Long dirt roads. Endless barren lands. Villages of brick houses with tin roofs, unfortunately also made of fibre cement. The outskirts of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, stand out as an endless abyss of poverty. The ancient monasteries visible on the horizon map out the landscape. They preserve the relics of saints and of Armenia’s great historical figures, their crosses extend over the hills as beacons of hope, peace, and future that continues to live on. The Church extends her gaze here, in this farthermost periphery.
“When I see a poor person, I know that I cannot leave him behind”,
said Bishop Raphael Minassian.
The city of Artashat is approximately 50 km from Yerevan, on the border with Turkey. Snow-capped Mount Ararat stands out majestically on the horizon. It’s the place where Noah’s Ark stopped, according to the Scriptures. Deep in the distance, on the same horizon, can be seen the watchtowers where the Russian military guard the border, barring outward or inward transit. The same happens on the eastern border with Azerbaijan, with whom there is a latent conflict on the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The conflict was never resolved (despite the truce), and the Country was left in a state of continual tension.
The closing of the western and eastern borders plunged Armenia into a grave economic crisis by preventing the transit of goods and the growth of trade. Armenians call it a “white genocide.”
For political analysts, economic recovery and a higher level of prosperity can be achieved only through improved relations with Turkey and a final agreement with Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, the crisis is having an impact on families, especially those living in suburban areas.
In this seemingly barren area, the Armenian Catholic Church, in cooperation with Caritas, implemented two projects for the most vulnerable, children and old people. Caritas head offices are located in the most populated neighbourhood of Artashat. Amidst clotheslines and battered houses, a door among others displays an elegant silver plaque with the inscription “Caritas” in Russian and Armenian. This is where volunteer workers coordinate homecare assistance for elderly residents. Approximately 20 staff members visit the elderly every day, going from house to house, with sixty people looked after daily. In their houses there is nothing: no bathrooms and no running water. They are washed, dressed and treated in case of illnesses. Every 15 days, Caritas delivers food parcels with butter and cheese, rice, sugar and hygiene products.
But loneliness is the greatest source of suffering. The volunteer workers tune into their needs, embrace them and smile.
The project is running thanks to “8×1,000” tax devolutions to the Catholic Church, amounting to EUR 120 , 000 donated by Italian taxpayers. “You can’t imagine how much Italy has done for us”, bishop Missanian told a delegation of Italian journalists members of the Catholic Press Federation (FISC). “That money is a chance of life for the most needy. What for you is a sum of money, for us is a human life.”
The “Little Prince” centre is located a few blocks further down. Children queued up at the entrance. They start singing and welcome us with sugar-coated pizza. They are happy, they shake our hands. Some forty children, their ages range from 7 to 17.
To them this is a second home. In fact it is their home – the bishop said.- They come from fractured families.
Some of them lost their fathers or their mothers. There are orphaned children living with their grandparents. This situation makes them vulnerable. They come here after school. Before immersing themselves in their homework they have lunch and can choose from a range of activities: dance classes, music, art, sport. The most difficult cases were initially identified by the Town Council. Now that the Centre is known the youths come here on their own. Also this project is a fruit of the “8×1,000” tax devolutions to the Catholic Church, which devolves a 50-thousand Euro contribution to the Centre’s activities. As known, solidarity is contagious. On the first floor can be found the sewing machines donated by a group of priests from Brescia (Italy), used in the production of socks, thereby offering job opportunities for the children’s families. Gaiane Hovhannissian, teacher, is the Director of the Centre. “We want to sow the seeds of laboriousness; we want to train the men and women of our future to work with heart and soul. But most importantly, here these young people must never lose their smiles.”
“A poor Church for the poor”, said Bishop Minassian describing the Catholic presence in Armenia.
“Here the Church suffers and lives with the poor, and she does so with joy. Our witness, our mission here in Armenia is to bring a smile to those who are suffering. That’s the humble service we carry out, for the love of God.”