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INTERVIEW: Shocked refugee children in Armenia miss the things they left behind – UNICEF

UNICEF Representative in Armenia Christine Weigand said prepositioning of supplies, including medicines and food, allowed the agency to swiftly respond to the crisis.

Arrangements made in establishing relations with the authorities, civil society and academia after the tensions of 2020 were very instrumental, she explained. 

Ms. Weigand spoke to UN News about her team’s work to help the young refugees overcome the immediate shock of displacement, ensuring that they have access to food, winter clothes, toys, and safe spaces to play. 

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.  

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Christine Weigand: In less than a week, about 100,000 people arrived in Armenia, and among them around 30,000 children. They’ve all come through this little town that I’ve visited twice now in the south of Armenia, Goris, which is a little town of only 20,000 people in normal circumstances, that had to deal with this huge inflow.  

By now, many families have moved on to different parts of the country, either because they have relatives or friends there or because the Government also has allocated different shelters in different regions of the country to be able to host all those people.  

UN News: You said that you went to Goris. Did you have a chance to talk to the children to understand what they have gone through and what are their needs?  

Christine Weigand: In the initial days of families arriving in Armenia I visited the registration centres that the Armenian Government had set up. Those registration centres had “health points” where nurses and doctors were working, and I was speaking to them, asking them in what physical state and mental state are children arriving. And they all said the same thing: the children arrive hungry, showing signs of malnutrition, they arrive very tired, a lot of them have a fever or other kinds of disease. The psychologists that were working in these centres also were saying that children arrived in a state of shock and trauma and were struggling also to comprehend what had been happening to them.   

From the very early days we set up a children’s corner in Goris, which is basically a safe space where children can go, can access services, can get psychological support, but also medical support.  I spent a bit of time there on the two occasions that I went down to Goris to talk to the children. I have to say many children were not very much willing to engage. That’s a sign of what they’ve been through.  

There was one group of boys – three brothers and their mom – who were telling us that they had very little time to just grab the most essential things. Each boy was able to take one little backpack in which he could choose what to put in: basically, fundamentals like underwear and so on, and one or two little toys that they could fit in. They had that sense of longing for the things that they had left behind. And they were excited when they were in the children’s corner to see that there were a lot of toys that they could play with. They were jumping around, running around, playing with balls. It was a joy to see them reclaim some moments of the joy of childhood.  

UNICEF’s representative in Armenia, Christine Weigand (left) visits a UNICEF children's corner in Goris.
© UNICEF/Amar

In the long term, of course, education remains the big question because that many children to be accommodated in the education system also is a major effort to undertake; a major challenge. We have seen that some of the teachers have been trying to find their students again. and trying to organize that they can meet each other again. just to create some sense of normalcy. But this is obviously a very, very difficult proposition. And this happens after many months already where they’ve been living through a difficult situation.  

The Ministry of Education from the very early days already said that they would integrate these children into the school system. I think there are more than 6,000 children that have been integrated and registered, but clearly those are very big numbers for a small country like Armenia.  

UN News: What does UNICEF offer in this situation? What kind of support do you provide to the people in the first instance and to the Government?  

Christine Weigand: We’re looking at the different types of support. We had already prepositioned some supplies for the last few months already. We had been working on preparing, given our humanitarian mandate to make sure that we are ready for the kind of crisis that we now unfortunately see unfolding.  

We have immediately also handed over to the Ministry of Health medicines and medical supplies specifically for children. We’ve also been procuring additional medicines and also therapeutic food for children that show signs of malnutrition. We’ve been setting up the children’s corners. We now have two in Goris. We’re setting up more across the country, given that now children are all over the country in different communities. 

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We’re working closely with the Ministry of Education to look into setting up temporary learning spaces, additional capacities to accommodate children and also to train teachers on how to best work with these children and to integrate them into existing classes and in the school system.   

Obviously, the big question is also livelihood: how families are going to be able to make ends meet. The Government has already announced cash transfer schemes, one of which will cover the first six months that is an equivalent of a rental subsidy. And we’re working with the Ministry of Labour now to see what else will be needed specifically for families with children, for example, vouchers to purchase clothes for the winter. And also to estimate what other expenses will need to be covered, for example, for education, when they go into the schools.  

UN News: What message would you like to leave with our audience?

Christine Weigand: The scale and speed of this displacement of population, leaving everything behind and coming into Armenia, is certainly a very unique and a very big challenge for all of us as a humanitarian community. But also, beyond that, we really want to see how we can support the Government, the civil society, to really ensure that children especially are getting everything that they need to grow up safe and healthy in this completely changed environment, so that they don’t take with them from these experiences a very long-standing trauma. I think this needs to be our common aim.  

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