad is not working with the youth, serving on the board of Zadik Orphanage, producing his radio show on Armenian Radio VEM, or organizing new parishes, he is busy fundraising for the Atabekyan’s new home.
Last month, Father Dajad sent a letter out to explain the Atabekyan family’s situation and how everyone can help. He writes, “We frequently receive requests for donations for worthy causes. This appeal is made for a specific nine-year-old child, for a particular family in Armenia. Consider Diana your daughter. Consider her father and mother your brother and sister. We are all one family.”
This Christmas season, as we all make decisions regarding where to make charitable donations, please consider donating to the Atabekyan’s housing fund. The Atabekyans have faced many hardships and it is so important that this family secure decent housing. Donations can be made out to the Fuller Center for Housing and sent to: The Fuller Center for Housing, P.O. Box 523, Americus, GA 31709. Donors should mention “Armenia/Greater Blessing Project for Diana Atabekyan” either on the memo line or a slip of paper with the check. Your donation is tax-deductible and every little bit helps.
Author’s Note: Whenever I have needed assistance while in Armenia, I have always been able to count on local Armenians for help. Even though we are strangers, they call me “kouyrig jan” and treat me like family—always going out of their way for me. My “brothers and sisters” in Armenia always exude such kindness and hospitality, and I am sure many of you have had similar experiences. I felt compelled to write this article because the Atabekyan family still needs our help in acquiring a permanent residence, and they will need us when they return to Boston in the future for Diana’s medical care. It is important that we do what we can for them. I also wanted to write this article as a reflection of human compassion and goodwill towards man. It was truly heartwarming to learn about all of the teamwork and coordination that went on and continues to go on for this family. When first thinking about writing this article, I knew that I would need the cooperation of so many people in order to get all of the details. After reaching out to several individuals in the United States and in Armenia, they all responded right away with information, insight, and support. Special thanks to Fr. Dajad Davidian, Mike Balabanian, Dr. Raffi Der Sarkissian, Jennifer Internicola, Heather Krafian, Armine Petrosyan and the Hye Santa Charitable Foundation, Laura Purutyan, and Laura Simonyan. There were also many more volunteers who were not mentioned in the article but who provided integral support for the Atabekyan family in the U.S. and in Armenia. Now let’s all join in and continue to help the Atabekyans and those in similar situations because, as Father Dajad said, “We are all one