BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
Recently, I wrote a report for Asbarez about how individuals and families had to leave their homes because of the war in Artsakh. Today, I’d like to share a little bit about the humanitarian assistance that some organizations and individuals have provided to war-torn Artsakh.
Here’s a bit of history: According to our famous historian Movses Khorenatsi, Armenians have been living in Artsakh for thousands of years. However, because of the 44-day-war in Artsakh, tens of thousands of people, including children, were forced to flee, many with no opportunity to take their personal belongings or property. Literally, they left with only their lives.
Before I go further, I’d like to tell you a legend of how the name of Artsakh came to be. Hayk Nahapet (Հայկ Նահապետ), or Hayk the Great, is a legendary patriarch and the founder of the Armenian nation. Hayk was a 5th generation descendant of Noah, or so they say. When Hayk Nahapet was improving the country, his people informed him that in the region where Artsakh is nestled, the ground is not usable because it’s very wet and mushy.
Hayk asked his son Aramanyaki to gather all the shrubs that he could get his hands, to plant in that mushy area to make the ground suitable for agriculture and forestry. In the old Armenian language, “Tsakh” means tree, and that’s how the name Ar-tsakh came to be. It means a region where trees were planted by Aramanyaki, or “Ar” for short.
To continue with my report, here are a few organizations and individuals that have provided aid to refugees and soldiers.
Focus on Children Now
I had my first interview with Anahit Kalantaryan, who is the director of Focus on Children Now, a nonprofit organization with a mission statement of “breaking the poverty cycle one child at a time.”
FCN was created in 2006 in Los Angeles, California. Since then, through its Humanitarian and Health programs, it has helped over one hundred thousand impoverished children and families across Armenia and Artsakh.
Anahit Kalantaryan is based in Yerevan. “On Sunday, October 27, when we learned that Azerbaijan had attacked the borders of Artsakh, I immediately contacted our main office in Los Angeles and asked them for permission to use some funds to provide necessary assistance,” she said.
In only one day, Anahit procured one ton of potatoes to be shipped to the city of Goris, which is the closest border city to Artsakh in Armenia. She added that the shipment of the potatoes was the very first assistance to reach the refugees. After that, other organizations such as the Red Cross, provided assistance.
Within the next few days, after that first load, FCN organized many other shipments of food and clothing for the refugees. The city of Goris was able to shelter thousands of people in its available hotels and private homes. When there were no more rooms in Goris, other cities welcomed the refugees.
It has been my good fortune to closely witness how FCN has improved the lives of families and children in Armenia. During the last several years, I’ve had the opportunity to travel with their delegations to different villages in Armenia and have watched closely what FCN has offered to the schools and kindergartens in Armenia.
On November 2, 2020, FCN started a nutrition program to feed refugees from Artsakh. For a whole month, FCN fed 2,000 displaced people who had found refuge in the region of Tavush—mostly in the city of Dilijan. However, the program ended within a month, because on November 10, there was a ceasefire, and some refugees were able to return to their homes.
“The war might be over, but our work is not,” said Kalantaryan. “Today there are still thousands of displaced families to care for, the majority of whom have no longer a home to return to,” she added.
I’d like to reiterate that the bloody six-week war between Azerbaijan and Armenia was brought to an end by a ceasefire agreement. Some territories of Artsakh remained in Armenia and some parts went under the control of Azerbaijan. That’s why some refugees were able to return to their homes “not” occupied by Azerbaijan.
Armenian Relief Society
On an exceptionally hot afternoon in the month of May, in Yerevan, without any prior appointment, just because I was in the neighborhood of the office of the Armenian Relief Society, I stepped into their office to get some information about the assistance that they had provided to the displaced people of Artsakh.
To give you a little history, the Armenian Relief Society was founded as a women’s group in 1910 in Boston, Massachusetts. The mission was to serve needy Armenian families around the world. Within a very short time, by May of 1915, there were 33 registered chapters across the United States and Canada.
