Sunday, 17 November

Government Houses Patients with Psychological Problems Next to Refugees from Azerbaijan

28 Years and Counting: Refugees Still Waiting for Housing 

Only one bus, the #39, makes its way to the section of Yerevan called Korea Valley. It’s only been operating for the past few years. Residents say that before the bus arrived, they would make the trip by foot.

There’s a boarding school in the neighborhood where scores of Armenians fleeing from Baku 28 years ago were resettled in one of its buildings. Now only six families remain.

Armenia’s government has yet to get permanent housing for these refugee families. Many have received Armenian citizenship allowing them to travel. The government, however, keeps promising the families who have remained that they are on a list for housing.

Refugee residents look out to the new Tzorak Center for patients with psychological problems

This year, Armenia’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs closed down the boarding school and opened the Tzorak Center for People with Psychological Disorders right next door. 120 individuals who have passed through the Kharberd Special Orphanage and the Vardenis Boarding House have been sent to the new Tzorak Center.

The recently closed boarding school also houses four homeless families in addition to the six refugee families.

Oksanna Mousayelyan, who fled Baku in 1990, lives in the boarding school. Her kitchen abuts the Tzorak Center’s playroom. The wall separating the two has a wooden entryway that opens onto Oksanna’s room. Starting in July, when the new residents of Tzorak arrived, she would be woken by the shouts and screams next door. She says the last month has been a nightmare for her.

“We’ve lived here for 27 years. In the past, the children in the boarding school would make noise but it was the noise of kids. We got used to it. Now, starting at 5am, 20-30 people begin to constantly wail and howl. They are ill and it’s natural that they make unusual sounds. It’s a psychological assault on healthy people,” says Oksanna.

She says that she has nothing against attempts to integrate these people back into society but that it shouldn’t be done at the expense of the health of others, especially those who have already suffered like her, those forcibly displaced.

After Oksanna and other residents complained, the Tzorak director moved the noisiest of his patients to another part of the building. She periodically hears the nurses scold the patients, “Shut up or I’ll kill you.”

Oksanna waxes philosophical about the entire matter. “We understand that they are ill and we don’t want to make matters worse for them. They have their rights and we have ours.”

Transferring the psychologically disturbed patients next door that opened the opportunity for the refugees to raise their housing issue, unresolved by the government after 28 long years.

Baku refugee Greta Danielyan was granted Armenian citizenship with the proviso that she remain on the list of those for immediate housing.

Greta Danielyan and grandson

“Once a year Roza and I visit the refugee center. They keep telling us to wait for a government decision. The government hasn’t made any decision. In the beginning we were offered other housing that turned out to be a rats’ nest. Furthermore, the refugee status convention prohibits transferring refuges from one residence to another,” says Great Danielyan.

Laura Haroutyunyan told: “I was helping the child with his lessons. All of a sudden he shouted out “Grandmas, grandmas, they are all nude.’ The 9 year-old was surprised. Sometimes the women can be seen walking around with their breasts exposed. It’s scary. We don’t go outside.”

As I was conversing with Greta, the other refugee residents entered the room.71 year-old Laura Haroutyunyan says they left behind three 3-room apartments in Baku and have lived in one room in the boarding school for 28 years. “They come and compile a list, writing down where we are from. They have been writing for the past 28 years. On top of it all there’s this noise. Those people pop out left and right naked, wearing no undergarments.”

“Yesterday it happened to Dimka. ‘Grandma, you know what I saw? A naked woman.’” Greta Danielyan mentioned the incident as her grandson Dimka was asleep.

Great shows me all the papers and documents she’s amassed over the years related to her housing issue. “We just want to live in normal conditions. We want four walls from the government that we can say are ours. We want to have our own bathroom with running water,” says an emotional Greta.

NKAR - -“Does the government know you are here?” asks 79 year-old Svetlana Danielyan as I enter her room. “Will the government hear what we have to say? If so, we have a lot to say.”

Svetlana Danielyan lives with her son. The roof of their room leaks and the kitchen is a bare as they get.

