Aghajanyan likes knitting. She doesn't like
being called a refugee.
Lianna Aghajanyan doesn't remember learning to
knit. Seems that it was just one of those things
Armenian girls do.
She remembers, though, growing up in a place
so unsafe her family finally had to leave it.
Lianna is a refugee, a word that she doesn't
like because it is a word too many have made synonymous
with "alien" or something worse. It
is a word that usually describes people facing
extreme hardship that was not of their making.
In 1992, after months of living in their basement
while bombs fell in their village of Shahumyan
(now occupied by Azeri forces), Lianna's family
escaped to Russia. She was 14.
At age 17, the teenager moved to Yerevan to live
with an uncle's relatives. Now, she lives alone
in a one-room apartment in the Shengavit district
of Yerevan. When she gets lonely, she goes to
visit relatives. But when she simply needs to
be busy, she knits.
"In Shahumyan, almost everyone was knitting,"
Lianna says. "Grandmothers, relatives . .
. I simply like making up different things and
knitting them - socks, scarves, things for kids."
And, since October, pillow covers and Christmas
Lianna is one of 10 women from (previously) Armenian
villages in Azerbaijan recruited by the Norwegian
Refugee Council to launch a program that the Council
hopes will turn into an enterprise for the knitters.
Since last Monday the women's work can be found
hanging on the walls and throughout the bookstore
and dining area of Artbridge, Yerevan's most popular
café among expats and trendy locals. The
bookstore/café is cooperating with the
NRC to promote the sale of holiday-related items
made by the refugee women.
It is not likely that the women might have ever
expected to find their work in such an upscale
The idea belongs to NRC director Tim Straight,
who prior to moving to Armenia three years ago,
worked in Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh helping
develop the concept of "alternative trade"
or, "trade not aid".
Having become intimately acquainted with the
typically impoverished conditions among refugees
here, Straight decided to apply his experience
to marketing a traditional Armenian craft that
could have financial rewards for the women who
make the goods.
"Most of the refugee women are older,"
Straight says. "And I thought 'What do older
Armenian women do? They knit'."
So Straight formed a team of NRC associates and
started scouring Yerevan warehouses for high-quality
wool for making pillow covers. The team, it turns
out, is men.
"That's been a pretty interesting side effect,"
Straight says. "Three Armenian guys learning
a lot about knitting."
The NRC's mission in Armenia is to build houses
(currently it is completing a 66-house village
for refugees from Baku and Shahumyan). Its mandate,
in fact, does not allow for a "micro-credit"
program like the knitting project. Straight, then,
put up $1,000 of his personal money to get the
ball of wool rolling. ("But the project will
pay it back," Straight says. "We want
them to stand on their own two feet.")
works of 10 women are displayed at Artbridge,
Yerevan's most popular cafe among expats.
Straight says that, in general, people do not
understand the refugee situation here, and he
hopes that introducing these women through their
knitting will be a good education for both the
artists and those who buy their crafts.
(Straight: "When people say to me 'What
do you do here?' and I say 'We build houses for
refugees from Azerbaijan.' They say: 'Oh, you
mean Azeris.' And I say 'No, for Armenians from
For the seasonal sale, Lianna and the others
have made pillows with typical holiday designs
(plus the ubiquitous Armenian pomegranate). A
total of 75 pieces will be displayed at Artbridge
and at a Christmas bazaar Saturday at Hotel Armenia.
Each pillow (Lianna says they take about two
days to make) costs $25. The women and the project
team are paid a salary for the work and Straight
says that the profit from each pillow will be
about $4.50, which will be put back into the project.
Ultimately, he hopes the knitters will form their
own non-governmental organization (NGO) and become
"The women keep saying to me 'When is this
going to stop?' And I say 'It's up to you',"
Straight says. "The seed is planted and I'm
hoping it will sprout."
And while it is a new idea, it answers a well
"We go into the villages and they say 'Yeah,
I'll take a house, but I'd rather have a job',"
Straight and NRC is hopeful, as he wrote in a
brochure that accompanies the items "that
at one time soon, these women will be seen as
the strong, resourceful people they are, rather
than be stamped with the word 'refugee' with the
negative connotations that word carries."
Six of the knitters are from Shahumyan and four
from Baku. But: "I'm Armenian," Lianna
says. "Wherever an Armenian is, his native
country is Armenia."
In Russia, she says she felt "half Armenian".
But, even in her native land, she is marked with
a label. At the culture center she attends, for
example, there are two choirs - one of which is
"When they say, 'And now the refugee choir
will be singing' it sounds very . . . as if there
were some separation," Lianna says.
Straight says he is hopeful that Lianna's youth
and resourcefulness will make her a leader in
forming the NGO, but he is cautious about insisting
that the women collaborate independent of NRC.
"They have to want it," he says. "They
have to decide that this is a good idea and then
make it happen themselves."
And with a little encouragement from sales, he
"Nothing would be better," Straight
says, "than if a customer in a little shop
in Connecticut or somewhere would place a small
order so that these women realize this could be
something that can work, and not just another
Detailed photographs of the work are available
to interested customers. For more information,
write to this journal at firstname.lastname@example.org
or to NRC at email@example.com.