Garbage Dump Sustains Yerevan Family: “We aren’t beggars or thieves. We need work”
Karineh’s family lives off the items they pick from the garbage dump in Noubarashen, a southern district of Yerevan.
Whether food, curtains, cutlery, table clothes or fuel, it all comes from the dump. The dump serves as the family’s place of business.
“My husband and his mother are at the dump right now, collecting food and fuel,” Karineh tells over the phone. The line goes silent for a moment. Thinking the connection has been cut, I ask, “Karineh, can you hear me?” I make out faint crying. “I apologize,” says Karineh.
Her husband Norik and his mother Nouneh leave the house every morning at six and walk to the dump. It takes one and a half hours. They make the same trek back every evening.
“If it weren’t for the dump, I don’t know what we would do,” Karineh says.
Our taxi stops in a gloomy street in Noubarashen. Gathered in the yard, the kids look at us warily. The family dog barks and runs back and forth dragging his chain. Karineh approaches. A large colorful assortment of clothes is hanging out to dry. The clothesline sags from the weight. Near the door are some children’s basins. The kids and adults all bathe here. The family toilet is some 100 meters from the house. Strangers are said to even use it.
The one story house has a balcony and two rooms. Karineh invites us to sit. There just the one armchair. A bed and something resembling a settee are used for sitting. As I sit down, Karineh tells me that settee was also collected from the dump.
We talk a bit. Karineh eyes me intently. When we are done, she asks if I find the place disagreeable. Flies buzz about. She says that since everything has come from the dump, flies are attracted to the house.
Karineh Mkrtchyan, 29, is from the village of Masis in Armenia’s Ararat Province. She married Norik Gazaryan, four years her junior, in 2010. Norik has been treated for psychological problems. Karineh says it’s due to the family’s difficult socio-economic situation. According to the Noubarashen psychiatric hospital, Norik is mentally challenged and suffers from a nervous disorder. In order to be registered as ‘disabled’, the hospital advised Norik to check in at the hospital in Avan. Karineh says he was told he would have to spend 21 days there to be examined. He never stayed because the family’s welfare depended on him.
The couple has two children – Nouneh (4) and Movses (2.5).
Karineh is trying to get some state money in child support. For months, her passport was being held as collateral for debt incurred at the local construction supply store. When the couple married, the house was in ruins. They asked the store to allow them to buy some supplies on credit to at least repair one of the rooms. They are slowly paying off the loan with the aluminum and copper they collect from the garbage dump. Every two to three months they collect about 10,000 drams worth in metal scraps. Norik’s passport is in the possession of the local food store as collateral.
Karineh hasn’t taken her daughter Nouneh to kindergarten for the past few days. She doesn’t have money for the bus. Karineh says her son Movses suffers from croup, a common respiratory problem in young children. Four months pregnant with Movses, Karineh was hospitalized because the fetus hadn’t grown due to malnutrition. The boy was born two months premature.
Karineh used to work as a hairdresser in a beauty shop. Now, she’s out of work. She got a call to work at a plant producing coffee, but when they found out she was married they told her not to bother.
Norik hasn’t found work either. Not even as a day laborer. “They always tell us to leave a number. They never call back. What we need is work,” says Karineh.
This September, Norik’s sister Nina and her six children moved into the house. They moved from the Haterk village in Artsakh. Two of the kids have psychological and speaking problems.
Nina says they were forced to move to Yerevan because of a lack of medical professionals in Artsakh. The two children now attend a special school. Nina has found work at a cannery making 3,000 drams ($6.25) per day. Nina’s husband and his mother still live in Artsakh. Nina says the Artsakh government provides housing to families with six or more children and that the family will get a house as well.
The fire in the stove is going out. Karineh goes to the yard to get some more fuel. It turns out that shoes collected from the garbage dump are burnt as fuel; two bags per day. Black acrid smoke fills the yard, engulfing the drying laundry. “Our faces also get sooty. But what can we do?” Karineh asks.
The children gather around the low table for dinner. Looking at her watch, Karineh says her mother-in-law will be returning from the dump very soon. She tells me not be frightened if I spot a rat scurrying on the floor.
Karineh says she and her husband stay awake at night to protect the kids from the rats. In the summer, the house is besieged by scorpions.
Karineh removes a jar of green beans from under the kids’ bed. It’s from the dump.
“Grand Candy dumps stuff in the dump twice a week. We collect the candy for the kids. Once, my husband found some sweet flour. We were overjoyed. We baked bread. We mostly bake our own bread. We can’t buy it,” says Karineh.
The family also collects plastic bottles from the dump. Hey are paid from15-30 drams for every kilogram. They can sell a large bag of glass bottles for around 250 drams (52 cents). Karineh tells me they hand over the bottles to a guy who serves as the dump’s boss.
Twenty other people work at the dump, sifting through the garbage for things to sell and keep. “They don’t just let anyone work there. Now we hear that they might close the dump. I have no idea what we’ll do if that happens. We can probably go to the dump in the Chorrord (Fourth) village, but we’ll have to pay for transportation,” says Karineh.
Last month, Karineh visited the presidential palace on Yerevan’s Baghramyan Avenue to personally hand a letter to Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan.
In the letter she asked Sargsyan to financially help her family or to at least find them some work.
“We aren’t beggars or thieves. We just need work,” Karineh exclaims.
She then asks me what day of the week it is. On Friday at 2pm the electric utility will be cutting off power to the house due to non-payment.
Photos: Narek Aleksanyan