For a die-hard militant nationalist the above statement would sound like an intellectual jargon-frankly up until a couple of weeks ago it had the same connotation for me as well. The reason it changed for me was because after writing about the condition of the people I saw during the “poverty tour”, I received some responses and some of the writers even asked for ways to help the inhabitants of the ‘dumps’. Of course I also received e-mails from people who had nothing but ‘complimentary’ words addressed to me but I guess one has to take the good and the bad in such situations.
A Couple of days after the first time we took the poverty tour, I paid another visit back to the place where we went to, this time accompanied with several other people who were in the process of helping the poverty stricken in Armenia (I intentionally don’t call these people charitable workers since it’s not charity that they do, rather they help the needy to help themselves). As a result of all the visits we took, and following an article published in a Western based news service, some of the officials were also alarmed and they promised to send some doctors to check on the situation of those inhabitants who were claiming to have Tuberculosis in the building (later it turned out that they WERE diagnosed with TB. That’s the way the media operates in Armenia; local journalists are mostly after gossips and hence not taken seriously by the authorities, but with western-based media outlets it’s a different story. To keep a well-tarnished image in front of the world, the government usually is more responsive to inquiries and stories brought to them by these journalists and ‘promise’ to handle the issues.
The bottom line is that raising awareness about issues that Armenia faces today, is far more important than beautifying the streets of Yerevan. More importantly this awareness has to reach the people who don’t live in the country and their only view of the country is the capital city with its ongoing face-lifts. Of course for unrepentant Diasporan optimists, any attribution to the uneven social and economic development in the country is nothing but the babbling of a self-hating Armenian.
Just a week after taking the poverty tour of Yerevan I accompanied several people to go to a community housing, which is funded by a European charity organization and it helps families with more than five children to move into houses with better living conditions. Of course like most (and I mean most and not all) charity organizations the work that has been done has been done half-hearted and without oversight-at least that’s what I gathered from my observations. This made me think about the lyrics of a song used by a British pop-singer where he says “charity is a coat you wear twice a year” mostly to feel good about oneself and if it happens that other people benefit from it as well even the better. The ironic thing about the location of this new assistance housing is that it is situated right across the ‘highway’ from another housing development that is actually either for Diasporans with a lot of money and come to ‘live’ in Armenia or just people who are interested in living in a gated community - I’m not sure gated from what? Perhaps to be ‘protected’ from the dangerous unemployed people.
To end my ‘poverty guide’ it’s worth mentioning that regardless of what happens with the people living below the poverty line, the situation is not unique at all. Although Armenia is not a third world country - actually Yerevan is the one which is not, whereas regions outside of the capital are borderline third world regions - it is no better than the rest of the countries of the world where wealth disparities are also common. Perhaps the emotional aspect of being a Diasporan Armenian is what aggravates the situation. For instance for those Diasporan Armenian who do come to visit Armenia and see beggars, or hear about thieves or murderers their first reaction is that ‘no, this can’t happen since Armenians are good people.’ Of course this is a normal reaction coming form people who mostly live in closed communities - dare I say ghettos? - and who have idealized the concept of Armenia or Armenians. Armenians are emotional people and do tend to romanticize everything and bend the truth beyond recognition to fit everything into their own worldview - once again not a typical Armenian characteristics, rather the reaction of many nations which are small and find themselves to be at the margins of current world debates.