It was the beginning of October, we left Turin (Italy) at dawn and after a long stopover in Paris, we landed in Erevan, Armenia’s capital city, late at night. Father Mario, a Camillian, was waiting for us there. He has been living in Armenia for many years and is the administrative manager of a hospital, located in the Ashotsk region, where he oversees the distribution of basic necessities to a population becoming poorer and poorer, daily.
We left Erevan’s sparkly lights and expensive cars in the chaotic traffic, and reached Ashotsk through disrupted roads with big potholes and very few street lights. We saw huge old trucks going to Georgia and back, and some old cars produced in Russia. During the travel, foxes and other little animals crossed our road. We were surrounded by darkness, only interrupted by the few lights very far away. Abandoned houses, and factories in ruins and other old crumbling buildings were just part of the landscape.
During the travel to Ashotsk, we realized that this little city, situated on upland near the border with Georgia, is very different from the capital.
The territory of Armenia lies in mountains with approximately 3,5 million people living in the country. In Ashotsk the temperature can reach 30 degrees in summer and almost minus 40 degrees in winter. During the few days we spent there, we worked with sister Noelle and father Mario in the local hospital of the remote villages of the area. At the hospital, they provide patients with free medical care, which is not taken for granted in this country. They distribute small amounts of money, clothes and food such as pasta, rice, oil and some chocolate for children in the villages.
Every day, father Mario and sister Noelle assist people who live in extreme poverty. If it were not for them, in many villages people would not have clothes and food.
Father Mario ensures children’s primary education by using his own money, and supports cattle farming – run by local people – by guaranteeing that the hospital purchases milk and meat from them.
With this extraordinary man, we travelled for hundreds of miles, through dangerous roads, trails and rocky areas, where sheep and a few cows were grazing. We reached many little suburbs, the majority of wich were hit by the 1988 earthquake, that caused about 80.000 deaths. There, people still live in slums; there are miserable shelters with roofs made of asbestos cement with nothing inside: no chairs or armchairs, no paintings, no dishes or tables loaded with food and drinks. What stood out was a persistent and sharp smell of manure, which is pressed and dried out during the hot summers and burned to heat up the houses in the winter.
During our travel, while delivering clothes and food, we learned about the tragic stories of many women and children. We discovered that they survive thanks to child sponsorships and father Mario’s personal commitment.
I was shocked by the situation of women and children. Many of them have been abandoned to their fate by their husbands or fathers who left home to seek their fortune (and often found a new family) in Russia. Some of their stories left me speechless:
The boy without dreams
We met a fifteen-year old boy with a difficult family situation and a life of hardship: he openly told us that he has never dreamed and that he feels he has nothing to dream about.
The girl torn to pieces by dogs
A twelve-year old girl was attacked by a herd of hungry wild dogs, fell in the snow, and was ripped apart, sustaining horrible wounds that compromised part of her muscles. She was saved, underwent several surgeries at the Redemptoris Mater hospital and was sponsored. After 8 years, when she got pregnant, she was advised to interrupt her pregnancy because she would not have been able to carry it to term. She came back to the hospital and stayed for three months before giving birth to her son. She was left by her partner and continued to stay in the hospital for some months.
Besides the emergency caused by the earthquake, there are other difficulties that affect Armenia, which are tied to the lack of assistance and medical structures. First of all, Armenia has to deal with its disadvantaged geopolitical position: it has a few kilometres of open borders with Georgia and Iran, while the borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed. The fall of the Soviet Union had a severe impact on the domestic economy, which used to work as part of a planned and centralized system. Armenia has no natural resources, in the past they were imported from other former Soviet countries, processed by local factories, and absorbed in the Soviet market. When this chain broke, factories closed, one after the other.
It was not easy to accept all the misery and sadness we saw.
We met with families in most of the cases composed of women, who were always smiling and friendly. Children in Armenia are nice just like every other child in the world, but they do not have electronic devices and toys. Nobody begs, and everybody looks for a human connection, despite the linguistic barriers.
We also visited some monasteries that represent part of what is left of this little country’s history. Armenia was the cradle of Christianity, and for this reason many monasteries and churches made of stone distinguish its beautiful landscapes.
The South of the country, characterised by many fields and orchards, has not yet recovered from the terrible earthquake of 1988.
Electricity is provided by the largely criticized nuclear power plant, built during the Soviet era just outside Erevan, in a seismic zone.
Despite all challenges, despite that many people have been obliged to leave the country, the majority of Armenians want to live in Armenia – in the uncontaminated natural environment where their people have been living for many centuries, laying the foundations of a remarkable religious, cultural and artistic heritage.
Who we are
My name is Dante Caramellino, I am a member of Barka Onlus, an NGO that deals with international cooperation and humanitarian assistance. The organisation is composed of people from different fields of expertise, but all driven by humility and helpfulness. We are aware that we will not be able to solve the problems that affect some countries, but we are willing to cooperate with everyone according to his/her own expertise, capabilities and competencies, and offer assistance and protection to people that are less fortunate than us. Our aim is to improve the physical and social development of disadvantaged children and vulnerable people in general.
There is a wide range of reasons that push people to be engaged. Today it is easier, and possible, for everyone who wants to help, to devote money, time or energy to assist vulnerable people.
We work on a voluntary basis and for free. Our travels are completely self-funded, in order to ensure that the selected projects receive 100% of the funds that have been raised. We are engaged in humanitarian projects in Italy, Burkina Faso and Armenia. My first experience in Armenia started in October 2015.
What we did in Armenia
We came back to Turin full of hopes and projects. By involving a network of friends and people of good will, our organization has already started to fulfill some of them – like administring a clinic – while others are going to be realized soon.
For a couple of years we committed to fund a medical unit run by a local nurse who provides vaccinations and medical care in a very isolated village for at least three months every year.
We are organising a collection of second-hand clothes and shoes.
This is just a drop in the ocean, but it is worthwhile!
This is a commitment from which we cannot back out, after having seen so many sad and moving situations.