Up Close and Personal
Kim Hartzner’s Yearlong Sojourn in Armenia
Can Mean a World of Difference for Disabled Children
by Sona Hamalian
Kim Hartzner’s bond with Armenia goes back to 1980, when he first visited the country as a tourist. Little did he know then that he would come back in the future to lead large-scale relief efforts and unprecedented advocacy programs to improve the lives of handicapped children. In 1991 Kim Hartzner and his father, Rene, founded Mission East, an international relief and development organization, in their native Denmark. Armenia became Mission East’s very first recipient country, when in 1992 the organization established a hospital here. Since then Mission East has distributed thousands of tons of food to vulnerable communities in Syunik and beyond. Beginning in 1998, Mission East has focused increasingly on initiatives to help change negative attitudes toward children with special needs, promote better education and healthcare for such children, and increase socio-economic opportunities for the disabled and their families. In 1999 Kim Hartzner was appointed Managing Director of Mission East, called to oversee the organization’s expanding aid operations in Armenia, Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Nepal, Romania, Tajikistan, and elsewhere. In August this year, Hartzner, who is a medical doctor, moved to Armenia with his family for a year, aiming to gain a broader insight into local issues and help optimize the impact of Mission East programs throughout Armenia.
1. You have demonstrated extraordinary commitment to your organization’s objectives in Armenia by deciding to live and work in the republic for a year. What do you expect to achieve during this time, especially in terms of Mission East’s recently-launched project for disabled children?
- The goal is twofold: first, I hope to form a better understanding of the country’s root issues; and second, I’d like to help expand awareness of these problems on a wider, international level, including the Armenian Diaspora. I’ve spent considerable stretches of time in Armenia in the past, but today, as Mission East approaches its 15th anniversary in the republic, I think it’s critically important for me to actually live here for a year or even longer, in order to gain first-hand knowledge of the problems affecting stakeholders, children in particular, throughout the marzes, as well as to be better informed about existing programs and the government’s response, about specific policies and patterns of dealing with the issues. I think first-hand knowledge of this order will help me design more effective fundraising and public-awareness campaigns, building on a long tradition of assisting the Armenian people. You know, Mission East has been in Armenia during the war and the drought of 2000, providing emergency relief and other aid to ease the pain of the population. I’d like to engage the Armenian Diaspora and the broader international community in our work. I’d like to have donors and our Ministry from Denmark come and visit Armenia to see what we’re doing here. And I would like us to be available to the Armenian and international media, to tell them how we see the situation.
- Our two main programmatic areas in Armenia are health and education. I think these are fundamental issues in terms of helping get Armenia back on its feet. Some 50 percent of the country is underdeveloped. About 1.5 million Armenians live below the poverty line. And the country is still gripped by an economic blockade. The challenge of turning things around is indeed huge, and it’ll probably take 10 to 15 years. But the situation is far from hopeless. Armenia has many advantages, including a well-educated population, a rich history and an ingrained Christian tradition, as well as solid connections worldwide.
2. The plight of disabled children in Armenia is a complex issue that owes mainly to a lack of systemic resources on the one hand, and negative social attitudes toward vulnerable and marginalized children on the other. How do you go about addressing these core problems?
- Basically, we address them through a comprehensive approach. Take, for example, our 1998 pilot program at the Nubarashen Orphanage. Imagine, the children did not know their own birth dates; they didn’t know how to tie their shoelaces; they didn’t know what money looks like; they didn’t know how to buy a bus ticket. They were socially handicapped. The orphanage administration’s attitude was, “Why bother to teach them if they’re not going to use it?” The curriculum, too, was a watered-down version of the mainstream curriculum, with no real effort to foster actual learning and understanding. So kids spent years in first grade without being able to move on to second grade. We began addressing the issue by first adopting a hands-on methodology to impart practical knowledge to the kids. We then implemented a more systemic approach in terms of changing the very way that children with special needs are taught. For the past two and half years, we have worked to introduce a novel curriculum designed specifically for such children. At the same time, through our local partner, the Bridge of Hope organization, we have successfully lobbied the government to pass a law guaranteeing the right of special-needs children to a good education. As fundamentally, we are working to change the way children’s mental aptitude is assessed in schools, the way many children are automatically labeled as “unable to learn.” Well, there may be several reasons why a child cannot keep pace: psychological issues, developmental disorders, physical disorders, etc. We need a team of psychologists, developmental pediatricians, and even speech therapists to correctly assess a children’s aptitude. We are now working to introduce a thoroughly modern assessment tool to assist children in the educational process, according to their unique conditions. And we have worked extensively to train teachers. All of these watersheds now need to be applied in as many schools as possible, step by step. As of today, there are seven schools that have adopted our programs. We must continue to train teachers, and also the trainers themselves.
- We take a similarly comprehensive approach to the children’s health situation, which is an enormously complex issue. Aside from a lack of financial resources, many medical practitioners in Armenia do not have adequate training and generally function with the Soviet belief that a child with a special need is a child with a disease. Thus doctors are too quick to give up on children with special needs. They’re not trained to deal with conditions such as autism or other developmental problems; they’re not equipped to provide long-term treatment. Already there is a grave social stigma attached to children with special needs, with parents feeling ashamed of such children and even going to great lengths to hide them from society. Medical practitioners’ attitude only exasperates the situation.
