A Visit to Armenia by Jeff Harabedian
In mid July our family of four flew to Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia. Armenia is a small, land-locked nation of nearly four million people located on the Asian continent. Geographically, Armenia is north of Iran, east of Turkey, south of Georgia, and west of Azerbaijan.
Armenia has a rich ancient heritage. Historically, Armenia touts its notoriety of being the first country to adopt Christianity as their national religion in 301 AD. During the seventy plus Soviet-Communist years, that faith went largely underground. In 1991, Armenia declared its independence from the melting Soviet Union and began the journey of democracy and self-government.
However, when Armenia declared independence, all of the socialized programs ended. Many families living just above the subsistence level were suddenly on their own. Of that group, many young families midway through a housing construction project were no longer able to continue building. Even today, many of these families live in their partially completed houses, while others do what they can.
In 2005, Habitat for Humanity’s founder, the late Millard Fuller, started an organization called the Fuller Center for Housing (http://www.fullercenter.org). This organization has been actively working in Armenia and in other developing countries, since that time. Qualifying families are provided zero interest mortgage loans, construction supervision and a labor pool to complete these houses. Both my wife and I are of Armenian descent and when we became aware of the service opportunity in Armenia, we decided that this could be a great experience for our whole family.
We departed LAX aboard an Air New Zealand 747-400 to London Heathrow. The London to Yerevan flight was by Star Alliance partner British Midland (BMI) flying an A-319. We were to have a five hour layover in London, and arrive in Yerevan about 02:30 in the morning (after about 20 hours of travel). This was going to be difficult but BMI apologetically bumped us up to business class allowing us to use a well apportioned lounge at Heathrow. We arrived in pretty good shape and ready to hit the ground running.Yerevan is a clean medium sized city of about one million people. Yerevan contains about one-fourth of Armenia’s population. The city has a number of open air malls where people walk, socialize and enjoy the many outdoor cafes. There is also a large central area (Republic Square) with fountains that come alive after dark. The fountains perform to music with a synchronized light show. After a full day of working, our team would enjoy a nice meal together and then go walking in the temperate evening air.
Our construction team was composed of thirteen people that originated from across the USA. Our team leader was a civil engineer from New Jersey. The team also contained four teenagers, including my two kids. We worked for seven of our eleven days in Armenia, building a house for a needy family living in the small rural village of Dasht. Dasht is a small community of perhaps less than twenty families about forty minutes southeast of Yerevan. The village is surrounded by green planted fields and low rolling hills. Each day we would commute to the job site in a small bus. The roads out to the village were surprisingly good but narrow.
The job site was a single family house approximately three quarters complete. It was constructed of large pinkish blocks (an indigenous volcanic rock called Touf,) with concrete and steel reinforcement. These materials are plentiful, and therefore, affordable compared to lumber which is expensive. The ceiling was also a concrete slab with steel reinforcement. Sheets of tin were positioned as a roof, creating an attic space over the concrete slab ceiling. The sheets of tin appeared to be supported with scrap lumber. I am guessing that the house was about 900 square feet in size.
Inside there were five rooms. A family of four has been living, cooking, eating and sleeping in the largest of these rooms for twenty years. The house had no running water and limited electricity. Cooking was done using a propane stove. Only recently, a previous construction team installed glass into the window openings. We noticed that the concrete ceiling in one of the adjacent unused rooms was blackened in some areas. It turns out that the family had been so desperate to keep warm during the harsh winter months that they would literally build a bonfire here to generate some heat in the room they were living in. The blackened ceiling was soot from the fires.
Using Fuller’s construction supervisors, our team worked together along side the family members, and occasionally other village members, pouring concrete and insulating the attic space. Construction methods were primitive to say the least, but improving. As an engineer, I also want to help improve the construction process and identify safety hazards. One of the young family members was breaking large Touf blocks to be used as aggregate filler in a concrete walkway that we were preparing to pour. He was using a sledge hammer to break the blocks and chips were flying everywhere. I encouraged him to use my safety glasses, and though he declined at first, gentle persistence paid off.
It was amazing how much communication could be accomplished with a few remembered Armenian words and some hand gestures but, when more complex information had to be relayed, the Fuller staff was able to interpret. No interpretation was required when the family expressed their appreciation to us. They often showered us with hugs and kisses on each cheek (common method of greeting) including “Medz Mayrig” (the Grandma), who continually beamed with warmth toward us. One day, some of the village neighbors were baking flat bread and invited our team to their house for some fresh bread, cheese and apricots. It was a real treat.
Our team and a few teams to follow were working toward completing the house before the cold season arrives. We were so glad to be able to help this family work on the house, and much heavy work was accomplished. Something else that just blew me away with pride was how hard my teenaged kids worked. They worked diligently on any task they were asked to do, without a single complaint (were they really our kids?)
In addition to working on the house, our team visited a few key sites in Yerevan including Tsitsernakaberd (Armenian Genocide Memorial) and Matenadaran (Ancient Books and Manuscripts Depository), as well as some ancient locations in nearby areas such as Khor Virap (meaning “deep pit” where St. Gregory the Illuminator was held captive in 301 AD), Amberd (the ruins of a fortress complex built in the 11th century), Gheghard (a monastery carved out of a mountain during the 3rd century), Garni (a 1st century temple/fortress), and Lake Sevan (huge mountain lake that that comprises 5% of Armenia’s size).
We Departed Armenia on July 26 for nine days in Europe. Europe too was amazing. We had the opportunity to visit a number of historical sites like the town of Bastogne-Belgium (as in WW-II Battle of the Bulge, and famous quote “Nuts” by American General McAuliffe - when ordered to surrender by Nazis), Waterloo-Belgium (as in Napoleon’s defeat), Paris-France, Normandy-France (as in D–Day beach sites June 6, 1944), and finally London-England. To tell of this part of the trip and our travel by high speed TGV trains will have to wait for another time. But, in many ways, Armenia impacted each of us with a great sense of satisfaction and we hope to return sometime soon.
- Jeff Harabedian