Chaplain Bedros Hajian founded the Armenian American Christian Outreach in 1998. A unique facility, it specializes in the reintegration of prisoners.
When we visited there were fourteen people there. One was Mexican; the rest were Armenian.
“I've been visiting prisons since 1993. It never occurred to me that there were Armenians there. Then on one visit, I heard there was an Armenian inmate. I talked with him and he said there were more Armenians there. In one cell there were nineteen Armenians. I started to visit them regularly. I found that ninety of them were in for drug dealing. They would be released and then get arrested the next week. I knew that there were different rehabilitation programs for drug users, but they are not effective, because their approach turns a person into a slave. I was hoping to dig deeper – find out why a person uses drugs. Some things have happened in his life, he has made some made some mistakes, which have led to drugs. I had the idea of opening a place like this. We try to give people a chance to talk to each other and bring them back by reading the Bible,“ Father Bedros explained.
The residents of the halfway house watch movies about drugs and Jesus Christ, and sometimes there are visits by guest lecturers.
“The most important expert for me is a former drug user; a doctor can heal the body, but he cannot heal the soul,” said 30-year-old Mkrtich Muradyan.
Mkrtich went through three rehab programs, but always went back to drugs. I asked him whether it made sense to participate in this program, and why he was sure that this time he would be able to change.
“In the past I did it for my parents; that's why I wanted to stay clean. After the program I would stay clean for a month, and then I would start again. I couldn't keep it secret. It shows on your face; you getter thinner, it shows in your eyes. I was working but I never had any money. I would ask for money from my parents, and they would realize that I was using drugs again. In the past, I was doing it for my parents; now I'm doing it for myself. Before, after I had been in rehab for four or five months, I would go back home, and my mother wouldn't even give me the keys to the car. But now when I go home she gives me the keys. They can see the change. After you stay here for a month, you can go home. When I went home, my mother said, ‘Son, take the keys and go someplace new.' That in itself was big thing for me, “ Mkrtich Muradyan said.
Mkrtich took the same route to drug adduction as many others. “At first I was with Armenians, I smoking marijuana for six years, and then I started hanging out with Mexican gangs, and started to use drugs. I was selling drugs at first. I asked myself, what is this that people buy and get addicted to, and I tried it myself. I liked it and started using drugs on weekends, and then every day, and then I became an addict. I was caught, went to prison, they would give me a chance to recover from the addiction, but I would get caught again. Then the judge got tired and sent me to prison for 16 months, “ Mkrtich recounted. Mkrtich's documents weren't in order yet, so he was transferred to the Migration Department, which then sent him back toArmenia. ButArmeniadid not let Mkrtich in. Mkrtich's parents are US citizens, but he still has to register with the Department of Migration every two months. “Armeniadidn't let us in, because we came here in 1990, and thenArmeniabecame independent. My photo had been in my mother's passport, but that passport no longer existed because she is a citizen here. The Migration Department asked the Armenian Embassy, and they replied that they had no citizen by my name.”
Mkrtich was thirteen years old when they moved to theUSA. “I started doing drugs when I was thirteen. I stole because of drugs. Say I had three hundred bucks, I bought drugs, and when it ran out I would steal – how else could I get money? I couldn't sell anymore because the police were monitoring me. I would trick different people, lie, do things that no one in a normal state would even think about. On drugs, you can do anything. Girls will do things for drugs-- the girl is not like that, but she'll do anything to get drugs, “ Mkrtich said.
Since 1998 Mkrtich has been jailed four times, spending a total of six-and-a-half years behind bars. I asked him if he'd like to come back toArmenia. “No, but I'd like to go once to see it, and then come back, “ he said.
The reintegration center also has two female patients, G. fromYerevanand N., an Armenian American.
Nineteen-year-old N.'s parents are fromBeirut; she was born in theUS. When I asked her how long she had been on drugs, she asked, “Which one?” N. started to use hashish in Armenian school. She was thirteen years old. “My girlfriends and I did hashish, and when I was sixteen I started doing crystal meth. Our friends brought it to school. I dropped out of school, and got into different things. My parents found out when I was seventeen years old, I got sick and they took me home. Then I got caught dealing drugs,” N. recounted. Her parents come to visit her here every week. She has decided to go to college after she finishes the program.
I asked her whether she has time to think here, and what she thinks about. “I've done so many bad things that it's better not to think,” she replied.