“It was one of the most moving, powerful, and emotional days of my whole life. When I left, I felt love. I didn’t know whether to cry or dance,” said the Eastern Diocesan Primate, the Very Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan with obvious emotion.
The Primate was referring to his three-hour visit to the FAR (Fund for Armenian Relief) Children’s Center in Yerevan, Armenia, which he undertook during his recent week-long visit to Armenia. It was one of three FAR funded projects in Armenia that he visited.
The Children’s Center has been the apex in protecting, caring for, rehabilitating, and educating young abandoned, abused, sexually trafficked, tortured children, and transforming and rehabilitating their lives so they can become safe and acclimated members of Armenia’s society.
“My feelings were in a whirlwind as I realized the depth of horror that people can do to others, and the heights that people can also do to help, he stated.”
Treated As Their Own
Paying tribute to the dedicated staff, he commented, “they treat the children like their own. The visit was the highlight of my trip.” As he walked into the Center, the Director, Dr. Mira Antonyan greeted him, taking him on a tour of the several buildings.
“All of a sudden, a 13 year old boy, Jirair Janer, short for his age, but with big, black Armenian eyes ran up to me,” the Primate related. “He talked to me like a 25-year old. He was articulate, clear, uninhibited. He communicated with me like an equal, taking me from room to room and explaining the function of each.”
The Director explained to the Primate that Jirair had a 17-year old brother Hagop, and a 16-year old sister Sarin at the Center, “but Jirair was the leader,” she explained.
Jirair and his siblings were from Aleppo. His father had been an alcoholic who constantly beat his wife. Two years ago, the mother decided to take her three children to Armenia where she tragically died of cancer. The Center took in the three children where they have been receiving professional psychological support, art and socialization therapy.
During his visit, the Primate also met Michael, a 15 year-old non-Armenian from Afghanistan. He is now learning Armenian,” Fr. Daniel said proudly, and related that Michael’s background included “running away from his family, and walking through Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran.”
When Michael finally ended up in Armenia, he was arrested because the authorities thought he had escaped from the army. It was found out that he had been a victim of brutal child-trafficking during his travels.
From Police Station to Children’s Center
During Soviet times, there was no such school, the Primate revealed. “This building was a police station. FAR changed it to the Children’s Center.”
These children “from hell have been the victims of the worst of the worst. From day one the Center provides them with a non- sugar-coated relationship with these professional staff members, and tailors an exit strategy so they can safely become part of the larger society,” explained the Primate.
During this rehabilitation process the Center has instituted foster parents for a period of time. Ninety families are being trained to be foster parents. “This is unprecedented,” declared the Primate. “These are group homes for 17, 18 year olds where they live alone with a family. This is their transition to complete independence.”
“We can’t change the past, but we can change the future.”
Two Other Projects
During his one day visit to FAR centers in Armenia, Fr. Daniel also visited two other impressive FAR projects.
The School for Disabled Children tends to 100 mostly mentally disabled children from seven years old to teenagers who are cared for by a staff of 22.
As the Primate arrived, there were cameras and reporters everywhere. “I was being treated like a celebrity. It made me a little nervous,” he confessed.
The school is being renovated to build a state of the art Vocational Training Center for children with disabilities, through a generous gift from the Batmasian family of Florida.
The new building will be equipped with rooms for different crafts – carpet weaving, sewing machines, cooking classes, tractors and autobody work, etc. for the training of these children.
While there, many children rushed up to the Primate, hugging him with warm and happy smiles. He was impressed with their clean, well-dressed appearances. In the kitchen, he asked, “What is this? A child happily replied, “gaghamp (cabbage) salad”.
Fr. Daniel who has an inborn ability to lovingly relate to and communicate with children, commented, “These children have no filter. They are honest, direct, genuine. They were happy to meet and accept me as an equal,” he said emotionally.
After meeting the staff at the FAR headquarters in Yerevan, the Primate traveled to the FAR Soup Kitchen in Nor Hadjin which during Soviet times was the diamond center with multiple factories (now defunct), employing thousands of workers, all of whom are now unemployed.
Many of the men have since gone to Russia to find work. The Soup Kitchen feeds 160 women and children and a few old men who are fed in two shifts.
The Primate sat at the head of the table after saying a prayer, and had a “delicious meal of soup, meat cutlet and a grain dish. The people were ecstatic, many saying that they were grateful for the bounty they were receiving. “ To a young teenager seated near him, the Primate instructed, “Eat so you can grow.”
The Primate also met with a woman and her four-year old son, Vartkes who has never spoken in his life. As others saw him praying for the boy, several others surrounded Fr. Daniel asking him to pray for their children.
“I felt uncomfortable being with these needy people. Here I am, I don’t have to worry about where my food comes from. I can buy shoes, clothing, take a vacation,” he confessed. “But, they didn’t see me that way. They relaxed me. I loved being with them.”
Reflecting on his one day trip to these three FAR programs in Armenia, the Primate proudly declared that in some cases, “they surpass the much better funded ones internationally. I am so proud, as the Eastern Diocesan Primate that our Diocese is accomplishing these amazing results in Armenia through FAR, the Fund for Armenian Relief.”
Click on the link to view a gallery of photos.
By Florence Avakian