Caring for elderly refugees in Armenia

Publié: 29 mars 2006 0:00 CET

Liana Ghukasyan in Yerevan

“When I was young, I dreamed of going to Baku to buy the shiny shoes of ‘a princess’,” explains Viktoria Avagyan, her face sad and wrinkled with age.

“Now my dreams have completely changed. I’d like to have my relatives again by my side, gathered at a big New Year’s Eve dinner table. But my biggest dream is to find my son. I lost sight of him 10 years ago. I think he’s somewhere in Chechnya but I do not know exactly where he is.”

“Isn’t there anything good in your life?” the Red Cross volunteer asks. Viktoria’s face breaks into a smile. “You are my good thing,” she answers.

“You have not forgotten about me and are always next to me.”

Viktoria is one of the lonely elderly people taken care of as part of the Armenian Red Cross ‘psycho-social support for elderly refugees’ project, which is supported by the International Federation. Twice a week, in Yerevan, the 70 trained Armenian Red Cross volunteers visit 490 elderly refugees living alone, offering practical help and essential emotional support.

By helping these vulnerable people with chores like shopping and cleaning, remembering their birthdays, distributing food parcels and simply being there to talk to, the volunteers are helping them integrate into their adopted society. The volunteers, many of whom are young people, learn compassion and tolerance.

Together with other refugees from Azerbaijan, Viktoria lives on the fourth floor of a dormitory next to empty factories. It is a desolate place where all the windows are broken and a cold wind blows through the building. The refugees have lost their families, friends and personal belongings. They feel isolated from the rest of society and need attention and care.

The volunteers’ visits and the organised outings to historical places, concerts and other social events are a vital lifeline. With their energy and enthusiasm, the Red Cross volunteers bring joy and light to the lives of these abandoned people, who they often call their second grandmothers and grandfathers.

“It fills our hearts with warmth”

We arrive at the building and a smiling woman in the corridor kisses each of us on the cheek and invites us in. “I came to Armenia 13 years ago,” she says. “I left behind my homeland, family members, friends, everything that is called home.” She stands up to bring cookies. “Take, take this. I have kept them for you.”

“Thanks to you, I feel myself at home, surrounded by people who care for me. This is the most important feeling for people of my age. Maybe the support you give does not make us richer but it fills our hearts with warmth, and the sense of uselessness disappears with your arrival.”

We visit more of the refugees, helping them around, reading newspapers and books for them and listening to their life stories. For a moment, it seems that we were living their lives through their memories. We do not notice how quickly the time goes and soon it is time to go.

Just as we are leaving the building, we hear a woman’s voice calling out. Her neighbours tell us she fell two weeks ago and probably broke her leg. She takes my hand and with great difficulty says: “Please help me.” She is lying in a grey room, cold from the furious wind and the loneliness, but her hands are warm. One of the Red Cross volunteers gives her first aid while we call an ambulance to take her to hospital.

Long after the ambulance has disappeared in the dust, we stand there thinking of the number of people who need someone next to them just to call for help.

On the way back, a thought struck me like lightning: “What a beautiful world it would be if there were more organisations like the Red Cross and more people like the Red Cross volunteers who endeavour to make a difference.”

Over the last seven years, the Armenian Red Cross has supported about 1,000 lonely elderly people. Unfortunately, there are many, many more people who need that support, and the number grows bigger every year. Another 50 Red Cross volunteers in two more branches recently attended a training course, at which current volunteers shared their skills and experiences.