Little Hearts: Two Armenian Americans Create Documentary About Child Protection in Armenia

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By Simone Paklaian and Alexa Sapah-Gulian

NEW YORK — We are both high school students who live in Connecticut and spend the summers on Cape Cod, where we work at Eulindas, a local ice cream shop. But this summer wasn’t like the past 10 we’ve spent at the Cape. This summer we made the decision to go to Armenia during a portion of our break, work at the Child Protection Center, and then create a documentary about it to develop global awareness.


When we first heard about the Child Protection Center, which is run by the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR), we felt that the work being accomplished was very important and we decided to get involved.

Through our research, we learned that this was a one-of-a-kind center in Armenia, which is responsible for protecting abused children on a short-term basis until long-term plans can be set. It is a program that originated in conjunction with the Yerevan Police Department, which, in earlier days, routinely picked up abandoned children off the streets and placed them in facilities — facilities that didn’t address the long-term needs of the children.

This Child Protection Center program fills that void by not only providing for the physical needs of the children, but also by addressing their psychological issues and long-term prospects. Instead of placing them in orphanages, the Center looks to re-unite them with their families, where and when appropriate, or to a loving foster home as a better solution.

Since this program first started more than 10 years ago, it had grown to the point that the Center’s Hotline and National Referral Network has brought in more children that are in desperate need of a second chance than the original police efforts did. Since the program was started, it has helped over 6,000 children, most of whom are between 4- and 16-years-old.

Alexa and Simone help the children act out through play, as Mira Antoyan, director of the center, looks on.
Alexa and Simone help the children act out through play, as Mira Antoyan, director of the center, looks on.

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So when the time came, we boarded the plane in New York that was bound for Armenia, unaware of what to expect. Though we had been thoroughly briefed on paper, neither of us could have been prepared for what we would experience. We were picked up from the airport in Yerevan by Garnik Nanagoulian, FAR’s executive director, and some of the in-country staff. We were told that we would be going to the Child Protection Center for our first day of work the next day.

The following morning we drove through the streets of Yerevan in awe of our surroundings. We had never been to Armenia and it was different from anything we had pictured. Both of us could not wait to arrive at the Center. Though nervous, we walked into the building confident. We were greeted by Executive Director of the Child Protection Center Dr. Mira Antonyan, and we began our day.
Her enthusiasm and passion for the center instantly calmed our nerves and she began to give us a tour of the facility. Initially it was difficult for us to communicate with the children because of our inability to speak fluent Armenian.

They soon understood, however, and began to work with us and accepted our lack of perfect verbal communication. But what we did realize is that communication comes in different forms. A laugh, hug, high-five or smile enabled us to connect with the children on a level that speaking would not allow us to reach. We soon found ourselves anxious to return to the center and be with the children that we had come to know so well after a day.

Once we knew the children a little better, and had become familiar with how the center was run, we were able to interview a few of them and hear more of their stories for our documentary. In addition to their individual stories, we were able to accompany the FAR caseworkers around the country as they conducted follow-up interviews with families who had already benefited from the center.

We also got involved as children were brought into the center, and initially evaluated for admission. In one case, we were heartbroken to see two young brothers, 5- and 8-years-old, brought in by the police because they had been wandering the streets for the last week after being abandoned by their mother.

Although that was shocking, what surprised us even more was their quick rebound. After being admitted to the center, they were cleaned up, given new clothes and within a few hours were already involved in playing with the other children.

While the psychological wounds of being separated from their mother will probably take a great deal of time to heal, at least outwardly it was a step in the right direction.

During all of these interactions, we were both concerned that their life stories were too personal to share and that they would hold back. But we were surprised to find that they were more than willing to share their background with others.

These children and families told their stories with sincerity. Everyone in the room could tell how comfortable the children felt around us because even though we came off as adults, we have the hearts of children as they do. We both found the stories of their broken families and difficult childhoods devastating, but it showed us how much the Child Protection Center had really changed their lives for the better. They all seemed truly happy there and we were so thankful that we could experience a portion of their lives with them.

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As the days went on, we grew more attached to each child and developed a personal connection with them. We knew them all by name, and they knew us, too. Whether it involved working in the kitchen and serving them their meals, letting them act out by painting, singing or dancing, or by just simple play, we were always greeted with ample amounts of hugs and kisses everyday. It was nearly impossible for us to leave. Our final day, they followed our car out of the facility and would have come with us if we had let them.

When we spoke to Mira the next day, she told us they were asking for us. This made our departure from Armenia bittersweet and more difficult than we both anticipated.

We boarded the plane home with a very different mindset. We both had bags full of pictures and gifts from the children and these would serve as constant reminders of the small things that make them happy in life.

This experience made us realize that we take everything we have for granted, and the simplicity of a laugh or a smile should be able to fulfill our needs, as it did for these little boys and girls. We will both have their smiling faces etched in our memories. Though they will grow up and find happiness on their own, we hope we changed their lives as much as they changed ours, even if they did only know us for a short amount of time. We could not have asked for a better experience in Armenia, and though the pictures will fade, our memories will last a lifetime.

For more information on FAR or to send donations, write to 630 Second Ave., New York, NY 10016; http://farusa.org; e-mail press@farusa.org.