I’ve spent a little more than a year learning about FAR’s programs, its mission, its people, and its history in order to complete my writing and editing assignments. I must have referred to the devastating 1988 earthquake that hit Spitak and Gyumri dozens of times in various press releases, brochures, emails, etc. And yes, I’ve always known that the earthquake was a horrifically devastating event whose impact did not get erased with time. But like watching the news from Haiti or Hurricane Katrina, you know it’s terrible, but you’re still removed. Today we woke in Gyumri and started the day with a brief tour of the city led by Marina, FAR’s Project Manager in Gyumri, who pointed out the destruction lingering from a two decade old natural disaster. Factories destroyed, shut down, along with a source of income for so many. The equipment, most of which was inherited from the days of Soviet rule, was lost and unable to be replaced. Buildings reduced to rubble have remained so for more than 20 years. Other buildings and homes are now abandoned. Makeshift shelters meant to be temporary dwellings have since become permanent homes. We pass by all of these and it’s haunting and sad. A brief loss of mercy from Mother Nature can set forth a lifetime of toil and suffering.
Unemployment in Gyumri hovers around 80 percent; one third of its population left for places like Russia and the U.S. after the earthquake. Remittances from relatives far away truly help keep the economy afloat. It’s not fair. But this also isn’t a place for pity. For as much as it appears to have been forgotten by the rest of the world, this is not a city totally abandoned and left behind. There is movement and all of us on this trip have the privilege of witnessing it with our own eyes.
Our first visit was to GTech, the Gyumri Information Technology Center, which offers post-graduate training in computer engineering and web technology, and ultimately opportunity. It’s another place I’ve tried to describe in various materials over and over. Seeing it with my own eyes, however, just changed my perspective completely. In just five years, GTech has led to changes in the economy, and has enabled more residents to gain the valuable skills they need to find jobs at IT companies in Gyumri and Yerevan, and take on contractual assignments from abroad. When their own community supports them, they support it right back. For the first time, it really clicks for me. Like the effects of the earthquake, GTech was always an abstract notion for me. But after standing in the actual building and hearing about the program from the people who work with it every day I’ve learned something totally new.
Later, we visited the Octet Music School, which is literally composed of makeshift trailers filled with recycled furniture. The practice rooms are bleak, the walls thin and bare. It’s another place I’ve written about using scant details. And I never was able to imagine how it was possible to teach student music in such an environment. But it is possible. These children desperately need better resources at their hands. They need a true school, but their dedication and passion is such that poor conditions don’t stifle their creativity and talent. I’m so glad I was fortunate enough to see that with my own eyes.