Katrin playing Snow White in a dramatic performance at Emili Aregak

Searching for Silver Linings

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By Sarah Stites

GYUMRI, Armenia – When my colleague and I called Katrin for a video-chat check-in, the 10-year-old floored us.

“This quarantine has helped me improve my relationship with my little brother,” she told us matter-of-factly.

Katrin is one of the 120 children who attend Emili Aregak, the social therapeutic center for kids with disabilities in Gyumri, Armenia, where I work. She loves to speak Russian, is usually sporting two braids, and has cerebral palsy.

Many of our kids who use wheelchairs rarely leave the house, due to the inaccessible stairs, sidewalks and transportation in our community. But Katrin’s mom has always prioritized integration. She pushes hard to make sure Katrin enjoys a life similar to those of others her age.

While this time at home has been difficult for Katrin, she has been an example to me as she searches for the bright side and thinks of others less fortunate than she.

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The car Katrin’s dad had been using for his taxi service broke down some time ago and he didn’t have the funds needed to fix it. He rented another, and then coronavirus struck and the taxi industry took a hit. Until our center brought food and hygiene items, the family didn’t know how it would weather the storm on the small disability and welfare checks they receive.

Fast forward to me. If things got really bad, I could leave Gyumri and return to my hometown near Washington, D.C. As it is, 95 percent of my job duties have been moved online, so the transition to remote work has been only a bother, not a crisis. I still earn my paycheck, and with no dependents, I live comfortably on the few hundred dollars/month I make here. That is more than can be said for the majority of residents.

In 1988, Gyumri and its surrounding region was decimated by an earthquake that razed more than twenty factories and killed 25,000 people. The city has never recovered. When I ride the marshrutka (minibus) to work each day, I pass several rubble strewn buildings and domiks, “temporary” homes made of shipping containers in which some families are still living more than 30 years after the quake. Since 1988, the economy has profoundly suffered. Before the pandemic, the unemployment rate hovered over 18 percent; now, it’s climbing higher, and affecting families like Katrin’s and Grigor’s*.

Grigor participating in music therapy at Emili Aregak

Ten-year-old Grigor has elfishly mischievous eyes, a sunny smile and Down Syndrome. He too attends our center for socialization activities and lunch, and like Katrin’s, his family operates on a tight budget. For Grigor’s father, cleaning a graveyard plot was the last in a string of seasonal, low-pay jobs. His earnings? $6. Usually, the family buys food on credit and pays their local market upon receiving some government support at the end of the month. But now that many families are in tight straits, the store manager has been forced to turn them away. Grigor’s family is well acquainted with living on bread alone. If our center hadn’t come through to help them, they’d be doing so now.

When I read about the $1,200 I’d be receiving from the U.S. government, it seemed so unjust in the light of these children’s stories. But then, like Katrin, I found the silver lining. I have been given a unique opportunity to bless others, so I’ll donate half of that money to Emili Aregak, a nonprofit I trust to help the families I know and love. I’ll give the other half to Aregak Bakery & Café, Armenia’s first café to employ people with disabilities. Right now, they’re running a campaign called “Our Daily Bread” to bake and send free loaves to the most vulnerable among us. They need all the help they can get.

Of course, many of you who are reading this are also in desperate straits. I’m glad that there is a check coming your way. I also know that many of you, like me, are blessed to be working from home. If you are financially able, would you consider giving all or a portion of your $1,200 to a worthy nonprofit which will allocate it to the most vulnerable – kids like Katrin and Grigor?

Let us pray for a swift end to this global catastrophe. In the meantime, may you simultaneously search for the silver linings and remember those suffering more intensely than you.

(A native of the Washington, D.C. metro area, Sarah Stites is an alumna of Birthright Armenia. She currently works as the communications and fundraising officer at Emili Aregak, a project of Armenian Caritas in Gyumri.)

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