Facing Poverty In Armenia

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Man sits outside a lean-to call home outside of Yerevan. Photo by Tom Vartabedia

YEREVAN—“Menk an-o-tee yenk.”

These simple words sent my heart stomping as I left my apartment in Yerevan one afternoon in May.

In my hand was a plastic bag containing the remnants of moldy bread headed for a dumpster nearby. Outside, a father and mother were camped out in a terrace by a small pavilion they were calling home. Nearby were two small children playing, presumably their own.

It was a gut-wrenching scene — one that left an indelible impression of conditions that were less favorable than others you might encounter in the big city.

“The bread is no good,” I told the man. “It’s rotted.”

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Impoverished woman at Etchmiadzin. Photo by Tom Vartabedian

“Don’t matter,” he answered. “We are hungry.”

And with that, I handed over the bag and dipped into my pocket for a handout.

“Take this and buy yourself a good loaf of bread.”

The day before, I visited a village where people were living inside lean-tos and makeshift shelters. Others had set up homes in abandoned buildings with little or no resources.

At Lake Sevan, a derelict was singing for survival and a young boy was being admonished for not selling his allotment of postcards.
At Etchmiadzin, a forlorn woman was crouched against the majestic cathedral. My heart bled for her.

“I’m not well,” she told me, prompting another dip into my pocket.

“I don’t want your money,” she shot back. “Instead, you can light a candle for me. Pray for me.”

The scene reminded me of a previous trip to Armenia three years prior in which we had gone to Shushi and encountered a humble street-wanderer sitting on a curbstone with a paper bag containing his belongings.

He asked me for money. I couldn’t refuse.

“I want to light a candle in that church,” he said, pointing across the way to a wondrous cathedral called Soorp Amenapergich.

I appeared skeptical, until I went inside the sanctuary and there before me was the beggar lighting his candle in prayer. He was telling the truth.

Poverty is rampant in Armenia. You cannot escape it. But one thing rests assured. No matter how bad the crisis, no matter where people live, no matter how scant the food, this is home. This is Armenia and there’s no alternative.

It’s the old life prior to the Industrial Revolution we’ve all seen. They don’t need cell phones and computers, fancy homes and cars — just old values and hard work.

When I see these young kids in schools dressed in uniform and addressing you properly, it’s something you wouldn’t necessarily suspect from a Third World Country. No matter how bleak the environment, the children appeared well maintained.

My first venture there in 2006 was far different than the second this past April. My wife and I brought along $100 in singles with the idea that we would patronize the needy population.

Others in our tour group were equally as generous. Not candy, or toys but cash. In two weeks time, we exhausted our allotment. At the time, I didn’t realize that handing out an American dollar in some remote village would be useless.

Where would they redeem it?

More than the children, it bothered me to see the elderly make an advance. With kids, we were told that giving away money would be teaching them bad habits — that they should be taught to sustain themselves and not live off a free handout.

The elderly tend to be more persistent in their character. Some offer you wares. Others, nothing at all. They don’t let go very easily on the street.

However modest the means, it’s called survival, and it’s something the government must address in order to preserve the tourist trade.

Woman fills buckets of water in the village of Dogh. Photo by Tom Vartabedian

Woman fills buckets of water in the village of Dogh. Photo by Tom Vartabedian

Yerevan is booming. High-rise apartments are sprouting up like mushrooms inside the inner-city belt, catering to the affluent. Yet, 20 miles outside the capital, people are living from hand-to-mouth. There is no economy.

A 50 percent unemployment rate is hardly a comfort zone. What few jobs that exist offer a pittance for the most part. Professionals are earning what somebody on welfare may be getting in this country. People are learning to live more with less.

Despite the extreme poverty, the table is usually sagging with food and hospitality is open to one and all. There are no strangers in Armenia, usually friends waiting to meet. Just pass by a home and an invitation becomes automatic.

What bothered me more than anything this time was an incident that occurred at the Yerevan Opera House. Determined to get a ticket for Khachaturian’s “Spartacus,” I arrived at the box office brimming with ecstasy.

I’ve listened to the ballet repeatedly, much as I’ve done with his “Gayane Suite.” The news was grim.

“Sorry, we’re all sold out,” said the clerk.

I asked about another concert and was told there was one that very evening featuring the Leningrad Symphony with an appearance by a noted Armenian diva. Not “Spartacus” but certainly an alternative. Upon inquiring about admission, I was aghast.

“That would be $30,000 grams, and includes a reception later,” the woman replied.

Some fast figuring told me that was more than $100 a ticket American money, given the 3.75 exchange rate for a dram. I refused the offer, packed away my sentiment, and off I went toward a coffee house.

On the way, an impoverished woman asked for money and I felt in an overly-generous mood. I wound up treating her to a meal inside the Marriott.

Come to find out, she’s lived in Yerevan all her life and this was her first visit inside the hotel. She gave me a hug for my money. All of a sudden, my spirit in humanity had been restored.

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