- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
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January 30, 2004 

Truant by Despair: Poverty blocks the path of education for needy children

Blankets are the main source of warmth..

Edgar, 17, and his 20-year old sister Lala have fourth-grade educations. Attending school is an unattainable luxury for them. As is having a heated apartment. Warmth is a dream.

This family, taking shelter in a shabby room of a ruined hostel on Atarbekyan street in Etchmiadsin is a victim of interest money. (In the 1990s, many people borrowed money to start businesses that went broke. They covered their debts by selling their apartments and went to live on the streets.)

Their father died in 1990. After losing everything (apartment and documents) as a result of unsuccessful business their mother, Narineh, found shelter in this hostel where only some miserable families are living. The whole family stays in bed as blankets are the only protection against the cold.

In three months Lala, who is recently divorced, will become a mother. "I don't know whether I will succeed or not as I've been sick and feeling cold for a long time," she says, her face flushed by flu. She is the only breadwinner in the family. In summers she washes dishes in cafés (her brother has a crippled leg and the mother has thrombosis). In winters there is no job and hunger starts to torture them, and only one thought occupies them: how to get bread not to die of hunger.

This is not the only family in Echmiadsin with children who haven't attended school and where overcoming hunger becomes the family obsession.

(According to the National Statistical Service of Armenia, 77,332 children didn't attend school last year - 13 percent of the school age population.)

Chief director of the Joint Educational Administration of the Municipality Susanna Harutyunyan found 120 children in the town who don't attend school. This figure is much more than presented by official information. According to Educational Department of Armavir Region, only 30 children don't attend school in the entire region. Echmiadsin is only one of the region's communities.

Harutyunyan took it on herself to help.

Kindergartners are under the authority of the administration of the Municipality Department. Schools are not within the department's competence as they are under the authority of the Region's Head Office. However, on her own initiative Harutyunyan began delving into the issues of children who don't attend school.

"In summer two boys from Petrozavodsk orphanage stayed in our home," she says. "When we were drinking tea one of them asked, 'May I pour one more spoon of sugar into tea?' I was surprised at what he asked. These boys became the reason I began paying attention to poor children. Vagrant children gather near the church. I started to collect information about them and as a result it became clear that none of them attend school."

Last July Harutyunyan made an announcement on television that all parents whose children don't attend school can visit her department. Parents of 120 children showed up, but the department managed to help only 18 of them to begin attending school. Probably there are more such children, whose parents either haven't heard the statement made on TV or simply haven't visited the Municipality.

"Just because children haven't got shoes to wear they don't attend school. Poor children are also teased in schools. When a child didn't attend school during Soviet times that information was reported to a minister," says Harutyunyan, who had worked in school as a teacher of history for 20 years. She received higher education in Moscow and says that if she were young these days then she wouldn't be able to receive an education, as she grew up in a poor family.

It is also the case for 13-year old Serzh Gharslyan. He hadn't attended school for two years because he didn't have proper clothes. He had no shoes, and his trousers turned into rags.

The family of three exists on Lala's seasonal work..

"I was ashamed to go to school and meet with children in these trousers. I couldn't wear my shoes because they were torn."

His father hasn't visited him for two years and before that was in prison. His mother, Burastan, has no job. Grandmother Yelena heard that the municipality is interested in children who don't attend school and applied to that department. Harutyunyan gave them 6000 drams (about $10.60) so that they could buy clothes for the child and send him to school. In autumn Serozh attended school for children with mental deficiency (he is not mentally disabled), however, he says that children began teasing him for the short skirt his mother was wearing and again he is ashamed to go to school, "I will attend another school as there they tease me."

Since midday the family hasn't eaten anything. On the previous day they ate only boiled cabbage. "Now I've borrowed bread so that my child waasn't hungry. It's true, the municipality helped us, they gave us money so that we could buy clothes, but again he lagged behind in education. This child has never had a full belly. He is hungry the whole day. I don't know what to do. I can't even think about school," says Elena, who with the help of the municipality was hired to work as an office cleaner. She has been working there for 15 days but she hasn't gotten paid yet.

Susanna Harutyunyan says that it is not possible to solve the problem of children's education only on your own initiative. It requires coordinated work, which can be conducted only by some non-governmental organization. She applied to numerous organizations, however, nobody was interested in these children. Only once the World Vision organization helped with clothes and Armavir Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church helped several children to start attending school.

"The problem cannot be solved by sending one child to school with the help of an acquaintance," says Harutyunyan. "It's a shame that nobody in the spiritual center is interested in these children. The Church is also indifferent. And if you want to realize a public program for children, who don't attend schools, then you have to have acquaintances in that sphere. In this country even charity is made through good connections."

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In Honor

Wednesday was Army Day, marking the 12th anniversary of Republic of Armenia's forces. President Robert Kocharyan and government dignitaries visited a Yerevan military cemetary to pay respects.



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