By Suren Musayelyan
In a building that once belonged to a cotton factory, 12 families live in severe conditions in the village of Norapat.
Here, poverty is relative, but all agree that Hasmik Hovhannisyan and her two sons face the worst situation.
Hasmik, 41, 12-year-old Vazgen, and 14-year-old Shahen, have lived here longest – six years.
Originally from Yerevan, some 45 kilometers away, Hasmik married a refugee from Baku, Mikhail Hovhannisyan, in 1991, and moved to the Armavir province where they lived in a hostel. But four years later her husband left her and went abroad in search of work. She says she hasn’t heard from him since. Hasmik says that the only thing her ex-husband left her was his refugee’s documents in which Shahen’s and Vazgen’s names were also included. At first the family could receive some aid using that opportunity. But that aid is no longer available.
The room where the Hovhannisyans live is about 40 square meters in size, but it is deprived of the most elementary living conditions. They have no electricity, because their garret needs to be rewired and they cannot afford 50 meters of wire nor to hire an electrician.
They collect water in buckets from outside, but have no sink to pour it into. The 12 families share one second-floor toilet.
The mother and sons get along on about $70 a month – their allowance as “socially vulnerable” family.
“How can I bring up my children in such conditions?” Hasmik complains. “There is no electricity, the children return from school and cannot do their homework. They go to the street.”
The family is also short on warm bedding. They stay warm at night by holding each other, Hasmik says.
“It is possible to live somehow in summer, but in winter it is absolutely impossible to live here. Sometimes we have to go to a neighbor’s home to get warm,” the unemployed single mother says.
The door of the room has no secure lock. Hasmik says that she always feels the lack of personal security: “Whoever wants can break it and enter here.”
In winter, Hasmik scavenges for anything burnable to burn for warmth in the room.
“I want very much to rent a place to be able to survive at least this winter,” says Hasmik, admitting that being cash-strapped makes it impossible for them even to rent a room with ordinary conditions in the village.
The family budget hardly covers necessary food. During harvest season Hasmik works in the fields to get extra money. Otherwise: “There is very little opportunity to find a job here,” she says.
Vazgen attends a boarding school (for parentless or homeless children), not least because he doesn’t want to stay at home. In summer he looks for work in a nearby market where he sometimes makes as little as 75 cents a day.
“He becomes very aggressive because of this life, he doesn’t obey me,” Hasmik says. “I am very concerned over the fate of my children. After all, I am raising two future soldiers for this country, but the state does not remember us.”
Shahen, who lived at his uncle’s apartment in Yerevan for a long time, returned to his mother after the death of his grandmother. Now he studies at Yerevan’s H. Kojoyan educational complex (art school) and, for the past 18 months, has benefited from the social programs of Orran NGO.
From his childhood Shahen has dreamed of becoming a painter. His teachers say he has talent. Every day after classes he attends the center where he participates in classes, has dinner with other children, gets assistance from the organization’s staff.
“We admit only children living in the city, but we admitted Shahen as an exception,” says Orran social worker Anahit Chakryan.
Orran compensates Shahen’s daily travel expenses to reach Yerevan from the region and also helps with clothes.
The organization’s psychologist Narine Avagyan singles out Shahen from other children both due to his talent and needs: “What he needs most is friends, he needs a warm attitude.”
The psychologist describes Shahen as a teenager withdrawn into himself, but says that at Orran he found an environment where he can more or less communicate with his contemporaries.
According to Avagyan, only recently Shahen began to share with her about the domestic difficulties of his family.
The psychologist says that unlike other children, Shahen is a person whose dreams are more of an abstract nature. He draws and wants to draw, although according to the psychologist “black and white still prevails in what he paints”.
“I want to have a profession as a painter, but perhaps I won’t, because painters cannot earn a living for their families. I will by all means have another specialty as well,” says Shahen, influenced by what he sees around in modern-day Armenia where artists often live in poverty.
“I don’t want to be given something material, but rather an opportunity to create myself, for example to learn how to paint on a canvas,” Shahen says.