“What can we demand from a hungry child?”

July 5, 2006


“What can we demand from a hungry child?”

By Suren Deheryan

 

Twelve-year-old Suren was home alone when uncalled guests from Yerevan entered inside through an unlocked door and asked whether there were any adults at home.

An old tape recorder filled the room and Suren with pop music, and the colorful sounds were hardly in sync with the gray, dirty walls or with the rhythm of life that goes on inside them.

“Mother went to fetch water from the gorge, and father is at work,” the boy answered, switching off the tape-recorder.

“And where are the other children?” asked the stranger, a village leader adding: “You’re seven children, aren’t you?”

“Yes. My older sister is at school, my brother is in the neighboring village, others are playing in the yard. I’ll call them now,” the boy said, dashing outside.

The woman returned home soon with two buckets full of water, almost at the same time she was joined also by five children. Sanam, 35, sat at the table, and one of the children dashed into her lap, another under her arm, and the others gathered around their mother and after they listened to the visitors for a while an avalanche of Q’s and A’s began.

The nine-member family of the Sahradyans is the neediest in the village of Lernagog.

At least this is how the village head Sargis Margaryan describes them, giving assurances that nearly all are needy in the village, but the Sahradyans are in an extreme condition.

All seven children of the family are underage. Sanam is a housewife, and her husband, 40-year-old Hayk is a watchman at the flour mill near the village, where he makes 25,000 drams (about $55) a month. They also get 30,000 drams (about $65) in social benefits for being a “large” family.

The income breaks down to about 45 cents per person per day. It is hardly a suitable budget, but it is the reality for the Sahradyans’ 16-year-old Lusine, 15-year-old Taron, 13-year-old Ani, 12-year-old Suren, seven-year-old Anna, six-year-old Karen and two-year-old curly-haired Mariam.

Their staple food is cereals and pasta purchased at the food store on credit. “On very rare occasions we also take sweets,” adds Sanam. “How can we not take them? They are children, they want sweet things.”

The Sahradyans live in one of the few villages in Armenia where residents neither farm nor raise cattle.

Lernagog, about 65 kilometers to the west of the capital, was an industrial village created during Soviet times for settlement of workers in the nearby flour mill and hog farm.

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 2,500 residents lived a good life. The then young family of the Sahradyans was also happy, but since the early 1990s their careless days became fewer, and the formula of life was substituted by the unwritten laws of survival.

“We don’t manage it, it is difficult for us now,” says Sanam. “He (the husband) works at a mill, but instead of bringing money, he brings flour for me to bake bread. We repay our debts to stores with the money from the allowance. No more money reaches our home.

“And I collect wood from the nearby hills everyday to burn. Every day I bring some six buckets of water from the gorge for washing and laundry purposes.”

The water problem is common here. Since 1995 there has been no drinking water, except what is brought by trucks from Talin. Forty liters of water cost about 30 cents. According to Sanam, they borrow drinking water as well. She says that the Sahradyans have seen worse days when the flour mill had not been re-opened yet.

“Now there is at least flour, the children eat bread. Two years ago we didn’t have it either.”

The family lives in a house they inherited, but it is bare. One stove, but no firewood, jugs, but no water. A bed with worn covers. A TV that doesn’t work.

The fingers of the woman who has been carrying water have become swollen and red. There are many reasons – cold, cold water and the heaviness of the buckets. The only relief is the stove, and as long as a few branches are burning inside, all members of the family gathering around try to steal their share of heat.

“They don’t have winter clothing. What they have they are wearing now,” says Sanam, closing her hands around the stovepipe. “My son wept yesterday: ‘Mommy, I have no clothes to wear, I am cold.’ But we buy food on credit, there is no turn for clothes.”

Fellow-villagers describe Sanam as a hard-working woman, saying that she even manages to help her neighbors to bake bread.

Headmaster of the village’s school Avetisyan says that the five children of the Sahradyans of school age are behind others in studies, but adds: “What studies can we demand from a hungry child?” Sanam’s children say that they don’t have books in all subjects, as only the textbook on religion is free.

Sacred images are hanging on the wall of the empty rooms of this house. It is Sanam’s place for prayers.

There is a chapel in the village where Sanam goes every Sunday.

“I pray every Sunday and on the days when I cannot find bread, and He helps me,” says Sanam. She pauses for a moment and adds: “I don’t know, I believe in God.”

On that day, she didn’t have the need for prayers, as she had already cooked a meal with the cabbage that her neighbor had given her. She calls it “borsch”, but the few leaves in the water hardly fit the recipe definition. Nor does the life in this house match what most would call living …