Valeri Poghosyan

New Program Trains Social Workers to Deal with Artsakh’s Needs

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By Margarita Arakelyan

STEPANAKERT — The 2020 Artsakh war instigated by Azerbaijan dragged on for 44 days. In that agonizing six and a half weeks, thousands were killed and wounded. Hundreds of POWs still languish in Azerbaijan’s prisons. The relatives of the missing have been desperately searching for their loved ones for months. Artsakh lost a significant portion of its territory, including Hadrut and Shushi. The war also uncovered the desperate need for an effective system of social protection for families affected by the war.

During and after the war, the Armenian government and several humanitarian organizations provided support to cover the basic needs of displaced people who sought safe haven in Armenia. While the majority of the displaced people (around 110,000, according to official data) returned home following the declared ceasefire on November 9, more than 20,000 are still struggling with uncertainties in terms of housing and other legal/social issues. Many in this latter group remain highly dependent on various humanitarian programs.

Mira Antonyan

To improve the life and conditions of the traumatized population of Artsakh, the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR) Children’s Center, in collaboration with Armenia’s Association of Social Workers, has developed and launched an inclusive psychosocial protection program, something beyond the provision of food and clothing. In the long run, the initiative will employ a network of skilled social workers to defend and promote the rights of Artsakh’s people, and primarily, the least advantaged ones, like displaced people and families who lost their breadwinners. Support includes access to healthcare and social services and family reunification efforts.

‘How Are We Going to Live?’

Twenty-six-year-old Kristine Petrosyan, a mother of five, used to live in a dilapidated apartment in Stepanakert which was damaged during the second Artsakh war. Since then, the roof has fallen apart and the windows destroyed.

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For months, the family has been renting an apartment in the suburbs of Stepanakert at a monthly cost of 12,000 drams. No longer able to make ends meet, Kristine applied to the Artsakh Ministry of Social Affairs for support.

“I was shy about speaking about our problems because there were so many displaced people on the waiting list whose issues are much more urgent than ours, but we cannot live like this any longer. The rent is too expensive, we have five children, and Mher [Kristine’s husband] can hardly make ends meet. We receive 70,000 drams as a state benefit which, along with my husband’s daily earnings, hardly covers the rent, diapers and formula for my two-month old, Mark,” she notes.

With the support of Armine Arzangulyan, a social worker from Stepanakert, Kristine has applied to the Artsakh Urban Development Committee to evaluate and fix the damages of their apartment.

Kristine frankly notes that without Armine’s support, she would still be agonizing over the decision to contact the committee. “Hopefully, they can fix our house soon and we’ll be able to return,” she mentions. In fact, the family was supposed to receive a new apartment for their fifth child but they no longer want that. “Let the displaced receive houses; we can live in our old one. I just wish they could fix it as soon as possible.”

Valeri Poghosyan, 71, a beneficiary from Ivanyan Village in the Askeran Region, is trying to apply for a government-supported social program to start an animal husbandry business. Narine Beglaryan, a newly trained social worker assigned to support his family, is helping him gather the necessary documents. She has also helped Valeri to overcome psychological and health problems, in addition to addressing his housing and social issues.

“Whatever I do now my number one counselor is Narine. First I call her, and only then, my daughter,” he says, smiling.

Martuni after the war

Poghosyan was captured by Azerbaijanis during the war. He was among the last inhabitants of Avetaranots, a village in the Askeran Region. Until the very last minute he didn’t know that Azerbaijani soldiers had occupied his village. In captivity for more than a month, Valeri was sent to Armenia, through the efforts of the Red Cross, on December 15, 2020. Soon after his arrival, he underwent heart and then brain surgery.

Through Beglaryan’s support, Poghosyan has resettled in a house in Ivanyan Village. Recently he received some furniture too. “Narine helped me to rebuild my life, both by strengthening me and by making use of social services through government entities. To me, she is part counselor and part aid facilitator,” he said, beaming.

“I feel well now and do not need any more help. What I need the most is a small business to busy myself. Narine promised to help me apply for such programs,” he notes, adding that he has a garden in front of the house and is planning to grow tomatoes and cucumbers next year.

I Am a Refugee in My Own Country

“I am a refugee in my own Artsakh,” says Armine Arzangulayan, 30, with her eyes betraying the months-long exhaustion. “But as a social worker I have to be strong to help other displaced families.”

Arzangulayan, along with at least 40,000 others, has no roof over her head. She fled her home with nothing but the clothes on her back and some personal documents in a hastily packed bag. She is now renting an apartment in Stepanakert where she lives with her two children, her husband, her grandmother, and her father-in-law, a wounded veteran of the first Artsakh war who participated in the 1994 battles to liberate Shushi. He lost his right arm in an explosion.

The kitchen window of her apartment overlooks Shushi, which looks like a ghost city in the darkness of the night. At that window Armine often reminisces about her childhood in the village of  Khtsaberd and later in Taghavard, where her in-laws lived. Taghavard, in Martuni, was divided by an Artsakh Defense Army checkpoint. Azerbaijani soldiers now stand beyond the boundary line.

