Saturday, October 31, 2009

Visits from an Armenian political prisoner and editor of Turkish-Armenian weekly Agos

In the last week, we've had two memorable events take place at the news agency where I work: (1) a visit from former just-released Armenian political prisoner Tigran Arakelian and (2) a visit from Agos editor Aris.

Tigran Arakelian is much much shorter than he appears in the photos we posted on our site (and that probably appeared in other local media). He is young and thin, and was charged with assaulting not one, but three police officers. Any person in their right mind could tell this short, small — no, petit — young man would be unable to resist three, assumingly large, police officers. And no offense to short or small people; I'm not saying short people can't overtake tall people. I'm talking about this particular case and the charges against him... and let's not forget, police officers have guns, or at least batons, while very rarely do activists have such weapons.

For more background on what happened in the case of this Armenian National Congress youth member, read Onnik Krikorian's August 15, 2009 article on Frontline Club at

The second visit (which happened to be today) was by Agos editor Aris. Agos is a weekly newspaper published in Istanbul, Turkey, one of the only Turkish-language publications in the country that includes an Armenian-language supplement. Agos is perhaps better known for having Hrant Dink as its chief editor from its inception in 1996 till Dink's assassination outside the newspaper's offices in January 2007. The paper now has an English edition available online at

Needless to say, it was an honour and privilege to meet both Tigran Arakelian and Aris.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The danger of working in a news agency

About an hour and a half ago, 2-3 men in black suits came to the news agency where I work and told us to leave everything as it is and go home. Someone asked if we should shut off the computers and they said no, not to even shut off any open programs or files. When asked about our personal email, they said, yes, we could log out of our personal email accounts. We gathered our things and stepped out into the hall, after which the owner of the company (who had accompanied the men in suits) locked the door to our office behind us.

One of my colleagues asked a very respectful and what one would consider to be a harmless question to one of the Men in Suits (seeing as the Men in Suits neither presented themselves nor said what was going on); he was responded with a curt and harsh "This isn't a theatre performance. Why are you asking questions?" ("էս թատրոն չի, ինչի ես հարց ու փործ անու՞մ")

One by one, Men in Suits along with the owner of the company went to the other offices and told everyone to leave, locking the doors behind them. I work for an online news agency that is part of a larger media enterprise that publishes a monthly business magazine, a financial print newspaper, a sports news site and a couple of other media outlets. We thought initially the issue was with the specific news site where I work since we publish political news whereas the other departments publish sports, business, and so on... basically, you could say that our department publishes more controversial news.

However, since they kicked us all out, we became confused and suspicious. It's important to note that on this date exactly 10 years ago was the notorious parliament shooting in Armenia. A handful of individuals were able to sneak into the National Assembly (Armenia's parliament) with firearms and proceeded to shoot eight government officials including then-prime minister and parliamentary speaker.

Something tells me that because of this eventful day, national security is on high alert today... However, regarding what happened at work today, it's all speculation until I know for sure. Perhaps we published something that alerted the national guards? Perhaps they're going around to all news agencies and shutting them down today so we don't report anything related to this particular day? I really don't know, but hell if I'm not dying to find out...

Saturday, October 24, 2009

When you can’t live on hope alone or մենք հո հոյսով չենք սննվում

Today is October 24. Today I received Armenian dram in cash from my employer. I met him on the street and he handed me what is considered to be my September “paycheque.”

I had begun working at the local news agency the last week of August. On September 9, everyone at work received their August pay and I received cash for the one week in August that I worked... it was unexpected and surprising, considering that most places around here don’t pay you till you’re “registered” ("գրանցվաց") and always assume for at least a week, if not a month or more, you will work without pay (consider it training or a practice run) till you have officially been hired, and gone through the rest of the process of being contracted as an employee. My official start date was September 1.

