Humanitarian Mission To Armenia Helps Syrian Refugees

Working with children at the Caritas Children’s Center in Gyumri

By Dr. Leslie Popoff

I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Armenia on a 15-day humanitarian mission with two of my colleagues from the Association for Trauma Outreach and Prevention (ATOP)/Meaningfulworld. Since retiring two years ago from the New York City Department of Education as a supervisor of psychologists, I have been volunteering for ATOP/Meaningfulworld as the United Nations coordinator. A humanitarian organization affiliated with the UN, Meaningfulworld works with people all over the world who have experienced trauma from natural and human-made disasters. We use the 7 Step Model of Integrative Healing developed by the founder and director, Dr. Ani Kalayjian.

Arriving in Yerevan, Armenia, we spend the first few days acclimating to our surroundings and meeting with our Armenian collaborators. We were hosted by a family in the outskirts of the city, whose generosity and warmth we soon learned were characteristic of the Armenian people and culture. The beauty of the country and people was contrasted by the economic and emotional challenges endured by the majority living there.

At the Genocide Memorial

Our time in Armenia coincided with the 105th anniversary of the Ottoman-Turkish Genocide of the Armenian people. It was an incredibly moving experience to participate in the day’s tradition of people walking for blocks through Yerevan to reach the Genocide Memorial, carrying flowers to leave in memory of the one-and-a half million Armenians who perished. A Genocide Museum is dedicated to memorializing the atrocities, so that the world knows what happened, although the Turkish government continues their denial. It is extremely disconcerting to know that no American president other than Ronald Reagan has openly referred to this as genocide while in office.

The primary focus of the mission was to transform trauma into healing, establish a suicide hotline and work with the newly resettled Syrian Armenians (they frown upon the term refugees). While the country has opened its doors for the past five years to those escaping war-torn Syria, Armenia’s economic struggles have left these new immigrants with few resources, unable to afford the health care that many so desperately need. In addition, there are few employment opportunities, and the Syrian Armenians feel they are looked down upon and often treated as second-class citizens.

The rising suicide rates among both adolescents and older adults supports the need for a suicide prevention hotline. We worked doggedly to put things into place to help establish this before we left Armenia. We received the endorsement from the U.S. Embassy, the minister of health services, as well as the chief psychiatrist. We established relationships with several universities that will help provide and train volunteers. What we were unable to secure was the funding, which we continue to pursue now that we are back in the U.S.

The Meaningfulworld Humanitarian Team with collaborators from Armenia

Despite a rigorous work schedule, we made sure to experience a few things unique to Armenia, including observing and participating in the baking of flatbread in a lavash factory, as well as lighting candles at one of the oldest churches in the world, the impressive Echmiadzine Cathedral.

Driving through the streets of Yerevan brought to view the stark contrast of the rich history of Armenia with a modern business and shopping center, as well as a bustling subway system. There is also a palpable energy brought by a growing number of young Armenians determined to return to their roots while tending to new creative growth.

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