Sunday, 18 August

Armenia’s “Cinderella”: Lilit Sweeps the Streets to Raise Her Three Children

"Hello, I'm Cinderella," says Lilit, coming towards us from the hut.

"Why Cinderella?" I ask.

"I sweep all day long. Look at my hands, of course I’m Cinderella," Lilit insists.

Lilit Manukyan is 34-years-old. She lives in a hut with her three sons – Vahram, Narek and Hovhannes - near the Aeratsia Sewage Treatment Plant in Yerevan.

She’s been living in huts since childhood. There are two small rooms in this hut, packed with beds and a sofa.

The hut has a great view of Mt. Ararat. However, there is a large landfill, full of old equipment and construction waste, between the mountain and the hut. It’s quite close to the hut, separated only by one road. 58-year-old Anush Zakaryan, Lilit's mother, says that sometimes she finds clothes in the landfill.

"The coat I wear is from there, and I found a boot for one of my grandchildren today. I couldn’t find boots for Hovhannes this year, so he’s been wearing sandals I’d found earlier,” Anush says, looking at the landfill.

Lilit apologizes for her appearance. She has been working for the Sanitek waste management company for three months now, earning 83,000 drams a month (US$173). She works from 10 pm to 6 am, sweeping the streets.

She takes a nap when she comes home, then does chores.

Before getting this job, Lilit did various jobs - from collecting okra in the fields to removing fixtures from the concrete.

Lilit says the most important thing is to be able to feed the children. Before her eldest son was born, she worked at the Red Hill Cemetery in Yerevan with her mother for three years, cleaning wealthy people’s graves and living in an electric power plant nearby. The pay wasn’t stable, though.

"Then we came here and built huts for ourselves," says Lilit, whose sister and brother live in the neighborhood. Her mother says that Lilit’s condition is the worst.

There are plenty of holes in the hut, and rats go in and out, eating clothes and food. At night, the children often wake up because of the noise that the rats make. They had a cat, but the rats wounded it. The cat died.

Vahram is Lilit’s eldest. He’s 15, Narek is 13. They both like karate. Now, only Narek attends the karate classes, since Lilit cannot afford paying the 5,000 drams monthly for the two.

8-year-old Hovhannes

None of the boys has a kimono, but Narek has a yellow belt, and dreams of becoming a world champion one day. 8-year-old Hovhannes says he wants to become a tractor driver, to dig the ground and earn enough to buy a KamAZ truck.

15-year-old Vahram

Lilit hugs her three sons. There is happiness in her eyes. The children were born from three marriages. Two of her husbands died, and she’s divorced Hovhannes’s father, who comes to see their son sometimes.

13-year-old Narek

"My life hasn’t been an easy one, but I am happy to have my sons," says Lilit. She shows us a wooden spoon prepared by Vahram, who has a table serving as a workshop behind the hut.

“Vahram wants to become a sculptor. He makes such nice things from wood,” says Hovhannes.

Vahram learnt woodworking at the Orran charitable organization, which he enjoys attending together with his brothers after the school. He says he’s got friends there.

Lilit receives a monthly state allowance of AMD 37,500. Once she got hired by Sanitek, her allowance was cut by 1,500 drams. She says it’s good it wasn’t cut completely.

At the back of the house, there is a washtub, with toothbrushes placed next to it. This serves as the family’s bathroom.

"Look, the sewer drains are right under the dirt here," Lilit says. Rats come from sewage and the landfill. They collect things to burn in the stove from the landfill.

Anush’s smile disappears and her face grimaces. She says that they’ve sent many letters to the municipality and the district administration, asking to help Lilit with firewood or an apartment.

“It's no place to live. They don’t even visit us before elections. Just imagine how forgotten this place is,” says Anoush.

We don’t speak. Lilit says, "Well, I already told you I’m Cinderella."

When asked if Cinderella believes in miracles, Lilit hesitates to answer.

Vahram has hung some Christmas lights on the wall of the hut.

Hovhannes says there is no Santa Claus and he doesn’t want anything. Vahram says he does believe in Santa.

Hovhannes thinks for a moment, and then adds, "Well, there is no Santa Claus in Armenia. The real Santa lives at the North Pole and can hardly reach Yerevan."

Photos: Saro Baghdasaryan 

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