I like where I work. I like the people, I like the job, and from what I’ve been told, the pay is good. What I don’t like is having to live on hope alone: for the past two weeks, we were told we would “most likely” get paid tomorrow. But tomorrow never seemed to come. The week prior to last week, I was told we would most likely get paid next week (no specific date was mentioned). Next week came, and still no sign of a pay cheque. Near the end of last week, we were told Monday. Monday became Tuesday, Tuesday became Wednesday, and today, yes, finally the day we’ve all been waiting for, well, today is Saturday. It’s been pretty much two weeks that we’ve been holding our breath, living on air, and waiting for that precious pay. And finally, it has arrived.

Let’s not even mention that typically we’re supposed to get paid the 9th or 10th of each month. All of us at work agree, at this point anyway, we don’t care what date of the month we get our pay cheque: we just want to know when it’s coming and gee, it would be great if it could consistently be the same day each month. That way we can plan our budget, cover our expenses, and know what our monthly balance sheet will look like (not that any of us have an actual balance sheet; I’m talking about the general “money-comes-in-money-goes-out” transactions that are part of organizing one’s personal finances).

When I asked my employer if I’m to get my pay in a secret rendez-vous on the street every month, he laughed and said, of course not, we get paid at our place of employment. This was an exception. But somehow I’m not convinced.

My employer, who I refer to here, is the person who hired me, but not the owner of the company. He is not involved in the finances, and of course, he too has to get paid. He is merely the messenger from The Man Above. The Man Above (he’s a nice guy, I’m told) has said that he can’t guarantee a date each month that we are to get paid, well, at least till the end of this year. But beginning next year, it should all be worked out... Again, I’m not convinced.
My colleagues say they said the same thing last year (by “they,” I mean both my employer and The Man Above). They have been working here longer than I have and apparently, this is a recurring issue. What I love about my colleagues is that they’re not afraid to raise this issue. Except for my employer and one other co-worker, we are all women. And I love that none of us are afraid to speak up; it’s not just the Diasporan Armenian who’s raising a ruckus; I’m not the hero “from outside” who sweeps in to save the day. The women at work have been bringing up this issue of irregular paycheques on an ongoing basis (just goes to show you, how long the issue’s been going on...).

I think the thing that gets to me the most is being told “tomorrow.” For two weeks, we have been getting by on the hope of that ever-elusive tomorrow: we have been avoiding buying dish soap for washing our communal dishes, we haven’t replenished our supply of coffee and tea, and the filtered water in the office has run dry while we have been living on hope. And that is what’s been clawing at me for the last little while: it’s being made to wait, not being given an exact date, it’s going about your day while hanging by a thread, the thread of hope.

A friend of mine today summed it up in one sentence: it’s not just my workplace, living on hope has inflicted the entire country.

And this creates an economy of debt.

Everyone’s either owed or owes something to someone. We talk about constantly being in debt in North America, but this is person-to-person debt, one-on-one debt, not owing to a bank or a faceless credit card company. And for a small city like Yerevan, where every other person you meet on the street is either a relative or knows someone who knows you, navigating these interpersonal relations takes more skill and tact than I’m either used to or care to exhibit at the moment.

Who knows? Maybe next month will be different. Maybe we’ll get paid on time. Maybe the irregular pay will become regular. Maybe, we’ll be told we’ll get paid on such-and-such a date and actually get paid on that date.

Maybe, just maybe... I can hope, can’t I?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Life before Armenia

Today, I read a Facebook post that brightened up my day. It’s not everyday you read something online that changes you, or at least makes you feel stronger, more confident, content, at peace, if only for the time being.

"I can't even remember how my life was before Armenia. Yesterday I realized that moving here has been the best decision in my life so far." (the Facebook post that brightened up my day)

There is so much in this world (both the wider world “out there” and the more micro-world that is my life) to bring you down; so much that disheartens you, that weakens you, that brings out all of your insecurities and fears.

I do not want to be afraid of fear.

"Lara, you know what I call our life in SF now that I look back at those years we spent in one of the most beautiful cities in the world? A nice, engaging, thrilling paperback you read at airports before your flight, then leave it to go on with real life, with no shortage of real thrills..." (one of the many responses to Lara’s post)

Some days I wonder about my decision to move here; I wonder how permanent or temporary it is; I wonder what I’ve left behind; and I wonder if things would be better “over there.” I miss my friends and my family. But as a good friend of mine reminded me recently, we are always missing something and I know that if I was there right now, things wouldn’t be perfect, and I would find something else (or someone else) to miss.

