Antoine Terjanian's letter 03: Kouyr Arusiag’s orphans in the Dzaghgadzor summer camp

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Saturday, June 15, 2002

We’re waiting for the minibus promised to us for 9:00 a.m. to drive us to Dzaghgadzor, to meet the orphans of ‘Kouyr Arusyag’ (Sister Arusyag), the Armenian Catholic nun who spend 30 years teaching children in Philadelphia and decided to devote herself to the orphans of Armenia. To save time, we take a taxi to the ice-cream factory to buy ice-cream sticks as a treat for the children. The factory is near the Dzidzernagaberd Genocide Memorial. It seems like a state-of-the-art factory. Well organised, clean… we bought the 150 sticks at wholesale prices, in record time, no sweat… Armenians love ice cream! There is plenty of freezer-chests plugged-in all-over town selling ice cream to go… They are delicious, and your best Haagen-dash chocolate with nuts stick imitation costs less than 200 drams on the street (50 cents Cad.).

We finally take-off at 11:00 and climb the Caucasus range to leave Yerevan. The scenery is as beautiful as our first Saturday, and Ararat still dominates everything. We go by the castle built by the owner of the Kotayk beer factory; it is baroque looking, perched on top of a hill… Is it fortified? To redeem himself, the Kotayk owner has built an Armenian Church close-by, downhill from his castle.

We arrive at the Hrazdan hydroelectric plant. This is a major project built to help Armenia gain energetic self-sufficiency. It is supposed to bring excess water from Lake Sevan through huge underground pipes. Unfortunately, because of the Azeri blockade of the gas supply from Turkmenistan and acts of sabotage by Azeris in Georgia, Armenia has been forced to use more water than the excess, and the water level at Lake Sevan has been steadily falling in the last 10 years.

The city of Hrazdan, 70 000 inhabitants, used to be Armenia’s fourth largest city before the earthquake that wiped-out Leninakan in 1988. It is now the third largest city, but is a sight for sore eyes! Potholes all-over the downtown streets. The factories that used to produce Soviet tanks and armoured vehicles are shut. The engineers who worked there have left (Yerevan, Russia, anywhere)… Would you blame them?

Dzaghgadzor is a further 20 minutes away. It is Scotland all-over again… this time we see a lot of sheep. We pass by a beautiful church/monastery complex that we promise ourselves to visit. Dzaghgadzor was the training site for Soviet winter olympians and the facilities are still there, ski lifts and accommodation. We arrive at the ‘Diramayr Djambar’ (the Camp of the Mother of God). 150 orphans aged 5 to 16, neatly dressed are lined-up outside to welcome us. Some are wearing traditional Armenian folk costumes, and Kouyr Arusyag is standing in front with two of these folklore clad girls, offering the new comers the traditional bread and salt. We wish them that they never run-out of these. This ceremony is followed by a folkloric dance performed in the open by some of the older girls. We are then invited to have a small chat before lunch with sister Arusyag. Another nun, Sister Rebecca, having heard we are Terjanians wonders if we know her relatives. Her brother married a Terjanian. Guess what! She is Lena Avsharian’s father’s sister! What a small world! (Visit our Yahoo photo album: to see all the photos related to my letters from Armenia).

Kouyr Arusyag is full of stories about the orphans, some of them were orphaned by the 1988 earthquake, and many are social orphans. Parents, who are so desperate, they have to abandon their children. She refuses to admit many who are not really desperate cases. Very sad stories …. Sister Arusyag hovers over the children as if they were her own. She does not keep boys once they reach puberty… She knows ‘how strong nature is’ she says with a twinkle in her eyes. Armenian orphans are not different. She tells us how Markar was pampered to death by all the girls: they quarrelled about who was going to iron his shirt, bring him his lunch, sit next to him in class… “kich menats Markarin bid loghatsenenk” (what next? Are you girls going to give him a bath?) Cries Kouyr Arusyag! She also tells of Lousineh she was 18 and was in charge of feeding the chickens. She went to feed them so often that they noticed there was more than chicken feed involved. The young man came to ask for her hand from Kouyr Arusyag, who reluctantly agreed to a wedding before she turned 19. But he was a good young man. The orphans are taught a regular school curriculum in the orphanage and live in it (in Gyumri – this is their summer camp). K. Arusyag dreams of preparing them better for the working world. She wants to create a vocational school for them, with practical skills. She pleads with us, she was promised a volunteer by the AVC to teach the orphans English. A 19-year-old French-Swissess, freshly out of high school has just arrived volunteering to teach French for one month. K. A. is desperate for help. Are any of you out there interested? Here is her new email adress 2003:

We are invited for lunch. The older children serve the meal. The service is impeccable; K.A. wants her children to get positions in the growing tourist industry in Armenia. She has even expanded 2 new wings with individual and double rooms and suites to receive vacationers and small conferences ($ 20 per night 3 meals included); this will allow her to rely a bit less on donor money. I am sitting across from her. She is so lively talking to her guests, yet running the whole show at the same time. She asks if we have any children, then she asks for their names. When I mention Toros, she pauses a moment, the name rings a bell, she once knew a Toros Terjanian. I tell her it is my father. She pauses again; this time she has an expression on her face. She looks at me; she does not say anything. We both remain silent, biting our lips, then we move on. I am sure she has a story there…. One day perhaps she will tell me.

