Armenian families still living in containers from 1988 quake
Spitak suffered an earthquake 28 years ago, but the local authorities are failing to cope with its consequences even today. A journalist from USA Today visited the region and saw how people live there today.
It was in December 1988. Tens of thousands died and some half a million were left homeless. After local authorities realized how overmatched they were, shipping containers full of relief supplies flooded in. So, picture desperate families, a harsh Armenian winter, and shipping containers everywhere. An immediate solution presented itself: People moved into the containers. They were better than freezing to death, but not much better. They lacked heating, cooling, plumbing, windows and wiring. Desperate people burned toxic quake debris and trash to cook and keep warm. The situation was supposed to be temporary. The Soviet Union did provide housing for many. But soon the USSR went the way of so many of its crumbled Armenian buildings. Regional conflicts flared up and new nations struggled to adapt to a completely different economic system. Some of the struggles continue, and today, there are still families living in those same shipping containers. In the hard-hit city of Gyumrialone, roughly 10,000 people — men, women, children, generations — still live in them. The domiks were barely habitable to begin with. Though some have improvised insulation and jerry-rigged wiring, they’re generally worse than they were before. After almost 30 years, they’ve rotted and they’re increasingly unstable.
Melina fed her 2- and 3-year-old daughters in her domik in Armenia while her husband Artyom worked in Russia. He has since returned to be with his family but can’t find work
Many of the domik families share a similar story: high unemployment drove a breadwinner to work abroad. Domik resident Melina grew up in and out of orphanages. Artyom grew up in a domik. They’re in debt, but they just want their daughters to grow up healthy and have a chance at a comfortable life. But between the various environmental factors and other symptoms of poverty, “domik kids” are sometimes stunted, often sick, and even more often ostracized at school. Vahan Tumasyan from the Gyumri-based Shirak Centre aid group has been bringing domik residents firewood and food.
“Twenty-eight years later the shipping containers have rotted, and they’re just awful, awful living conditions, especially for the children,” says Peter Abajian, director of the Paros Foundation, a small nonprofit working with the Shirak Centre to get the families into better housing. “Their parents have lived in them first and grown up in them,” he says. “And now these children are living in them. These kids have sort of lost track of what a normal life should be.” The nonprofit partnership provides the money and paperwork needed to get families who sign agreements and meet other criteria into decent apartments. The groups also tear down vacant domiks, providing work, distributing salvageable materials and firewood.
But even as Abajian hustles to raise funds from the Armenian diaspora, the numbers are daunting: It costs roughly $20,000 to move a family from a domik to an apartment. Do the math, and that’s a $50 million problem in Gyumri alone, far more than the nonprofits take in.
Ashot, 7, passes time in the domik where he lives with his mother and two sisters. They had been living and working in Russia but came back last year
“The domik kids don’t need arts and crafts,” Abajian says. “They need a meal." The Paros Foundation created Debi Arach — “moving forward” in Armenian, a year-old youth center in Gyumri meant to improve domik kids’ prospects through a holistic approach. It serves a total of 140 kids aged 6 to 17 in two groups that each come three times a week. Housed in a rental building that used to be a restaurant and hotel, Debi Arach has computers, classes to reinforce school lessons, and vocational training. As Armenia modernizes, demand for IT experts is outpacing supply. Much of the training at Debi Arach is geared toward computer careers. “The promise is it will get you to a level where you’ll take care of your family, you’ll be able to rent a home and live a normal life here in Gyumri,” Abajian says. In addition to its eight teachers, the center has a nurse, a psychologist, and maybe most importantly, places where kids can safely bathe and eat healthy food. When the center started serving meals last year, Abajian says, students didn’t touch the salad: “It turns out they didn’t know what it was. They know bread. They also didn’t know how to sit at a table and eat together, so the teachers sat with them and created this family atmosphere they don’t have in the domiks. And most of them didn’t know how to use the bathrooms because a lot of their schools don’t have bathrooms either. So we’ve made sure that each kid has a locker here. It’s the kids, absolutely. We have to try to save them.”