By Ani Paitjan
Stigmatized, neglected and even hidden, people with mental disabilities are people that the Armenian society keeps rejecting. However, some organizations open their doors. One of them is Prkutyun/Salvation NGO.
A garden full of flowers and pomegranates trees surrounds the Center located on Chekhov Street in Yerevan. Aram is painting the trees with the help of his occupational therapist. Others are peacefully drawing cars or ducks on sheets of paper.
Cigarettes and Prkutyun’s birth
“In the 90’s, I remember a little boy with mental disability. He didn’t use to go to school. Instead, his parents sent him begging for cigarettes or money from strangers,” tells Arpine Abrahamyan, director of Prkutyun NGO, a day center for disabled young people. It was right after this observation, in 1999, that the educationalist decided to address the issue and set up Prkutyun, meaning salvation; the NGO that she has been dedicated to ever since.
“We are doing our best to keep the center in good shape, but without financial help, it is a tough job,” explains Arpine. Enter the headquarters and it is impossible not to notice the crumbling walls and the dilapidated furnishings.
Currently, there are 61 day residents coming to Prkutyun daily even though the center can officially host only 50 people. Also, the NGO was meant to work with 18 to 30 year olds. “Some of them have exceeded the age limit. The oldest one is 36 years old. But how can you tell him to never come back here? He has nowhere else to go. So we turn a blind eye,” confesses Arpine.
From 9 am to 5 pm, the young people play, draw, go to class, have occupational therapy sessions, etc. That would not be possible if they were in non specialized schools or forced to stay at home. “At the moment they are rehearsing a play,” explains Arpine joyfully.
A permanent struggle to survive
Since 1999, the organization is struggling almost alone for survival. The staff’s low salary, electricity, heat, water and fuel for the bus is paid for by the government. “Last year we finally received official documents acknowledging our right to work as an NGO in this building, with help from the first lady Rita Sarkissian.” This alone does not mean Prkutyun no longer has to scrap for bits and pieces of financial help from sponsors. Bread, rice or vegetables are provided by a food chain, while an American- Armenian dentist provides dental care. Still, such acts of generosity are not enough to cover the shortages: “For example, instead of giving a full piece of bread at lunch, we have to cut it into four pieces to make enough for all. We also have a constant and unmet need for school supplies, so crucial for the educational process.”
Prejudices hard to shift
Let’s get straight to the point: if centers like Prkutyun close their doors, at least half of their beneficiaries would end up on the street. With little support from the government and given the insufficient support of the Armenian government. Arpine is worried, “the chances of finding a job are close to zero for our students. Those who do miraculously find one, it is often illegal, with a high possibility of the employer abusing their weaknesses and undermining their rights.” Within the statistics (www.globaldisabilityrightsnow.org) related to the disability type amongst children, 20% are suffering from intellectual handicap and only about 13% (one in eight) of children with disabilities (physiological and intellectual)get specialized help. According to Open Society Foundation (OSF) – Armenia, “A number of researches conducted by civil society demonstrated systematic problems existing in this area related to opportunities of full implementation and protection of a person’s rights, specifically conducting independent life, making decisions, full participation and involvement in public life.”
Part of the difficulties encountered by Prkutyun comes from the local mentality; a tendency to cast away people with mental disabilities. “Some people think that kids like our students are incapable of experiencing emotions. Society sees them as failures, burdens. Some parents feel ashamed of their offspring,” explains Arpine. She concludes, “It is up to the Armenian government to put in place a program aimed at deconstructing those prejudices and facilitating the social inclusion of the people with intellectual disabilities.” Prkutyun is more than ready to take part in this massive project.