Levon Galstyan’s family are not refugees of war, but of natural disaster. They are Armenians who escaped Gyumri on December 9, 1988, two days after earthquake ruined their home.
They came to Yerevan, where they moved into a landmark of the capital, the “Corncob” building, officially known as Yerevan Youth Palace.
As aggressions intensified between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Karabakh, hundreds of Armenians from Azerbaijan also moved into the hostel.
These 15 years later, the building, home for all the time to the Galystans as well as the refugees, has been privatized. Twenty-nine refugee families were paid between $5,000 and $10,000 to move out.
The Galstyans have gotten nothing. The three-member family says it faces being homeless, unless an arbitration court finds them qualified to be paid a displacement allotment relevant to real estate prices in Yerevan.
Authorities say the Galstyans must move back to Gyumri and apply for housing there.
“We lived in Yerevan for 15 years and we have jobs here,” Levon Galstyan says. “We will have no job and no home in Gyumri. All that we want is compensation. It is not human to compensate all residents except us. If we don’t have the refugee status it does not mean that we have to end up in the street.”
The director of insolvency issues for the Youth Palace, Levon Hovanisyan, says the Galstyans needn’t worry about being homeless, but should move back to Gyumri, where they would be eligible for housing under earthquake relief assistance programs.
“No one is going to move them out to the street. It is not that they have no place to go. The problem is that they do not want to leave Yerevan,” Hovanisyan says. “Other families from Gyumri agreed to take certificates and leave. There is no law saying that if a person has lived in some city for several years and has a job in that city he has the rights to have residency pretensions.”
Levon, 43, his sister Susanna, 50, and their 83-year old mother lived in No. 310 of the Youth Palace. On weekends Levon, a musician by education, sells the paintings of his brother who lives in Gyumri. Susanna works in a library.
“My job in Yerevan feeds my family and the family of my brother,” Levon says. “How am I am supposed to maintain them if I lose this work?”
The Galstyans are again facing the problem of moving out.
Levon and his mother have residency permits form Gyumri. Susanna, however, has a stamp in her passport showing that her residence is the 20-square meter flat in the Youth Palace. Hovanisyan questions how she got the stamp for the property, which had belonged to the Ministry of Youth and Culture.
The Galstyans argue that their registration in Gyumri would provide only $3,000 for housing.
“We can not buy a house for $3000 neither in Yerevan nor in Gyumri,” Levon says. (In Yerevan one room apartments sell for an average of $7,000). “Besides I have already checked that there are more than 2,000 families in Gyumri, having acquired a housing certificate, cannot find an appropriate house, . My brother, too, got the certificate after the earthquake but he could not find a house and lives now in domik (temporary housing) in Gyumri.”
The Galstyans’ appeal is currently being heard in court. Levon says the family is not optimistic of a settlement in its favor.
“The family was suggested to take an apartment for four months free of charge until they find the house by their certificate, but they refuse” says Karine Petrosyan, the arbitration judge.
The family’s property is stored in the corridor of the hotel while they try to maintain living in their unit.
The building, which includes a 500-bed hotel, a 1,200-seat concert hall, gymnasiums and recording studios, was sold in January for about $740,000 to Avantgarde Motor Company, distributors for Daimler Chrysler. The company says it intends to spend $5 million on renovation, but will maintain the building’s unique design.