From Isolation to Opportunity

A Center for orphaned youth in Armenia offers a brighter future

by Gayane Abrahamyan

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“There are many of us here, but we are all alone in this world,” says Irina, an orphaned 19–year–old now living at a boarding vocational school in Gyumri, Armenia’s second–largest city.

If not for this Youth Development Center, operated by the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, Irina might have found herself homeless a second time in her short life. As is the case for orphans in Armenia fortunate enough to have found shelter in an orphanage, Irina was expected to leave — whether or not she had a place to live — at the age of 18.

Irina was not always an orphan. Until the age of 16, she lived with her mother and attended public school. But when her mother died after a short illness, Irina’s world fell apart. Without any family or friends to turn to, the terrified adolescent wandered the streets before authorities finally placed her in an orphanage.

“I had no idea what was going to happen, just took what the day brought, thinking that I would not exist tomorrow and everything would be over,” she recalls, wiping away tears from her dark round eyes and smiling weakly.

Now a student, Irina counts herself among the fortunate.

According to Anna Mnatsakanian, project manager at the Fund for Armenian Relief, approximately 1,200 children live in 11 orphanages around the country. Each year, roughly 50 “age out” of these institutions. Most, says Ms. Mnatsakanian, cannot find jobs and many end up on the streets.

“These children are in danger,” she says. “Unless they have a chance to further their education, the information we have gathered about former orphans is not comforting at all.”

Since 1991, she and her colleagues have been tracking orphaned youth who have aged out of the system — currently more than 150.

“Thirty percent are homeless, sleeping in basements or attics of buildings or whatever they could find,” she says. “Ninety percent do not have permanent jobs, and some of them don’t even have identification papers. As a result, prostitution, theft and trafficking are quite common among former orphanage residents.”

Orphaned youth face a bleak future in a nation where young people in general have few opportunities. Persons between the ages of 16 and 30 make up nearly a quarter of the country’s population of 2.9 million. Some 22 percent are unemployed, according to a 2007 study conducted by Armenia’s Ministry of Culture and Youth Affairs in conjunction with the United Nations Development Program and the Armenian United Nations Association. In the economically depressed province of Shirak, of which Gyumri is the capital, half the youth are jobless.

Gyumri was a thriving industrial center at the height of the Soviet era, where numerous manufacturing plants employed some 70 percent of its residents. But the city has declined dramatically since 1988. Once bustling factories now languish, decaying. Gyumri, as does the rest of the province, grapples with one of the country’s highest unemployment rates, endemic poverty and a myriad of social problems associated with both.

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