Children Fighting for Their Schools
– Armenia’s Rural Areas are Left With No Support-
We are not living an easy life. While the world is facing many challenges in a wide array of affairs and focal points, somewhere deep inside the rural area of The Republic of Armenia a 21-year old young man is fighting his own battle. He is not fighting for his own life, or for personal benefits, but for something even more important, benevolent and philanthropic: he is fighting for the basic rights of others – to save the only school in his village of Lichk.
Though, this young man is certainly not the only fighter for the cause, he is undoubtedly one of a kind in his commitment, enthusiasm, hopes, values and way of thinking. These are just the few features that effortlessly came across during the interview, in which he is silently but firmly asking for help.
Read our interview with Lev Mkrtchyan, a teacher at the Primary School of Lichk and originator of the ‘Save Our School’ crowdfunding initiative, which is a localized mirror of a more general problem experienced throughout Armenia!
‘Education is the foundation for a healthy and developed society, as well as a vital determinant of civic culture and participation in democratic politics’, starts the joint study of Turpanjian Center for Policy Analysis and the Open Society on Access to School Education in Armenia (2012).
The Republic of Armenia, nestled between mountains and serving as a crossroads between Asia and Europe, became independent in 1991 following a 69-year long Soviet occupation. As all of its neighbours, since then it has attempted to maintain its fragile independence and work out a sustainable plan for all areas of life. And education is no exception. According to the study named above:
‘The Armenian school education system underwent several reforms which to some extent disrupted the daily educational routines. Three major areas of reform can be identified: extension of schooling years, change of grading system and creation of separate high schools.’
Though, in line with their extensive survey, 95% of the Armenian population has the accessibility to attend a school in their residential area – adding up to 1441 general education schools and 386.5 thousand students by 2012- there are outstanding discrepancies when it comes to the physical conditions of schools.
This is the point, where Lev is concerned the most:
‘We (teachers and children) are trying to keep up, but children break sometimes. The building is too dangerous and they are afraid. The ceiling is falling, they change their places daily for spots that seem the safest’.
Armenia planned to renovate all general education schools by 2012 spending 8-10 percent of the total public expenditures in the sector for capital expenditures over the medium-term (Republic of Armenia Government Plan, 2008). This is called the framework of the ‘high school rebuilding’. It was ultimately implemented only in 8 high schools.
Both the studies and Lev confirm: there were changes; some schools were indeed renovated – primarily those located near the borders and in big cities. However, in rural villages like Lichk, Ishkhanasar, Dzoragyukh, Nerkin Getashen, Gekhhovit or Astkhadzor, where poverty is high, governments are negligent towards the problems. The issue is further escalated by the politization and privatization of schools resulting in better sources for some and cuts for others, while excluding more and more people from affordable education.
Armenia is facing a 17.8% unemployment rate with a drastically increased poverty rate of 32.4%, therefore the wealthier population tends to emigrate, while less fortunate ones see no perspectives for a better life.
‘Lichk has a population of 5,000 people, out of which most men go to work in Russia from Spring to Winter, since they have no work opportunities in the village. The only options are a government job, being a teacher for example, or leave to Russia’- explains Lev.
After finishing his higher education (quite an exception in his generation), he came back to his town, where along with other family members he teaches English at the Primary School of Lichk; a school that was constructed in 1930 and serves as the only educational center for the village and the surrounding area.
‘Closing down the school would be a devastating problem; it would not only put the education of 104 children at high risk but also 30 teachers would loose their only hope for a job. ‘
So, why is this school facing a possible closure?
The school needs an immediate renovation since the ceiling is about to fall, there is no heating during the brutally cold winters, there are holes in the walls, many windows are broken and there is no minimal standard sanitation, which plainly means there are no restrooms, warm or drinking water. Once again, beside the fundamental hygienic problems that effect several other schools in Armenia, the poor physical condition of schools lead to the underperformance of pupils and teachers alike (Access to School Education in Armenia (2012)).
