- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
 November 14 , 2003 

Families under Pressure: Assistance can be the difference between the street or school for children living on the edge

Artur, Gevork and Narineh at home in a former cowshed

Arsen, 11, and his brother Andranik, 12, used to go to Yerevan from Parakar to beg for money to save their family from hunger. They had not been to school for two years because their single-mother Narineh could hardly provide food for her four sons and could not afford other expenses.

Since September, the boys were reinstated in night school and a third brother Arthur entered the village school's first form (the fourth brother Gevork is six). They returned to their studies after the family was included in the Prevention program of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF - Doctors Without Borders). Narineh was given clothes for the children, stationery and other household items.

The program, created in 2000, offers assistance to poor families so that their children don't become vagrants and beggars and risk being sent to special institutions by the Government. During these three years, MSF has helped 700 people and is presently taking care of 200 children, mainly from Yerevan and neighboring regions, who were either beggars or on the brink of life on the streets.

The Prevention program renders medical and psychological assistance to poor families. It helps children to attend school, finds work for parents, reconstructs their apartments (many of these families live in basements, semi-dilapidated buildings and train cars) and provides them with household necessities.

A team of six staff patrol the streets offering MSF's visiting card to vagrant children they encounter, encouraging their parents to visit the organization's office.

"Andranik was begging for money in Vernissage. When I tried to approach him he was scared as he thought I was a policeman. But when I talked to him he took the visiting card," says MSF's social worker Roman Harutyunyan.

Andranik was among a group of children taken to the city to beg by a villager. The woman stood at a distance as the children went begging, and would take a portion of their collection from them every so often. Andranik says: "Each time we collected 1,000 drams (about $1.80). We bought doughnuts for us and the rest of money we gave to ma."

Narineh only recently learnt that her sons were begging. She says: "They lied to me saying that they were collecting aluminum and changing it for money. How could I know that they had gone to Yerevan begging for money."

Narineh resided in Hrazdan in the house of her husband's relatives before a family dispute resulted in the house being sold. She and her husband moved with their children to the Kashatagh region (Lachin) of Karabakh, where the fourth son was born. (A daughter died in a home accident.)

"We were hungry. My husband didn't want to work and didn't like to do anything," she says.


Her husband was later jailed for three years for committing theft. Narineh left Lachin and moved from place to place before settling in her current home, a disused cowshed on the territory of the former restaurant called Chtanots in Parakar.

"We cleaned our home until we finally removed the smell of cattle. Now there is no smell any more, is there?" says Narineh. The spacious room is furnished only with one small table and two beds where they all sleep.

Narine cleans houses for living. This is not a permanent work. "People clean their house seasonally. You clean somebody's house, and in five months will be asked to clean it again". She doesn't work at the moment, and doesn't know if somebody would like to have her clean their house in a couple of weeks. The only problem of the family is to find food.

Her elder sons were attending the school for retarded children. None of them is retarded, but their mother sent them to that school only because they weren't asked to pay and the children were being fed there.

"I can't afford to send them to the local school. Every day they collect money for a broom, a curtain. I just can't send them to that school. If all other children brought the money, and mine wouldn't, everybody would laugh at them".

Two years ago she couldn't even afford to send children to night school, saying: "They had no shoes, no clothes and that's why they didn't go."

Then Andranik encountered the MSF worker. Narineh says: "I didn't think it was something serious. I was always told you have four children, go to that place, go to another place, but I believed nobody. This time my mother visited me and made me go to Doctors Without Borders. They helped me very much and my children again began attending school."

MSF workers are going to prepare their home for winter, repairing a broken window and closing gaps to keep the room warm. The family may also be provided with some firewood.

"They had so many problems especially with food that they didn't pay attention to other things such as registering with a medical institution and sending the children to school," says MSF's Harutyunyan, who acts as a guardian to the family. "This woman just needed a little support at least for the children to start going to school."

During all this time, Narineh hasn't been provided with any official aid. The authorities refuse to include her in the state's "Paros" program for such families because she is not officially divorced.

Although out of prison now, the father has abandoned his family. The last news they got about him was a year ago when Andranik, begging money by the GUM shopping mall suddenly saw him. The father gave him 3,000 drams (about $9) and some food and agreed on meeting Andranik in two days. However Andranik wouldn't find him in the agreed place.

"They say I must give them a divorce certificate. But where can I find my husband? I must look for him for six months then wait for six months till we get divorced. And my children will die from hunger."

Thanks to the Medecins Sans Frontieres organization after two years of interruption, the children started to go to school again.

Only 55 percent of families that are in care of MSF get aid from "Paros" program, which provides 10,000 drams (about $18). MSF calculations suggest a family of five spends 15,000 drams (about $26) just on food.

But in cases such as Narine's family, getting help from Paros is impossible because that program requires official registration with the government. But a portion of those helped by MSF do not have passports, birth certificates or a permanent residence.

Even families that get Paros assistance can't solve the problems of the minimum necessity for their families to keep their children away from the streets, and then from the facilities for "dangerous" children.

"This type of aid is less expensive than keeping children in institutions," says head of MSF mission Samuel Hanryon, "The Government spends 1,500 drams (about $2.50) to keep a child in an institution, or $300 a month for four children. If, instead, the mother gets 50,000 drams (about $88) in aid every month then she will be able to live without problems with the four children."

Since May 2000, MSF workers have met about 300 vagrant and beggar children in Yerevan's streets (the program functions only in Yerevan). Approximately 100 were occasional beggars, who were included in the Prevention program.

Now 90 of them don't beg any more, so are no longer involved in the program. Next summer, MSF plans to discontinue its street-kid program, moving on to other issues. It hopes, however that another organization will pick up where it leaves off.

According to Agnes
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