- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
 December 12 , 2003 

Below Living Standards: A mother and four children fight the elements of basement life

Arshakuhy prepares a meal near the crumbling wall of their basement apartment.

In the evening when the shadows thicken, the voices lapse into silence and the cold becomes unbearable, an uneven tap can be clearly heard in the basement of a high-rise building in Yerevan.

Marlena Yeremyan, 42, is carefully moving from one part of the room to another. The noise is from the stick in her hand. She uses it to protect her children from rats.

There are many stories about rats in this family. The only son of the family, 11 year old Albert Avagyan says that rats are especially bad during cold days, and worse at dinner time. But it is when the children are asleep when Marlena worries.

"The year before last, in winter, I was sound asleep, and didn't feel the rat bite my nose," says little Albert with childish naivety. "I woke up from my mother's voice, I was quickly taken to the hospital. We knew exactly what to do, as once before a rat bit my sister Arshakuhy's head. She even got e few stitches".

Not exactly up to code . . .

Twelve-year old Arshakuhy has scars confirming her brother's story. She says that to get rid of the rats they have recently brought home Murzik, a gray cat. But not a lot has changed so far.

The close acquaintance of Marlena and her four children with rats started in winter of 1992 when the basement of 21 Zaryan street was given to the family for temporary residence.

"Considering our abject social conditions this place was given to us by local authorities, and we were told: 'Hold on, we will give you an apartment in spring'," says Marlena. But the Yeremyan's have already passed 11 springs in this basement.

There are some old rags on the damp, concrete floor and walls, but they can't cover up the floor holes and stop rodents from entering.

The main room is divided into two parts by old, faded shelves. The first part serves as a living room and dining-room; the bedroom is on the other side of the shelves. There is a rag and some donated covers in the bedroom, which serves for children both as a reading-room and a playroom.

Bad conditions don't have to mean bad grooming.

There is another room next to the kitchen. Numerous old shoes are disorderly scattered here. Marlena and the children collect shoes from the streets to burn in winter and warm up a little. During the coldest days, the metal door freezes shut from the outside, locking the family in until the ice can be broken.

"Every time it is raining or thawing, our home is flooded," says Marlena. "The street water runs through the window inside our house, as the roads are sloping, and we can't do anything. Together with children we have to drain the house standing in water both in summer and winter. After that we are being visited by spiders and worms."

The personal effects for a family of five.

Several years ago Marlena's husband left for Russia to find work. After some years of hearing nothing, Marlena learned that he died there.

For a while Marlena worked cleaning houses. But after several years, she became ill and could no longer work.

"I have been trying to find work in many places, but no result," she says. "Today we manage to survive getting some help from time to time: flower, oil, cracked wheat. But we are not used to complaining that we are hungry. If the apartment issue is solved or if it at least could be a little repaired, we would manage to get by. The local authorities promised to grant us 500,000 drams (about $890) a few years ago, which we never got."

Marlena's home has become a featured stop on politicians' campaign trail. They bring camera crews and make promises but while elections come and go, with few exceptions, conditions in the basement have stayed the same.

Fragile wiring and damp conditions aren't a good combination.

"Every time when I seem to have reached the desired result, and my family is about to get some assistance, either the official who promised to help or the local administration is changed, and everything starts all over again," Marlena says. "The children already laugh at me every time I come home either excited or hopeless."

Marlena says that to make her stop crying the children every time give a performance for their mother, tell her pleasant words or show good marks from school.

"We have had and are going to have again many terrible days, but God takes care of me and my children. Knock on wood, I don't remember them being sick. I wish I could do more for my children," Marlena says with tears in her eyes. "We love each other very much, and don't demand a lot from life."

The non governmental organization, New Armenia, has provided some help for Marlena's family and others. For more information about New Armenia: Call (374 1) 52.47.12; email To assist this family or to make a general contribution to ArmeniaNow's HyeSanta project, click here.


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