Notes From Hairenik
September 3, 2007
The following entry first appeared as a "Notes From Hairenik" column in The Armenian Weekly, July 2002.


Growing up in the states, I would often hear the expression “better him than me” repeated by my elders when referring to someone being ill or in some dire personal situation. To this day, I do not feel comfortable with that way of thinking. It seems that everyone that I meet here are also opposed to such a philosophy.

For the most part, everyone does whatever they can here to assist their fellow human in need.

“It used to be a lot better, a lot stronger before,” says Mamikon, a resident of the “Yerort Mass” district of Yerevan. “In the old days, if you had your neighbors over for dinner and ran out of something, they would go home and bring it over. Because everyone was the same, was equal.”

Mamikon is referring to the social interaction between people when Armenia was part of the Soviet Union. Under the Soviet socialist economic structure, most citizens of Armenia received nearly the same wages and were equal to one another in terms of social status. The fraternal bond that binds all Armenians to one another was even stronger during those times, and, generally, that sense of selflessness towards one’s neighbor has carried on until today.

By nature, Armenians welcome strangers, especially outsiders. I have heard stories of villagers taking in and feeding strangers passing through, offering assistance, before setting them back on the road towards their destinations.

People here in general help each other out in all ways -- financially, socially, and morally. When, for instance, a person trips and falls on the sidewalk and may have been injured, within a minute a small crowd gathers around the person, helps the person up to his or her feet, and walks the person home to his or her doorstep. Then they make sure that the person is comfortable and has everything he or she needs to recuperate.

Garik strolls around the fountains of Republic Square usually every night, from 8:00 pm to midnight, or later. He waits for friends to arrive, to chat, and to sit by the fountains to cool off during the warm summer nights in Yerevan. He’s usually there for most of the day.

He is waiting to receive money from his sister living in San Francisco so that he can return to his native Estonia.

“I’ve had it here,” he tells me. “There’s nothing for me here. At least in Estonia I have work.”

Garik is a mechanic by trade, but he has little or no work in Yerevan, since the garage he works for cannot afford to give him steady work.

Most of the young Armenian men in their twenties that are still living here -- those that have not left for Russia or elsewhere to find work -- face the same troubles. Although the official unemployment rate is reported at 10% by the Armenian government, the actual rate exceeds 40%.

The poverty rate is also exceedingly high. An estimated 45% of the population in Armenia lives below the poverty line, many of whom live in Yerevan.

Thus, when I see Garik once or twice a week around Republic Square, and we spend time together drinking tea or smoking a cigarette, I am obliged at some point to help him out financially. Since he lives a considerable distance from the center in the Malatia-Sebastia district of Yerevan, he usually walks home by foot, which usually takes about an hour. The other options are to take minibuses that cost about $0.20, most of which stop running after 11:00 pm, or take a taxi, which costs about $1.75. He is lucky if he has the latter amount in his pocket to last him for the week as living expenses.

As an outsider living in Armenia, I find myself needing to spend just under $100 a week to live “normally,” which is spent on food and essentials for my home, expenses such as rent and utilities, gifts, public transportation costs, meal expenses, and occasionally, going out to a café with friends. Naturally, I also account for distributing some money to people that I meet, such as Garik.

I cannot understand how most Armenians in Yerevan survive on $40 or less as a monthly salary, if they are even paid. Most government employees are paid very low wages, and it is not uncommon for them to have their pay suspended. Doctors and nurses usually request to be paid by their patients. Police officers make their wages by pulling over speeding motorists and extorting the equivalent of $1.75 to make the problem go away, or else pay a fine of $10 or more to the government. To save trouble and money, most motorists caught speeding pay the bribe to the policeman. It’s the only way that he will get paid.

When Garik asked me, and he was ashamed to do so, to loan him 3000 drams (less than $6) to visit his sick father living in Spitak recovering from pneumonia, I knew I had to give it to him because there was no one else he knew that could help him out. He had explained to me that his family was obliged to pay over $300 in hospital and medicine fees the week before when his father was in a Yerevan hospital. I hesitated to give him an immediate answer, but when he opened his wallet to find something, I noticed that he had no money in it at all. Naturally, I gave him the money, but he only agreed that I loan it to him on the condition that he would pay me back a week later, as well as for the few times I helped him out before, as soon as he received the money from his sister, even though I told him it wasn’t necessary. We agreed that we would meet near the Republic Square fountains, Tuesday evening at 10:00 pm (which means anytime between 10:00 and 11:00 -- Armenian time is universal).

I do expect to meet Garik at the fountains, and I do expect that he will have the money in hand, grinning and encouraging me to take it, because I know he will keep his word. But I don’t expect to take it. In this case, it is better him than me.


As an endnote I ran into Garik a few more times. The last time in 2002 was in November —his father had just died and he was in desperate need of cash to get by. He also looked emaciated, and when he saw me from a short distance his eyes lit up. I went home, which was only a five-minute walk away from where we met, to get some cash and gave him around $100 or so as that was all I could afford. He thanked me, then disappeared. Three years later I saw him again at the exact same spot on Sakharov Square. He had gained some weight and had a good build, like that of a light-weight boxer. He was working as an auto mechanic in one of dozens of garages somewhere along Nardos Street. When he saw me he recognized me instantly, and I was thrilled to see him in such great shape, but especially after knowing that he had made himself successful on his own.

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Blogger Ara said...
Things sure have changed.

I can’t even say that you will find a villager that will take you in the way they use to (I’m sure they are still around, just not as many as before).

In those days I would be away from home for days just driving and picking up hitch-hikers to learn what their lives were about and who would most of the time invite me to their home. On more occasion than I remember, they would insist that I stay over night. And if you stay the night or not, you were always sent off with a bag of farm-fresh goodies.

Yes, the good old days.