Imagine you are reading a very large book. You love every page and it is the best book you have ever laid your eyes upon. This book has made you cry, laugh, want to save lives, want to kill, made you deny God when the pages were too heartless, and made you beg for His forgiveness when you saw why. The dialog speaks to you directly, and you relate to the protagonist more than anyone else in the world you live in.
What if this book was everything you are and you’re only on chapter 22 and the book was a ride so remarkable and mysterious that you truly don’t know when it will end?
Now imagine that the book was missing its first two chapters, that they were hidden somewhere deep in a place where you can not find. Wouldn’t you want to know more about this character? Would you be curious about his feelings, his journey, his development, and his struggle in those first two chapters?
What if the character IS YOU, the author is God, the pages are days, and the chapters are years? Wouldn’t you NEED those first two chapters?
Notice I ask you many questions – it is because I can not tell you exactly what it is like to be an Earthquake survivor or an orphan or an immigrant. I can’t tell you what it is like to be brought to a new world. And I certainly can not tell you how it’s like to be adopted into a beautiful family, yet not know your own past. I can only steer you to ask yourself the right questions to perhaps understand not only what it is like for me, but also why I am searching in the first place.
I allowed my senses to open up to the bustling Yerevan station: the smell of gasoline, the sight of men leaning against busses and cars, and the sound of quiet negotiations – with cities like ‘Gyumri’ whispered – which were interrupted by the calls of a female street vendor who shouted, “Porut litskavori! Porut letsrou!” which translates to a most appropriate “Charge/Fill your stomachs!”
It was quite an exciting sight for the beginning of a large journey.
Alongside Hovsep – one of the members of my internship program – and Ani – a fellow journalist at HetQ – I was in a cab which would take me to Gyumri in 1.5 hours for 1,000 dram each person.
As the cab raced, I watched the structures melt downward: from the proud facades of Yerevan buildings, to the poor apartment complexes that presented loneliness, then singular restaurants and empty casinos which presented a sadder loneliness, then uninhabited houses, and then finally, as the cab left the main city, a desolate field of desert mountains.
On occasion, a small town would be visible at the bottom of a mountain, most likely populated to enjoy the coolness of a craterous valley. When there were 30 minutes left, we passed a village called Mastara. When there were 10 minutes left, we passed a village to our right, which was called Horom.
Before shutting my eyes and falling into a deep slumber, the mysterious words of William Blake’s poem THE LITTLE BOY LOST came to me
“Father, father, where are you going?
O do not walk so fast!
Speak, father, speak to your little boy,
Or else I shall be lost.'
The night was dark, no father was there,
The child was wet with dew;
The mire was deep, and the child did weep,
And away the vapour flew.”
When we finally arrived to Gyumri, the first person who could offer me help was a priest named Vatchagan whose church was in the main square. Fortunately he spoke Spanish, and together we traveled from one building to another. Unfortunately, it was a Sunday, and in Gyumri and many cities in Armenia, no one was working.
After several hours of seeking answers from various authorities, I was directed to the Gyumri Children’s Home – the orphanage where I was supposedly brought to as a little boy. Ani, Hovsep and I thanked the priest and we parted ways with him.
When we walked in I immediately felt a rush of discomfort. A man in a blue-plaid shirt walked up to us and asked us what we wanted. Ani and Hovsep translated what I needed, and he told us that the director – Ruzanna Avagyan – was in Yerevan. After consistent persuasion he finally agreed to call her. He went to a nearby room around the corner of where we stood and began a conversation. I turned to Hovsep.
“Turn your ear to be angled toward the corridor and translate for me what you hear.” I told him.
He waited a moment, nodded, and responded “He’s telling someone about you. He’s saying you’re handsome.” Another moment passed. Hovsep laughed quietly. “He’s saying you’re very handsome again.”
This pointless flattery – filled with saying ‘handsome’ eight times – ended when we heard the phone click.
