Living in Armenia: The Battle of Poverty and Prosperity

BY MARIA TITIZIAN

I have had to bear witness to poverty in my homeland more times than I care to remember. I have felt the bitter cold of winter on my back each time I have gone to the village of Vedi for Christmas to visit distant relatives who live there. The same occurred again this year when I made my annual trek to see this family of six who live in conditions that should bring shame on all of us.

Of the four children between the ages of 18 and five, the eldest is physically and mentally impaired. The family does not have running water for cooking or washing or cleaning, nor do they have natural gas to heat their tiny dilapidated home. The mother has critical health issues, including hypertension, and the father does the best he can with the resources God has given him. They receive only a fraction of the medical care they so desperately need because of limited services available in their village and because of limited funds.

The daughter is set to attend university next year, but her hopes of pursuing a higher education are quickly fading as living costs in Yerevan skyrocket and tuition fees are more than what her parents earn in one year. The mother dreams of one day having a kitchen and a real toilet in the house. The father wonders how he will be able to marry his daughters off when they have an older brother who is physically and mentally challenged. After all, no one wants a new bride who might be carrying defective genes that could potentially compromise the process of procreation. The only person who is oblivious to this family’s plight is their little five-year-old boy who still believes in Santa Claus and dreams of brand new toys. But even this slight little human being has begun to understand that not all good things come to those who deserve them.

This is but one family; there are tens of thousands of families like them whose circumstances are similar or far worse. And the future doesn’t hold much promise for them.

According to the Republic of Armenia’s National Statistical Service (NSS), 34.1 percent of our population today lives in poverty. For the first time since1998, we are witnessing an increase in the country’s poverty rates. According to the recently published NSS report, every fifth person in Armenia is considered to be in poverty. What is more alarming is that 117,000 people in our homeland live on 17,486 AMD a month (approximately $48). Forty-eight dollars a month for food, heat, water, gas, clothes, transportation, and medical services. . . . This group is considered to be in extreme poverty.

The NSS measures a family’s standard of living by their consumption. What can a family consume on $48 a month?

Imagine the entire population of Inglewood, California, or Boulder, Colorado, surviving on $48 a month. Now imagine yourself living on $48 a month — not in Inglewood or Boulder — but in a village or town in Armenia when one kilogram of locally produced cheese costs about $8, and a pound of ground beef hovers at about $6, thanks to rising inflation.

It gets worse. The same report states that approximately 47.2 percent of the population of Shirak lives in poverty. Almost half of the entire population living in poverty…

As a result of the global economic downturn, in the course of one calendar year, 2008-2009, 214,000 people fell into poverty in our homeland. Of those children living in extreme poverty, 44.2 percent of them live in households where there is no refrigerator.

This is what happens when the state’s social and economic policies are flawed; when there is an unequal distribution of wealth and when the concept of equal opportunities and market competitiveness is thrown out the window as more and more power and wealth is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. When corruption at every level decimates even the best of social and economic policies by ensuring funds are redirected into the pockets of those with power and endless greed.

The day I read the NSS report on poverty, I was invited to a friend’s home for drinks with some local women I had never met. They all live in the same apartment complex, one of the most beautiful buildings in Yerevan, in an affluent neighborhood right in the heart of the city. Meeting new people and forging relationships is part of our experience of living in Armenia. When I arrived, what struck me most was how well these women were dressed for a casual evening where all they needed to do was take an elevator ride to reach their destination.

I don’t know much about designer clothes or jewelry or handbags, but I can read, and from the Hermes bags to the Bvlgari jewelry to the meticulously crafted shoes and clothes these women were wearing, I was speechless—a rare occurrence in my life. Hadn’t I just read that morning that 34.1 percent of our population lives in poverty in Armenia?

As the evening wore on, discussion ranged from the status of women in society and families (briefly) to the new Tommy Hilfiger store that had opened on Northern Avenue (extensively). We spoke about our children, shopping in Dubai, and where to buy the best furniture in Yerevan. Surreal is not a word to describe that particular day in my life.

