- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
 October 24, 2003 

Lost and Found: Reform school becomes reformed school for the "socially vulnerable"

Brought to Vardashen from the street this guy never imagined before that reading is so exciting.

"As soon as we reached Vardashen they took us to lockup. They stripped us, poured cold water on us and beat us up with anything they found. Then they locked us up and starved us for three days."

This is one of the numerous evidences recorded between 1997 and 1999 by workers of the French Medecins sans Frontieres organization (MSF - Doctors without Borders) and given by children who had spent time in Vardashen Special Educational Complex.

Vardashen is one of two special schools in Armenia for children who "exhibit socially dangerous behaviour", according to the formulation of the Ministry of Education and Science. Both juvenile criminals and vagrant or beggar children, who found themselves on the streets as a result of hard social conditions, are regarded as socially vulnerable children.

This institution was like a prison before 1997, where children were subjected constantly to violence and forbidden to leave. One MSF worker wrote: "The security chief treated children extremely harshly. When he was beating a child it was evident he was enjoying it. Children were hung upside down and beaten with truncheons."

Thanks to the partnership with MSF now children in Vardashen are involved in different hobby groups.

Since 1997 MSF has run a program to help children of the special school. At first it was psychological and medical assistance. MSF workers were on duty at the school day and night in order to prevent violations.

"There were many children in the school but few resources. They were isolated, abandoned and constantly subjected to violations," says MSF lawyer Francoise Saulnier. "In Armenia, if children don't have a permanent abode then it is regarded as an offence and they are placed in institutions. Their parents were not informed about that. At that moment it was secondary to look for laws. It was important to take care of their needs."

Later, thanks to cooperation between the organization and staff, punitive methods were replaced with educational ones. Seven supervisors, who were the main perpetrators of violence, were fired and tutors hired. The school turned from a closed institution into an open one, so that children who leave are not regarded as escapees.

"Yes, there were many cases of violence," says director of school Larissa Sargsyan. "There were guards on duty, who used to take and beat children up when all the other workers left the school. Now there is nothing like that any more."

Head of MSF mission Samuel Hanryon thinks that there can not be "socially dangerous children".

During the work with MSF it took two years for the institution to accept the fact that there were cases of violence in school and to fire the staff responsible in 1999.

During Soviet times, the school was a closed institution for around 15 boys aged 12 to 18, who had broken laws (another institution in Nubarashen catered for children aged 7 to 12).

"In those years mainly boys who had committed thefts were kept here. Nobody had ever seen vagrant or beggar children then," says Sargsyan, who was director of this institution for 30 years and after a short break in 1997 resumed her position again.

"Police began to send vagrant children to us and we faced a new problem. So unlike Nubarashen we opened our doors to MSF. They helped us but we wished them to help us."

Today, only 5 of the 80 pupils studying at the school and are law breakers (two of them received conditional sentences). The rest are vagrant or beggar children, despatched there by regional commissions who deal with juveniles brought in by police off the streets. In the past two years, police have found 272 such children.

11 years old Zhenia has two options, either to live in Vardashen or makea living by begging in the streets.

Social and psychological services, cultural and specialized groups (needlework and other hobby groups after lessons) were created in addition to secondary school classes thanks to the partnership with MSF.

Zhenia, aged 11, was brought here as a result of vagrancy. Her father disappeared and her mother raises four children alone. Her mother was convicted several times for sending her children to beg for money.

"Me and my ma used to beg. My mother stood a short distance away while me and my sister were begging people for money. We told them, 'sir, give us money for food'," says Zhenia. Every week, the social worker of the school gives her money for transport so that she can go home to see her family and then return again. Family contact is provided by the MSF program. They cannot permanently return Zhenia to her family because of the likelihood that she will be sent to beg for money again.

Children from different regions of Armenia stay in Vardashen, including a boy from Karabakh, 15 year old A. He came to Yerevan, he says, to study in scout school but ended up on the streets after a fight. His father is in prison and mother raises three children. A. is often caught committing petty thefts.

"A. is good at stealing, mainly food like sausages and bread. When people look at him he makes everything seem pitiful as he is small-bodied," says social worker Marineh. A. often escapes from the school and is found a few days later in different cities near Yerevan.

A wall separating children from their dreams was finally destroyed.

"Very often I want to go home as I miss my ma," he says. A. is one of those few children who don't go home every week because Stepanakert is too far away and the transport is expensive. Instead, he visits home only once every several months.

Most of the children who escaped during the harsh period at the school were trying to return home. MSF's priority is to place children back with their families and it works to achieve this by trying to improve the social conditions of the families. So far, about 80 children have left Vardashen and returned home.

Head of MSF mission Samuel Hanryon says the official description of these children as socially dangerous is very wrong. In reality, they are in danger and thrown on the streets through poverty.

"Disciplinary institutions for children who are at risk must be closed. There should be only temporary detention centres where their future will be decided," he says.

According to him, very often the streets are safer for children than these institutions where they are subjected to violations.

Posters with kids'faces and inscription “Ah! Mama-jan” aimed to awaken society, to remind people of the pain that is silently knocking the doors.

At Vardashen, vagrant and criminal children used to mix and influence each other. There were cases of rape. Older "respected guys" extorted money from younger children The MSF director says that all of that is in the past.

"Vardashen of 2003 is not the Vardashen of before. Violation is not an educational method any more. There are contacts between children and their families. And it isn't urgent any more to provide assistance to the children of Vardashen," he says.

Despite the improvements, however, MSF workers worry that the situation remains unstable. The reforms are not officially mentioned in documents of the Ministry of Education and Science.

Although staff treats children with respect, cases of violence still occur. Sometimes some tutors do not control themselves.

"I've learnt many things from these French people. I don't get angry any more if there are some disorders," says Sargsyan, "I'm trying to be a guide to all my workers so that they don't lay hands on children. But sometimes it happens, for instance, two girls are tearing each other's hair and it isn't possible to stop them so a tutor gets angry and gives a slap. But I can tell you for sure that there are fewer cases of violence in our school than in any other ordinary school."

In August 2004 MSF will finish its program for children in hard conditions (besides Vardashen there is an initiative to help poor families so that their children don't appear on the streets).

MSF finances 98 per cent of expenses for the institution's maintenance and all of the costs of Vardashen's medicines, toiletries, cultural programs, clothes, stationery and school supplies. Vardashen's director does not know who might replace this assistance next year.

"After MSF we need someone's help very much. The state cannot help us," says Sargsyan.

At the end of September MSF organized a marathon in Yerevan to aid children in hard conditions. A conference was also organized and posters bearing the inscription "Ah! Mama-jan" hung all around the city. A wall near poet Avetik Isahakyan's monument constructed of cardboard contained inscriptions from children on each 'stone' such as "This life is not for me", "Let's see when I'm back home again", "If my ma led a normal life I would never be here". It was symbolically destroyed by the marathon runners.

"We organized that marathon to attract society's attention to children in hard conditions and to find those, who will continue our program," says Hanryon. "We don't know what will happen with Vardashen after we leave it. I would like to appeal to people to continue these programs."

According to Agnes
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Surviving members of the legendary Ararat football team were reunited Friday October 24 for a match to mark the 30th anniversary of their Soviet league
championship and cup double-winning season in 1973. The team played an all-star former Soviet national side at Yerevan's Hrazdan stadium.



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