I wonder about my privilege. I feel as someone who is a citizen of a “developed” country and who, of her own free will, has chosen to live in a “not as developed” country (note the use of quotation marks), I always have a way out. I have a Plan B, an opt-out plan, if you will. Yet those who are citizens of this country, who live here, who are based here, don’t have that choice. Their “opt-out plan” is not so easy. Hell, even planning a trip to another country is rife with securing and paying for visas, for permission to leave the country (in the way of a stamp in your passport: something Canadian citizens in Canada or anywhere else in the world never have to deal with), and for health insurance, which, I’m told, is mandatory to secure a visa AND get permission to leave the country.

Armenian citizens have to run around to a number of different offices before they are able to leave the country, have to secure more funds, and always have a risk of being denied exit from here and/or entry to there. And all I have to worry about is securing funds for the plane ticket!

I wonder about these things and many more... I think about language, about ease in speaking and being understood. I worry about knowing where to go, not so much actual streets and addresses as finding out how to get there, which marshutka to take (minibuses: the major form of public transport in Yerevan), whether I will get off at the right stop or pass it and have to get off and walk back (hey, it happens).

I wonder about being confident. A state of being that I found to be very natural in Toronto, though it’s a bit harder to come by in less familiar territory. And I speak the language. I can read and write in Armenian. I have friends and family here: one can hardly say I’m alone (actually, it’s impossible to be alone in this city... no, really :)

I know, though, that when I go back to Toronto (which I will soon, for a brief visit), I will realize even more so that I made the right decision. That I am exactly where I need to be. Where I want to be. That, to me, this is home and not just a temporary place to rest my weary feet.

Thank you to Lara for the Facebook post and thank you to Lucineh, whom I have never met in person, for her fabulous and fitting analogy.

Getting a Social Insurance Card when you're not a citizen

Today, I received my social insurance card. I can’t believe how fast and easy of a process it was, particularly considering the fact that I’m not a citizen of this country.

Though this was my second attempt at locating the right office, the whole process lasted minutes, and now I am the proud bearer of a Republic of Armenia Social insurance Card.

The first time, I found the address on the Ministry of Health and Social Services website, but I found the physical building (more like a room actually) by asking at least 3 people on the street. It turns out it was through a residential building complex, all the way to the back, walk between a very narrow (and I mean VERY narrow) gap between two buildings, turn right and go into the building marked “School of Medical Sciences” or “Institute of Medicine” or something to that effect (that is to say, it was a school and not what one would consider to be a ministerial department, say, go to door number 3 (literally marked as such), walk into a tiny room with 3 women and have them begin laughing.

The reason? Me, wearing a red helmet and walking in with a bike (not to mention the bright blue pannier I was sporting that day).

Apparently they’d come across all sorts of “oddities” (my word, not theirs), but someone coming into their office with a bike was a first... and apparently, reason for laughter. Well I’m glad I made their day, but turns out I had to go to a different office to actually get the card. Funny, it didn’t say that on the website...

So that was yesterday. And today, I went to the real office (much easier to find, it turns out!), walked in, showed them both my Canadian passport and Armenian special residency visa (which looks like a passport), was asked if I had a Social Insurance card (said yes, but then they said no, not in Canada — they don’t care about that —, but here in Armenia with my Canadian passport and I said no), was given back my Canadian passport and had the “SocApp” card as it’s called processed within mere minutes.

They needed no other information from me (an address? a phone number?), and they didn’t tell me to come back in 4-6 weeks (processing time, I would assume). They printed the card on the spot (no photo needed), cut it, laminated it, then handed it over to me, at which point I said “fsio? verch?” meaning “that’s it? I’m done?” The woman helping me didn’t even bat an eye. I left before they could change their mind :)

I have to say this is one of my best experiences I’ve had in my life dealing with official government offices. Amazing.