The extremes that make up the mosaic of our lives are exhausting and frustrating. While I don’t have the right to begrudge these women the obvious prosperity and wealth that surrounds them, I do have the right to wonder if they wonder about the NSS statistics. I would bet my life that the overwhelming majority of this class does not. While they may have, at one point in their lives, been faced with poverty, now that they have acquired this new found wealth, they have quickly forgotten where they have come from and now spend their days debating whether to buy a Hermes bag or a Chanel on their annual trips to Dubai, Moscow, or Paris.

The battle of poverty and prosperity endures in our country. And while poverty rates are exceeding all of our expectations, we must all learn the values of what good citizenship means. It means extending a hand to the helpless; it means creating programs that will help elevate the lives of children who live in unbearable conditions; it means, at the very least acknowledging that hardship and poverty surrounds us at every turn and it means taking a stand and doing something about it.

As we prepare to celebrate the 20th anniversary of an independent Armenian republic this year, I hope that we can finally begin to understand the value and fragility of statehood. While the total eradication of poverty in Armenia may be unrealistic, we must strive to create conditions where those less fortunate than us can find the means of pulling themselves out a vicious cycle that has imprisoned them. Each of us will have to find our own way to help create those conditions: some will do so by repatriating, some by investing in businesses that work within the law, some by contributing to one of the organizations that do good work, others by advocating for less corruption and wiser government programs.

While prosperity is certainly not an evil, it is unforgivable when only a handful of families benefit from the limited resources of this small plot of land we call the motherland.

____
Maria Titizian in a Vice-President of the Socialist International and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s representative in the Socialist International Women. She is also the director of the Yerevan-based Hrayr Maroukhian Foundation.

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36 Comments

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Living in Armenia: The Battle of Poverty and Prosperity | Asbarez Armenian News -- Topsy.com

  2. Hratch said:

    Correct the grammatical mistakes in the last paragraph about Maria Titizian.

  3. Svetlana Swanson said:

    In order t achieve economic stability and growth in Armenia you need 2 things
    1- A Corruption Czar –
    2- A “Wall of Shame” in the center of every town and village where the names of individuals soliciting bribes will be posted.

    In order to achieve equality for women in Armenia, Armenian women have to serve in the Armenian Army.

    • Alfred said:

      Bravo Maria for a moving article. I have been coming to Armenia since 1996 and have witnessed many great achievements and improvements. The one area that I would have to express disappointment is the persistent “mindset” of resignation and even utter lack of caring that I have chosen to fight on every trip. It is so true that “we have met the enemy and the enemy is us.” I urge you to continue to write and collaborate with other like-minded people such as photographer Sara Anjargolian to continue to shine a light on this problem. Again, I am deeply moved and will redouble my own efforts to do more in Armenia.

  4. Tamar Chahinian said:

    Great article Maria. I’m sure everyone in Armenia is aware of the statistics, but the problem is they also seem to have given up hope and trust. Hope to change the conditions, Trust to extend a hand.
    The only way to change that is by being an example of what it means to be a good citizen. I’m sure with the right government the poverty level will decrease. I’m very hopeful. Thank you and keep up the great work !

  5. Hratch Tchaghatzbanian said:

    Hazar Bravo Maria. Though we all have come to learn that in Armenia there are a few rich and many poor, the numbers you report here really puts things into perspective. How strange a human trait it is for one person to eat lavishly while watching someone starve! It is certainly not what our “foremothers” have taught us. All of the suggestions to contribute are wonderful. But in Armenia, there seems to be a lack of “volunteer culture”. Volunteering is something that must be taught at a young age, just as many of us have learned in the Diasporas. I hope the Education Ministry considers making volunteer work as part of the education curriculum (i.e. a requirement to graduate high school (eg. 20 hours in an orphanage, etc)).

