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DISABILITIES. Armenia: My Son Mikhail

© UNICEF/SWZK00842/Krikorian

My Son, Mikhail

By UNICEF Armenia/Onnik Krikorian

When Mikhail Simonyan’s mother noticed that her son was finding it difficult to walk, she at first thought nothing at it. Instead, she wondered if her three-year-old had fallen and hurt himself. However, when Rouzana eventually took her son to a traumatologist, the news devastated the toddler’s mother. Mikhail had contracted measles and the infection had spread to his inner ear. Later, it spread to the muscles that kept his spinal cord straight.

“I fell ill for seven months,” she remembers. “I had a nervous breakdown. Gradually I recovered, but it wasn’t until I approached various NGOs and public organizations that I began to come to terms with Mikhail’s condition. I met many children who were able to live with their disabilities, some of whom were in a worse situation than my son. This somehow filled me with hope that there was a way for Mikhail to live with his disability as well.”

“I gave this hope to my child and told him there would be a day when he would be able to walk normally. Together, we’re still living with this hope.”

Mikhail, now aged seven, attends the Bridge of Hope Community-based Development Center for Children with Disabilities and from Vulnerable Families in Ijevan, administrative center of Armenia’s north eastern Tavoush region. The Center is one of four in Tavoush that are supported by UNICEF. His two sisters, aged 14 and 16, also attend the Center even though they are not disabled.

In fact, the Bridge of Hope Centers have been so successful that on 26 August 2005, a fourth was opened in Noyemberian. The other two centers are located in Dilijan and Berd, also situated in Tavoush. “Such centers play a crucial role for children, allowing to bridge gaps in services that exist in communities,” says Bridge of Hope’s President, Susanna Tadevosyan. To date, over 300 children with disabilities have been assisted by the NGO.

Of course, it wasn’t easy for Mikhail’s two sisters to come to terms with their younger brother’s disability, although they eventually adjusted to the situation and now spend most of their free time with their brother. Because of the extra burden a disabled child can place on a mother, the two sisters share the workload and enjoy walking with their brother to the local park. “I like my sisters,” says Mikhail. “They keep an eye on me.”

Building hope

Mikhail’s daily routine is far from easy, however, but thanks to Bridge of Hope, he has managed to attain a certain degree of control over his own life. After waking at 8am, he washes and dresses himself before eating breakfast, and in term time, setting off for school. However, although Ijevan is one of the most scenic towns in Armenia, it is also one of the most difficult for those with disabilities to live in.

“Ijevan was not designed for disabled people,” says Rouzana. “There are no ramps, and public transport is a problem. If it’s raining, it’s almost impossible to take him to school and in the winter when there’s a lot of snow, he needs more help getting to school. Thankfully, it’s close but a journey that should take 30 minutes instead takes 50.

After school, Mikhail attends the Bridge of Hope Center and receives rehabilitative therapy, learns computer skills, draws, and interacts with both disabled and able-bodied children. Born on 12 April, the anniversary of the first space flight by Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, Mikhail says that he likes mathematics and wants to become an astronaut.

Of course, even though it is unlikely that Mikhail’s dream of visiting Mars will ever come true, it does at least illustrate the fact that the young boy’s disability hasn’t prevented him from aiming high. He wants to enter university when he gets older, and while most children in Armenia might draw pictures of their homes or the biblical Mount Ararat, Mikhail has won prizes for his chalk drawings of the solar system.

All in all, while life is still difficult for children such as Mikhail, centers such as those established by Bridge of Hope and the support of loving families can make the lives of those with disabilities relatively normal. Of course, that’s not to say that some prejudice doesn’t exist in Armenian society.

“The community was very helpful,” says Mikhail’s mother. “In school, they care about him, although, of course, there are some children who still don’t understand. Because he’s still young, however, he doesn’t go out alone and so he’s spared most of these problems. Anyway, he explains to these children that he was sick, that he is now going to a rehabilitation center, and that very soon, he will be walking just like them.”

“The establishment of alternative services offered by community centers is a way forward to turn these children into full-fledged members of their communities,” says Naira Avetisyan, UNICEF’s Child Protection Officer. “This is why the community centers are taken by the Government as a strategic model for integration of children with disabilities into the society and mainstream education and are seen as alternative to institutionalization.”

For more information:

Emil Sahakyan, Communication Officer, UNICEF Armenia: (+374 10) 580 174,
email: esahakyan@unicef.org
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