Armenia Fund Declares 2010 ‘The Year of Shushi’

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NEW YORK — In an effort to jumpstart socio-economic development in the legendary town of Shushi, Armenia Fund USA and its worldwide affiliates will launch a comprehensive program of infrastructure and business development projects beginning in 2010.

The Armenia Fund “Save Shushi” campaign will officially kick off on its annual Thanksgiving Day Telethon, in addition to pre-Telethon fundraising drives, such as direct mail and phone campaigns, conducted by Armenia Fund USA and other affiliates in the All-Armenia Fund global network.

“In the 1990s, the Armenians won the pivotal battle for liberation in the hills and fields of Shushi. Today, they are fighting a very different battle: a war on poverty,” explained Armenia Fund USA Chairman Raffi Festekjian.

“Too many residents, jobless and living in unsafe ruins, have been forced to leave these hard-won lands for which they or their compatriots sacrificed so much,” Festekjian added. “Somehow, the inspiration from military victory has been slowly overtaken by economic paralysis and social apathy. And time is running out to win back the hearts and minds of those residents remaining.”

The Armenia-Azeri war left Shushi almost completely destroyed. The town center is a gloomy picture of half-destroyed houses built in the 18th and 19th centuries. With so many abandoned shelters, many of the jobless residents live as squatters, with no heat or electricity. Provincial schools are also physically unsafe and unhygienic, leaving families little incentive to remain in Shushi without hope for a better future.

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During the early 20th century, the Armenians of Shushi boasted a population of 45,000, seven churches, 22 newspapers and a public theatre. After the liberation of Shushi, many presumed that this history-making province would be reborn, attracting business investment and tourists, generating jobs, and building strong, robust communities. Despite the best of intentions, the rebirth of Shushi was a dream deferred.

Today, the officials of the Shushi and Karabagh government, along with leaders of Armenia Fund, have agreed to put Shushi on the economic map. To stimulate growth in Shushi the government of Karabagh decided to move a number of state institutions such as the Supreme and Appeals Courts from the capital of Stepanakert to Shushi. Constructing the buildings to house these offices and paving roads and streets to reach them, would immediately generate local jobs; but that is only a small step toward the substantive change so desperately needed to save Shushi.

Although the government of Karabagh is prepared to subsidize all such infrastructure projects, its limited budget cannot address all the imperatives for revitalizing Shushi, within a small window of time. This is where the Armenian Diaspora becomes a critical factor in determining the ultimate fate of this legendary region.

“Without jobs, good schools and a place to call home, there is very little incentive to stay in Shushi, which is of great strategic importance to the security of Karabagh,” states Irina Lazarian, executive director of Armenia Fund USA, Eastern Region. “This is why Shushi’s war on poverty must be fought on multiple fronts: housing, health care, education, business and cultural development, not to mention well-functioning institutions that can facilitate growth and progress.”

With funds generated from fall fundraising efforts, culminating with the Thanksgiving Day Telethon, Armenia Fund intends to answer in the affirmative — breaking ground early in the new year to build enough momentum to give the people of Shushi a fresh outlook on their future.

Among the many large and small infrastructure projects slated to begin in 2010, under the leadership of Armenia Fund USA and some of its affiliates, are: construction and renovation of houses and apartments, local town halls and health care hubs; parks and water fountains, cultural and recreational centers. Water pipelines, school heating systems, gymnasiums, school facilities, roads and street repairs also will be underway.

In addition, a brand new medical hospital is planned to provide village-wide access to emergency and critical health care, plus a state-of-the-art administrative center to help fast-track economic growth and investment. Other business development efforts include a Rug Manufacturers Association and micro-loans for start-up local enterprises. These projects will take place not only in Shushi proper, but the seven villages within Shushi province, including: Karintak, Kirsavan, Hin-Shenk, Medz-Shenk, Eghtsahogh and Lisagor.

“Obviously, this is a massive undertaking. There is much catching up to do and so little time left, before the people will give up on Shushi altogether” notes the mayor of Shushi. “But with the will of Armenians everywhere, who draw inspiration from what Shushi has come to symbolize in our story of national survival, it will rise from the ashes once more. Not only victorious, but prosperous, too.”

For more information about Armenia Fund’s “Saving Shushi” campaign, send an e-mail to info@armeniafundusa.org.