By Onnik Krikorian/UNICEF Armenia

Sixteen years after the 1988 earthquake that devastated Armenia's second largest city, Vartouhi Petrosian lives in one of the several hundred domiks (temporary metal containers) that make up the urban landscape of modern-day Gyumri. Despite recent construction work financed by the US-Armenian Lincy Foundation, poverty in the northern Shirak region of Armenia still remains severe.

Unemployment is two to three times higher than the national average and around 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Like many others living in Gyumri, Vartouhi's family has no electricity or running water and lives on a staple diet of potatoes, pasta and bread.

After Vartouhi got married, she and her husband moved to Russia but seven years later when their relationship failed, Vartouhi returned to Gyumri, unemployed and penniless. Arriving with her were her two children, Svetlana, now aged 13, and Emma, 11.

"When we came back, my daughters could speak only in a mixture of Russian and Armenian," she says. "They couldn't attend school because we didn't have the money to buy books or even clothes. One day, when my children were hungry and there was no food, I beat them out of desperation. I wanted to commit suicide. We couldn't even heat our home."

But when it was discovered that Svetlana and Emma weren't attending school, Geghanush Gyunashyan, Director of the Shirak International Association's Community-based Care Centre for Children at Risk, acted immediately to assist the family.

With the assistance of UNICEF, the Centre supports families with children found unaccompanied and working on the streets or who are unable to attend school because they are poor. Fifty children aged between 6 and 15 are now registered at the center although more attend on an irregular basis. Like Svetlana and Emma, twenty of the children come from single parent families.

© UNICEF Armenia/O.Krikorian/2004
August 2004, Gyumri City, Armenia. The Gyumri-based Care Centre for Cgildren at-Risk. Children learn handicrafts and receive assistance with their school work.

"The Center is the only reason why we survive," says Vartouhi. "In order to receive food, my children now go to a boarding school but they don't like it there. After classes finish at 2 p.m., they go to the Centre and stay until 6 p.m. They like spending their time at the Centre. Geghanush is like a second mother for them."

At the Centre, established in 2002, a staff of two social workers, two teachers, a nurse, doctor, psychologist and ten volunteers cater for the children's needs. They learn handicrafts and receive assistance with their school work. When Svetlana and Emma first visited the Centre, however, they couldn't even read. Now, thanks to the staff of the Centre, Svetlana can read and write and even dreams of becoming a computer programmer one day.

Although Svetlana and Emma now receive an education, that is not to say that the family's overall situation has improved in other areas.

In April, Vartouhi was admitted into hospital after the psychological pressure of living below the poverty line took its toll. The depression and stress that she suffered also affected her relations with children. She became indifferent and often neglected her daughters.

One month later, after Vartouhi received treatment arranged by the Center, Svetlana and Emma were reunited with their mother. Without support from the Shirak International Association, the experience might have torn the family apart. Like many other children in the same situation, 13-year-old Svetlana has already aged beyond her years.

"I am ready to work to look after my mother," she says. "My dream is to have a strong family. I don't want to be a burden to my mother because I know how difficult it is to find food."

Gyunashyan says that none of the children in ger care have been otherwise separated from their families. As a direct result of poverty, for example, there has been a significant increase in the number of children from vulnerable families enrolled into specialized boarding schools and children's homes originally intended for children with disabilities or those without parents.

UNICEF has been promoting the establishment of alternative care centres for children at-risk and children with disabilities since 2001. So far, with the financial support of the Austrian and Dutch National Committees, such centres have been set up in five poverty-stricken communities of Armenia.

"This initiative is essential for the development of state strategy on alternative care to prevent the institutionalization of children at-risk," says Naira Avetisyan, UNICEF's Child Protection Officer. "The role of the local authorities and community should be encouraged in order to ensure the sustainability of such initiatives as part of a state policy on children and families at-risk."

For more information:
Emil Sahakyan, Communication Officer, UNICEF Armenia:

Tel: (+ 374 10) 523 546,
E-Mail: esahakyan@unicef.org