FAR: Working for Change in Tavush
In a way, it all started with FAR, the Fund for Armenian Relief. Last year we met Helena Melkonian to talk about their Ayo! crowdfunding project, and she was the first one to tell us about their work in the border villages. I still remember sitting across the table from her, amazed as she told us about their project to build a wall around the school in Aygepar to protect it from Azeri gunfire, and how the villagers, and even schoolchildren donated their last spare change to help the project. A week or two later, when we were in Dilijan visiting some of the tourist sights, Helena asked us if we’d like to go and see the wall for ourselves.
The next day, we found ourselves having coffee, apricots, and brandy with the mayor of Aygepar, and going with him to see the home of one of his relatives, whose walls were so covered with bullet holes that the second floor of her house had become unsafe to live in.
After seeing the incredible perseverance and hope that the people of Aygepar had in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, we knew that we had to come back. We contacted Margarit Piliposyan, the director of FAR's Deupty Country Director, about it, and FAR surprised us with their generosity, hosting us in the guest house at their Berd office for a week. After spending a few days with the all-female staff of FAR, we were amazed by their dedication.
When she was finished going through the week-long plan she had put together for us, Lusine Grigoryan, the director of the office, told us how much she loved her job.
“It’s not really a job for me,” she said. “It’s more like a mission.”
And from what we saw, it seems like FAR’s mission in the border region of Tavush is having huge impacts. On our very first day there, we visited a psychological center that FAR has helped to fund, that aims to help children in the area with the psychological effects of living in a conflict zone.
We then visited a greenhouse that they had built for an older couple, who is now using it to grow tomatoes, beans, carrots, and all sorts of other vegetables. The couple told us how they’ve been able to increase their crop yields since they’ve gotten the greenhouse. Then, in the tradition of Armenian generosity, sent us home with a huge bag full of carrots, tomatoes, and herbs that they’d just pulled out of the ground.
The next day we went with Ani, another member of the Berd office staff to Movses, one of the villages directly in the line of Azeri fire. We visited one of the hobby groups that FAR has started, teaching kids in the village skills like painting, woodworking, and embroidery. We also visited the local school, where FAR has helped them to restore many of their classroom spaces, and create the best learning environment that they can despite the constant rain of bullets. After leaving the school we went to meet Angela, a mother of 5 whose husband works as a soldier, but still doesn’t have enough money to buy a house for her family. FAR has recently given them a few sheep that Angela is planning to use to sell wool to help support her family.
Later in the week, we took a trip to Navur, where FAR has helped to renovate the labs, as well as the toilets for the school. Many of the people in the area told us that a lack of facilities for teaching science is a major problem in the schools, especially since Armenia is trying to emphasize scientific and tech development, so the people in Navur were very grateful for FAR’s help.
In Navur, we also met Artur, one of the students at the school, and his mother Narine. Narine was trained as a computer programmer, but now is unable to find work and supports her children by growing food in their garden. Her two older daughters have just graduated high school and are waiting to see if they can go to college with scholarships, and Artur is very excited about learning and loves geography. FAR has been helping their family by installing running water, giving them a washing machine, and giving Narine chickens that she can use for food.
In Navur we also visited Tatev, a mother of three boys whose husband is a soldier. Tatev wants to do work to help support her children, but she has health problems, which have made it extremely hard to farm. To help her family, FAR gave them a sewing machine, which Tatev now uses to make sheets, pillows, and other products to sell when she is feeling well enough to work.
Another day, we went to visit Chinchin village, which is not directly in the line of fire, but still extremely poor due to the economic effects of Azerbaijan’s terror campaign. In the village’s health clinic, Svetlana, the nurse showed us around, telling us about all the work that FAR did to help renovate the clinic and make it clean and effective for its patients. In addition, the mayor took us to the kindergarten, which FAR has just finished restoring. He also told us about FAR’s program to provide healthy meals to kindergartens in all of the border villages, as malnutrition is a major problem in the area. At the kindergarten, Karen, Chinchin’s mayor, told us how enthusiastic the community had been about FAR’s projects, and how they had been involved in many stages of the project, including the actual construction of the kindergarten.
At Chinchin’s elementary school, we met Sarkis, the teacher of FAR’s woodcarving hobby group, and some of his students. We were amazed by the work that the boys were doing, and the skill they had gained over just a few years.
The next day we went back to Aygepar, a year after our first visit. We were delighted to see that prospects for the village are looking better than they were last year. The village is still under fire, but they have built more walls, a few people have moved in, and they have had various construction projects in the village. Mayor Aydinyan told us that FAR has restored the kindergarten since we visited it last year, and that the playground, which had been rusted and overgrown with weeds last year, is newly restored. The village also has a new church, built by four brothers who now live in Russia after they had a dream telling them to build it. Outside the church is a beautiful picnic area, where villagers can gather for celebrations in view of the beautiful green mountains.
We also visited Choratan with one of the fellows from Teach for Armenia. Once they heard that we were working with FAR, the staff at the school couldn’t stop talking about how grateful they were for FAR’s help. Choratan is directly in the line of Azeri fire, and its school doesn’t have heating or indoor bathrooms, but FAR has helped the people there to restore many of the classrooms, as well as the cafeteria, which they are restoring right now. The next project that the school is hoping to complete is to restore their basement bomb shelter to give the children a safe place to go when the village is under heavier firing.
On our last day, right before we left Berd, we made a final stop at FAR’s soup kitchen there. The soup kitchen largely serves elderly people, but also helps give food to some poor families.
Throughout our trip, we were amazed by the work that FAR is doing, the successes they’ve had, and their involvement in the communities they serve. Time after time, we’ve heard people in the diaspora complain about the uncertainty of donating to charities in Armenia, but the people at FAR were happy to take us to see the projects that they are implementing and meet the people involved. Different members of their staff focus on specific aspects, such as economic development and educational development, as well as acting as social workers for specific families. The issues in Tavush are enormous, as the region is trying to develop while under constant attack, but FAR is working hard to provide the foundations for its people to make a change in their communities and lifestyles, and build better lives for their families. After seeing all the devastation in Tavush, learning about the work that FAR is doing gave me hope that things are changing, and we can all be involved in that change.
To all the members of FAR: thank you so much for hosting us, and we’re looking forward to continuing working with you and supporting your work in the future!