BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
Where do I begin the story of my return to Gyumri and how I started my research on the 1988 earthquake?
On one summer evening in Yerevan, last year, (2017) I stopped at the red light to cross the street. Standing right in front of me, I heard two women speaking in French.
I seek every opportunity to practice my French, so I plucked up my courage and said, “Excusez-moi, puis-je vous rejoindre pour parler quelques mots en français?” (Excuse me, may I join you to speak a few words of French?) They welcomed me with big smiles.
It turned out that neither of them were French. Sara, in her 30s, was Italian and she was in Yerevan to conduct a research for her doctoral thesis over very old manuscripts in ancient Armenian “Grapar” language, which were translated from Greek. I bet she could not have chosen a more complicated topic.
She told me that she had fallen in love with the Armenian language during her second year of university in Italy. She had been in Yerevan for six months studying eight hours a day at the Matenadran, the manuscript museum. Quite the dedicated student!! Her studies were funded by KASA, a Swiss Humanitarian Foundation. The other woman was Armenian and an employee of KASA in Yerevan.
The Foundation had started its work in Gyumri in 1997, about nine years after the earthquake. Its mission was to provide humanitarian aid to the earthquake victims. Twenty years later, KASA still works with families in Gyumri and has other extended functions throughout Armenia. To supplement their finances, KASA has created hostels both in Yerevan and Gyumri.
This was right up in my alley. I had already decided to spend a few days in Gyumri to do some inquiries about the families who had gone through the devastating 1988 earthquake and its effects after 30 years.
That night when I went home I started a new chapter in my travel journal—the title: A Delicious Encounter.
The following day, me the intrepid reporter, called KASA in Gyumri. Although the center was not working during the month of August, they accommodated my stay at their facility.
The building that housed KASA was built in 2006. It might be one of the most impressive recently built constructions in Gyumri. The first day I arrived at KASA the concierge gave me a little history of the building.
He said that after the 1988 earthquake, when Gyumri was relying solely on foreign aid, Leonardo Gmür (the name has no relation to Gyumri) arrived from Switzerland with a humanitarian mission.
In 1991, three years after the earthquake, he launched a foundation in partnership with Swiss and other European professionals to assist with the wide-ranging needs of people affected by the earthquake. The Leonard Gmür foundation offered psychotherapy and social rehabilitation; an act of kindness much-needed by the victims of the earthquake, who were dealing with psycho-emotional issues as well as physical hardships.
He also put forth the blueprint of the building now occupied by KASA. Unfortunately, his work was cut short and he died in a road accident in 2005, before the construction of the building was even finished. Now his Armenian wife, doctor Arminé Gmûr Karapetyan, who initially was his translator continues his work under the Arevamanuk Foundation.
I met Arminé at the Foundation office, which occupies the whole second floor at the KASA building. I was highly impressed to see how, seamlessly, over the course of 13 years, she’s carried on his husband’s humanitarian work.
In addition to the office, five or six rooms are dedicated to therapy and workshop sessions. Among the rooms there is a kids’ playroom, a library and a reception area. The decor, the cleanliness, and the functionality are nothing short of a center in the United States.
The Arevamanuk Foundation offers many projects: Psychotherapy, child protection, domestic violence, nutritional assistance for needy families and parenting skills. Its mission is to combat, prevent and eradicate all forms of violence against women and children in Gyumri.
The third floor of the building was occupied by the administration offices of KASA. On that same floor there were classrooms, a common kitchen and a dining room. My room with its private bathroom was also on that floor. However most of the dorm rooms were on the 4th floor and they were tastefully furnished with IKEA-type furnishings and bedding.
Now let’s take an in-depth look into the KASA Foundation and how it was created: In 1997 the Swiss-Armenian “Komitas” choir came to Armenia to give a concert. Seeing the devastating situation of the country, especially the region that was hit by 1988 earthquake, the members of the choir decided to start a charitable organization. That’s how KASA was born. The acronym of KASA is taken from French words – Komitas Action Suisse–Arménie, (Komitas Foundation Swiss-Armenia)
KASA leads projects in six broad areas, aiming to sustain economic development in Armenia
1- Humanitarian aid,
6- Youth employment through education
The Foundation’s cultural and social development centers, which are in Gyumri and Yerevan carry out a number of educational programs for children, youth and adults.
While I was staying at KASA I was introduced to their educational programs. The term “flabbergasted” would be a good way to describe how surprised I was to see all these wonderful functions towards the betterment of local families.
In addition to all the services that KASA offers, it has created a youth exchange outreach camps to Europe. Young people from different European countries bring their talents to Gyumri to immerse the Armenian youngsters into elevated forms of art and music.
A few houses down from the Kasa building, where I was staying, there was the house museum of the great Armenian poet Avetik Isahakian. The building is one of the authentic Gyumri-style built homes.
One day I went to check out the museum, there I met the directrice of the museum, Kariné Mirabyan. I told her about my intention to meet people affected by the earthquake and to write about their experiences. She got on the phone and called a few friends.
In no time, Flora Sargsyan, who is the directrice of a senior center and a senior day care, under the Catholic charity foundation of Caritas, came to meet me. It was during the month of August and the foundation as well as the day care didn’t operate for two weeks.
Flora and I walked about twenty minutes from the museum to the senior day care center. She gave me a tour of the center which I found it quite similar to our senior day care centers in the States. There was only one difference—the center in Gyumri offered laundry. The seniors could bring their dirty clothes and the staff washed, ironed and folded the laundry for them to take back—of course with no charge.
During our walk, Flora told me about the day when the earthquake hit. Thankfully, nothing had happened to her immediate family, but she had a big scare, because while she was running from their home to collect her two boys from their school, she passed another school along the way. That building had crushed into pieces.
She said, “the sight of that school was horrifying. Everybody was covered in dust and blood. Some were trapped under debris. Some were trying to dig the victims.” She continued, “Seeing all that, I felt nauseated and my knees buckled, and I fell down, but then I tried to get my strength back and ran to my kids’ school.” Fortunately, her sons’ school was intact, and she could collect her boys.
She told me another story. “At the moment that the earthquake hit,” she said, “A Georgian airplane was crossing the sky over Gyumri, and when the captain saw the cloud of dust over Gyumri, he realized that there must be a catastrophe. Immediately he made contact with the base in Tbilisi to tell about the disaster.”
They say that Georgia was the first country that sent aid to Armenia.
These wonderful encounters in Gyumri opened a door for me to return and do more digging, and to focus into the ripple effects of the earthquake on the families in greater depth.
Please follow my trip to Gyumri to hear more stories of individuals who either witnessed the earthquake or their lives were affected by it.