Yerevan Resident Karineh Hovsepyan: “This is a cave; we are cave dwellers”
“This is a cave; we are cave dwellers,” says Karineh, her damp eyes gazing at the table.
The lamp casts a pale light in the room. Ashot, Karineh’s wife, throws pieces of wood in the stove. Our conversation starts off awkwardly. The couple tells us that loads of reporters have visited them, reporting on how they live, but their lot has remained the same. “I want to write about you, not the building,” I respond. Ashot sighs and sits down.
There’s sadness in their eyes. There are many pauses in our conversation. The cries of five month-old Anahit periodically fill the pauses.
36 year-old Ashot Arzoumanyan has sightless in one eye since the age of seven when he fell, hitting his head on a table corner. For the past several years, the sight in his good eye has worsened. He also suffers from a stomach ulcer. His wife, 40 year-old Karineh Hovsepyan, was born with a joint disorder and walks with difficulty.
They’ve been married for ten years and have two children; eight year-old Volodya and five month-old Anahit. Karineh says she’s lost three children while pregnant. She brings a stack of papers from the other room. She shows me their disability certificates, Volodya’s school commendations, and then a few lines of praise written by Volodya to his mother on the occasion of March 8, International Woman’s Day. The envelope is entitled, “My dear mother”. There are three large flowers drawn on the envelope. Inside is the text Volodya has penned to his mom. She reads them and smiles, “Let’s just stay healthy and see that our children reach their life’s objectives.”
Volodya has a weak heart. Doctors have told the parents that the boy should avoid heavy physical exertion like climbing too many stairs. The family lives on the eighth floor.
Volodya, sitting near the stove, follows the conversation. Karineh has gotten some of the room’s furnishings from neighbors.
Their three room apartment, in Yerevan’s 17th District, has no roof and the walls are falling. The staircase has no banister and there’s a large hole where the elevator once was. Stray dogs are constant visitors.
Upon entering the building, we carefully make our way up the icy stairs to the top floor. Ashot escorts us. Karineh is up there hanging out the wash to dry.
The couple complains that they have a tough time making it up and down the stairs given their physical ailments. Ashot says that after it gets dark they dare not descend. “Darkness is my enemy,” he says.
The utility company turned off their electricity one month ago due to a 15,700 dram ($32) unpaid bill. Karineh says she had to spend money on medicine for Anahit, who was sick at the time.
The family somehow gets by on the couple’s monthly 16,500 dram ($34) disability allowance and a 17,000 dram benefit’s stipend.
“Right now, there’s no food in the house. Check if you want,” says Karineh, her eyes welling with tears. On the day we visited the family, Davit, one of the building’s twelve residents, was handing out wood to the others. Karineh thanks him for the largesse. It will keep them warm for a month.
Karineh tells us that her one wish, shared by her husband, is that they stay alive and care for their kids. “If we were to die, they’d be left out on the street.”
The mother tells us that Volodya has no clothes or school supplies. Sometimes, Karineh says, the boy has gone without shoes, wearing slippers to school.
Volodya tells us he wants to become a lawyer when he grows up so that he can fight for justice.
“My dream? I dream of having a pretty home and a car. I take my father and mother here and there in that car,” says Volodya with a smile.
Karineh says that the boy is always asking her to take him to a pizzeria or a sweet shop. She doesn’t know how to tell him that she can’t afford it.
“I don’t want to talk about our situation too much. I’d cry and you’d cry with me,” says Karineh, wiping her eyes with sleeve.