Building Hope

From The New York Daily News

by HEATHER ROBINSON

September 18, 2006

The dwelling had no electricity, no windows, no heat and little furniture. Inside were a mother, six children and a crippled father. Garo Armen remembers using the light of a camera’s flash to catch glimpses of the family.

“It was like a cave,” recalls Armen, 53, in the Rockefeller Center office from which he runs Antigenics, a biotechnology company. “I saw the father embracing a shivering 3-year-old child, trying to help her keep warm.”

His brown eyes, beneath their shrewd and incisive gaze, radiate quiet determination and compassion. He witnessed this scene of abject poverty in his homeland of Armenia, where the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 produced nearly inconceivable desolation. Rural towns were hardest hit: no basic sanitation, no health care, no jobs.

He had first returned there on a fact-finding mission in September 2001. What he saw haunted him and, despite having assumed the role of interim CEO of a pharmaceutical company in Ireland to rescue it from bankruptcy while simultaneously running his own firm, he founded Children of Armenia Fund.

A nonprofit organization, its mission is to revitalize impoverished Armenian towns, starting with those where conditions are most desperate. Most importantly, the organization seeks to build a healthier future for Armenia’s children.

“At the time I was up to my eyeballs with work, but I couldn’t escape the reality of what I’d seen,” he recalls. “Some families were drinking irrigation water so dirty you wouldn’t feed it to an animal.”Armen, who left Armenia at 17, studied to be a chemist at City University of New York, made his way to Wall Street, and now lives with his wife and two sons in Manhasset, L.I., took on the challenge of saving an entire village.

He chose Karakert, a town of 5,000 near the Turkish border, because it was among the most desperate. The impoverished village had a high mortality rate, and those who could manage to leave were doing so. But the townspeople’s spirit signaled to Armen that if he helped them, they could help themselves.

“One of the first things we did was hold a town meeting and ask the residents about their priorities,” he says. “As desperate as they were in every way, their No. 1 priority was upgrading their school so that the kids would be able to learn. This was a great signal to us that their agenda converged with ours.”

Accustomed to leveraging resources and expertise, Armen contacted the United Nations, the World Bank and USAid, the U.S. State Department’s international aid and development arm. While all three agencies were doing social welfare work in Armenia, each has certain areas of expertise. As a result, there were large gaps in the networks of services they provided, preventing them from being able to pull the poorest towns into a sustainable future.

He approached them with a plan.“I told them, ‘I’ll put in half a million of my own money if you will be my partners and contribute as well,’” says Armen. “They were taken with the fact that I was willing to commit personal funds.”

He secured a commitment of $200,000 from the World Bank, $150,000 from the United Nations, and a grant of half a million from USAID.

Still, Armen says, various agency officials cautioned him about his choice of Karakert. “They warned me, ‘Look, this is your first project. This is the most godforsaken village, and nothing can be done.’”

Armen leans back and squares his shoulders. “Each of these agencies has its mandate. I told them, ‘Do what you do best; we’ll connect the dots and make the picture whole.’”

He hired a staff, most of them Armenian. Their first task was to hold the town meeting to hear the residents’ concerns, which in addition to refurbishing the school included acquiring clean drinking water, medical care and garbage removal.

The garbage had not been collected in 16 years.“There were vast piles of garbage everywhere; people were living surrounded by it,” says Armen. “I appointed two people to get trucks and organize volunteers from the town. It took three months, but we cleaned out the garbage.”

Other top priorities his staff addressed immediately were hiring a pediatrician who was willing to move to the town, conducting a census and delivering emergency aid to the poorest families. They also provided those families with logistical help in qualifying for aid from the Armenian government, put in place systems of plumbing, sewage and, with the help of the World Bank, irrigation to benefit 400 farms.

The school building, where children had previously breathed soot from burning manure, was refurbished and provided with proper heating. Children of Armenia and USAID used this and other facilities to provide instruction in civics, Internet research and starting small businesses.

Today, the results are monumental. Between 2003 and 2005, life in Karakert, known as Children of Armenia’s first “model village,” improved dramatically, according to a report by Strategem Consulting International, an independent firm hired by the UN.

Among many achievements were development of a municipal waste removal service, creation of 60 permanent jobs, inception of an irrigation system that supplies 400 farms, and a dramatic increase in average income.

The village, which beforehand had no investment, is now home to several businesses including three convenience stores, an apricot nursery and a furniture company. There is also a system of public transportation and a town newspaper, and residents are maintaining these institutions.

A tenfold increase in access to medical care, including prenatal care, has dramatically reduced illness and mortality.

Argam Bareyan, 40, an electrician, contacted by telephone, raves about Children of Armenia’s projects. After having left Karakert, where no jobs existed, he found work on a Children of Armenia construction crew, which enabled him to return to his family. Taking advantage of Children of Armenia’s farming techniques, the family has been able to increase their garden’s yield and sell the extra produce.

The revitalization of Karakert will have far-reaching impact on his children’s lives, Bareyan says through a translator. “Now they have the Internet, and can be connected with the rest of the world.

“They have many new opportunities,” he adds, noting that his elder daughter has found work as a computer operator in the center of town.

Children of Armenia is expanding its development model into several other Armenian villages. “My 17-year-old son says, ‘Why do you help only Armenians?’” Armen says. “I explain it’s because Armenia is a small nation and not being helped by others, so it’s my obligation.

“But the formula we’ve developed really works. And we would like to get cooperation in expanding it into other countries, including into Africa.”

This entry was written by and posted on September 18, 2006 at 3:24 pm and filed under Profiles.

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  • 1.

    Heather Robinson » Angelina Gets It

    March 2, 2008 at 2:55 am


    [...] While I’m a bit skeptical of any United Nations undertaking (let’s not forget the track record of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in funding the ongoing hate education of children in the Palestinian territories, and the hundreds of documented cases of sexual abuse of children by UN “peacekeepers” in places like the Congo, Bosnia, and Haiti), to be fair, some branches of the United Nations do some good in the world. This is particularly the case when they are subject to oversight and working in cooperation with other non-governmental organizations and the United States Agency for International Development. (In my work for The New York Daily News I had the opportunity to write about one such successful combined effort). [...]

  • 2.

    Political Mavens » Angelina Gets It

    February 29, 2008 at 10:08 pm


    [...] While I’m a bit skeptical of any United Nations undertaking (let’s not forget the track record of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in funding the ongoing hate education of children in the Palestinian territories, and the hundreds of documented cases of sexual abuse of children by UN “peacekeepers” in places like the Congo,) to be fair, some branches of the United Nations do some good in the world. This is particularly the case when they are subject to oversight and working in cooperation with other non-governmental organizations and the United States Agency for International Development. (In my work for The New York Daily News I had the opportunity to write about one such successful combined effort). [...]