Arzangulayan was among the first volunteers to offer help for the post-war chaos. She helped other displaced people find lodging in the middle of winter. “Before the war I would have never thought that one day I would become a social worker, because I thought it was not important. When I came back to Stepanakert after the war, I began to feel this nudging in my soul to do something. Displaced myself, I had a desire to move beyond distributing food, and to become a part of a systematized social protection unit, which was non-existent in Artsakh. Soon a Facebook announcement grabbed my attention and I applied for the program,” she said, as she turned yet another page of a thick notebook where she records information about the displaced families. So far, she has interviewed around 500 families and is currently working with 70 of them.

Psychosocial Support

This new project, launched in February 2021, focuses on psychosocial support free of administrative bureaucracy. The system is based on human rights principles and is intended to build resilience and restore the psychosocial health of vulnerable, displaced individuals and families.

The project aims to place a part- or full-time social worker in every remote village of Artsakh. Social workers would work directly with families to identify their needs and provide support through targeted intervention. While social workers work to solve social and psychological problems on a community level, case managers will work together on a regional level to analyze the big picture.

The Artsakh Ministry of Social Affairs, together with the FAR Children’s Center, have interviewed more than 300 candidates to be social workers in the initial phase of the project. Ninety applicants who were selected have received training to work with displaced people. In June 2021, the ministry hired 22 of them as full-time employees.

“This was an evidence-based concept that was generated based on our observations in post-war Artsakh. We saw chaos, desperation, and incomprehensible human suffering. We saw thousands of people in lines in front of the Artsakh Ministry of Social Affairs waiting for humanitarian support packages. Violence against women and children required immediate intervention too,” said FAR Children’s Center Executive Director Dr. Mira Antonyan.

The first group of Artsakh social workers

In the 1990s, during the first Artsakh War, Antonyan worked with displaced people from Artsakh and refugees from Baku and Sumgait while also hosting 14 displaced persons in her own three-room apartment. More than 30 years later she faces the same challenges as the newly-trained social workers do.

“My role in social work is new and I still have to establish myself and my responsibilities. The biggest challenge was dealing with families who lost their close ones in the war and/or have POWs,” said Armine Arzangulyan. “At first, we didn’t know how to knock on their doors, introduce ourselves, or start a conversation. It was hard to gain credibility with them and try to understand their needs.”

“Back in the 1990s when I started my career in this field, people would hardly trust me. Every time I entered a home, people would ask: ‘Are you his/her relative? Why are you so concerned about his/her issues? Why do you want to help him/her? What is in it for you?’ Having said that, this is quite a familiar challenge for me and, in the course of these years, I have learned how to deal with it.” said Antonyan. “On one hand, these families have been facing insurmountable problems. They feel dehumanized and need time and support. On the other hand, social work is a new phenomenon in Artsakh and people have to understand the need and its importance,” she notes.

Developing Institution of Social Workers of Artsakh

Although a substantial number of displaced people have been linked to appropriate resources, including charitable organizations present in Artsakh, many have fallen through the cracks.

“There has also been poor mobilization of government resources to facilitate displaced people’s social and psychological recovery and their integration into new realities,” said Antonyan. “In the past, the essence of the support to people in need was limited to the provision of monthly allowances, which were given to them year after year. That approach has developed a culture of dependency and did not encourage them to become self-sufficient. Our greatest impact would be that, starting in 2022, with our support, the Artsakh government will use an integrated and holistic approach to provide social and economic support to people in need. This approach will help the population of Artsakh to achieve self-sufficiency by starting their own enterprises or family businesses.”

The newly established Master of Social Work program at Mashtots University of Artsakh has also changed the field. Arzangulyan and Beglaryan started the hybrid program in September.

“This is my dream job,” said Arzangulyan of her social work career.

Added Antonyan, “Our approach to helping Artsakh is based on the concept that, in this post-war phase, every citizen of Artsakh, young or old, needs encouragement, understanding, and psychological support. This applies to professionals as well as to doctors and healthcare providers who have suffered from burnout, to teachers who find it difficult to formulate clear messages to children, to servicemen who have been injured both physically and psychologically, and to those burdened with other losses. This applies to families who are still searching for their captive and missing relatives, to parents who are suffering, and to children who are struggling to cope with trauma. Everyone needs to be supported.

“People who are experiencing the most vulnerable time in their lives — which relates to almost the entire Artsakh population, and not only to the displaced — should have anchors to rely on, to connect them with resources and find solutions to their complex problems. It is these anchors that we want to develop through our project.

“That is why we believe that there is a need for a social worker in every village, in every region. Artsakh needs psychosocial community centers, family support, child protection, and family strengthening programs. My dream is to be able to help more people than we can today.

“In other words, the overarching goal of our project is to train our beneficiaries to grow and become good, professional social workers so that not only will they acquire the skills and knowledge that a social worker needs, but so that they also become the ambassadors of the new mission in Artsakh, a moral mission of empowering the people of this wounded republic and addressing both private and public issues,” concluded Antonyan.

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