Alvard Gevorgyan strokes her 10-year-old daughter Mariam’s head and says agitatedly: “It was very hard to get my baby back, I thought I would never see her again. When she returned, she was sick and ridden with ticks and lice. The skin on her head was covered in sores.”
Mariam is one of 30 children who were sent to India to be educated at the Calcutta Charitable Seminary under an assistance program agreed with the Armenian Apostolic Church. She was just seven when she left Armenia in 2001.
Alvard Gevorgyan says her daughter Mariam won't return to school in India
“The teachers didn’t allow us to write bad things in letters. If they saw such a letter they would tear it into pieces but when my ma called I told her, ‘mama-jan do something, take me away from here’,” she says.
Alvard, her husband and their two daughters live in the dilapidated building of former professional technical school Number 18 located in the Tnkaran district three kilometers from Echmiatsin. It is rat-infested and she says she is too ashamed of conditions in the building to invite guests to visit.
Under the educational program, children from impoverished backgrounds are offered the chance to go to India to study at the Seminary’s boarding school. Places went first to those in orphanages, followed by children from single-parent families and those living in conditions of extreme hardship.
Alvard is a disabled veteran of the Karabakh War. She feels she was misled about the conditions her daughter would encounter in Calcutta, although the girl felt that the quality of education she received there was much better than she would have got in Armenia and she has in fact learned good English.
Mariam was in the first group selected to go to India in 2001. The family applied for a place after seeing television advertisements about the program. They met a priest who explained that parents who sent their children to school in India were unlikely to see them again for ten years. Nevertheless, Alvard signed up, believing it offered the best prospects for her daughter.
Mariam points at a photograph of herself at the airport as she prepared to leave with the group for India. A priest, Father Ghevond, traveled to India with the children and ensured they were well looked after. Mariam says everything went well while he was there, but problems began when he returned to Armenia after the first year.
“In the beginning it was good but later… I only regret that I could not complete my studies. But the teachers beat and insulted us. There were children who were even listening to our telephone conversations and afterwards running to tell the teachers what we were talking about,” she says.
Alvard says she faced considerable difficulties in getting her daughter back and had to borrow money from the Mayor of Echmiatsin to pay for a ticket to secure her return.
“The school didn’t want to send my child back until they received the money,” she says angrily.
Another child who returned home is 13-year-old Vardan Manukyan. He says: “It’s true that I was missing my home but if everything had been all right in India I would have stayed there. Sometimes when me and my friends were quarreling, the teachers told us ‘you are guilty’ and beat us. Yes, we ate three times a day but I did not like the food.”
Verdun ’s mother Geghetsik Manukyan says that when he called her he would complain about the seminary and ask her to bring him back to Armenia. She appealed for help to the Catholicos and the Indian ambassador in Armenia, but finally she arranged by herself for him to come home.
“You should have seen my son when he returned. It was February here but he was still dressed in his summer clothes from Calcutta . He was sick. Why did they treat them that way? When we sent our children there they were healthy but not when they returned,” she says.
The Calcutta Charitable Seminary was founded in 1821 and is one of the oldest educational institutions of the Diaspora, where people from Armenian communities in New Julfa and Isfahan in Iran, and Iraq used to visit as well. It has functioned constantly during that time, enjoying all the privileges granted by India to educational institutions.
However, by 2000 only five pupils were enrolled there and the school was in danger of closing. It was at this time that the plan was worked out to offer places to children in Armenia to study in India.
The seminary covers all of the pupils’ expenses including food, uniform, and school supplies, and provides them with pocket money of about 500 drams per month. At Christmas, each receives 15,000 drams (about $30), while birthdays are celebrated with a gift.
Deacon Tigran Baghumyan is the cleric responsible for coordinating the Calcutta project at the Holy See of Echmiatsin.
He has heard the complaints from children but doubts that they have been ill treated or had their letters censored. Nevertheless, he intends to travel to India to investigate for himself.
“The program pursues only one goal. People who cannot even complete an elementary education in Armenia are able to get a complete education in Calcutta with support from the Holy See,” he says.
He says there are plans to send another 30 children to the seminary this year and there are many more applicants than places. However, he acknowledges that some of those who have already gone have become homesick or have found it difficult to adapt to their new surroundings in Calcutta.
Deacon Tigran plans to investigate the complaints
“I know about the seminary and its activities very well. I have met with parents who have complained that the condition of their children’s health is bad. Of course, the environment and climate in India are severe and it is hard to adapt. At present, there are eight children in Armenia who don’t want to return.”
Deacon Tigran says the program is being adapted in response to parental concerns. Children will soon have their own email accounts where they can send letters directly to their families. A centre will soon be established in Yerevan where parents will be able to go to make free telephone calls to their children and have access to the internet.
The Church also intends to arrange flights home each summer holiday so that children can spend time with their families. The visits started this year, with children arriving in Armenia on June 12 until August 10.
Fifteen-year-old Andranik Matevosyan is one of those on holiday from the seminary. He agrees that teachers are very strict and do hit children both with the hand and a stick, though he says he was never beaten.
“They often punish and in that case they don’t allow them to swim in the pool and watch TV. If you talk when you eat they order you to stand up and you have to eat standing,” Andranik says.
His mother Karineh Kirakosyan is unconcerned. She says: “If a child misbehaves no problem if he is given a slap. I won’t feel bad. It’s a school. If they attend that school they must endure everything and continue to study.”
There are plans to fly a group of parents to India later this year so that they can see conditions in the seminary for themselves and help to alleviate the fears of other families in Armenia.
According to the deacon, social conditions have improved recently for many parents in Armenia and as a result they want their children to return to live with them again. He says the Church in its turn does not exert any pressure for the children to stay in Calcutta. The biggest issue is usually that the children miss their parents too much.
“In such cases we let children and parents decide,” says Deacon Tigran.
He says the Holy See has replied officially to letters from parents that contained requests for medical treatment following the children’s return from India. The families were informed in writing that Echmiatsin is ready to cover expenses connected with their children’s medical problems and to treat them at the Saint Nerses the Great hospital in Yerevan. However, the parents have rejected this offer.
“I don’t know the reason, but they probably expected to get money from the Church in compensation,” he says.
Alvard insists that she will never place her child in the Church’s care again. She wants compensation at least for her telephone bill in making calls to India to arrange for her daughter’s return.
The seminary in Calcutta, India
At present, about 50 children have returned to Armenia from the Calcutta seminary for the summer vacation. Deacon Tigran says he has talked with many of them and the complaints from some of the parents do not reflect the experiences of the majority.
The seminary has 118 pupils now, 81 boys and 37 girls. The vast majority – 78 – come from Armenia with 35 from Iran, four from India, and one Armenian from Iraq.
Vardan says he learnt English, Russian, and Indian languages during his time there as well as subjects related to Armenia. He is adamant that he will not return to Calcutta, although he regrets deeply that he has not completed his studies there.
“I knew that if I learned then I would become a normal man,” he says.
Andranik is among those who returned sick to Armenia and he spent 15 days in Echmiatsin’s infectious diseases hospital. But he is waiting impatiently for the day when he will return to India. He prizes the education offered at the school and says it will help him to get a good career.
“If I stayed in Armenia my mother couldn’t give me such education. No problem, I will bear these years of separation,” he says.