  6. Vanessa Kachadurian said:

    For the Children and Orphans of Armenia the problem is even worse, we need to boost up our next generation that will be our future and invest more into technical as well as educational facilitites.
    Vanessa Kachadurian

  7. ara said:

    so make a socialistic revolution and go back to soviet times, it worked out well the last time yeah? Even USA the richest country in the world has extreme poverty. There’s always going to be unfortunate people on this earth.. It’s just part of life.

    • Another Ara said:

      Dear Ara, we don’t have to go back to the Soviet times. We could learn from socialist policies of the USA such as government programs that help the elderly, disabled and widows, government programs that support the farmers, programs that provide health care to the poor children, government programs that provide education to the needy, programs that regulates the behavior of the rich and powerful businesses, income tax system, which imposes higher tax rates on the rich in order to finance the mentioned government programs etc. etc.
      Finally it is true that there are unfortunate people on this earth, but one difference between human beings and animals is that we have consciousness and we could make conscious decisions. Those individuals, who are fortunate and are not selfish or heartless, will try to improve our society such that the number of unfortunates will be reduced and their suffering diminished. Of course there are no easy answers or solutions to reduce poverty, but we should try. This has nothing to do with Soviet times. Each one of us should make a decision. Either we are selfish or we will try to build a more human society.

      • Cristina said:

        Dear “Another Ara”,

        I have to agree to some extent with what you say about learning for USA social govt. programs. But…let me tell you something.
        I moved to Artsakh one year ago, and i noticed that the State is spending an enormous amount of money on such social programs – SOcial aid for numerous families (more than 4 children, i personally know some families with s much as 10 children…) – for the 5th child a sum of money, for the 6th again money, for the 7th they give a house, for the 8th i think money again, for the 9th a car or so…
        Regarding aid for numerous families, i personally met a shocking case, in a family of 10 children (10 boys). The family had 9 children and the 10th was on the way, so the father applied for the according aid – a house or apaprtment with 5 rooms. SO far they had been living all in a 4rooms apartment, in a really bad shape. I was disgusted to go to their toilet, but i had no choice, it was rather urgent. SO the father applied with all the necessary papers, the baby was born, his application was taken into consideration and discussed, but until the decision was taken, the 10th baby died. So his application was refused because “we got informed that your new born 10th child has deceased, so we no longer consider you have 10 children, but 9 children”. Can you imagine what that father felt…?
        Secondly, peopel here in Artsakh stopped wanting to work. Honestly. And i do not blame them – why should they strive to find a normal job and work, when they know that the State provides them with all kinds of aids – for joblessness, for 1st 2nd or 3rd grade of handicap, for God knows what…? Here the real fight and contest is about how to prove to the State that you have the right to receive this or that aid – “pensia, dietzki (in russian), toshak (in armenian)”, not about how to perfect yourself in this or that domain so you can work better…

    • Marcel said:

      I have to disagree that there is “extreme poverty” in the United States, or any First World country. Most cases of this are very isolated and very small statistically, because there is so much wealth there to go around. A homeless person in any major North American city can easily beg for money on the streets and get $20 or more in a few hours.

      This is an excellent article, but one point that the author misses is how wealth is stolen by the 1st world from the rest of the world. Did you know that only about 20% of workers in the first world work in productive/manufacturing sectors for example? This is because they exploit many other countries for cheap goods and labour. Lenin wrote about this in “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism” and how the workers in western countries were bought off with “super-profits”. His writings are truer today then ever.

      • Erwin said:

        Great point of view Marcel. Your great analysis is the only and unique one below this article

  8. Darwin Jamgochian said:

    We in the diaspora have been watching 20 years for democratic reforms to take hold in Armenia. Too little and if the authorities don’t make major changes, it will be too late.

    The Berlin wall fell 20 years ago. That’s the difference between democracy and socialist reforms.

