Helping all children in Armenia prepare for disasters
By Chris Schuepp
GYUMRI, Armenia, 23 February 2013 — Margarita Sargsyan and her classmates at School #1 in Gyumri, the second biggest city of Armenia, are taking part in school lessons which can save their lives: learning about disaster risk reduction.
A year ago, Margarita’s only option to get a basic education was to go to a day-care centre for children with disabilities as she uses a wheelchair. Since September, she has been able to go to her local school, which has taken an important step to full social inclusion. She attends all the classes including disaster preparedness education mainstreamed in geography or other lessons.
Last week, she took part in a UNICEF- and ECHO-supported OneMinutesJr video workshop on disaster risk education. She and 13 other girls and boy developed story ideas on how best to prepare when facing some of the natural hazards in the area. They then filmed their stories and produced 60-second videos.
This is a topic that resonates in the minds of the students of this Armenian city as Gyumri was hit by a huge earthquake in 1988. 25 years later, remnants of the destruction remains. Stories are still told by older people to young children how according to official figures almost 25,000 people lost their lives and tens of thousands of people were injured and became homeless.
Margarita's film is about an earthquake and the setting for it is her classroom. In her film, Margarita starts crying when all the other children have run away, but then two boys come back into the classroom to get her out.
This film and others produced during a five-day workshop will be shown at an international meeting in Istanbul in neighbouring Turkey on 25/26 February. Here, eight countries in the South Caucasus and Central Asia will share experiences on disaster risk reduction programming through the education sector supported by the European Union and UNICEF. Child-led activities are central to helping school preparedness and community engagement. This also means getting all children, including girls and children with disabilities, usually hidden at home or in a special institution to be more involved in their communities.
Margarita has spoken out in public about living with a disability. She made a presentation at last year's TEDxKids conference in the capital Yerevan. After that, she received support from UNICEF to enable her to attend an inclusive school being introduced in Gyumri.
Her teacher, Noyemzar Khachatryan, said: "From the very beginning, Margarita was welcomed in her class. We created a very warm atmosphere for her. We never had children with disabilities here before, so we sat down with every single student from her class individually to make sure they all see her as an equal. When Margarita enters the room, all children start smiling. They ask her how she feels and whether or not she needs any help."
Margarita also still likes to visit the day-care centre to meet her friends. She went back to spread the word about her video workshop and about disaster risk reduction.
“I wrote the story and then we filmed it in my school. The other students acted the evacuation scene and I was the main actress, the girl that was left behind. But then the two boys came to get me. I always wanted to become a singer, but now I want to become an actress.”
Margarita's mother is also very happy with the recent developments and her daughter's new achievements.
“I know that Margarita will never be able to completely look after herself. She will always need some support, but going to school and being an active part of society helps her so much to become a more independent person. It prepares her for the time when I cannot look after her anymore and makes her stronger day by day”, said Tamara Sargsyan, Margarita's mother.
The government of Armenia introduced inclusive education law in 2005 with support from UNICEF. As of today there are over 100 inclusive schools in Armenia where around 2,500 children with disabilities are enrolled.
Currently, the Armenian parliament is discussing amendments to the law on education, whereby all schools in Armenia will become inclusive. All children, including children with disabilities, will be able to learn to prepare for the future or which can be invaluable knowledge to save their lives.