Friends in Deed: British charity makes life better for struggling single women in Armenia

Margarita Baghdasaryan, 52, is a single mother who lives with her 18-year-old son Hakob in a 12-square-meter room in a hostel in the Kanaker district of Yerevan.

Those bare details alone frame a life of hardship that is not easily managed in a society so family-oriented and reliant on male leadership. And it is a life made even worse by a general lack of organized care for those of Margarita’s situation.

But it is a life lately improved by the help of a London-based charity, Friends of Armenia.

Presently, Friends of Armenia are completing a $90,000 renovation of the hostel that houses some 90 families (about 180 residents). Most have situations similar to Margarita; single women whose husbands left for work in Russia and never returned, and some who were killed in the war in Karabakh.

Most residents, too, are former employees (or wives of employees) of the Lamp Factory, the company to which the four-storied building belonged. (In Soviet times, factories provided hostels for employees who did not have permanent residences.) Many are refugees from Azerbaijan.

The factory went out of business shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the hostel was transferred to the local government as a housing for those who had fled Azerbaijan when conflict started in the late 1980s.

For more than a decade the hostel suffered the effects of daily wear and tear, without the means for making it better.

About two years ago, the situation was brought to the attention of Friends of Armenia, a non-profit organization started by London Diaspora in 2000.

At first, the charity ministered to the psychological needs of the women.

“We first thought of sending a psychologist there to talk to them and their children so that they can feel themselves worthy citizens again and not people left alone without jobs and without hope,” says Rouben Galichian chairman of Aid Armenia and Executive Trustee of Friends of Armenia, who spends some of his time in Armenia.

A team of three psychologists worked with about 50 single women living in a nearby building. Most of them had become prostitutes. Galichian says most of these women have proper jobs now – some are employed as street-sweepers, others as laundry workers, waitresses, etc.

“Within just two years of work with them our psychologists managed to convince them that they were worthy citizens of their country who had found themselves in difficult conditions, which, though, never meant that they were not worthy people,” says Galichian.

But at 16 Banavani Street, Friends of Armenia went further, as they decided to improve the living conditions in the hostel.

“When we went in first, we saw that the toilets there were a poor sight, with ruined walls and big holes in the floor. There was no water there. We repaired the toilets on almost all floors. I say almost, since some rooms and toilets had been privatized and it is not our policy to repair individual property,” says Galichian. “We got a written letter from the prefecture assuring us that the parts we repair will not be privatized and will be for general use for the local residents.”

The first repairs were completed in January, others were finished recently. They are all clean and improved and according to Galichian, the women take a good care of them.

“It has changed so much in our lives. We haven’t seen such a thing before even from the authorities,” says pensioner Margarita, adding that even hammering a nail is a problem for the hostel residents as most of them are lonely women, some with small children, and some are disabled.

Three months ago Friends of Armenia also decided to repair and clean the corridors and the staircases on all floors.

Works were launched, but the roof caught fire in an accident in July, and repairs were suspended.

“But we will continue the work and will try to get the prefecture to repair the roof before the start of rains,” says Vahan Patvakanyan, a physicist by training, who is one of the ten representatives of Friends of Armenia here.

Patvakanyan is in charge of the hostel reconstruction project.

“It is difficult for these women, most of whom live without husbands, with small children under their care, to do the repairs themselves. The majority of them do not have jobs, those who receive pensions can hardly make both ends meet with the money they get from the state,” he says.

Susanna Muradyan, 53, a former employee of the Lamp Plant, has lived in the hostel alone since 1989. “The situation here was terrible. This project means a lot for us, as it has saved us from anti-sanitary conditions,” she says.

Marina Minasyan, 43, is glad Friends of Armenia has reached out for them with this project. She only complains of her life in a small room that she shares with another single woman.

“I appreciate the work of the psychologist who comes here regularly. Talking to her is a great relief for me and gives me hope that one day I will have a better life,” says Marina.

Galichian says that psychological assistance is no less important thing for most of these women who live in poor conditions. “We continue to provide our psychological assistance to these lonely women. Whenever they have a difficult situation in their lives or with their children they call our psychologists and I am glad they feel the use for themselves and their children,” he says.

In the summer of 2000 a group of British Armenian professionals visited Armenia for the first time. They were very impressed with the capability and the high level of education of the local people, as well as their eagerness to learn and their drive to achieve something real, while living under difficult conditions, despite the almost total neglect of the authorities.

The group returned to London and founded the charity organization the same year.

So far Friends of Armenia have realized projects worth a total of $400,000 in Armenia, in various fields – from orphanages and old people’s homes, to schools, kindergartens, hospitals, hostels and whole villages.