  9. pauper said:

    As reference to the problem mentioned by the socialist writer—the only solution is to make a law in Armenia making ‘interest’ on loans from all banks in Armenia VOLUNTARY. That is, if I take a loan from a bank but my business or enterprise does not succeed to the range that I am able to re-pay the loan plus the interest, then any interest payment should be eliminated; however if success is the result than I will pay interest on voluntary basis only as I am able to and not because I am required to. Thus in 5 years the poverty problem would be solved and eliminated in Armenia otherwise the rich will go richer and the poor poorer.
    Take note that when ‘interest’ is required, the debtor have to create more paper money to pay for the loan and the interest, when more paper money is created it means that that money is being devaluated because its volume increases and the price of commodities consequently and naturally would rise making the poor poorer.
    If the socialist writer can pass a law in Armenia to the effect mentioned, she will do a great job to our homeland otherwise she is wasting her time..many socialist programs if implemented will not help but make the situation worst.

  10. Armen K said:

    Maria,

    I would like to thank you for this well written and realistic article. I find that most Armenians are too proud to talk about the “34.1%”. And instead focus solely on the positive, which unfortunately does not involve most the citizens of Armenia. We need to continue to write articles like this, and continue to fight for the right of every Armenian citizen to live a comfortable life (outside of poverty).

    It takes a good Armenian to talk well of their homeland, but it takes an even more passionate Armenian to talk about what needs to improve and change in the homeland.

  11. teda said:

    I believe that the Church must lend a helping hand to the people in need, to large families and to single mothers of many children. Maybe these unfortunate people from our homeland need a saint like Mother Teresa – a catholic nun who founded the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta. Its mission was to care for the hungry, the naked, the homeless and all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.

  12. Paul said:

    Only the way if we do like Jews did it, most of them sold everything they own in country they born and move to Fatherland Israel,and build strong nation,and they have sport from America,Jews good planing new, 100 yr ago come to America have strong politician,Own almostbmost American News Papers and TV’s, while who move to Israel,start to change slowly government,with new idea,new work power,new mine power,new bloods, if we do same like Jews did it, we will be come successful,other wise, talk is cheap and bullshit walks,while those mafia in our Fatherland Armenia will make more money,don’t forget God make biggest mistake created worst animal is ” Humans”: only one thing we do best DESTROY, as we Humans we never know and learn how to say enough,and same way don’t know how to share, Good Luck to all of us,Happy New Year and Marry Christmas,Wish you all other Armenians one day they can live like other reach Armenians,

    • Gregory said:

      I see where you are coming from. However, I find it very hard to imagine that America would give billions- yes billions of dollars of aid to Armenia like it does Israel. It recently only gave 28 million dollars to the republic, which has to be repaid. You must also take into account that there are only 850,000 to 1, 000,000 Armenians living in the US. It would be very hard for significant non-repayable aid to be given to Armenia, as Armenians do not represent a significant part of the population.
      For the time being, I believe that the most we can do is send donations as we are doing and put pressure on the Armenian govenrment to make sure that it definately goes to the people that are most in need.
      We must also bear in mind that Armenia gained independence in 1990 while Israel had independence in 1948. This is a huge time difference, and we must take it into account when comparing the two countries.

  13. Darwin Jamgochian said:

    If Armenia has any hope of succeeding, empower the people!

    President Sargsyan told university students recently that he doesn’t need any suggestions how to run the country.

    The level of pomposity with Armenia’s leaders is endemic.

    • manooshag said:

      Darwin, how true… the leadership of our fledgling Armenia, from its Der Bedrossian until to day Serge and cohorts today have not been patriots – but are of the communist mentality… fill their own pockets and to hell with the citizens of Haiastan. Armenian needs patriots, an Aram Manoukian, who from 1918-1920, led a free Armenia… Not as any of the the self serving leaders of Haiastan these nearly last 20 years!! Manooshag
      P.S. Hope university students now see that a Serge/his ilk are not true leaders of Haiastan… True patriots seek to benefit for ALL the citizens of Haiastan. Manooshag

  14. Reality said:

    Thirty to forty percent of the population is in poverty!! Wow! The poor are nearing the majority mark of our population. Time for the socialists of our homeland to oragnize the poor and stage a much needed ans passed due revolution. Damn the animals who prey on our own to feed their greedy desires.

