Disaster recovery

In 1988, an earthquake shattered the city of Gyumri in Armenia. An
estimated 25,000 people lost their lives overnight, and the same
again were made homeless. Aid poured in. Temporary homes were
provided in the form of metal containers that were supposed to last
a couple of years, but 15 years later there are still between
12,000 and 14,000 people living in them. They are spread across
Gyumri like permanent caravans on an enormous site, and they are
not the most practical of homes. In winter you freeze, in summer
you fry.

This was a vast humanitarian disaster by any standard. Gyumri was
the second largest city in Armenia, with a population of a quarter
of a million people. The city had a reputation as an artistic and
cultural centre, and a long history as a trading centre. Nothing of
that prosperity remains. The Gyumri that now exists is riddled with
ruined buildings and piles of rubble. Some buildings have been
rebuilt, but when you look at the scale of the destruction, the
amount that has been retrieved seems pitifully small. The
infrastructure is in ruins.

Try to imagine a country where professional social work is in its
infancy, and formal structures for delivering services are not yet
in place. Support for those in trouble has traditionally come from
the family and neighbours, yet in Gyumri there was hardly anyone
left who hadn’t experienced loss. As aid began to dry up, this was
the situation facing emerging community leaders. It is social work
in an extreme situation.

And it was of little use to turn to the rest of the country.
Armenia was spiralling downwards into poverty. Seven decades of
Russian rule came to an end in 1991 when Armenia voted for
independence. The Russians moved out, taking with them a great many
disposable assets (including the pension system) and leaving behind
several half-finished projects. The economy was further drained by
the war with Azerbaijan, and by the oil blockade. There were
chronic water and electricity shortages.

In these difficult years, the Meghvik Centre was born, largely as a
result of the initiative and vision of Vehanush Hovjannisyan, and
the backing she has had from the community. It began by providing
somewhere for children and young people to be when they were not at
school, and, hopefully, to acquire skills in arts and crafts, much
of which would previously have been passed down in the family. From
this has blossomed a range of activities touching the lives of
generations. It is a community centre par excellence.

I was for years a social worker in the UK, and later involved in
teaching social work students. I have seen some remarkable agencies
and organisations, some with very innovative practice, but few that
have matched up to the Meghvik Centre. Perhaps this is in part due
to the sharp edge given by the need to survive. Issues become
clearer, and there’s less room for bureaucratic shades of grey,
when there are such extremes of deprivation and poverty.

In a street of terraced houses, you find what looks like garage
doors painted a bright and somewhat incongruous blue after the
browns and greys of pitted roads and dilapidated houses. You pass
down a concrete passage that winds between the houses, over a small
yard, and into a warren of rooms beyond. It is busy and thriving.
There are notice boards, computers, pictures and one larger room
with a stage.

Young people learn traditional arts and crafts, but also English
and computer skills. Their parents are encouraged to volunteer
skills or join activities. Older people or those who are sick or
disabled can use the bathhouse in the basement. There is a farm,
out in the country, where children and young people can go to learn
to care for animals. Courses are provided free of charge. Meghvik
calls itself “a craft and art children youth educational
institution”, but the scope of its activities is wider than that.
It has programmes on civic education and public policy. Through
training, consultation and dissemination of information, Meghvik
tries to increase awareness of children’s rights; and uses advocacy
to affect public policy on children.

Few of these activities could happen were it not for the donor
organisations. There is 85 per cent unemployment in Gyumri and
widespread poverty. Worst of all is the collective depression that
hangs round the city like the smell of disinfectant in hospitals.
Yet Vehanush Hovjannisyan and the staff of the Meghvik Centre
battle against all the odds to plant the seeds of hope.

Their achievements to date are remarkable. In addition to the
regular classes at the centre, about 200 children have learned to
work with computers, thanks to the Eurasian Foundation. With
support from Unicef, seminars on children’s rights have been
carried out in more than 40 schools. Caritas funded a project
giving First Aid training courses to secondary school children, and
a hygiene and social assistance project was funded by Save the

Another project set up summer rest camps for children and young
people in a village outside Gyumri. SPFA (a French donor) funded a
project on relationships between the generations, encouraging
exchange of experiences (sorely needed because of the way that the
continuity between generations was savagely disrupted by the
earthquake). The success of this project has led to the hope of
extending the summer rest camps to elders, to rebuild ties between
the generations. That is, if funds can be found. Everything rests
on funding.

In addition to running the centre, recruiting volunteers and
chasing sources of funding, Vehanush also supervises social work
students on a distance learning programme recently set up through a
partnership between Yerevan University, the Open University in the
UK (initially with LSE), and Ireland. The students use the Meghvik
Centre for a practice placement.

Given these achievements, it is hardly surprising that the Meghvik
Centre has been awarded funds to build a new facility. The new
centre, to open next year, is to expand the teaching of trade
skills, but with the expansion comes a new problem; how can the
teachers be paid? An impressive strategy document sets out the ways
in which they hope to achieve their objectives from 2002-5.
Conspicuous among these is the recruitment of volunteers and
members, fund-raising, and the need to publicise what the centre

Meanwhile, social work in the UK has, sadly, become
institutionalised and bureaucratised, and has lost a certain
freshness. The social work task is often carved up into small
“bits” that have little recognisable relationship to the
predicament of the person asking for help. Social work students are
fired with zeal, and high principles; but few of them manage to
retain this zest, interest and concern after a few years of
practice in organisations that seem designed to hamper their best
efforts. Too often they become focused on personal survival rather
than on clients.

I couldn’t help wishing that social work students from the UK could
have placements at the Meghvik Centre. They might see for
themselves how learning and a hopeful outlook are encouraged,
despite the grim realities of poverty in the city. They might hear
the view being expressed that the seeds of hope are just beginning
to grow in Gyumri. They might learn, as I did, that one of the most
important functions of social work is to give hope. 

Nicki Cornwell is a former social worker, lecturer and

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