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A Source of Light

Children with disabilities find help and hope in Armenia

text by Gayane Abrahamyan with photographs by Nazik Armenakyan

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For 15-year-old Artyom Hovhannisyan, every movement is a victory. Confined to a wheelchair in a city without ramps, the boy depends on his mother to carry him from place to place. Even at home, he has very limited space to maneuver; in fact, their dwelling barely warrants “home.”

Artyom’s mother, Svetlana, rears her five sons alone in a wooden cabin — a temporary structure erected following the devastating earthquake of December 1988. What was to be temporary, however, has become permanent, and stands badly in need of repair. The floor and ceiling have been rotting for years. Holes in the faded walls have been papered over with the boys’ drawings, diplomas and various certificates.

When she smiles, the lines on her face reveal years of concerns — years spent tending a small plot of land to try and feed her children while living on a monthly pension of about $90.

Around her cabin, about six miles from Gyumri, the second-largest city in Armenia after its capital of Yerevan, temporary settlements dot the landscape — a collection of small iron and wooden buildings erected nearly 30 years ago to shelter the suddenly homeless. Over the years, their inhabitants have left the settlement, moving to new buildings in the city. Now, only Ms. Hovhannisyan and her five sons remain. The eldest, 18 years old, will soon leave to join the army, adding another source of concern as Armenia’s army remains on guard.

But for now, Ms. Hovhannisyan finds solace and a sense of order by tending the earth. She has cleaned the stones from the garden and neatly organized them near a fence. She has planted trees, tilled the soil and sowed flowers.

“I am not afraid of work,” she says. “I will do everything. But when my eldest son will be called to the army, I don’t know what I’m going to do, because he is my only help with Artyom.”

Every time she mentions his name, she fights back tears.

Caring for her son takes a toll, as Ms. Hovhannisyan has developed many problems with her spine and her veins. But a hope shines in her eyes when she watches, smiling, as Artyom plays with younger children. They laugh, and Artyom manages to catch a ball thrown by a 3-year-old and toss it back. To his mother, it is another small victory.

Artyom has cerebral palsy. He has been confined to bed for a year. His world is measured by what he can see from his small window in his room: The neatly tended yard, his mother working the garden, the game being played by his younger brothers.

“I understand everyone,” Artyom says. “I know it is difficult for them. My mom and brothers suffer a lot.” But Artyom’s eyes radiate kindness and patience, not anger or frustration. He is not even angry with the father who left them because, as with so many of his generation, he believed it unacceptable to have a “sick” child.

Artyom does not want to talk about that part of his life. He prefers to talk about a nearby center that has become a source of friendship — friends he would never have dreamed about just a few years ago.

The Emili Aregak Center, established near Gyumri by Caritas Armenia, the charitable arm of the Armenian Catholic Church, has been Artyom’s beacon of joy.

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