Refugees Keep Waiting for Housing
U.N. Sponsored Project Hits Snags In June 2010, the United Nations Yerevan Office spent $700,000 to build a twenty apartment house for refugees in the village of Kasakh just over the Yerevan city line. Ten months after being completed, the apartment house remains unoccupied. No one knows when the first family of refugees will move in. Mother and daughter Svetlana Baghdasarova and Nelli Babayan, refugees from Baku, have been living in a corner of the village’s former one story jail. There are six in the family – Svetlana, Nelli, her husband and their three kids. The youngest is 18. The family fled the 1988-1989 pogroms in Baku for Armenia. Mrs. Nelli says that when they arrived the place was in ruins. Luckily, they at least had a roof over their heads. They and others fixed the place up as best they could by hand. There are other refugee families from Baku and Sumgait living in the former jail, as well as those left homeless from the 1988 Spitak earthquake. Mrs. Svetlana told me that most of the families once living here have since left after finding better living conditions. Some have moved into small cottages in Kasakh, an area locally dubbed New Baku. Nelli turned down an offer to move into one of the cottages. Cramming six people into one room just wasn’t doable. The mother of three did say that many families had made additions to the tiny cottages and that the surrounding land was good for planting. Mrs. Svetlana showed us a section of the living room wall where the plaster is crumbling from the moisture. She said that her son-in-law was able to install new floorboards but that mold and mildew had completely overtaken an adjoining room. She was too embarrassed to let us take a peek inside. One of Nelli’s daughters is married. The newlyweds live here as well since the groom’s family is also large and lives in similar poor conditions. The seven member Aroustamyan family finds itself in the same boat. In 1988, the family fled Sumgait and wound up in Spitak. They spent the first six months living in a pension and then received a four room apartment. After the earthquake, they moved to Kasakh and have been living in two small rooms in the former jail. The grandmother of the family, 75 year-old Raisa Aroustamyan, occupies one of the rooms. Squeezing into the other is her son Alexander, his wife and 24 year-old son. Grandma Raisa complains that her room is unlivable – it’s damp and full of rats. Alexander and his son are unemployed. There just isn’t any work to be found. They scrape by on the 25,000 AMD pension received by the son’s wife. Raisa says that the government gave her $7,000 with which to buy a one room apartment and the rest of the family was allocated $9,000. “We found a two room apartment in the area but it was going for $25,000. Who was going to give us an apartment for $16,000?” Raisa told me that after working 34 years in a Baku shop she had saved up quite a bit but lost it all in the earthquake. “We got out alive with just the clothes on our back,” she says. In March 1999, the Government of Japan and the United Nations Secretariat launched the United Nations Trust Fund for Human Security (UNTFHS). The Fund finances projects carried out by organizations in the UN system, and when appropriate, in partnership with non-UN entities, to advance the operational impact of the human security concept. In 2009, Japan and the Fund allocated $2.485 million to five U.N. organizations to launch the “Sustainable Livelihoood for Socially Vulnerable Refugees, Internally Displaced and Local Families” The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Yerevan received $763,000 of the funds to convert a former Kasakh factory building into social housing. Eighteen of the twenty apartments will go to refugee families and the remaining two will be allocated to needy Kasakh families. The first floor of the three story building now boasts a computer center, sewing production unit, a barber shop, food store and a community hall. The opening of the residential assistance building coincided with last year’s International Refugee Day on June 25. On hand to mark the official opening were Deputy Prime Minister Armen Gevorgyan, Former Representative of the UNHCR in Armenia Bushra Halepota, Armenia’s Migration Agency Chief Gagik Yeganyan, Kotayk Regional Governor Kovalenko Shahgaldyan, members of the diplomatic corps and representatives of various international agencies in Armenia. The local press was out in force to cover the ceremony. After the hoopla subsided, the families ready to move in were again told to wait. The floors were non-surfaced cement and the walls had already started to crack. Nelli and Svetlana told me that the former factory had been gutted, leaving only the external skeleton. New walls were installed. Nelli says that groundwater swelled up and the foundations began to sink. Varuzhan Hovasapyan, Director of HayGyughShinagitz (HGS), the firm responsible for drafting and overseeing the reconstruction, doesn’t conceal the fact that the outer structure had been preserved but claims that it is quite functional. Regarding the groundwater issue, he says it’s a bunch of baloney. “We checked to see if there was any structural settling and found no traces. I invite anyone to come here and look down into the pit. They won’t find any water seepage.” The pit was opened to allow for construction on the new building. The old frame is already rotting away and work must begin from zero. HGS drafted the blueprints and another firm conducted the technical review. “The condition of the second stage frame was in worse shape than the first. The studies showed this. The firm which conducted the technical review proposed that we not use the second frame and we ruled it out,” says Mr. Hovasapyan. As to the cracked walls, the HGS official says that there are no structural defects in the building. “Because the construction work took place in the winter, cracks in the wall have surface. You can’t plaster a 34 meter one piece wall and not expect cracking. These are cosmetic issues that we will fix. What’s important is that the overall building is sound. It’s also seismically safe. We’ve double-checked. In addition, we’ve come up with a small project to refortify parts of the structure and the plan will be presented to the U.N.” And what about the cement floors? Residents were told that the funds had dried up. Nelli told me that none of the families want to move into rooms with cement floors. That’s how they live now. Grandma Raisa remembers how excited and happy they all were when the building was officially opened. “We bundled all our stuff together and set out to move in. But we’ve been waiting for almost one year. We’re still sitting here and waiting.” The building has gas, water and some furnishings. Nelli says there’s a shower, a sink in the kitchen, two bed frames, a kitchen table and a closet. Residents have to purchase the rest if they don’t already have other furnishings. Residents cannot however, register the property in their name. Nor can they register others at their new address. This creates a problem for seniors like Mrs. Svetlana who are on their own. If they spend money to furnish the new apartment, who will benefit after they die? They can’t bequeath it to anyone for they don’t own the place. Apartment sizes are based on the number of family members. 1-3 member families get one room apartments; 4-5 members get two rooms; 6 or more get three. Despite these difficulties, families ready to move in say conditions in the new apartments will be a hundred times better than where they are now. I was told some government and U.N. officials stopped by a month ago, promising that residents would be allowed to move in after ten days. They are still waiting patiently. Anahit Hayrapetyan, who heads the Foreign Relations Department of UNHCR office in Yerevan, told me that the delay was due to financial problems but that everything is being resolved. She was hopeful that the twenty apartments would be occupied come this summer.