Monday, 24 September

Armenian children are neglected in Calcutta - 2

Aghavni Yeghiazaryan
Edik Baghdasaryan
Armenian College, Calcutta

The charitably run Armenian College in Calcutta, India was established in 1821, through a bequest from the will of Astvatsatur Muradkhanyan, a wealthy Armenian from Jugha. Later, the Davidyan School for Girls and the Galutsyan School merged with the college. In the 1990's, as a result of the emigration of Indian Armenians, there were only five students left at the college. Catholicos of All Armenians Vazgen I proposed sending students from Armenia to prevent the college from closing. Community members concerned with the fate of the college had come to the conclusion that the best solution would be to transfer the educational institution to the Holy See of St. Echmiadzin, and applied to the court to do so. In 1999 the Supreme Court of Calcutta ruled to hand the Armenian College over to the Holy See of St. Echmiadzin.

The court also granted the Catholicos the right to manage the college at his discretion. "We think that the best way would be to open a new first grade every year for thirty students and thus, to have within ten years a 300-student-strong, large Armenian educational institution. Children will be chosen from orphanages, boarding schools, from among the most socially vulnerable families and single-parent families. The main teaching language will be English, except for the subjects related to Armenian studies. The seminary curriculum will be coordinated with both Armenian and Indian curricula," the head of the department on inter-church relations of the Holy See of St. Echmiadzin, father Mikayel Ajapahyan, told Azg Daily in a 1999 interview.

In November 1999, thirty-four children left Armenia at the initiative of the Church to study in Calcutta. "We went there, there were only three girls studying in the upper grades. We were assigned to pre-first grade, and studied only English for a whole year," Ani Hairapetyan recalls. Today there are 118 students in the college. Seventy-eight are from Armenia, thirty-five from Iran, four are Indian Armenians, and one is from Iraq. They go to school for ten years. The Ministry of Education of India acknowledges the college as an educational institution equivalent to an English secondary school, where Armenian subjects are also taught with the assistance of the Ministry of Education and Science of Armenia. Armenian subjects by teachers from Armenia, who have been selected through a competition.

"We were given textbooks for Armenian language, and Armenian history and literature; these subjects are in the curriculum but we don't have regular lessons. We learn whatever we manage to ourselves; the teachers don't explain the lessons or quiz us on them," Ani says. In addition to Armenian subjects they study Russian and Indian. All other subjects - history, math, physics, chemistry - are in English.

"The students must return to Armenia for summer vacation once every three years," Deacon Vahram Melikyan, the director of the Holy See's information department told us in an interview. But this year is the first time in the six years that students from Armenia have been studying in Calcutta that sixty students have come home for a month's vacation.

"In 1999, Father Mikayel told us that the children would come back every other year, but they didn't bring them back for five-and-a-half years. I have been fighting with them for three years; I appealed to the Catholicos several times, and I also appealed to the President's Office. They brought our children back after a lot of difficulties and procrastination," Ani Hairapetyan's mother, Donara Mkrtchyan, complains.

"They brought our children back because we fought for it, otherwise they wouldn't have," adds Harutyun Hakobyan's mother, Varduhi. "At first, I suggested that we sign a contract, otherwise who knew what they would do with the kids, they might sell them. But Father Nerses said that I was insulting the Church, and if I had faith in the Apostolic Church I should have faith in its ministers. But they deceived us; if the parents hadn't complained they wouldn't have brought our children back."

The school operates with funds donated to the Holy See of St. Echmiadzin by Indian Armenian philanthropists. All the students' needs - food, clothing, school supplies, medical care - are provided by the school. "We receive a stipend - 50 rupees a month. We can go out with a chaperone and buy whatever we want to. On New Year's Eve we get 1,500 rupees to buy clothes for the whole year," Ani says.

Sonya John is a student's nightmare

For the students, college director Sonya John is the embodiment of strictness. "You have to stand straight and stiff, very stiff in front of her, otherwise you'll be punished," Harutyun Hakobyan says.

"They questioned us before they sent us to Armenia. One boy said that he wouldn't come back, and Sonya John began to shout that we had been collected from the streets in Armenia, and we had nothing to go back to," adds Narek Arshakyan.

The daily schedule is written on the first page of their grade book, and strictly enforced. "If you try to do your homework during game time, you'll be punished," Ani explains. "The punishment is like this: you have to sit on your bed until you are told to get down, some times for five hours. Or you have to write in your notebook one hundred times 'I am sorry, I won't do it again.' Once a girl was beaten because she spoke with an Indian boy from the window. When we first entered the college, there were balloons on the walls. When we went inside, they counted us and locked the door. I always remembered the moment when they locked the door, and always asked myself, 'Why didn't I escape then?' I thought about escaping, I even tried couple of times, but it was impossible," she recalls.

"When you know that you have to be there all the time, it's not good. We are inside the college all the time. We only go out on Sundays, to go to church, and then we have to walk in a line, we have to stay in line or we'll be punished," Harutyun says.

"It's not good there, we're not free, we're uneasy, someone's always watching you," Narek explains. "It was very hard in the beginning, but later on, you find a few friends, and it gets a bit better. But then you feel bad again, that's why we wanted to come home. We wrote to our mothers to go to the Catholicos and bring us home, all of us wrote letters like that.

"After the evening prayer, you can't go to the bathroom. You have to do everything before the evening prayer. So if you have to go, you get punished later, because they don't let you take your mattress out. You can only wash your sheets, but your mattress just sits there until it dries. They punish you for everything. If you say a word in the dining-hall, they hit you with a stick, or they put you into a classroom and lock the door.for as long as they want. If you're punished, you're not allowed to watch TV, play, or swim. You can only eat and go to class; the rest of the time you're locked up. Once one of the boys, Gagik, got a hard punishment. He had tried to escape, and so they made him walk around in bare feet for one month. He would eat, stay in a locked room, and go to class barefoot, with his shoes around his neck.

"I will never go back. I'll jump out of the plane, but I won't go back there," he insists.

After two months of trying, we finally received a response to our questions from the Catholicasate, which we will discuss in upcoming issues. We would only mention that as of the month of June, the Church did not have the names and personal data of the children studying at the college. We have presented only a small portion of the children's stories, in anticipation of an explanation from our spiritual leaders regarding the situation in the Armenian College in Calcutta.

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