Veteran Hrand Harutyunyan

YEREVAN — In a country with few resources, no life insurance or hefty pensions, the families of soldiers who were killed or severely injured in war are often left bereft of everything after paying the ultimate price of the loss or incapacitation of a loved one. Sentimentality butts up against two ugly truths: those loved ones are often the breadwinners and unfortunately, Armenia is in the shadow of a strong enemy that seems to be willing to launch strikes regularly.

Those reasons led to the creation of the Insurance Foundation for Servicemen (IFS), also known as 1,000 Plus, after the four-day 2016 war, which left about 100 casualties in its wake, said Sona Baghdasaryan, the group’s fundraising and donor relations manager.

The organization is basically a life insurance plan that pays a lump sum after the death or incapacitation of a soldier on duty and then makes payments for the next 20 years.

“We have a single mission to give monetary compensation to families of fallen soldiers or soldiers who have acquired a disability of first or second degree due to combat,” Baghdasaryan said during a recent interview from her office in Yerevan.

“We make sure that after they sacrifice their lives, they can live in comfort. We make sure they have a dignified life,” Baghdasaryan said, adding that the state itself can only offer a tiny monthly payment of about $80 to survivors of an injured soldier or a martyr.

“It’s a long-term financing that makes sure those families are not on the brink of poverty, because they make sure that we are safe,” Baghdasaryan said.

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“The foundation was created by a special law, so it’s basically a private foundation that has its own law, and a strict, narrow, strict mandate to provide compensation. We are financed by the Armenian nation. Every single Armenian and foreign working in Armenia and paying taxes, provide between $3 and $30 every single month in mandatory contributions,” she added.

Amazingly, the majority of the funds that go to the soldiers and their families comes from that tax and it has been more or less enough until this year. However, the most recent devastating attack by Azerbaijan on Armenia and Karabakh changed the numbers and the IFS leadership realized that with the tremendous number of dead and wounded, they needed a bigger infusion of funds. According to the latest government statistics, Armenia and Artsakh lost about 4,025 servicemen, with 231 missing and 11,000 servicemen wounded and sick.

“After the [most recent] war, since our caseload grew tenfold,” between 2008 and 2020, we had 416 cases. Now we have 4465 cases and they are still growing. Now they have to apply to their local municipality, whatever the smaller unit they live in. From there, it will be processed and checked for completeness. They will then be sent to the Ministry of Defense,” she said.

Said Baghdasaryan, “We have raised  over $22 million, the first million during the first war, and the rest after the second war,” Baghdasaryan said, mostly from Armenia, including voluntary donations.  Taxpayers there had paid $96.5 million in mandatory employee contributions into the program from 2017 to 2021. “We have paid $102 million in compensations,” she added.

From left, Narine Galstyan of IFS, Rev. Hovsep Karapetyan of St. Mary’s Armenian Church in Washington, DC and Sona Baghdasaryan

She explained further, “The beneficiaries are either the soldiers themselves who survived with a first or second degree disability, or the families of soldiers, such as parents, legal spouses or children (in or out of wedlock). Siblings are not included. “The idea of the foundation is basically life insurance, so we cannot compensate the loss of a loved one, but we can make sure that people who have lost a breadwinner” can live in comfort.

The amount IFS pays out is codified in the law.

“It’s in the law. In case of a first-degree disability or fallen soldiers, there is a $20,000 lump sum payment then a payment between $400-$600 a month for 20 years,” she said. “For a second-degree disability, we have a lump sum compensation of $10,000 and then $200-$400 a month.”

Beneficiaries need to apply to the Ministry of Defense and to their local municipalities, which vet their applications and establish the names of survivors.

Baghdasaryan noted that the location of the soldiers are classified by the Ministry of Defense, therefore to verify the claims and find out how and where a particular soldier died, they are the ones that can provide the information and thus greenlight the authenticity of the claim.

“We make sure whoever is included is the family and we make sure everyone is in,” she explained.

Artsakh’s residents also pay in and we also pay in Artsakh. For us, we don’t care which army they were in. Most of our officers serve in Artsakh.

“We are governed by an independent professional board that comes mostly from the diaspora, They are experts in finance, crisis management, fundraising,” etc., to strategically guide the organization, she noted.

Sitting on the board of trustees are David Akopyan, who has held a variety of positions in the last 30 years with the United Nations Development Program; Adam A. Kablanian, a high technology CEO, serial entrepreneur, and investor from San Francisco; Anahit Adamyan, a partner at EV Consulting management consultancy in Moscow; Joseph Simonian, founder and CIO of Autonomous Investment Technologies LLC, in Newton, MA, a company that provides AI and machine learning consulting services to the financial industry and Irina Seylanyan, a senior leader with over 20 years of experience in banking and since March 2020 the CEO of HSBC Bank Armenia.

Baghdasaryan is aware that diasporan donors especially want transparency.

First Lieutenant Sargis Gabrielyan

“We modestly call it a national success story. It is very rare for something to come out of a post-Soviet Armenian institution, where corruption is everywhere. This is an institution that locals trust. Unfortunately due to the war, the losses are in everyone’s families,” she said.

“From the beginning, the model was set up to make sure that the foundation is transparent, accountable and independent and carries out a mission that is just and fair for everyone,” she said. “From day one, we have had a website that shows every single dollar that was raised by the foundation — the contributions as well as the donations.”

“We have a real time calculator,” she said.

All the names of the donors and the recipients are listed in the website, including names of the person, their family, the date of the injury or death.