He returned to us and said “I can’t help you. There’s nothing I can do. Come another time.” We tried to negotiate some sort of possibility of him helping us, but he would not listen.
That was it, the empty conclusion of my first trip to Gyumri. During a 30-minute melancholy walk through the streets, I would have Hovsep and Ani translate the most pathetic sentence: “Do you know the Dalakashvilli family? Do they live here?” and ask it to dozens of strangers. No one recognized the name; one person even told me I was probably in the wrong country. I ended up in a restaurant that had booths and curtains that one could close for privacy.
It was here where I reflected on how ill-equipped, naive, and unintelligent I was. This coupled with my disappointment – both in the lack of outcomes and in myself – resulted in me nearly crying. I must have smoked half a pack of Ani’s cigarettes while blurring her and Hovsep’s attempts at showing me the bright side.
I spent the entire cab ride back in darkness, between slumber and daydreaming.
Within 48 hours of this night, three vast things occurred:
First, Stella Grigorian wrote me a 5-paged email specifying aspects of my life and the orphanage. Second, my father compiled 35 pages of documents which included multiple psychological evaluations of me from ages 2 to 6 and letters expressing their already unconditional love for me as their new son. Third – a fellow intern by the name of Sarah helped me through the fear, sadness, and immense heaviness of reading all of this information.
One week later, HetQ published the first part of this article – translated into 2 languages and made a cover story in their newspaper. With a boost of confidence, a more in-depth view of my journey and five copies of the HetQ article – I would return to Gyumri.
This time I would be accompanied by a fellow intern by the name of Lilit.
During the car ride, Lilit asked if she could film me and ask me questions. Seeing how many of the questions she asked were ones found in my newly received documents, I was eager to supply her with the information.
Before she asked any questions, I read the introduction of one of the examinations, which stated:
“When Sammy was approximately one-year old, his biological mother brought him to a local orphanage because she was unable to care for him. At some point during the following year, the mother returned to the orphanage to take Sammy home with her. A short time later, she brought Sammy to another orphanage, and she has not been in contact with Sammy since that time”
The most valuable question Lilit asked was “Why do you think you are different?”
My eyes first scanned over the lines, “during his stay with the couple in New Jersey, Sammy experienced frequent nightmares.” Instead of saying this, I told her one quality of mine that stands out: that I am consistently reading and evaluating people in a superfluous and unnecessary manner.
“Why do you think that is?” she asked.
“Perhaps it’s a fear of abandonment,” I responded, and then read aloud a corroborating statement in one of the evaluations which claimed, “Sammy experienced high anxiety when the tester walked him to the bathroom during a break. He wanted the tester to keep the bathroom door partially open stating that ‘I don’t want you to get lost on me.’”
“Or maybe,” I continued, “it’s the fact that I feel that everything in my life can change. That suddenly the Earth can shake, the place I call ‘home’ can move, and the people I call family can have different faces.”
I then read, “Sammy has a scattered, non-integrated experience of the world. At times, he feels quite overwhelmed. This, however, is not unusual given the extent of trauma in Sammy’s early life,” followed by, “This child has great fears and anxiety related to separation and loss. For example on Card I of the Rorschach, Sammy immediately pointed out the form of a kangaroo which is the symbol of mother/child union, and represents his longing for safety, security, and protection. Also on card 3 of the CAT, Sammy tells a story about ‘a girl and boy who want to get back home, but they are feeling bad because they are not sure where to go.’ Clearly, Sammy finds the world a somewhat chaotic, frightening, and unpredictable place… Sammy’s fears cause him to feel as though he is bursting at the seams.”
After a long conversation, she and I arrived back to Gyumri to begin the second part of my journey. Lilit began asking people where we should go. Our first stop was the Gyumri City Hall. The people there directed us to the Passport and Police Station (Vostiganootyan Andznagrayeen Bazheen).
to be continued
Photo – Samvel Dalakashvilli in the Gyumri Children’s Home Orphanage at approximately 2 years old