They are at the top of the list to get new housing. They’ve been at the top for the past twenty years.  “I’m turning eighty. But I want to live long enough to have a place of my own. I want to receive guests,” says Svetlana. “All this money comes from overseas. Isn’t there any for us? There are six refugee families here. Can’t they afford housing for one family per year?”

Corridor serves as a kitchen One part of the kitchen Shared toilet

Showing off the handiwork she’s been selling at the Vernisaj Flea Market in Yerevan, Svetlana then leads us to the bathroom they all use. It’s a run-down affair that hasn’t been repaired in 26 years. Water has to be brought up in buckets from the downstairs neighbor.

Shared bathroom

As we part, Svetlana tells me: “We want a house from the government. Go and talk to them. You’re like a granddaughter to me.”

As I am about to exit the building, I hear the loud voice of Mariam Gyandjounts, a neighbor of the refugee families. Mariam and her three sons came to the boarding school in 1999. She isn’t a refugee but had no other place to live at the time. She was upset because the new director had told one of her sons to vacate the third room they’ve been occupying. Mariam says her son is registered with a 3rd class disability received during military service. He just got married and is expecting a second child.

Mariam Gyandjounts

“I raised my three sons here and sent them off to the army. I’ve turned this place into some sort of home. Now they want to remove my son. The former director gave us this place. No one else can live her. There’s no toilet or water,” says Mariam.

Tzorak Center Director Samvel Khachatryan says the former director allocated the room to Mariam illegally. Now he wants to use it to house the center’s employees. Khachatryan says that’s why he asked Mariam’s son to vacate.

Samvel Khachatryan

Khachatryan says he’s gone to the State Migration Service asking that the plight of the refugees be resolved since he wants to use the building in which they now live for the Tzorak Center. Fifteen applicants are waiting to be admitted to Tzorak.

“We need the boarding school’s buildings to expand our services to house 300 patients by 2017,” Khachatryan says.

A kindergarten exits on Tzorak Center property. A wall is being built to separate them.

Director Khachatryan believes that the boarding school residents, who he says aren’t dangerous, will help integrate the new patients, and vice-versa. He says that they only must be shown some love. The director says that the wooden door in Oksanna’s kitchen will be replaced by a stone wall in order to dampen the noise.

“We also understand the residents. But it’s not acceptable for them to use the occasion to resolve their housing problem. We’ve sat them all down, offering them housing at the Zeytoun dormitory or the former Praha Hotel. But they turned it down,” Khachatryan said. He notes that the residents have enlarged their rooms and don’t want to be resettled elsewhere as a result.

Building housing refugees

“The Tzorak Center has three buildings with sleeping facilities. In Building #1 there are ten destitute families with refugee status. But they are there without any legal standing. In essence, a helping hand was extended to them but that they have become “demanding” after living at the Center for so many years,” was the response Hetq received from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.

The Tzorak Center building adjacent to the refugees. Naked kids are sometimes seen through the windows.

“What legal standing are they talking about? They housed us here in 1987-1989 after fleeing from Azerbaijan,” asks Oksanna.

In its response, the ministry states that the problem is more psychological than anything else. “It’s more a fear about living next to people with psychological problems. When the Tzorak Center was established the ministry discussed this issue. The patients sent there weren’t aggressive and posed no risk. On the contrary, in order to integrate into society they need to relate to people with no health problems.”

The ministry adds that it has discussed the housing issue of residents at Building #1 with the government’s State Property Management Department but that no solutions as to where to resettle the families have been found.

Oksanna says that she and the other refugees feel slighted by the government.

“No humanitarian approach to our problems has been shown. There has been no integration program for us or any long-term programs to teach us Armenian. We aren’t common refuges but Armenians who wound up in Armenia as a consequence of a political issue raised by Armenia and not by us,” Oksanna argues.

The total number of people who forcibly were displaced from Baku and resettled in Armenia is estimated at 220,000. Some 92,000 came from Azerbaijan. Gagik Yeganyan, who heads Armenia’s State Migration Service, said in an interview that housing remains their main problem.

With financial assistance from international donors 4,485 apartments and cottages have been built for Armenian refugees since 1994.

Today, 1,169 families are still on government waiting lists for housing. An estimated US$45 million is needed to provide all refuges in Armenia with decent housing.

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