“We were lucky we were created before a large war [in 2020] and lucky we had the four years to raise money. Our contributions before the war started at 1,000 drams ($2) per month. Now we have raised the obligatory payment from $3 to $30 depending on income.”

In addition, she said, the amount of compensation the family of the dead or injured get is also bigger.

Baghdasaryan said she is aware of large organizations that have raised money which has not always reached its target or if it has, it has been less than promised or slower than planned.

Those organizations’ mismanagement or misappropriation of funds has been a “catastrophic influence for us,” she said.

Baghdasaryan stressed that no government official is involved with the money.

Baghdasaryan, who speaks English fluently, attended high school in the US for a year as part of an  exchange program for students from the Soviet bloc and later received a master’s degree in banking and finance law from the Boston University School of Law.

Tour of the US

With the greater numbers of families that need to be helped, the organization wants to make the US more aware of its presence and therefore Baghdasaryan and her colleague Narine Galstyan are embarking on a multi-city tour of the US.

“Now we need to fundraise. We have a gap of $10 to $15 million that we have to close by the end of this year,” and new cases are still coming in, she said.

“We have started with the US because it is the community that reaches us the most. We also have communities in the US who organize fundraisers for us,” she said.

As an example, she cited a group in San Francisco,  Artsakh Task Force, “A group of very committed people,” who have held fundraisers for IFS both during and after the war. “We want to meet these people and thank them in person,” she said.

She stressed that while they plan to raise funds, this trip will be more about exposing the IFS to the Armenian Americans who do not know of the group. “For this trip, we don’t plan to fundraise. The communities that know us and work with us, they fundraise without our asking,” she said. “The communities that do not know us, we will introduce ourselves because we need to build trust, and then we will ask for donations when the calls will resonate with them.”

They have started their tour in Washington, DC, and will visit between October 20 to November 18 Philadelphia,  North New Jersey, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Fresno, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The IFS has initiated a foothold in the US through two sister organizations, the Armenian Wounded Heroes Fund (AWHF), run by Chris Petrossian and Razmig Arzoumanian, and Friends of the Armenian Soldier and Family (FASF), which just acquired its 501-3.

Baghdasaryan expressed her pride in working with the two groups.

For AWHF, she said, “It is a two-man initiative that has a stellar reputation and doing a stellar job since 2017.They channel tax-deductible donations from US residents to us, as well as training, medical kits, etc.”

The fate of soldiers is one close to her; her younger brother studied in the military academy and was stationed in July 2020 and fought in the war. Fortunately, he was not hurt.

That is not the case especially for those serving in Artsakh. “Unfortunately most Artsakh families have had a loss in the first war or this one. They are exempt from the mandatory contribution but they usually don’t [take advantage of it]. They need the money but” don’t ask not to pay. “It’s a very interesting system that we can do something well and support each other, independently, just us as a nation. And we are quite proud of that achievement.”

Founding IFS

The IFS started in 2017 as a grassroots effort by a group of people, led by Varoujan Avedikian of the Central Bank of Armenia, who were horrified by the loss of 100 lives during the four-day war launched by Azerbaijan against Artsakh. “They started gathering money, doing fundraising from their friends in the diaspora and visiting the families one by one. They visited everyone and came out of it with two realizations: these people need help financially because they don’t come from the most comfortable areas of our society. People who serve in the military are not the rich elites. They are regular people in the region that go and fight and stand so that I can sleep safely and calmly with my three children. And secondly, these people need recognition for what their sons have done,” she noted. “There is no national recognition, no way they feel the support or care of their nation.”

Avedikian, then the general counsel of the Central Bank of Armenia, came up with the idea, she said, based on his exposure to Western organizations and entities such as life insurance.

Baghdasaryan got involved early in the project as she had been working for him for 15 years at the bank as head of legal services department at the Central Bank of Armenia.

“He came up with the idea and sold it to the management. They said ‘write the law and we will support the foundation for five years,’” she said.

“It [the bill creating the IFS] was written very fast and passed parliament very fast,” she said, with the support of the then-minister of defense, Vigen Sargsyan.

All procedures were streamlined through the bank’s resources where needed, with the rest done by volunteers. “Everything was run by volunteers. People chipped in with their time and assets,” she said. “We didn’t have staff then. There were about 10 volunteers.”

After the war, the people running the IFS  realized there needs to be a team of employees because unfortunately, the issues are not going away. “We have 5,000 cases and 20 years of liability. We need a team that works 9-10 hours a day,” she said.

In the short time since its founding, the organization has been rocked by much. “We have seen one revolution, one COVID, several escalations and one large-scale war. We lost in 44 days more lives that we lost in the first five years of the Artsakh War,” she noted.

“A decision was made that the foundation has to become a professional, independent organization,” she said.

Now, it has a 15-person staff.

“Accountability is very important to us, so we have an annual financial reports, audited by a top-10 audit firm. We make sure people see our financial statements. We have quarterly director’s reports. You will always see your donations, always see the contributions and you will always see the names of the beneficiaries you have received the donations,” she added.

“We make sure everyone is compensated. We make sure everyone’s compensation is equal and fair. The only difference in compensation is the difference in rank,” she said, as well as the number and ages of children.

While Baghdasaryan wants the IFS to reach its targets, she has another wish — that there was no need for the IFS.

“I wish we were jobless. The only thing we want to do is collect money and manage it but we know it is not where we live. We want to make sure that these people don’t leave the country. We want to make sure these people feel dignified and appreciated so they stay. Otherwise we are going to have empty villages on the border and a completely empty Artsakh,” she said.

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