‘Going to school is obligatory; not attending would send the parents to court. However, what can we do if the school is too dangerous even to enter?’- asks Levi
It is clear that it requires an enormous commitment and persistence to keep schools in rural areas, like Lichk, running. But the main problem is that it is kept running by volunteers, teachers and parents, while the government and local municipalities follow an “ostrich policy”, by ignoring the problems.
‘Salaries range at around 200 dollars, and they are becoming even lower, I earn 100 dollars at the moment; so we all live with our families together’.
The study states that: ‘75% of children travel to school by foot, 12% get to school through a family owned car, 9% use public transport, 3% use a taxi and there are 2 pupils (0.4%) who report using a school bus. The average time to get to school is 12 minutes, 92% of respondents spend 20 minutes or less to get to school, the longest time is 45 minutes. ‘
This constitutes a further problem to rural villages like Lichk and others. In case no help arrives on time the school will be closed down, leaving a situation, where the nearest school is 6 km away. This might sound a manageable distance from a western point of view, but not with the settings in the rural areas of Armenia, where public transportation does not exist and winters bring 2-3 m steady snow, making the roads between villages absolutely unreachable.
Therefore the situation is worrisome and raising awareness and acting is crucial!
‘We, and our children are lacking information of other countries, people and cultures. Villages are separated; Internet access is rare [he has called from an Internet café]; therefore education is crucial. It is essential to keep our traditions, culture and identity, but also to open our doors and minds towards others’
Lev’s Italian trip taught him that there are many things besides football, the only known activity in his city, to occupy children and keep them motivated.
‘I took notes, wherever we went, so now I am organizing after-school events to keep their mind busy.’
Lack of education possibilities in Armenia would further force families to seek opportunities in Russia, leading to the depopulation of the area and once again to the loss of identity and social independence.
Lev’s dream is not only to save the school, but also to improve it and make it a place to be proud of. For this reason, along with some volunteers, he has started a crowdfunding campaign to support the renovation of the building that was not touched during its 84 years of use.
Certainly, there are initiatives raising awareness about the troublesome situation of schools in Armenia’s rural areas (see: COAF, Wash in Schools), but until schools are state-funded and financed per enrolled student, inequalities will endure.
Though the school of Lichk is not a sole case in Armenia, it is facing urgent needs and desperately requires help at the moment.
‘The words we formulate in the campaign are not in our minds but are in our hearts. If anybody would just donate 1 cent, we could change the world. Our first aim is to make a bathroom that is what we are collecting for urgently, then to repair leaks in roof, replace broken windows, repair holes in walls and repaint the interior, so we can save our school’
During the interview I was touched by Lev’s clear and complex way of thinking. I left the conversation with lessons learnt for life: what we take for granted, some fight for on daily a basis.
Although, we are not living an easy life and the world is facing excessive challenges touching a wide array of affairs and focal points, we should not forget that education is crucial to developing the next generations; education is a fundamental right of all and ‘education is the foundation for a healthy and developed society’.
What are we really facing?
By the sad but demonstrative example of the Primary School of Lichk, it is clear that though Armenia has undergone some significant changes during the last 15 years, ruins of the Soviet era are still rooted in the current governmental set up.
Therefore, the situation in Lichk must be a wake up call!
A wake up call to end negligence; a wake up call for fairer allocation of resources, for more comprehensive control of the education system and for more transparent actions.
The hereby-depicted situation of a demolished and life-threating school building in Armenia’s rural area goes beyond the surface. It lights out such significant problems as the lack of transportation, the lack of safety, the lack of employment opportunities, the lack of public services, and the lack of minimal hygienic level in rural areas. That is why action is needed; and the time is NOW!
Evidently, saving one school is just the first domino along the line; but in the same way in which one falling domino piece can destroy a whole carefully built construction, one well-placed item can save a whole setting. One investment will lead to a child-friendly and safe school building guaranteeing a minimal level of sanitation, leading to a higher quality of education and opening the door of hope for a better future.
Please consider supporting the Save Our School crowdfunding campaign.