- What Mission East does is to address the issue at all the levels. For instance, we work through Dr. Babloyan’s Arabkir Pediatric Center to train doctors in diagnosing developmental conditions. Bear in mind that of the 200 hours of pediatric training in Armenia’s medical schools, only one hour is dedicated to child development. We currently have a specialist, trained in Switzerland, who trains doctors throughout the marzes in identifying and diagnosing developmental conditions. In Armavir alone, where we worked with 11 communities comprising a population of some 70,000, we have identified 460 households that have children with medical needs and/or needs for social assistance. This is an alarming figure and it’s only getting worse, in large part because parents are embarrassed of their children and often don’t even take them to doctors, fearing the family’s reputation will be ruined. The problem is so widespread, so complex, that the challenge is to address it in a truly comprehensive manner – at the individual level on the one hand, and the systemic level on the other.
3. Do you believe that Armenia’s ongoing bid for democratization, coupled with the positive influence of organizations such as Mission East, can lead to more equitable treatment of disabled people, particularly children, in Armenia? In other words, do you believe it’s possible to achieve change not just in actions, but also in an entrenched societal mind-set?
- Yes, it is possible. I think it is going to take a lot of time, it is going to take a lot of work, effort and energy, but I do think that people want to change. For instance, at Yerevan State University, a facility has just been created to assist students with disabilities. This, I think, is a big step forward. Another example is that of Mr. Ashot Yesayan, the former Minister of Social Affairs (with whom Mission East has worked since 1992), who is planning to publish a manual for social workers. Such efforts enjoy the support of a number of leaders, including Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and his wife, Nani. I think it is important to persevere, and yes, I do believe fundamental change is possible, otherwise I wouldn’t be here.
4. You have three implementing partner organizations in Armenia: Nairi, Bridge of Hope, and Arabkir. How do they contribute to the realization of your projects?
- Our three partners are involved in three different stages of work. Let’s take Bridge of Hope first. Once a minor organization, it has grown into a nationally recognized organization as the country’s top disability-rights advocate. Bridge of Hope has just celebrated its 10th anniversary, and we are very proud of them as we have played a great role in their development during the past four years. Right now Bridge of Hope and Mission East are conducting a huge public-awareness campaign, with posters displayed in metros, theatres, and all over town. We’re having posters and other material sent to all parliamentarians. We launched the campaign, which included a recent press conference, with the theme “your attitude toward me means more than my disability,” meaning societal attitudes have a major and direct bearing on the lives of the disabled.
- The Arabkir Pediatric Center is a highly specialized facility with a superbly motivated, Western-trained staff. Ara Babloyan is this big, charismatic driving force behind the organization. Through local clinics in the regions, Arabkir locates children with special needs, provides critical help, including long-term treatment, and trains medical professionals in identifying and treating developmental conditions. Arabkir depends on foreign assistance and help from Mission East. Currently we are supporting them financially to pay the salaries of their experts.
- Our third implementing partner is Nairi, which is a grassroots NGO providing direct relief, such as food, clothing, etc., to children with special needs. We are working with Nairi to make it capable of providing children with medical help and education.
- In addition, we are helping all three of our implementing partners develop their organizational capacities and become more sustainable in the long run.
5. Beyond your implementing partners, how would you characterize the level of support demonstrated by the government of Armenia and other stakeholders toward Mission East projects?
- The Armenian government has always been positive toward our work, partly because it sees us as an organization with a long-term commitment to Armenia. Of particular note are the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Education and Science. They have supported us in designing a curriculum for special-needs students and establishing clinics in the Syunik region. Furthermore, they have actually bucked the trend by taking responsibility for things. Our work will have a much greater impact if we receive this kind of support from other government agencies as well.
- We also have other partners, such as COAF (Children of Armenia Fund), which is very supportive of Mission East. This organization is currently funding the construction of community centers and clinics.
6. For both the short and long terms, what are Mission East’s main challenge and main asset in Armenia?
- I think the main challenge is to change people’s attitudes and ensure that reforms are actually implemented. It is easy to draft a law, to draft a plan, to even draft a curriculum, but it is important to see it in practice. This is all doable.
- We have an excellent staff in Armenia, an excellent reputation with the government, and we are recognized as a trustworthy organization. People believe in us. They recognize us as honest, respectable, sensitive, and thoroughly accountable and transparent as an organization. This is probably our biggest asset.
7. Mission East considers Armenia a “pioneer” country in its work. Is this merely a reference to the country’s early inclusion in Mission East programs, or can it also point to Armenia as a model for other transitional nations?
- Both. Armenia was our first operational country. We had Russia, Ukraine, but Armenia was our first public-sponsored program. ”Can it also point to Armenia as a model for other transitional nations?” This is a very interesting question. Inna, our program officer, was in Georgia recently, attending a conference, and representatives from Tajikistan came to her and asked, “Can you please help our country in the area of special-needs education?” Which tells me that what we have done in Armenia can be replicated elsewhere.
8. Mission East’s “values in action” comprise honesty, integrity, compassion, valuing the individual, and respect for all people. Based on your considerable experience in Armenia, how would you assess its connection to these values, at both the official and societal levels?
- I think I have said this in many other ways. Integrity is about doing what you say you will do. Promising something is very easy; doing it is much more difficult. Compassion: if you do not have a heart for the people, you cannot work here. If you’re biased, if you are discriminating or have hang-ups about certain sorts of people, I think you will not be able to work here. Mission East is a Christian organization and we see these as Christian values. In many ways these are universal values. God is helping Armenia through concerned people.
9. You were determined to learn to speak Armenian by the end of this year. Will Kim Hartzner give a press conference in Armenian anytime soon?
- I hope so. Armenian is a far more complex language than I first thought, but I will definitely learn it. I’ll get there within a few months.
Sona Hamalian is a philanthropic consultant based in Yerevan. She also heads Creative Networks, an international public-relations firm promoting nonprofit organizations, cultural and educational institutions, and artists.