Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Poverty "Tour" (August 2004)

In one of my chance meetings I met up with an old acquaintance of mine who in turn introduced me to a local journalist. After several meeting and having discussions over glasses of beer about Armenia and the region my acquaintance offered to take us on a ‘poverty tour’ of Yerevan. The concept was a novelty and both the journalist and I signed up for the ‘tour’. On the set day we met up at the republic square in front of the newly renovated and reopened hotel, and then headed towards the outskirts of Yerevan. I’m not sure if the starting point was accidental or preplanned but in retrospect it was well chosen since at the end of the tour we kept contrasting the tourist-friendly and commercial center of Yerevan with the communal houses several miles away from it.

We arrived at a community housing and one of the first thing I could see was a huge palace-like structure almost opposite from the dumps and the run-down building. The ‘tour guide’ took us to one of the buildings where having visited on earlier occasions, he knew some of the occupants. The building was not old but one could see that it has been neglected beyond repair. The elevator—or at least where there used to be an elevator—was cannibalized and all the wires and metals were sold for scrap. Going up to the 6th floor of the building we walked through a long corridor with rooms on both sides. I was informed that during soviet times, the building was used as living quarters for those who worked at the industries close by.

When we finally entered one of the apartments, we were greeted by four children—ages ranging from six to fourteen—their mother and her father. The sanitary—if it could be termed as such—conditions in the apartment were far from being adequate. There was non-operating fridge in the first room used to store various stuff form bottles of water to packages looking like food (the reason I noticed these is not because I was snooping around in other peoples’ fridges but because the fridge was half-open). The floor of the two-room apartment was not clean with crumbs of bread, tiny bits of paper and cigarette box plastic wrappers all over the floor. The children were all very outspoken and I felt that they were a bit too mature for their age (I guess misery makes people grow up faster—after all isn’t it normal that a child surrounded in misery wants to grow out of it ASAP!) the oldest of the children was a boy who, according to her mother, was supposed to discontinue school and start working as of this fall. The children’s father has been a construction worker for a while now but is caught in the poverty trap where people around him exploit him. Thus according to the wife, there has been instance when her husband would be offered a work in a construction site and then after the work is done he would be refused his pay. This has happened repeatedly and the reason for the repetition is not because the man is naïve and keeps falling into the same trap but it is because he is desperate and desperate people usually cling on to any hope they could get their hands on.

The only thing that provided some children atmosphere in the whole apartment was a large teddy bear surrounded with three other smaller dolls. But even those dolls looked sad. In retrospect I think I do realize the reason for the sadness of those toys. Thus about a year ago the family had another member, a little girl of 19 months who while playing in the stairways had fallen down from the 6th floor and died. She fell to her doom through a broken section of the iron rails, which were meant to avoid such tragedies. We were shown of pictures of her funeral lying in her small coffin with a small doll (her favorite) lying next to her. Now I realize why the dolls in that apartment were sad!

In our conversation with the family I asked the mother about the villa which was situated almost across from their building complex. I was told that it belonged to the Member of Parliament elected from the district. My first thought was that the MP was so concerned about his constituency that he wanted to live very close to them but alas, my trust in democracy in Armenia was not well founded. The woman told me that they had repeatedly asked the MP for financial assistance but they were repeatedly ignored. At one point the MP’s wife even slammed the door in their face. Perhaps it was after such encounters that the MP’s house now has a wall fence and an iron gate to ‘protect’ it from trespassers.

After about an hour of listening to the stories of the mother and her children we went down to the underground floor to visit another family. If I had thought that the first family was living in a bad condition I had jumped into conclusions. As we reached the corridor leading to the apartments in the basement, I saw a common bathroom and a toilet next to each other (late I found out that there was another pair of each at the other end of the corridor) and the stench that came from the public toilets was unbearable and I can’t imagine how these people manage to have ‘sanitary’ conditions like that. But the toilet smell was only an inconvenience compared to what I found later. We entered an apartment where a woman was living along with her children and grandchildren. Two of her grandchildren (ages close to 5 and 7) were playing in the corridor and I could see that the older one had health issues. perhaps my conclusion was based on subjective observations but later his grandmother said that during the fall and winter the child has asthma problems inc the apartment that they live in very humid and sometimes even gets flooded by ‘water’ from the sewage pipes that carry the dirty water from all over the building. As a proof the lady of the house lifted the carpet and the plastic sheet covering the floor and we could see that the floor was wet. And this was in middle of the summer.

We were then led by the ladies—now there were two of them when her immediate neighbor joined us—and one of them knocked on the door of one of the apartments. As I was standing there to wait for someone to open the door the ladies said that the occupant of that apartment is an old lady who, they claimed, has tuberculosis. Not being able to open the door immediately we had to wait for a while and the ladies and my two companions were engaged in a conversation about why aid or assistance doesn’t reach them. Being the impatient person I am I walked back to the first apartments where the two children were running after ach other and playing. The younger one was healthier than his older brother and was always managing to take over the lead. I played with them for while until I realized that the woman with tuberculosis had opened the door and was talking with my companions. Curious about the conversation I got closer and as I did so, an image of an old boney lady started being sketched in the threshold of the door. The only analogy that I can give to describe the woman is that she was very similar to the pictures of starved mothers during the 1915 Genocide (yes I do realize that some readers might argue that there can’t be comparisons to what happened in 1915 but I had to write what came to my mind at the moment).

Not being able to stand there and join in the conversation I left and walked back to the end of the corridor away form the whole group. I wasn’t sure what to think or feel. The overall experience was shocking for me. Earlier in one of the conversations with the ‘matriarch’ when she knew that I was a Diasporan she asked me why couldn’t the Diaspora help. To my response that they already do by sending money to the government she got furious and starting shouting that the government didn’t care about there situation and that they haven’t seen any renovation or change in their condition. Instead she asked to tell the ‘Diaspora’ to help them directly. Not wanting to lie to her I told that I would try and that I wasn’t sure if I would find anyone to hear me.

Before leaving he basement we entered yet another apartment which was recently flooded when one of the pipes carrying the sewage water of the building had burst open and filled the place with ‘water’. The lady had two children who were taken on a one-week summer tour in the north of Armenia by an international NGO to get some rest while she was getting ready to go to hospital for chemotherapy (I wasn’t sure what it was for but I gathered that it might be cancer or a tumor).

Leaving the apartment complex we headed back to town and on the way I was thinking whether or not Diasporan tourists who do come to the country are aware of the disparity existing between the center of Yerevan and the slums just couple of miles away. DO people really care or does neglect provide most of them with emotional or psychological comfort that things in Armenia are better. I wondered if people would chose to see that there is another side of Armenia. A side that unlike the nice cafés and recently renovated center of the city was a place where families have to live on a monthly allowance of 15,000 AMD (30 USD), where children play in a potentially harmful atmosphere and a place where some children don’t even make the second year of their lives. I was disgusted with myself and my claims that I want to help Armenia. I was even more disgusted by the claims of some of the organizations and individuals in the Diaspora and Armenia alike who feel that by sending money to Armenia or by making the Republic Square a nice place to stroll at night, then a veil of optimism could give those people an emotional comfort that Armenia is in a better condition. All these without thinking that there are about 150 families (and maybe more elsewhere)needing to be saved from the claws of poverty and neglect just at the outskirt of Yerevan.

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