[ACYOA Dispatches]: Closing – Reminiscing a life changing trip to Armenia: A Call to Action.

September 16, 2010

By Katrina Shakarian

ASP 2010 had a packed itinerary.  We were out and about, dodging from one corner the country to another, on a daily basis.   Our trip was an excellent balance between historical and culture sites, and those that are currently facilitating its growth and development.

For instance, the group became familiar with a number of Fund for Armenian Relief’s (FAR) initiatives in Armenia.  We spent our week in Gyumri volunteering at a FAR soup kitchen, which serves Gyumri’s elderly population.   We met recipients of its college scholarships in Yerevan, and toured its information technology center in Gyumri.  It’s important to witness first hand, how these programs are functioning and supporting the population in Armenia, particularly when most of their funds come from the diaspora.   It’s a way to confirm that our funds are indeed being used as we intended them to be. 

As we went from site to site, learning about the country’s social dynamic, and the population’s different needs, we began to ask ourselves: What role can I play in strengthening this country?  That’s why a trip to Armenia becomes more than just a means of satiating one’s spiritual and intellectual curiosities, it becomes a call to action. 

Upon returning to the states, ACYOA members answered that call by committing to supporting FAR’s Child Support Center in Yerevan.  This center is unique.  It’s the only one like it in Armenia, and in the entire Caucuses region.  Opened in 2000, it serves at-risk children throughout the country.  Armenia, like many countries in the former soviet space, plunged into poverty after 1991.   As the economy crashed, and borders flew open, then closed, many of its societal problems grew two and three fold.  Of course, children are amongst the most profoundly affected by such upheavals, and amongst those least able to protect themselves.

The center exists to support children who are victims of sexual abuse, trafficking and prostitution, and poverty and abandonment.  They also seek to protect children who have fallen into a life of delinquency and have are victims of child labor. 

Children at FAR’s Child Support Center

FAR Children Center

Credit: FAR Staff

According to director Mira Antonyan, very few children in Armenian orphanages are actually parentless, orphans.  Rather, they are victims of abuse and abandonment.  Until recently, the government’s approach has been to send these children to orphanages.  The center for Child Support offers an alternative to this long withstanding practice.  They offer a child-focused approach that aims to heal and rehabilitate children.   They work with families, with the hope that many of the children in their temporary shelter can eventually return to their own homes.   Antonyan said, “65% of its cases are reunited with their families.”   In cases where family reunification is not possible, they place children with foster families.   Another service that they offer is an abuse hotline.  Anyone who has witnessed or suspects abuse, can report their concerns to the center.  Its staff is ready to both reach out to and receive children in its facilities 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

There are quite a few obstacles that stand in its way; Armenia’s fledgling foster care system, for one.   About “300 families are waiting to receive children,” said Antonyan, yet the government is unable to compensate them for child-care expenses.  Armenia’s social safety nets like welfare, Medicaid, and non-profit social service agencies are in their most rudimentary stages, if they exist at all.   Couple the virtual absence of such safety nets with widespread unemployment, and the root of the problem continues to fester.  Many families cannot adequately support their children.  These are the circumstances that produce the social orphans sitting in the child support center, asserts Antonyan.  The solution she declares is “supporting vulnerable families,” which the current economy and government cannot adequately do. 
Among the centers most immediate needs are mental health and social work professionals who can support the center’s staff and the children they serve.   The ACYOA is currently forming a committee to support FAR’s Child Support Center.  They will be spending the next few months creating and implementing a plan of action. 

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