  15. mko Kaynakjian said:

    And the ARF was a coalition partner in this RoA goernment???Doesn’t surprise me in the least..

    • Hratch Tchaghatzbanian said:

      Mko, it shouldn’t surprise anybody that ARF was a part of the RoA coalition government. ARF, from its very foundation, has believed and supported unity amongst Armenians everywhere. Do we have to agree on everything together? No. Human nature does not allow everyone to agree on everything. However, this does not mean we should not work together productively to reach our common goals, such as a strong state with secure borders, where those borders include lands that are rightfully ours, and where there is economic justice and a quality of life for citizens. There is nothing wrong with working with people you do not fully agree with. However, once that disagreement threatens the above common goals for individual self interest, it is time to pull away and draw a line (which is exactly what the ARF did when the President made poor judgement in agreeing to the protocols that threatened our national security and interests).

      • Hratch Tchaghatzbanian said:

        In addition, armchair politicians seems to think that in politics you can choose between good and bad, as though we live in a fairytale. But on the contrary, in real world politics, we are often forced to choose between bad and worse. The is the price we pay for being involved rather than sitting on an armchair.

  16. hayasdanapnag spyurqahay said:

    I agree that there are too many families as the one mentioned in this article, but as a relative of them, I think it’s better to help them instead of talking about their condition. I think for some rich families who’re moved to Armenia recently & think they are “patriotic” (while they are all there for their self interests) it won’t be too hard to build a small kitchen and a bathroom for their poor relatives, making their dreams come true. It’s also not too hard to help their kids attend university, instead of talking sarcasticly about how their father wonders how to be able to marry his daughters. After all they are relatives and one must feel shame to talk about the pain of her/his relatives. It’s always easy to talk and blame also the authorities, me, myself is not fond of what they are doing for Armenia, but it’s not right just to complain and wait for the authorities to change the country by one touch of a stick, let each one of us do a SMALL thing to make Armenia get rid of her hardships & be a better place to live in, let each of us do our part to make an Armenian child SMILE & have a better life. After all Armenia belongs to the Armenian people and not to the authorities.

    • Arman said:

      We fought for Armenia so that every Armenian can have a better life in our country. Your mentality is as of oligarch. Instead of giving them fish, teach them how to catch one. This is the best that you can do. Diaspora already helps toooooooo much. Every years billions of $$ go to Armenia but to what end? It gets out as fast as it gets in thanks to oligarchs. And what kind of Hayastanabnak spyurqahay are you? Shame on you.

      • hayasdanapnag spyurqahay said:

        Dear Arman, need to tell you that my mentality is not as the on you are mentioning, sorry for not understanding the point I’m talking about. I know better than you that Diaspora helps Armenia too much and if you want to know, I’m against that, because I know where all that money goes. But in this case, the point is about her relatives. Anyways, I don’t want to quarrel with you as I don’t know who you are, but need to tell you that whoever you are, you’re not the one to judge me. I’m in Armenia for more than 10 years now and if it interests you, I’m teaching people how to catch the fish, as you are saying, but time by time giving them fish to some peolpe you know doesn’t make me go out of money.

