As challenging as living conditions may be for children in Armenia’s 10 state-run orphanages, the difficulties only seem to multiply when they turn 18 years old and must fend for themselves.
When 22-year-old manual laborer Arthur Tsarukian, a former orphanage resident, died from acute pneumonia earlier this year, many Armenians condemned the government for supposed indifference to the estimated 30-35 young people who succumb to easily treatable diseases each year.
Lacking proper housing, Tsarukian, who left central Armenia’s Gavar orphanage in 2008, had been renting a small, damp and cold basement area in a Yerevan suburb, and could not afford treatment for his condition. By law, he was entitled to occupy a state-purchased, one-room apartment. He did not receive it in time.
Currently, 331 former orphanage residents are waiting to receive an apartment from the government via a state-funded program that has long been a source of controversy. Launched in 2003 under the auspices of the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, it quickly encountered difficulties. By 2008, 28 of the 149 apartments distributed were found to be unfit for habitation. The program was suspended a year later after state auditors found that the ministry had misused 1.5 billion drams (roughly $4 million) earmarked for apartment purchases, depriving “these children of the opportunity to live in decent conditions.”
Thirty-seven-year-old construction worker Khachatur Afrikian was among a group of eight former orphanage residents who received one-bedroom apartments from the program on the ground floor of a 16-storey residential building in the Yerevan suburbs. Aging sewage and water pipes for the entire building run along the ceiling of Afrikian’s apartment; in winter, they often burst, flooding all seven flats, recounted Afrikian. He termed the government’s handling of the matter “so insulting.”
“I came down with tuberculosis because of living in these conditions,” he claimed. “My legs constantly ache from dampness; there is no ventilation, no proper window. The floor is bare concrete. This is not an apartment.”
His three-year-old daughter, sick from the flu, lay in a half-damp bed in the flat. “Every day I turn to the [labor and social welfare] ministry, to no avail,” he continued, his voice resonating with mounting frustration. “They say; ‘Don’t live [there], if you don’t want to.’”
Sale documents for 2004 show that the government bought the basement area for just under 3.8 million drams (at the time, $8,400), when, according to the Yerevan real-estate agency Bars, a regular two-bedroom flat in the same building cost roughly 2.5 million drams, or about $6,000.
Lala Ghazarian, a senior Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare official who sat on the commission that approved the property purchases, conceded that the process had “shortcomings.” But Ghazarian added that the government cannot give new housing to those who already have received inadequate apartments under the program.
In a society where most young adults live with their parents or spouses, and well-paid work is scarce, those raised in orphanages, and who have no other family to fall back on, must depend on state support. Boys not interested in state-financed higher education often opt for the army; girls for short-term stays in charity residences in Etchmiadzin, outside of Yerevan, and the northwestern city of Gyumri.
Ghazarian said that the government’s “priority now is those who don’t have any [residence].” Cash returned to the state budget from the embezzled apartment funds will finance a program to build public housing for former orphanage residents, the disabled, war veterans and elderly individuals without relatives, she said.
The first building to go up under this program, a 1.2-billion-dram ($2.9 million) renovation of a half-built structure, already has opened in Maralik, about 90 kilometers from Yerevan in the northwestern province of Shirak, and will house 27 former orphanage residents.
Twenty-one-year-old orphan Artur Karchikian, one of the first residents of the Maralik facility, described the 35- to 50-square-meter flats as “incomparably better” than those provided under the initial apartment program. He cited the distance from Yerevan, the location of most work in Armenia, as “the only problem.”
Local specialists who work on orphanage issues say they are mostly satisfied with the new project, but point out that the initial, three-year contracts are only short-term. If the apartment is maintained well, the contract can be extended to 10 years, said Ghazarian.
In April, Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian told cabinet members that such facilities are intended to serve only as a transitory solution so that former orphanage residents have “the constant motivation to aspire [to greater things] and earn a good life.”
Given that unofficial unemployment is estimated at well into the double digits, Afrikian scoffs at the prime minister’s comments. A one-bedroom apartment in the Yerevan suburbs, where Afrikian lives, costs, on average, $40,000 to $50,000; a sum far removed from his monthly salary as an unskilled construction worker.
“If we have jobs, there will always be motivation,” he said. “But today even those with proper education and employment cannot afford to buy an apartment, let alone us.”
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.