Shaken by the Earthquake of Life

Challenges for seniors in Armenia’s poorest region

text and photographs by Gayane Abrahamyan

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With trembling hands and great care, 82-year-old Ophelia Matevosian recalls the brightest memory of her life: receiving the Order of Lenin — the highest civic honor of the Soviet Union — for her lifetime of work and service to society.

“In 1971 they called me, and [First Secretary of the Communist Party Anton] Kochinian handed the award to me personally. I worked well, I loved my job, was very active, but so what? What’s left of it now? Everything was destroyed; the earthquake took it all,” says the woman, fixing a wistful gaze on the platinum medal.

“I was 14 when I was brought to Gyumri,” says Ms. Matevosian, who grew up in an orphanage. “Back then many orphans were brought here to work at big plants. This city was once the country’s industrial center and we were used as a workforce.”

She began working at the textile factory, and continued for most of her life. After she outgrew the orphanage, the state gave her a room in one of the city’s best hostels as a temporary residence. She has lived within those same walls, encompassing just 170 square feet, ever since.

“I moved into this room the day Stalin died. It was not a good day. Stalin did not forgive me for celebrating. That is why I ended up spending my entire life in this tiny room, never having a family,” she jokes.

A moment later, she bursts into tears.

“I have been alone since the orphanage and until today,” she says, swallowing back her emotion; the bitterness and sadness of her solitary existence reflect in her gray eyes.

“I am not crying because I am alone. Please, believe me, these are tears of joy and gratitude for the people I have by my side today — for their kindness, their warmth.”

The “kind people” entered Ms. Matevosian’s life in 2002, when a team from Caritas Armenia found and enrolled her in a home care program that has since become a lifeline for seniors living alone and without anyone to care for them.

Armenia’s second-largest city, Gyumri was flattened by a devastating earthquake in December 1988, taking the lives of 25,000 people, about 40 percent of whom were children. In the Western media, photographs of the ruined city — then known as Leninakan &mash; became a source of humiliation for a crumbling Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; the quality of construction was so poor almost every building erected in Gyumri in the Soviet period was destroyed. A quarter century later, the city and its environs are shaken by a “different kind of quake.”

“This is an earthquake of life, of terrible social hardship and of moral values,” says Vahan Tumasian, who advocates for earthquake survivors’ housing rights and implements housing programs in northwestern Armenia. Even 25 years after the calamity, he adds, “poverty and homelessness are even more acute.”

Shirak, in northwestern Armenia, with Gyumri as its capital, stands out as the poorest province in a nation crippled by poverty. National Statistical Service data for 2013 reveal a 46 percent poverty rate, while other regions of the country report an average poverty rate of nearly 33 percent.

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