Monday, 16 September

13 Year-Old Sargis: “If only we had a house and could live normally”

We walk with Karineh along the dusty road leading from the railway station in Masis to spot where minibuses depart for Yerevan.

Our voices are sometimes drowned out by the croaking of frogs nesting in the green water holes alongside the road. Karineh smiles and sometimes laughs. She says that she’s grown tired of thinking about her life because it’s been full of bad days.

Her children have often missed classes because of a lack of school clothes and shoes. Some days they go hungry, some days they eat. They keep such things to themselves. That’s why, according to Karineh, they walk with a proud gait. She says her life hasn’t turned out as expected. An only child, her mother died of brain cancer at the age of 39. Her father was an alcoholic. She started working young to survive.

Karineh Soukiasyan is now 39. Talking about her age, she raises her hands and gazes at her swollen fingers. “They’re the hands of a working person, no? But they’ve lost their strength,” she says smiling.

She milks the neighbor’s cows and gets paid 3,500 AMD ($7. 30) each month per cow. Monthly, she milks three or four. Khachik, her 14-year-old son, has gone to clean out the neighbor’s barn and gets paid 1,500 drams.

“It’s filthy work and we don’t let him to it anymore. He’s a kid. But sometimes he doesn’t listen and goes anyway. The way we live has gotten him depressed,” says Karineh, the smile fading from her face.

Karineh, her husband, and their children have their share of health issues. “Anyone living like this will have some illness or another. My husband has stomach problems and his teeth have fallen out, even though he’s just 39. He’s gone off to find work as a laborer. He’ll dig someone’s garden or whatever work there is. What else can we do? Who will take care of our children?” Karineh says.

Roustam Asatryan, her husband, is from Artashat. “One day he said, ‘I’ll go and marry a girl from Martouni to milk our cows’, Karineh says laughing. It’s hard to say if she’s joking or serious. After getting married, the couple lived in Artashat and then in the Yeghegnadzor village of Yelpin.

The house of her husband’s family was small and that’s why they left and rented a place. In Yelpin, they worked for a local family. They lived in the mountains and milked cows. Her employer (Karineh avoids giving his name), took their passports and then said he had burnt them. Karineh says they were paid in food for their work. I asked her why they didn’t return their documents.

“They kept them because we were good workers. There was no one to milk cows. Whoever worked soon left because the pay was so low. We had no other choice and no place to go.”

The couple later were issued new documents. That’s when Sargis, their second son, was born. The family moved to the grounds of the leather factory in Masis. They stayed for a year, tending pigs for another family. Karineh says that one day the owners sold the pigs and moved to America. The couple then started to work in their neighbors’ gardens as laborers.

The couple and their three children now live in the guard house at the leather factory. The factory building itself is being demolished and the sound of bulldozers fills the guard house. Prior to this, the family lived for eight years in another part of the factory. It was demolished last fall. Having nowhere else to live, it was suggested that they move into the guard house.

The abandoned guard house was a dog den. Karineh remembers when they first moved in the dogs would freely enter through the open glassless windows. Later, with the help of neighbors, they strung wires and were given glass to install.

It’s a tiny place, more like a cell. Seven year-old Lousineh still sleeps in a crib. All the kitchenware is under the table, along with a three-liter gas canister for cooking. The family bathes in a corner of the room where there’s space for a washbasin. 

Khachik has just got back from work tilling the neighbors’ gardens. His hands and clothes are muddy. The boy looks tired. For his toil, Khachik gets 1,000-1,500 drams. Sargis, his 13-year-old brother, sometimes goes along to help. Khachik has been absent from school a lot.

The stove isn’t lit and it’s chilly inside. Khachik covers his head with the hood of his jacket. He doesn’t seem pleased with our conversation but, out of pi=politeness, says there’s no problem.

We start talking about their dreams and what they want to do when they’re older. I see Khachik smile for the first time. He says he wants to repair cars. Sargis says he wants to be a chef. Lousineh wants to become a beautician.

“Sako cooks some good meals and is a good pupil in school,” Karineh says while glancing at her son. Sargis agrees and then goes into detail about how he prepares dolma. His excitement soon fades. “If only we had a house and could live normally,” he says angrily.

We exit the guard house and walk to the family’s ‘old house’ some 150 meters distant. This is where the family carries water from every day. Khachik doesn’t join us.

When we return to the guard house, Sargis shows us two albums of photos when he and Khachik visited Holland.

Karineh doesn’t remember the name of the organization that sponsored the visit to Holland. She only says that when officials from the Masis Municipality came and saw the conditions the family was living in they sent the kids to stay in Holland for a month. Sargis shows us a photo taken at the airport with the twenty children participating in the program.

“Holland was great. We bathed every day,” says Sargis, looking at the photos.

Karineh smiles. “He’d tell me, ‘Mom, can you believe it? We had bubble baths every day.’”

P.S. Sargis turns fifteen tomorrow. 

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