After lunch we visit the different wings, we see where the older children are taught to make beautiful embroidery. Yes, they will embroider table-clothes according to specs. We plan to order one. We see where they sleep in bunk beds, 8 to a room, approximately all the same age. I remember the story K.A. told us about these 5 girls aged 5 to 14 whom she discovered living alone in Gyumri. The family had managed to survive the earthquake, but the economic collapse was too tough on the father who abandoned them in shame. The mother turned to prostitution, of all places in Turkey. When first discovered, the children refused to go to the orphanage. K.A. kept insisting. They put a condition: If you don’t separate us, we will come. This strong-as-steel nun made an exception, the 5 children all sleep in the same room.

We are then invited to their auditorium; there is a small stage. The children recite poetry and perform beautiful folksongs and dances in authentic costumes, made by themselves. They sing ‘Kna Groong, Hayots Tashdi, Dzaghigue dar, Bantoukhdneri. Ararati, Dzouyn dar tevit, Djour Sevana, Bantoukhdnerin**’. Our tears flow.

We then go out to discover that they have a small park on the property they have named ‘Robert Burns Park’ and have posted one of his poems on the sign. Sheila turns red (see photo). To top it all, the children cross their arms and join hands to wish us good-bye singing ‘Aule Lang Syne’ in Armenian. Sheila can’t take it anymore, she is weeping openly.

On the way back we stop to visit the beautiful church-convent complex built over different periods by the Pakhlavouni princes and completed in the 13th century. It has been recently renovated thanks to funds from the Arutyunian family. The four churches in the complex are truly beautiful, austere but warm, some of the ‘vortan garmir’ (the red dye extracted from a red nematode) paintings are still standing on the main door arch. What a tribute to the Armenian genius in Architecture that so many churches have survived in an earthquake-prone zone.

The countryside is so beautiful; I can see the heatherrr, but can’t smell it. Along the highway, young men are selling colourful wild flower bouquets in gorgeous symmetric designs (antaram dsaghigner). At least they are doing something useful with their time. Unemployment is so high in Armenia. Is it not the root of all these social problems?

I have met so many construction engineers, either unemployed or doing (trying to do) something else. Can’t we employ these skills? There are so many construction contracts being awarded around the world, can we not have an Armenian company bidding on these. Apparently one such small Armenian Company bid on a contract in Kuwait, they had all the qualification, but they could not post the bid-bond and were eliminated…. Couldn’t we find a sister Canadian or American Company that would bid jointly with them and benefit from bid-bond posting by an agency such as the CCC? If any of you is interested, we could work together for the next suitable contract that comes up…. I believe Armenia should export ‘services’… any ideas? Will employment agencies in Ireland be interested in 5$ per hour qualified labour? We should all be creative with ideas and finding and facilitating contacts for Armenians to create employment…

We arrive late to Yerevan. We had invited our host family and Anahid Keusseyan for supper at the fresh fish restaurant (England Garden). Thank God for mobile phones, we had called from the minibus to tell them that we would be a bit late. They are waiting patiently and we walk to the restaurant. In fact we have been walking all the time in Yerevan. It is great not to have a car. We walk everywhere… 15 minutes to work, 10 minutes to lunchtime restaurants and we usually take a longer walk in the evening. The Fish restaurant is 16 minutes away; we invited Anahid Keusseyan to meet us there. It is called England Garden. They have a pool in the middle with water fountains springing, a forest of climbing vines cover the whole garden, and we sit to eat under these. They serve ‘Ishkhanatzoug’ (‘Prince of Fish’) it is live in the pool, they pick the one you want and cook it for you the way you like. We chose ‘Khorovadz’ (Bar-b-q’d) and ‘Lavashov’ (wrapped in Armenian paper-thin bread ‘Lavash’ with butter and baked). They were both delicious, and we paid by the kilo (3000 drams /Kg… 8 $Cad/kg). A first class 5-person live band played beautiful romantic and dance music, including folklore with traditional instruments (duduk)…We paid for the whole meal, including wine and tip 14000 drams ($46 Cad for 6 people). Yerevan is full of outdoor cafes and restaurants many within public parks with view of the water and live swans and children boating entertainment, all very affordable. For instance a glass bottle of Coca-Cola is 200 drams in a restaurant; hard liquor wine and beer are even comparatively cheaper than Canada: 300 drams for a shot (50 cl) of vodka in the best hotel in Yerevan. We had been very careful in the first week and ate no uncooked or un-peeled vegetables. We have followed advice and experience and adjusted slowly and are now eating and drinking almost anything …with moderation… what a delight!)

The fruits in Armenia are the best I have tasted anywhere in the world. We only eat the local fruits that are in season. Now it is the mulberries’ first season, and they are scrumptious. We pass under several mulberry trees on our way to work everyday, and we always stop to pick a few. Last week it was the peak of Cherries and strawberries, also delicious. We are waiting for the apricot season. Fruits are so plentiful and delicious in season. I pay 1 cad$ per kilo of mulberries (in Canada they are for at least15 $ per Kilo. Imported bananas are the same as in Canada; we buy them to please the Dadig who lives with us.