Armenia’s orphans come home

23 September 2020
The school bag of 12 year old Goharik, a student at the Fridtjof Nansen boarding school. Photo: Armine Avetisyan.

The Armenian government has closed and repurposed orphanages and boarding schools, which care for orphans and children living in difficult conditions, as part of a process of deinstitutionalisation. While some praise the return of children to family life, others fear this may put children in dangerous conditions. 

Hagop Karapetyan and Inna Karapetyan (not their real names) met 25 years ago. The couple dreamt at first of three children, a big house, and later living surrounded by kids and grandkids but as the years went by the dream began to fade.

‘Five years after our marriage, I had a medical examination to find out why I was not getting pregnant’, Inna told OC Media. ‘Eventually, it became clear that I was not destined to become a biological parent.’

The Karapetyans considered adopting a newborn, but never went through with the decision.  

‘We're already both close to 50. We're too old to care for a newborn. And since we weren’t lucky enough to embrace a newborn for so many years, we have now decided to become a foster family. We will bring home a little girl and a little boy who need love and affection.’

They are likely to succeed in their dream, as Armenia is currently undergoing a mass ‘deinstitutionalisation’ — a process in which orphanages and boarding schools for orphaned and underprivileged children are being closed, with the aim to have a supportive family for every child. 

‘The bad socio-economic condition of children's families should not be a basis for taking them out of the family and organising child care in an institution’, Sona Martirosyan, a spokesperson for the Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, told OC Media. ‘State support should be directed not to the maintenance of institutions but to families — providing the necessary support to ensure the reunification of children with their families and preventing new children from entering boarding schools.’ 

Return to the family  

Over 200 children were resettled with biological family members or foster families following the closure of a number of boarding schools and orphanages in 2018.  And in autumn of last year, the Armenian government decided to shutter five more orphanages in cities around Armenia. 

The institution of the foster family, that is state-sanctioned guardians who take responsibility for children who have either have no parents or whose parents have been deemed unfit to take care of them was introduced to Armenia in 2006, as part of a UN pilot programme. It has been funded by the Armenian government since 2008.  

Adults who are Armenian citizens can become foster parents after undergoing a training course which trains them to deal with children who have been raised in difficult circumstances. Foster families are paid ֏130,000 ($270) a month for each child they foster. 

An uncertain future 

Prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, the Fridtjof Nansen School in the city of Gyumri housed 85 children, some of whom stayed at the school full-time, while others only during the weekdays. 

OC Media spoke with the school’s director, Anahit Karapetyan, before the pandemic. ‘Parents often visit their children here. Some come several times a week. Many children go home on weekends, but not all parents are in a position to adequately care for their children’, she said in February. 

Now things have changed. Only 24 children remain, and family visitation has been suspended.  

Gayane (not her real name) is a resident of Gyumri whose child has been enrolled at a boarding school for several years now. She says if it were not for the school, her child would have grown up in impossible conditions. 

‘I live in a semi-dilapidated building. I don't even have a bed. Every day is a struggle to earn money for bread. I hunt for wood and paper to make fires to fight the cold’, she said. ‘My child wouldn’t last long facing the hunger and cold I do.’  

The children at Fridtjof Nansen boarding school play a board game. Photo: Armine Avetisyan.

In the eyes of the Armenian government, more children should live with their parents. To this end, the state will support parents in repairing their flats and helping them find a job. It will also provide them with firewood and boilers. Families who do not have a flat will be assisted in renting one. 

‘They offer wonderful conditions, but I have no education. No-one will give me a normal job and the state will not help me until the end of my life. Sooner or later, we will be back on the street. If the boarding school stayed open, at least my child would not die of hunger’, Gayane lamented.

The government plans to set up a support centre in Gyumri after the imminent closure of the school, scheduled for the coming weeks, where children will be provided with six months of care, with their mother if necessary, if they require emergency accommodation.

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