Marine Martirosyan

Tbilisi Church Cleaner: ‘Armenians Have Lost Their Former Position in This City’

It’s early Sunday morning, not yet ten. Children are seen filing into the St Gevorg Armenian Apostolic Church in Tbilisi.

Most of the pews are already filled. An elderly man is sitting on one of the pews. From a white satchel placed on the floor he removes bags of candy and distributes them to the children.

He’s no longer following the church service. The old man lights a bunch of candles and walks around the church, muttering something under his breath.

I spot a petit woman wearing a blue headscarf periodically shuffling to and fro in the church. She’s spot checking the church for litter. The woman then approaches one of the kids and softly asks that he remove his hat. He immediately obeys. As the service ends, the children begin to pray out loud.

The woman with the blue headscarf is 68 year-old Aida Shirinyan, the church’s cleaning attendant. She’s been at the job for four years. She thanks God for the work.

There’s a shortage of jobs in Georgia, just like in Armenia. People are leaving the country according to Mrs. Shirinyan. During our conversation she points out the homes in the Havlabar neighborhood on Tbilisi where prominent people once resided. The homes have now reverted to the state.

Mrs. Shirinyan doesn’t mince her words. She tells me that in the past Georgians didn’t regard Armenians differently than themselves. Such attitudes have changed over the years.

She talks about the Tbilisi of her youth. She confesses that back then there was a degree of distinction between Armenians and Georgians but that it wasn’t as noticeable as today.

Only one Armenian school is left in the Georgian capital. Many Armenians prefer to send their children to Georgian and Russian schools. Mrs. Shirinyan says her granddaughter doesn’t even go to an Armenian school.

We walk the hilly streets in Havlabar. Mrs. Shirinyan asks about life in Armenia. She has relatives there and knows what’s going on.

“It’s not just Yerevan or Armenia. The situation is bad everywhere,” she says.

Mrs. Shirinyan’s parents moved to Tbilisi (Tiflis at the time) from Stepanavan in Armenia. She doesn’t know why. She has two married daughters living in Tbilisi.

The woman once worked in the Tiflis sewing factory making jackets and coats. She sometimes now sews garments for her daughters and grandkids. That’s when the arthritis in her fingers doesn’t act up.

“I’ve been sewing since the age of 19; for as long as I can remember. Now it’s not so easy,” Mrs. Shirinyan says looking at her hands.

All throughout our conversation I noticed an expression of concern on the woman’s face, a sense of foreboding.

“My children have no future here. Who knows if they will be given work,” she suddenly exclaims.

Mrs. Shirinyan quickly gets up from the park bench and wipes her face with her hands.

“I’ve talked too much. Shall we go?”

I smile and we walk back towards the church.