  17. john hughes said:

    Dear Maria,
    Thank you for your impassioned essay. Let us hope that it will contribute to dialogue that, sadly, is still sorely needed, especially in Diaspora after 20 years. You and I have lived in Armenia about the same amount of time. I understand your frustration, and admire your fire. I cringe at comments such as the one here who presumes that any Diaspora (or foreigner) who moves to Armenia is “rich” or here for “self interests”. Hints of “revolution” are equally off the mark, unless or until there is leadership in Armenia capable of sustaining the spirit of change, once reactionary flames yield to the reality of evolution. And, to those who wish to compare first-world country poor, with those in Armenia: As someone who grew up among America’s poor, indulge me to offer an observation that Armenia’s “poor” is more aptly described as “downtrodden”. The difference is significant. Thank you for your words.

    • AE said:

      May be we should organize a town-hall style grassroots together to have an open-dialogue and ways to help that connects people in need with people with means. It might be a small but real start. May be it should happen this summer and may be we should get a commitment-to-attend-and-help petition started! I live in LA but intend to be in Armenia this summer with my whole family. Count us in if you can organize such an event!

  18. sebouh nazarian of australia said:

    You are all a joke…armchair critcs who do not have a Clue….go back to endorsing Clinton and Obama…you stupid fools

  19. ArdeVast Atheian said:

    I like to see the people take matters into their own hands. Every policy and decision should be taken by the vote of the people. Government should be comprised of individuals and companies hired specifically to carry the will of the people.
    Fortunately we live in an age where this can be done without a hassle almost instantaneously. What I’m talking about of course is the internet. All trials and national policy decisions should be taken where everyone can follow and vote on it every hour and every day. It is a solution that is impervious to corruption and authoritarianism.

  20. American Odar said:

    “I have gone to the village of Vedi for Christmas to visit distant relatives who live there. The same occurred again this year when I made my annual trek to see this family of six who live in conditions that should bring shame on all of us.”

    If they are your family, or your friends, I think that you should help them because likely no one else will. My grandfather is from Apalachia and he was supporting his whole family when he was thirteen. He used the G I bill to go to school and he payed for all of his siblings to go to University. The point is that if you help one person, for example the daughter, she can in turn help her whole family. If you truly feel that they so desperately need aid then you have got to be the one to give it to them. You cannot change a government or its citizens overnight but, you can combat apathy with empathy.

    “I agree that there are too many families as the one mentioned in this article, but as a relative of them, I think it’s better to help them instead of talking about their condition. I think for some rich families who’re moved to Armenia recently & think they are “patriotic” (while they are all there for their self interests) it won’t be too hard to build a small kitchen and a bathroom for their poor relatives, making their dreams come true. It’s also not too hard to help their kids attend university, instead of talking sarcasticly about how their father wonders how to be able to marry his daughters. After all they are relatives and one must feel shame to talk about the pain of her/his relatives. It’s always easy to talk and blame also the authorities, me, myself is not fond of what they are doing for Armenia, but it’s not right just to complain and wait for the authorities to change the country by one touch of a stick, let each one of us do a SMALL thing to make Armenia get rid of her hardships & be a better place to live in, let each of us do our part to make an Armenian child SMILE & have a better life. After all Armenia belongs to the Armenian people and not to the authorities.”

    I hope that you are writing about the situation to bring light to an important issue. I also hope that you are doing more than writing.

    • Maria Titizian said:

      As a rule, I don’t usually respond to comments to my articles because I believe everybody has a right to their own opinion and if I’m sharing mine, then you have the right to share yours. However, there are insinuations about my intentions and questioning of my actions in your comments that are misleading, not to say insulting. I didn’t write about my relatives to embarrass them, I wrote about them to highlight the plight of most families living in poverty. You don’t know what I have or haven’t done for them, that is my business; you don’t know what I do or don’t do in Armenia and to assume that I am rich (therefore patriotic) and here for my self-interest is beyond insulting. I don’t hide behind names such as American Odar, my name is Maria Titizian and I live and work in Armenia.

  21. Erwin said:

    Imagine the Armenians in diaspora come back to Armenia and help the country to stand up on its feet. Imagine they come to help the poor and help improving the situation. We can’t deny that every Armenian in diaspora is badly needed here in Armenia.

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