Dr. Carolann and K. George Najarian, 3rd and 4th from left, and Professor Gurgen Melikyan, 7th from left, in front of the Arpen Center

Arpen Center Has Supported Pregnant Artsakh Women for Almost Three Decades

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WATERTOWN — The Arpen Center for Expectant Mothers in Stepanakert has played an important role in maintaining demographic growth of the Armenian population of Artsakh for some 28 years. It was founded and supported by Dr. Carolann Najarian of Boston, with the aid of Prof. Gurgen Melikyan of Yerevan State University. It provided supplies necessary for pregnant women and assured their proper nutrition, and continues to do the latter to this day.

Dr. Carolann Najarian and Professor Gurgen Melikyan at the Arpen Center

Melikyan declared, “The establishment of this center by Carolann Najarian and her husband George was one of the greatest patriotic acts possible. From December 1995 until the present, 33,026 children were born through that center. Can you imagine? 34,000 pregnant women have visited us, and this work continues today.”

In other words, the children born with the help of the center form a substantial portion of the 120,000 population of Artsakh today. Melikyan remarked, “I must say that the founders of the Center, Carolann and George Najarian, have greatly aided in the growth of the Artsakh population by lessening their economic cares.”

Tribute to Mother

Dr. Najarian, a graduate of the Boston University School of Medicine, began to travel regularly to Armenia after the terrible earthquake of 1988 to provide medical aid and supplies, and teach. Her assistance intensified during the first Artsakh War in the early 1990s. She related that she had been working with the Maternity Hospital in Stepanakert, capital of Artsakh, for some time in 1994 when the chief doctor there, Brina Marutyan, spoke about the fact that many young pregnant women needed help.

In June 1995, when Najarian’s mother passed away, she decided that in lieu of flowers she would ask for donations to found what became the Arpen Center. Arpen was the first name of her mother, who was born in Arapgir during or just before the Armenian Genocide. The center opened in December of that year.

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“It was a small place, basically a storefront with storage for supplies and goods, and products in the back. Gurgen Melikyan and Sako [Sargis] Galstyan found the storefront. The government gave it to us at that time to do this work, so that was wonderful. It was right on Azatamartik Boulevard,” Najarian recalled. “It needed a lot of work. We renovated it and made it pretty and colorful.”

Dr. Carolann Najarian, second from left, with beneficiaries at the Arpen Center in 2008

Initially, she said that the center accepted all comers, any pregnant woman, without questioning financial need or number of children. Even some of the wives of the top officials came, and this continued for many years until eventually people who didn’t need the assistance stopped coming. To insure that the women were getting prenatal care, they had to show a card from the doctor stamped each month indicating they had been to a clinic, she said. In addition, a pediatrician, the wife of Arpen Director Sako Galstyan, worked at the center in the early years and monitored the women’s condition in case there was some problem and got them the care they needed. The women would start coming at the third month of pregnancy and right through pregnancy and delivery they would continue to come every month.

Arpen Center aid beneficiary

The Arpen Center in the early years of its operations distributed supplies to villages. Najarian said that shortly after starting in 1995, a small warehouse was set up in Kashatagh (Lachin) and a woman worked there and distributed supplies to mothers in the area. Shushi and Karintak and several other nearby villages were visited every week or two by Sako Galstyan. Najarian said, “It was clear that the village people were not in as much need [as the city dwellers]. What they needed was the clothing, shoes and other stuff we gave out, but we still included them.”

The more children a pregnant woman already had, Najarian said, the more supplies the center would give her. For example, if it were a woman’s first child, she would get one bottle of olive oil, but if it were her fourth, with three others at home, she would get three bottles. The women would be given multivitamins, layette sets (Melikyan would always get the clothing), baby bottles and other necessities when an infant was born. There were also informational pamphlets on natal care.

Dr. Brina Marutyan, head of Stepanakert’s Maternity Hospital, and Dr. Carolann Najarian, far right, with some beneficiaries of the Arpen Center

Melikyan stated that at one point, the Arpen Center broadened its sphere of activities. For example, it began a separate program to aid orphans who had lost both parents until they reached 18 years old.

Najarian and her husband George supported the center through the Armenian Health Alliance, a small volunteer group shipping supplies, which she founded in 1989. It had a budget of around $50,000 or $60,000 a year, and Arpen received a portion of that. The Najarians had to pay salaries and taxes, and conduct renovations of the building, as every now and then there would be leaks from the upper floor causing damages. They had to provide a car and pay for repairs and transportation expenses.

On the other hand, Gurgen Melikyan always worked as a volunteer. Najarian said, “He has never taken a penny for any of the work that he has done. It is pretty remarkable. He goes and comes back and never takes anything for it.”

“The Arpen Center has helped people get more nutrition than they would get otherwise,” Najarian said. Just as importantly, she continued, “I think that one of the things that it gives people, especially in the early years, from the 1990s to the early 2000s, is hope. When I would go and visit, which I would do often before, women would say to me that it is so wonderful to know that there is somebody thinking about us, that we are not forgotten. That was always very touching.”

Arpen Center beneficiary

In 1999, Najarian published a memoir about her work in Artsakh and Armenia called A Call from Home: Armenia and Karabagh, My Journal.

