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Brief Refuge for Yerevan's Street Kids

While dozens of institutes across Armenia do their best to provide homeless children with a normal childhood, the prospects for a secure future are bleak
By Karine Ter-Saakyan

More than 50 per cent of the youngsters who leave the Zatik Children's Home in Yerevan turn to a life of crime, admits its founder, while another 15 per cent commit suicide.

Ashot Mnatsakanyan adds that only two or three inmates in 100 actually become reintegrated into society -- reflecting the state's continued indifference to the plight of Armenia's homeless children.

Founded in 1994, Zatik currently houses around 130 youngsters aged between three and 18. They come from Armenia, Russia, Abkhazia and Nagorny Karabakh, the victims of civil war, economic depression and family tragedy.

Mnatsakanyan himself is a devout Christian. "I really wanted the children's home to be not just a place where kids live but a spiritual refuge as well. They don't receive any particular religious instruction here but we try to give them a moral code and a sense of duty."

While some are genuine orphans, others have been handed over to the children's home by parents who are simply unable to look after them. "We take them in," says Mnatsakanyan. "What else can we do? But the hardest part of our work comes when they reach the age of 18 and go out into the adult world.

"If we can't get them into a position where they can get a job, get married or find a home for themselves, then you can be sure that their years here will have been wasted. If there's no continuation, all our work comes to nothing."

Mnatsakanyan went on to say that, last year, 20 girls came to the Nubarashensky home from Gavar and all subsequently became prostitutes.

The children go to school in the same neighbourhood and find themselves marginalised by the school authorities. "They mark us down," says 12-year-old Mary, "and for a single mistake they fail us. We get on all right with our classmates but we look after our own."

It's a sense of isolation that will become reinforced as soon as they leave the children's home. The majority will be forced to make a living for themselves on the streets.

For 12-year-old Araik, a place at a children's home is only a distant dream -- "I've heard it's good there," he says, "they feed you, clothe you and teach you". Dressed in rags and always unwashed, he begs at the city markets, making little more than 1,000 dram a day.

"I don't beg for much from passers by," says Araik. "About 10 or 20 dram, whatever anyone's prepared to give. Sometimes a boy and a girl will go by and they'll even give 100. I don't go to school, I haven't got a dad and I'm the eldest in my family."

Artur, 14, has been selling flowers on the streets of Yerevan for the past three years. "I don't beg, I work," he says proudly. "There are very few like me now."

Adoption remains the brightest hope of Armenia's orphans -- although only a small minority actually have the good fortune to be chosen. Liana Karapetyan, director of a home for orphaned babies in Yerevan, said, "The main aim of our staff is to ensure that each child is adopted and passed into good hands. It's here that the first meetings take place. The children look at each visitor with eyes full of hope...

"The problem is that most people believe all orphans are the children of prostitutes but this is far from the truth and for the most part, they are kids born out of wedlock."

Last year, 45 children at the home were adopted, 15 of them abroad. One boy was taken by an Armenian family living in Belgium - relatives of the country's national hero, Andranik Ozanyan. This is the stuff that orphans' dreams are made of.

Karine Ter-Saakyan is a freelance journalist based in Yerevan

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