It was just before 5pm when I arrived at their branch office in Yerevan. Marineh Hambartsumyan, the director of the regional ARS, welcomed me and said that they just finished a meeting, and it was a good time to have an interview. I felt very lucky. Considering the outside heat, the cool air-conditioned office seemed very pleasant.
“As soon as we heard about the Azerbaijani attack, we asked our affiliated chapters around the world to make shipments of necessities. We quickly received monetary and material items from the United States, Canada, Greece and France. We were able to ship a few trucks of medical supplies to the hospital in Stepanakert,” said Hambartsumyan.
She said that they also received donations from local Armenian businesses, such as bread, fruit, raw materials like flour, beans and other legumes which were distributed among the displaced people.
“Our most important contribution to the refugees of Artsakh has been the distribution of one million dollars to the deserving families,” added Hambartsumyan. The money was contributed by Armenians of Diaspora.
The ARS office was able to interview and screen many people to select 1,000 deserving families to receive each $250 per month for four months during the winter. Meaning each family received a total of $1,000, and that constituted total of $1,000,000 dollars, which was doled out to these needy families.
ARS has 50 branches in Armenia and Artsakh. All the branches helped to interview the families and distribute the money.
Children of Armenia Fund
The Children of Armenia Fund is another nonprofit which was formed in the United States, and that began its humanitarian operations in 2004 in Armenia. Since then, the organization has poured millions of dollars into villages with the aim of reducing poverty. COAF has refurbished schools in numerous villages and has brought a healthy lifestyle to kids and their families in Armenia and Artsakh.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, COAF secured permanent housing for 13 families from Artsakh who were displaced because of the War. On June 11 of this year, two of these families moved into their new homes located in the villages of Debet and Dsegh.
In addition to providing housing, COAF is actively taking steps to ensure the smooth integration of displaced people into their new communities.
Armenian Wounded Heroes Fund
The Armenian Wounded Heroes Fund is a nonprofit which has been working with the military and has provided 2 million dollars’ worth of military grade first-aid kits. They’ve also handed body-armor and helmets to soldiers who lacked personal protective equipment. They have supported injured soldiers and have provided prostheses for hundreds of soldiers in need of limbs.
Unfortunately, our soldiers serve on the front lines without showers. Over the last three years AWHF has been providing our boys with hygienic facilities, including running water, electrical power, and clean kitchens.
What follows here are my interviews with a few individuals about the assistance they’ve provided to people affected by the war in Artsakh.
Through a friend, I met 22-year-old Vache Vardanyan, who was studying at Yerevan University. Although he was a recipient of a scholarship from Armenian Educational Foundation, he was so overwhelmed and saddened by losing three close friends in the war that he was not able to continue his studies at the university. Instead, he decided to leave his life in Yerevan and move to Artsakh to look for ways to help the soldiers who are still stationed at the borders.
“After the war, I decided to move to Artsakh to see how I could help the soldiers at the borders,” said Vardanyan.
On November 10, a ceasefire agreement was signed between the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, the Prime Minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, and the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin.
Vache decided to move to Saroushen village in Artsakh, which still belongs to Armenia. His decision to move there was based on several factors. First, he knew people from that village. Second, it was a village close to the border of Azerbaijan, where he could assist the needs of the soldiers more immediately. He discussed the matter with his scholarship grantor, the Armenian Educational Foundation, and he got their blessing to follow his plans.
The plan, mainly, was to assist the soldiers, who are stationed at the borders, with their needs, such as: washing and mending their clothes, cooking homemade food for them, providing them with drinking water, providing equipment, and helping them acquire government aid.
I met Vache in Yerevan. He said that, once a month, he comes to Yerevan for a few days, to take some provisions back to Artsakh.
“The soldiers like strawberries. I’m taking a few flats of strawberries, to make sure I have enough strawberries for them,” he said. The soldier’s families also give him some items to take back to the boys.