Improved Situation Leads to Scaling Down

About five years ago, the Arpen Center decided to only provide aid to women in need who already had at least three children and were again pregnant. Najarian said, “It is amazing that there were so many people in that category. In those circumstances you would think that there were not too many people. The reason that we did that was that on the one hand it was becoming very expensive there and difficult for us to sustain the program, plus things were better. People were working and the feeling that they were not getting food or were impoverished was not as great as before. There were other organizations helping and the government was giving supplements to pregnant women too.”

Arpen Center aid beneficiary with child

As part of this process, the Armenian Health Alliance closed about three years ago. Najarian said she stopped active fundraising even earlier, around 10 years ago. She said she was not a good fundraiser in any case, and hated asking for money. The Health Alliance established a small primary care center as a pilot program in Gyumri in 1994, which worked in difficult conditions for some years, and also helped hospitals.

Over its lifetime the Health Alliance was able to help other organizations, providing them with 501(c)3 status when they began, such as the Armenian Bone Marrow Donor Registry, started by Dr. Frieda Jordan. It worked as an umbrella organization until the fledgling organizations went off on their own paths and didn’t need the help of the Alliance any longer, Najarian explained.

While the aid provided by the Arpen Center was reduced, the food supplementation continued. “It has survived all this time thanks to Gurgen [Melikyan],” Najarian said. “I am not there so I can’t do it. He goes every three or four weeks, when he can.”

There is only one staff person at the Center in Stepanakert, and she is the director, Arpen Galstyan, the daughter of former director Sargis Galstyan.

At the Arpen Center: from left, Director of Arpen Center Arpen Galstyan, Doctor Nick Akgulian of Wisconsin, Professor Gurgen Melikyan, and Sargis Galstyan, former director of Arpen Center

Melikyan reported that at present there are 72 pregnant women benefiting from the assistance provided by the center. The majority have already had some children, with forty being mothers of four or five children, and there is even a woman with 11 children in the group.

Geographically, the women hail from various areas: 14 women are from Stepanakert city, 19 from the Askeran region, 3 displaced from the Hadrut region, 8 displaced from Shushi, 7 displaced from Kashatagh, 2 displaced from Martakert region, 1 displaced from the Shahumyan region, and 3 from the Martuni region.

The pregnant visit every month, starting when 3 ½ months pregnant, five times, Melikyan said. They receive sugar powder, rice, cracked wheat, vermicelli, macaroni, and oil. They are also given sweaters and clothing sewn in Armenia. One month after giving birth, they again receive this aid. In recent years, the Gurgen Melikyan Multichildren Family Foundation of Kashatagh helped the Center.

Some of the aid distributed by the Arpen Center

This foundation itself also gave financial aid to those who have children. When a woman gives birth to a fourth child or more, she is given 50,000 drams. As the average salary is 60-65,000 dram a month, Melikyan said this is a substantial sum. The Melikyan Foundation does other related philanthropic activities, such as supporting Armenians displaced from Berdzor, Shushi, Hadrut and other areas of Artsakh occupied by Azerbaijan with items like cows, refrigerators, washing machines, televisions and college tuition, planting trees in Artsakh and publishing Armenological books. The Melikyan Foundation (www.gurgenmelikyan.com) has nonprofit status in the US, where donors contribute to support its work (Gurgen Melikyan Multichildren Family Foundation of Kashatagh, 501 W. Glenoaks Blvd. #104, Glendale, CA 91202).

The Artsakh blockade that began last December has naturally affected the operations of the Arpen Center. However, it has found a way to continue to operate. Melikyan said that it pays the cost of coupons from the state which allow pregnant women to receive their provisions from stores in Artsakh. “The authorities believe in our work. It is difficult but we are able to do this. The provisions right now are not sufficient but what we are doing is still a big assistance for the women, because the Arpen Center is giving the money. It is a little less than before the blockade, but we still give oil, rice, sugar and so forth.”

Future

Najarian asserted that as soon as the Lachin road will open, Melikyan will visit, and, she said, “there will definitely be an ongoing need for the center’s work.”

“This is what in the future, if we continue, I would like to see more,” she related, “making sure they [pregnant women] get the multivitamins that are needed, to be sure that the nutritional substances meet the daily requirements of pregnant women.”

Aid distribution

She said that with the help of Kim Hekimian, Assistant Professor of Nutrition in Pediatrics and the Institute of Human Nutrition of Columbia University, who also worked at the American University of Armenia’s School of Health, a study was done through the latter school assessing nutritional needs. However, Najarian said, “It is difficulty to supply exactly what is needed because, for one thing, there are differences in what people think they need, and what a medical professional thinks they need. You might give them something but they are not going to eat it because it is not in their tradition.”

Supplies for women at the Arpen Center

The Arpen Center experienced one such situation in the past, when it attempted to buy fresh milk from local farmers for the women. Najarian said it turned out too difficult to manage. Among other things, the children would drink the milk instead of the mothers, and that was not the real purpose. Some of the mothers also didn’t like milk. Najarian exclaimed, “It got really interesting, the cultural differences that you knock your head up against, and you say, I never thought of this.”

In her 80s now, Najarian remains active in Armenian humanitarian affairs. She is an advisory trustee for the Tufenkian Foundation, which is organizing a primary care project in the Martuni region. During the current Artsakh blockade, she has been working to get non-Armenian global health organizations involved in remedying the situation.

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