Armenians struggling to find a foothold

Great Reporter
April 26 2004

Armenians struggling to find a foothold
Posted on Sunday, April 25 2004

By Onnik Krikorian

For visitors to post-Soviet Armenia, first impressions of its capital
resemble any other place in Europe, but travel just 10 minutes from
the centre and you enter another world…

Like Baku and Tbilisi, new hotels, restaurants and boutiques have
sprung up where once stood communal markets and grey, drab shops
selling wares that the majority could afford.
But venture further and roads have deteriorated, buildings are in
disrepair and some have even collapsed. The centre of the city is
illuminated by hundreds of neon signs and billboards but when the sun
goes down, the rest of the capital and much of the country instead
descends into darkness. Poverty here is endemic.

According to official government statistics, half of Armernia’s
population lives below the national poverty line with 17 per cent
living in extreme poverty. Salaries average just $50 a month while
pensions are even lower at $10. According to the National Statistics
Service, 70 per cent of the population lives on a staple diet of
bread, potatoes and macaroni.

As a result, the United Nations concludes that the issue of survival
is still vital for many Armenians.

“When we talk about poverty in Armenia,” says Ashot Yesayan, First
Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Social Security, “we are talking
about people who cannot even afford to eat. Among potential claimants
[for social benefits] are families with young children who have no
money for even bread.”

Living on the edge

In a small room of a derelict house situated half an hour away from
Yerevan, one such family burns plastic and rubber to stay warm during
the winter months. The walls of the room should be white but, like
the three children that resemble paupers from a Dickensian novel,
they are black and covered in soot.

A social worker stands calmly as the children’s Uncle articulates his
anger. The government’s National Commission for Minors has decided
that the children must be removed for their own safety and placed in
a children’s home.

An international organisation has been called in to do the dirty work
for them.

Without the children, the family will find it impossible to survive.
Every day, they beg for scraps and change in the nearby village.
Faced with the prospect of his only source of income being taken
away, the Uncle waves a knife in the air before emotion finally
overcomes him. His legs give way and he collapses into a heap on the

Families like this are representative of the poorest of the poor in
Armenia. They are unable to feed or clothe themselves; their children
rarely attend school and in some cases, are not even officially
registered as having been born. With no official documents, they are
unable to receive social benefits or medical assistance.

An underclass is forming in Armenia, a world away from the image that
the government would like to portray to its large and influential
Diaspora. It is, however, one closer to the reality than that
depicted in a hundred coffee-table books and postcards of monasteries
and churches photographed against scenic landscapes.

Some even rationalise the situation by arguing that conditions are
only bad in the regions of the republic, but there are just as
serious concerns with poverty in the cities. In fact, the United
Nations considers that urban poverty is far more desperate than that
which faces villagers who can at least live off the land.

In one of the capital’s poorest residential districts, approximately
200 families inhabit a dilapidated hostel complex that once
accommodated workers from the nearby chemical factory. The condition
of the building should be enough to raise alarm in most civilised
countries but the local council says that it is none of their
concern. There are no windows left on the stairwell now exposed to
the elements, and the elevators no longer work after residents
cannibalised their innards long ago.

A four-year-old child pushed another on this stairwell last summer
and one-and-a-half-year-old Isabella fell through a hole in the
railings seven floors to her death. Her mother, Jenik, shrugs off her
loss although from time to time, tears still swell in her eyes when
she remembers.

Jenik has four other children to bring up in two tiny rooms furnished
only by three rusting, metal bed frames and a divan covered with rags
that serve as bedclothes. They’ve lived in this apartment for over a
decade now and don’t even have running water. Her children instead
collect water from those more fortunate living below.

Now, her children no longer beg on the streets after Medecins Sans
Frontieres (MSF) included them in their Prevention program but that’s
not to say that their situation has improved.

Somewhat ironically, although most of the inhabitants of the hostel
are living in abject poverty, only two fall within the remit of the
international medical organisation.

“I agree that many families in this building live in very difficult
conditions,” admits Samuel Hanryon, MSF’s Country Director, “but
their situation is not the same. For example, we can only work with
two of these families because there is a problem with violence. The
needs are enormous in Armenia but we are not the government.”

Which is probably just as well.

Across the road, two former officials have erected large and opulent
mansions, an arrogant display of wealth to contrast against the
extreme poverty opposite.

Children in a difficult situation

Two floors up, a father of six removes copper wire from electrical
appliances and automobile parts to sell for a few hundred drams. Like
Jenik, Hampartsum’s family is also included in MSF’s Prevention
Program but their situation could be considered even worse.

Hampartsum’s only son is in prison for theft after he stole in order
to buy food for the family. But unlike those in government who are
believed to have stolen significantly more, the courts threw the book
at him. Recently, Hampartsum’s son wrote a letter to his father. He
can be released from prison if he pays $100. For Hampartsum, however,
it might just as well be $100,000.

Last September, his daughter, Gohar, became the face on hundreds of
posters that were displayed throughout Yerevan highlighting the
plight of vulnerable children in Armenia. “I want to live with my
family,” read the poster.

Now, Gohar and two of her four sisters are temporarily residing in a
children’s home in Gyumri. And to make matters worse, Hampartsum’s
eldest daughter lives with her grandmother, unwilling to tolerate her
father’s drinking. When Hampartsum was supplied with a bag of cement
to fix up his apartment he allegedly sold it in order to buy vodka.
In and out of hospital for alcoholism, when he drinks, he beats his

But Hampartsum is not a bad man; it’s just that times are hard. His
wife found work in a local kiosk but left after three days when the
owner refused to pay her the 3,000 dram ($6) she was owed. Meanwhile,
both Margarita and her husband can’t even scrape 500 dram together to
pay for the photographs required for their passport applications.

They’re not planning to leave the country, of course; just that they
need some official papers to receive benefits and other assistance.
Still, they have it better than others.

On the ground floor, an extended family of 14 inhabits a tiny room
that can barely accommodate two. Along the corridor, water gushes
from the communal toilet and the washroom, seeping into the floor.

Last year, according to the residents but not confirmed by other
sources, four people died of tuberculosis on the ground floor alone.

MSF admit that tuberculosis is fast becoming a serious concern in
Armenia. “The problem is a serious issue in Yerevan – especially with
regards to Multi Drug Resistant (MDR) Tuberculosis,” says Hanryon.
“Nowadays, anyone suffering from MDR in Armenia is sentenced to

But although journalists, international organisations and film crews
visit the families living in this hostel on a regular basis, and
seemingly with good intentions, everyone complains that nothing

Perhaps they have a point.

Although the Armenian Government finalised its long-awaited Poverty
Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) in August 2003, it will take until
2015 before poverty in Armenia is reduced to the post-earthquake 1989
level of 20 percent.

But at least the World Bank and the United Nations consider that such
goals are achievable.

Key to the success of the PRSP will be increasing social benefits and
salaries while waging an effective struggle against endemic
corruption and a shadow economy that by some estimates accounts for
the lion’s share of all business in the republic.

It is envisaged that poverty in Armenia should fall to below 45 per
cent of the population in 2004.