Milena Ordiyants at work

Displaced Women from Artsakh Find Home in a Small Weaving Studio in Southern Armenia

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By Lilit Shahverdyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

GORIS, Armenia — “That’s how we became refugees for the second time,” sums up Milena Ordiyants, a 39-year-old Armenian woman recently displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh).

In her four decades, this woman has been forced to move twice, once from Baku (Azerbaijan) to Berdzor (Nagorno-Karabakh) and ultimately, finding temporary residence in Goris (southern Armenia). Due to the skills in carpet-making she acquired in her younger years, she is now getting back on her feet, supporting her family financially and sharing her know-how with the women of her new community. It’s a new awakening after a dreadful nightmare.

A sample of the handiwork of the women at the Goris center

On the morning of September 27, 2020, Baku launched a major offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh, continuing the longest-running unresolved dispute on the territory of the former Soviet Union.

“Like hundreds of thousands of Armenians, we moved to Armenia from Baku in 1988, when the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict first ignited,” says the woman. Later, she got married and resettled in Berdzor, a small town that bridges Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. That’s where she learned the techniques of carpet-weaving and sewing. When the war started last September, Milena says she didn’t even think of leaving the town despite the constant bombardments by the Azerbaijani armed forces.

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“I wasn’t scared because all my relatives and beloved ones were there with me. The government encouraged women and children to evacuate, but how could I when my father, my husband, and brothers were at the frontline,” she recalls.

After the war, the status of this little town was left uncertain. The mayor, Narek Alexanyan, announced in December 2020 that only around one hundred people currently inhabit Berdzor, whereas the population reached 2,000 before September 2020. The presence of Russian peacekeepers doesn’t inspire hope in the local population, as Azerbaijani armed forces are deployed too close to the border.

Executive Director Ruzanna Torozyan, center, of the Women’s Resource Development Center, with two other women, working

Like many other displaced families, the Ordiyants settled in Goris (southern Armenia) in November 2020 due to its proximity to Nagorno Karabakh. Milena and her husband worked for the Ministry of Emergency Situations in Artsakh. Their branch in Berdzor was moved to Lisagor village in Artsakh after the war, so that employees would not be deprived of income. Her husband now commutes to Lisagor to work, while she has found peace in a little studio in Verishen village, near Goris. It was opened by the Goris Women’s Resource Development Center, a local NGO, right after the recent war, providing women with work and tranquil ambience while helping them recover from shock.

New Opportunities

The estimated Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh was 147,000 before the war. According to a report by international agencies released in December 2020 which relies on estimates of the Artsakh authorities, the conflict forced more than 90,000 from Karabakh to relocate to the Republic of Armenia. However, circumstances have changed since then. Mane Tandilyan, the minister of labor of the Artsakh Republic, indicates on her Facebook account that the return of the displaced was carried out very quickly, and over 120,000 Armenians live today in Artsakh. However, many, like Milena, have chosen to stay in Armenia until the dust settles.

“I saw on Facebook that children were learning handwork in the center. Since I am experienced in sewing and carpet weaving, I decided to join them,” remembers Milena. “I didn’t expect to earn money in the studio. I only needed it for peace of mind.” Apparently, their work has attracted many customers from abroad.

Women working in the Women’s Resource Development Center in Goris. This center was founded by a local women’s initiative group and aims to empower the women of southern Armenia in their political, economic, and social lives. The educational center in Verishen village is also its enterprise.

“Our center immediately responded to the war, collaborating with the municipality of Goris,” says the NGO executive director Ruzanna Torozyan. “Our goal was to arrange responsibilities and support the municipality. We provided the displaced women with first aid and psychological support in cooperation with international NGOs.” Torozyan also emphasized the significant contribution of such organizations when it comes to finding jobs and opportunities for the displaced.

A corner in the Women’s Resource Development Resource Center. Women at this center have different occupations: making soft little toys, eco-bags, socks and pillows, and similar items. Women from Artsakh joined its team during the war and assisted in making essentials for soldiers and the displaced.

“The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) donated weaving machines and looms to our educational center in Verishen. With the support of the women from Artsakh, we managed to prepare more than 700 beddings, around 80 pregnancy kits and 300 hygiene kits,” added the official. The center has received funding from the Near East Foundation (an international NGO based in the US which has a branch in Armenia), due to which the women were able to satisfy their basic material needs. They also made socks and hats for Armenian soldiers in winter.

“What inspires me most is the women’s willingness to work. When they visit our center, they do not ask for material support; they ask for a job. It is due to the unity and interpersonal connection that our community is gradually recovering,” stressed Torozyan.

Around 40 of those women have participated in courses on hairstyling, makeup, cooking and handicrafts. Those skills have enabled many of the members to earn a living.

An Uncertain Future

Heriqnaz Hakobyan, 42, is another displaced woman from Berdzor as well as the mother of a soldier in the recent war. She was born in the Vayk region of Armenia but found herself in Berdzor after getting married. An important factor creates a bond between her and Milena: they were among the very few women who took the risk of staying in their hometown throughout the war.

Heriqnaz Hakobyan in front of her loom. Heriqnaz moved out of Berdzor, Nagorno-Karabakh, after the recent war. She lives in Verishen village near Goris and is the breadwinner of the family. The weaving studio is her only source of income.

“My son was on the frontline during the war, so I had no moral right to move out. I was there praying for my son, for all the soldiers. But the pressure is more intense when your own child is in the hot spot,” says Heriqnaz, with a distraught, unsettled gaze.

A sample of the handiwork of the women at the Goris center

Heriqnaz made her new home in Berdzor 17 years ago, and has put all her efforts into building a house for her family. She says material losses mean nothing for her, that she only feels despair for losing her youth and energy in Berdzor.

“We saw no luxury in Berdzor, never travelled abroad, were never well-dressed, but we had a roof over our head, and it kept us on our feet,” adds Heriqnaz. “Now we left our best years there, and there’s no guarantee of safety anywhere else. I don’t want to start from scratch again.”

She received a phone call from the Goris municipality, offering material support. Instead, she insisted in finding a job. “I needed work to calm down my inner world and find peace within myself, not to earn money,” she said.

Repopulating Berdzor is a policy issue which hasn’t been resolved so far. Therefore, Heriqnaz and many others are unable to determine their future at the moment. The woman is the breadwinner of her family and partly meets her needs due to the job she found at the Women’s Resource Center. She is comfortable with weaving since she mastered the skills from her childhood, and now is sharing her experience with local children.

Since the destiny or Berdzor is still unclear, it’s impossible for both women to decide on their own fates. Heriqnaz says she’s happy to stay if she can make ends meet. Milena, however, sees it from another angle, stating: “If I accept compensation for a house from the government, it will mean that I will ultimately hand the keys of my house to the enemy.”

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