#REVISITED: Hardship on the edge of Europe

Photojournalist Nick Danziger is currently traveling with author Rory Maclean to eight countries as part of the #REVISITED project – where they are documenting the impact of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and how progress (or lack of progress) can inform the post-2015 development agenda.

Aida and her sister Tatevik

When I first met 13-year-old Aida from Gyumri, Armenia in 2005 she was playing ‘mother’ to her two-and-a-half year old sister Tatevik, while her mother and 14-year-old brother sought seasonal work in the countryside. Aida got up at 8am and dressed her sister. At 9am they had a cup of tea with a small piece of cheap bread. Then Aida began doing her housework, drawing water from a communal tap in to plastic bottles to warm the water under the sun and to do the washing-up.

There was no electricity or running water in their house. Aida then washed their clothes and later played with the younger sister she doted on. At 3pm they had a small plate of soup and had nothing more till 9pm, when they had a cup of tea, but this time without bread.

Aida was worried about her sister’s health, “I had two sister’s who died of pneumonia (one at 2-months-old the other at 2-years-old) and the doctor says that unless Tatevik received good shelter and adequate food she will also die of pneumonia.” The sisters went to bed hungry.

Aida had no friends outside of school, she says she doesn’t like to talk too much and prefers to be alone. Her dream was to have enough money to look after her family. When she was asked what she would like as a present, she asked for a coloured pencil.

By 2010 Tatevik contracted tuberculosis. She had been admitted to a sanatorium in Dilijian, five hours drive from her home. She didn’t want to return home, but she missed Aida, her sister who she hadn’t seen for two years. Aida had since married so as not to be a burden to her mother. She was now pregnant with her second child living in the same conditions – no running water, electricity and heating that she left behind. Like her previous home the smell of dampness was overwhelming. She feared for the health of her children as she couldn’t afford to feed them properly and had no money for medication when her daughter is ill.

On my most recent visit last month, Tatevik had recovered her health and been taken into care by the state, living during the week at the 'No. 1 Child Protection and Care State Boarding Institution'. On weekends she spent her time with her sister Aida and their grandmother Hasmik.

Since 1990 Hasmik, now 60 years old, has lived in a tiny room in the same, asbestos-clad barracks.  For the most part Hasmik – and her disabled niece – survives on 'bread soup'.  Aida now lives in a nearby apartment with four daughters and no washing facilities. Heating is augmented by – and clothes dried over – a single gas burner. On average the family eats vegetables only once a month, surviving otherwise on bread, rice and potatoes.

When not away working in Russia, her husband earns their living washing cars three days per week.  Their rent is three months in arrears and the landlord is threatening to evict them. In September Aida's oldest daughter, Mary (six-years-old), is due to start school but the family can't find enough money to pay for her books and uniform.

Julia

In 2005 twelve year old Julia lived in a temporary house with her parents and younger sister. Julia couldn’t read or write. She had never been to school because of her disability – two semi-paralysed fingers on her right hand. The school refused to accept her and her parents were afraid that she would be teased at school. Julia says, “I don’t know why I didn’t go to school”.

During the day Julia’s parents and younger sister left her alone at home. Julia got up at 8am, to make the beds (they all lived in a single room), washed the dishes, dried and put them away, swept the floor then washed it and the walls with a towel (once a week), did the ironing, polished the furniture, cleaned the yard around the house, then brought water from the neighbour’s house.

Every day Julia went to a soup kitchen at half past one, but she had to guess the time, “I watch and wait for the other diners to go by our house or for my favourite cartoon shows on television,” she said.

Five years later in 2010, Julia’s situation had improved. She had learnt to write, was admitted in to a design school and with this had more freedom had independence than she had previously known. But by 2015, after eloping with a young man, she had a son and no work.  “I have forgotten everything I learned at school,” she said.  “This is our world now; me and the baby.”  She has been offered a job as a sales assistant but her husband doesn't want her to go out to work.  He also earns his living by washing cars.

Arthur

In 2005 Arthur lived in a temporary house with his parents and his older brother. He was paralysed at birth and was only able to walk with a Zimmer frame. He had been excluded from school because of his disability. Although occasionally he received a visit from a tutor this amounts to no more than 16 hours per month when his peers received 120 hours per month. Arthur’s parents were unemployed. Arthur’s dream is to become a musician or to be a computer specialist. His favourite singers were Michael Jackson and Jennifer Lopez. He liked different sports, most of all he likes karate and football - especially Brazil and Barcelona. Armenian football teams didn’t interest him.

He watched a lot of television. Arthur didn’t like it when others looked at him in the street and teased him. He would like to have friends his age instead of playing ‘Oba’ – hide and seek with much younger children. Arthur doesn’t like it when his parents fuss over him and repeated all the time “ Be careful!” Most of all Arthur gets angry for not being allowed to go to school.

In 2010 Arthur was attending a vocational training centre, more mobile and most importantly contact with young men and women his age. His teachers had come to realise he had a gift for maths and computer programming.

On my visit last month I found Arthur and his family had moved away from Gyumri, to live near Yerevan.  His brother, a lieutenant in the army, received an accommodation allowance and invited the family to live with him. Arthur had hoped to find work in the capital but every position he applied for became unavailable once his disability was known. In any case, public transport from their satellite town into the city is all but impossible for disabled individuals.  Arthur has built a website about historical Gyumri but he hasn't the resources to post it online.  He – like his parents – miss friends and the familiarity of Gyumri.

Conclusion

If the success of the Millennium Development Goals is measured by the improvement in the lives of the world’s most vulnerable children, the individuals in Armenia I've been following have shown little or no improvement over the last 10 years. State funds are simply not available to transform lives, and engrained social practices keep many people from prospering or having a future.

As we approach the end of the Millennium Development Goals it's evident there is little chance of drastically reducing – let alone ending – extreme poverty and children’s suffering in the areas of Armenia I visited unless post-2015 development targets specifically focus on reaching the most vulnerable.

Not only were the children we met going hungry, but so were the elderly in a country easily reachable, at ‘peace’, and on the edge of Europe.

Equally striking is how women face continued discrimination and abuse from spouses and how it is accepted as a cultural norm. Here, we found women might have equal access to education but once they graduate, those not going on to tertiary education are less likely to secure a job and often remain subjugated to a father or husband.

Women are relegated to looking after the children. Husbands in many households have no option but to migrate to Russia or Ukraine in search of a livelihood.