He also mentioned that, at the beginning, during the daily visits to the troops, from one end to the other, he had to walk about six miles. However, AEF has supplied a car, so visiting the soldiers has gotten easier for him.
Saroushen Village has about 300 inhabitants. Vache found a vacant home and totally remodeled the house with his own means and the help of the locals. There’s no phone connection in that village. However, there’s WIFI and it’s easy to connect.
Vache came up with the idea to make reusable fabric bags for grocery shopping, which are called “eco-friendly bags.” The idea was to sell the bags and use the money to help the soldiers. He hired 30 women from the village to sew the bags and help with the food preparation, to do the laundry and other tasks. It was a successful plan. He was able to sell 7,000 bags for $6 each.
Besides assisting the soldiers and employing the women, Vache has found yet another way to help the community: educating the children. He turned one room into a classroom and started teaching the kids of Saroushen village and the neighboring villages. This one-room school has 50 students. He has divided the slots according to the age of the kids.
This was the tale of our friend Vache, who is really making a difference in bigger and smaller ways on the front lines.
Arevik Mkrtchyan was a tour guide. On September 27, she had taken a group tour to Artsakh. They were at a hotel in Stepanakert, getting ready to have breakfast and afterwards head out to visit Shoushi. At 7:15 a.m. they heard an awful explosion, which was the bombing of Artsakh by the Azerbaijani troops.
“We were very confused, and soon we realized it was the Azerbaijani troops bombing. The phone connection was cut. We decided to have a quick breakfast and return to Yerevan. On the way there was a big traffic jam. Many people were piled up in their cars and trying to get out of Artsakh,” explained Mkrtchyan.
She said that from the moment they arrived in Yerevan, she decided to dedicate her time and energy to help the soldiers and the displaced people. She quit her job and plunged into a new venture.
From that first day until today—eight months later, she hasn’t stopped. With the help of her sister, she started a nonprofit to furnish soldiers with equipment and tents, called “Tents for the Armenian Heroes.”
Another individual who made a special effort to give some assistance to refugees of Artsakh was Ani Cash. Although she lives in Los Angeles, I met her in Armenia while she was visiting there. I was impressed to learn that she raised over $5,000 dollars for the relief effort.
“After the ceasefire of November 10th, I needed to gain control over my emotions, pain, and grief created by the war in Artsakh. I decided to raise awareness and create some funds for the displaced people from Artsakh,” said Cash.
Since her birthday was around the corner, she came up with the idea to ask her friends, in lieu of birthday gifts, to help her raise funds for Artsakh. With covid restrictions in full effect, she created an online silent auction set for the weekend of April 16 to 18. She asked her artist friends to contribute art pieces to be auctioned.
“Within a week, I had 12 artists signed up and before I knew it, they grew to 31. Some artists donated multiple works. We auctioned off 41 pieces and raised $5,370 in total,” noted Cash. She had asked the buyers to donate a percentage of their purchase to one of the five organizations that she had chosen.
The following are the nonprofits that she selected. All have contributed to help those whose lives were turned upside down by war in Artsakh: Focus on Children Now; Armenian Wounded Heroes Fund; Code 3 Angels, a non-profit organization currently assisting the displaced families of Artsakh with their basic living expenses; Kooyrigs, which focuses on helping specifically, Armenian women; and Miaseen, an organization whose stated goal is to rebuild the Armenian homeland.
What you read here, is merely a sliver of the patriotic and philanthropic work that passionate Armenians, either from the diaspora or from Armenia, have poured their hearts into assisting the soldiers and the displaced people of Artsakh.
There are thousands of other examples, where people have come together or as individuals have left the comfort of their homes and traveled to Armenia to stand shoulder to shoulder with our soldiers and spread compassion. I personally know young professionals who’ve done that.
In these bleak times when our homeland has been attacked, our brothers and sisters have been displaced from their homes, their businesses, their schools, their farms, and their lives, I see the passionate Armenians, young and old, who have joined together to provide necessary services. It gives me hope that people can put aside their differences and unite and share a common goal.