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
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
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."
to the partnership with MSF now children
in Vardashen are involved in different hobby
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
"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
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."
of MSF mission Samuel Hanryon thinks that
there can not be "socially dangerous
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
"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.
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
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
"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
"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.
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
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.
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,"
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
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."