Armenian people still living in containers after 1988 earthquake; children’s center provides hope

GYUMRI, Armenia – On December 7, 1988 at 11:41 a.m. disaster struck the second largest city in Armenia. In less than a minute, an earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale killed 25,000 people, trapped more than two thousand in the rubble of their ruined homes waiting to be rescued. The quake left more than 100,000 homeless.

The world responded with international aide for the people of Gyumri, sending large metal containers filled with supplies and food. Now, 31 years later, people have turned the containers into homes. Today, more than 2,800 “domiks,” as the little houses are called, still remain in the city.

Sarah Derderian, development officer and special projects director of the Debi Arach Children’s Center in Gyumri, led a tour of one such domik. Years after the earthquake, these homes continue to raise awareness of the struggles of those struck by the quake, as in the home pictured above.

The domik did not have electricity or running water. It consisted of three small rooms and houses seven people from different generations of a single family.  A cable was strung from a nearby apartment building to provide heat to the domik using a furnace in the center of one of the rooms. Each room had many beds, with few belongings on shelves above. Pots and pans were stacked in the rooms of some of the children. The outhouse was a few steps from the makeshift house.

Derderian helps run an after-school center called Debi Arach for children who live in the domiks. In English, Debi Arach roughly translates to “moving forward.”  With certified, paid teachers on staff, Debi Arach provides tutoring across all subjects, including math, Armenian, English and art. The children also receive technology training, including simple coding and robotics, which is important because many children living in domiks might not have the financial resources to attend college. The center also provides each child with one hot meal that may be their only meal of the day. A nurse is available to help with all medical needs. All services provided by Debi Arach are completely free of charge.

There is also a shower and toilet because the children don’t have them at home. Derderian told a story about teaching one child not to stand up on the toilet seat because they had never seen a toilet before and treated it like the outhouses at home.  Many children were afraid of the shower but grew to love it.

One of the most important services provided by Debi Arach is the staff psychologist, who helps the children talk about their emotions in group sessions and through games. Derderian said the center advocated for funding for art classes, since Armenian schools do not provide art classes and art help the kids cope with their circumstances.

Debi Arach supports 170 children, with half attending Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and the others on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. In the summertime, Debi Arach runs a summer camp, adding many activities such as music, dance and sports.

With an operating budget of approximately $80,000 a year, Debi Arach is funded solely through donations and grants. The Debi Arach staff has received grants for Smartboards, computers and other supplies.

For donations and other information please visit their website.