BY FLORENCE AVAKIAN
Two eighteen year olds, Michael and Khan, each spent several weeks, traveling by foot, taxi, truck through Iran and Turkey, often without food, to arrive in Armenia. These two boys, from Muslim families came separately from war-torn Afghanistan where terrorist acts had reached their homes and families. They would be forced to join the armed forces and become mercenaries.
Both were warmly welcomed to the Fund For Armenian Relief Children’s Center in Yerevan two years ago, now speak fluent Armenian, in addition to four other languages, and have helped the staff of this Center.
For twenty years this Center, the only one of its kind has taken in and healed children who have been abused, sexually trafficked, beaten, abandoned and or are homeless.
Michael’s story took a difficult turn when he arrived in Armenia. Abused himself, he had lost his mother in childhood, and had crossed the border into Armenia illegally without ID. He appeared in a village, and the residents called police. Arrested and taken to jail, he remained there for two years. “I cried all the time, often did not eat, and never saw the sun,” he said in a telephone conversation from Yerevan with this writer.
NGO lawyers in Armenia who work with refugees, finally were able to free Michael who asked for asylum. He has been at the Children’s Center for the past two years.
“At first, after prison, I had the feeling that I was in another closed facility. I tried to do everything as correctly as possible. I also wanted to re- establish ties with my relatives who have been scattered all over the world since the 1980’s.”
Michael continues by saying that the Children’s Centers specialists “gave me a telephone and internet connection so I could call my father and tell him that everything is fine with me. I gradually mastered Armenian and my social worker let me register for sports classes which have completely redefined my life. Now I have Armenian friends, speak Armenian well enough and am very well received in Armenia.”
Embodies Home and Trust
The Children’s Center, Michael says “embodies trust for me, and is home. After sports, I come ‘home’ to water my flowers and trees, and take care of them. Of course, one day, I will have my own house which will be as hospitable as the FAR Children’s Center.”
Tall and handsome, he has modeled in shows, but he hopes to be a boxing champion. Devoted to his father who lives with Michael’s two sisters in Afghanistan, he nonetheless says that he “feels Armenian. I love the people here. They are so kind. I want to live in Armenia.” Eighteen-year old Khan “very much misses his parents, five brothers and eight sisters, and hopes someday to return to Afghanistan.
When Khan crossed the border into Armenia, he had “feelings of fear, anxiety and uncertainty. The police took me where there was a different atmosphere, many children, everything bright, people smiling and treating me well. I didn’t understand what they said, but I had a sense of security. They spoke to me through an interpreter and I asked if I could contact my family and tell them I am in a safe place where nothings threatens me.”
Khan started to learn Armenian with the help of the children at the Center. “Now I understand and speak Armenian well enough. I also started to attend sports clubs and make friends outside the Center.”
A Safe and Unique School
Khan comments that the Center always awakens two feelings in me. One, that nothing will happen to anybody while they are here and the specialists are with them Secondly that it is a unique school for everyone to increase their knowledge and skills every single day.”
He continues, that the Center helped him to “overcome my traumas, and also to prepare for an independent life. Here, I started taking photo- video recordings with specialists, learning computer programs related to editing.” He has been at the Children’s Center in Yerevan for two years, teaching graphic design, and football to the children.
“I love the Center’s staff very much. They are always ready to help me. I would like to emphasize that I don’t feel like a stranger in Armenia and in the Center. I always have a chance to share my cultural experience with Armenians, and want to say they are great. I love them, but I also miss my family very much, and want to reunite with them.”
The three Syrian youngsters have grown up in Halep where their ancestors came after the Genocide. In Armenia they lost their mother. After facing long time hunger in Syria, they finally got strong physically, strengthened their Armenian and learned English.
Hagop, the father of the family now, is a professional cyclist, brother Jirair, is a graphic designer, and sister Saria is learning Turkish and hopes to be a Turkish translator for tourists coming to Armenia.
All three remember a happy school life in Syria, but now “have come to Armenia to help and keep our homeland safe”, stresses Hagop. In the future, they hope to live together in an apartment in Armenia.
Hearts Warmed and Broken
The Armenian Diocesan Primate, Bishop Daniel Findikyan, who has often traveled to the Children Center, expressed his strong feelings on meeting the five teenagers from Afghanistan and Syria.
“My heart was both warmed and broken when I met Michael, tall and handsome. To hear him and Khan speak Armenian, I felt they were ours. We hear of Armenian orphans, but not enough about non Armenian orphans. It was wonderful to see the Center and its children give them hope and a place to settle their life”.
On the Primate’s first visit “Baron Jirair, my friend”, the youngest of the Syrian teenagers gave Srpazan a tour of the Center. “He was speaking like he was a grown adult, self-confident and mature, everyone’s older brother.”
The Bishop said he was “deeply moved that the three Syrian youngsters read the bible, and pray together before bed.”
Bishop Daniel, who is the President of the Fund for Armenian Relief, called his trips to the FAR Children’s Center “one of the highlights of my trips to Armenia, always inspiring and heartwarming.” He has always emphasized to the FAR staff that they “are doing God’s work.”