Armenia: Education for Minority Children
By Onnik Krikorian / UNICEF Armenia
FIOLETOVO, Lori Region – It’s not often that you encounter a village that makes you feel like an “outsider” in Armenia but this village of Fioletovo is just so different. The residents of this ethnically homogenous village of Russian Molokans like visitors, but their way of life is so distinct from the rest of Armenia.
The Molokans are Russians who split from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th Century. Fioletovo, a village inhabited by less than 1,500 people, is the largest Molokan community outside the capital, Yerevan. Their total population in Armenia stands at just 5,000.
Molokans venture out of Fioletovo and nearby Lermontovo to sell their famous sauerkraut at market, but the village resembles a very traditional Russian village. Many consider the Molokans as similar to the Amish in the United States.
True, the Molokans use motorized vehicles but alcohol is forbidden as is marriage outside the community. The streets are impeccably clean with every other house sporting a fresh coat of paint. The men wear long beards, most women cover their heads. They and their blonde and blue-eyed children speak Russian, rather than Azeri.
And herein lies the problem. As idyllic and refreshing as the scene might be, the situation is grim in terms of education, as a study of education in national minority communities by the Hazarashen Armenian Centre of Ethnological Studies has revealed. The survey, conducted for The Ministry of Education and the National Statistics Service of the Republic of Armenia was made possible with the support of UNICEF and follows an earlier survey on education from 2001. Then, UNICEF discovered that school drop out rates for national minority and refugee children were twice as high as the national average. One recommendation made in 2001 was to carry out a new survey focusing entirely on minority children.
Around 2.2% of the population come from ethnic groups. The new report chose to focus on the three largest – the Yezidis, the Assyrians and the Molokans.
"There were no problems whatsoever in the Assyrian community," says Marine Soukhudyan, UNICEF’s Education Project Officer. "Historically, as well as culturally, this community values education highly and does everything it can to ensure that children get a good education. Of course, there is still a problem with the availability of textbooks -- this is a serious issue for every minority community in Armenia."
Assyrians and Molokans receive much of their education in Russian but their few textbooks are mainly leftovers from the soviet era and do not reach the standards of the new curriculum. There is also a serious shortage of teaching materials in their own language.
Some minority children are expected to tend the fields and shepherd livestock rather than attend school. The UNICEF-funded report notes that some Molokan children leave school as early as the second or third grade. Education is sometimes seasonal and governed by the agricultural calendar. Even teachers in some rural communities may be absent at peak agricultural times.
Indeed, when the survey team for the report visited Lermontovo in August during harvest time, there was not a single child in the village. Even pre-school children were helping their parents in the fields. Every year, they work there until mid October and sometimes, the beginning of November.
In some cases, especially in Yezidi communities, pupils and teachers cannot even communicate with each other. In these communities, teachers who use only Armenian attempt to teach children who speak nothing but Yezidi, their mother tongue.
"Textbooks are also in Armenian but it takes two or three years before Yezidi children can understand the language," says Soukhudyan. "Until then, the child’s development is frustrated."
Instead, Armenian teachers sometimes use body language instead of words to share knowledge.
And while poverty and the poor upkeep of village schools are certainly detrimental to education, one key problem is cultural. This is especially true for females. "There are those who even consider education dangerous for a girl," says the report. "They reason that an educated woman may have ideas and not be as obedient to men."
However, despite these obstacles, there are children in minority communities who want to enter higher education. In the Yezidi village of Zovuni, for example, one girl cries as she tells of her inability to study French when she finishes school. Another Yezidi girl says that if given the opportunity, she would like to study, and later teach, Armenian language and literature.
Public awareness is the key to addressing this issue, building trust in education and its importance. The Governor of the Aragatsotn region in Armenia has already committed himself to supporting UNICEF in this endeavor., with additional lessons in Armenian for minority children, especially in pre-schools.
UNICEF will also supply 100 schools in five regions with "school in a box" kits that contain essential supplies to meet the needs of 8,000 schoolchildren. The kits will also be supplied to vulnerable Armenian communities, especially those situated in depressed border regions.
"It is my dream to become a doctor," says one girl in Lermontovo," but how can a Molokan enter university? We can’t receive a higher education because we don’t know Armenian. Nobody here does."
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