They call it “home.” And for many of Mer Doon’s 16 female residents, the two-storey, beige-stone building in the Armenian town of Etchmiadzin is truly the only home they’ve ever known.
The sole facility of its kind in Armenia, Mer Doon (Our Home) is a non-profit organization that accommodates women and girls from orphanages and low-income boarding housesthroughout the country. They live at Mer Doon for four years while pursuing an education in Echmiadzin or the capital, Yerevan, about a half-hour’s drive away.
But this building is not just about accommodation. Rather, it’s about trying to provide some of society’s most economically vulnerable members with an environment that prepares them for an independent life.
Without family or financial support, female orphans and economically disadvantaged young women run a strong risk of being trafficked once they turn 18 and leave Armenia’s child-welfare institutions, believes Mer Doon’s director, 53-year-old Tigranuhi Karapetyan.
Karapetyan, who formerly worked for the Children of Armenia Sponsorship Program (CASP), an anti-poverty initiative linked to the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, says she co-founded the residence 12 years ago because “the girls must feel what it really means to have a family.”
“I was thinking of somehow helping them. It is not their fault that they were left by their parents, and we had to do something, to prevent them from making fatal mistakes; particularly at that age,” she says.
With support from Karapetyan’s collaborator, the late Armenian-American donor Julia Ashekyan, Mer Doon has since provided housing, healthcare, food, clothing and educational training to 60 women and girls. State-run orphanages and boarding houses, along with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, propose the candidates.
The cost of education (at least 400,000 drams, or $836, per resident annually) is split between the Armenian government and the US non-profit Fund for Armenian Relief. Mer Doon provides the rest (including a social worker and psychologist), but with rules.
Residents agree to provide contact info and a return time whenever they leave Mer Doon. They also must divvy up housework between themselves since there is no cook or cleaner.
They do not appear to resent these restrictions.
“When lessons are over, but I’m late, I get a call from home,” says 21-year-old Crisis Management State Academy student Nelli Shaghbatyan, referring to Mer Doon. “They ask why I’m late . . .All of this gives you hope and makes you feel sure that there are people who think and worry about you. And that they are waiting for you.”
"Maybe it is not legally your home, but you always feel yourself at home,” continues Shaghbatyan, who came here from the northern town of Vanadzor’s orphanage. “I feel here the warmth of my family . . . ”
As for many a family, the group’s “favorite place” is the kitchen, according to 19-year-old Armenian State Pedagogical University student Arpine Grigoryan.
On a recent evening there, some residents set the table, while others chatted or prepared a dinner of cabbage-leaf dolma, Armenian grapes and beetroot salad.
Cooking is emphasized as a desirable skill at Mer Doon -- in defiance of a stereotype that holds that women from orphanages cannot be good homemakers. Residents can also study English, Russian, religion, etiquette and how to use a computer.
Leaving this all-encompassing cocoon might seem difficult, but older residents seem prepared. When she leaves Our Home in two years, Shaghbatyan says she plans to work in the Ministry of Emergency Situations and rent an apartment. For her part, Grigoryan, who studies in the State Pedagogical University’s department of design, wants to open an art school.
The residence’s official mission is to encourage that independence. Director Karapetyan emphasizes that Mer Doon “is not just a social program.”
“Each girl is different. You should have an individual approach to each of them, taking into consideration their life experience and problems.”
That means that she also focuses on their futures.
Seventeen weddings have taken place at Mer Doon since it opened in 2005. Karapetyan, who looks on the residents as foster children, says she has 24 grandchildren. The wedding photos hang on the residence walls with descriptions that mark “Our Home’s first love match” or “Our Home’s first wedding.”
She also attempts to find them jobs – not always an easy goal for young Armenians after graduation. Karapetyan says she is considering opening a guesthouse or restaurant that would employ Our Home residents.
“The fate of each girl is very important for us,” she continues. “Our main priority is that they create normal families and form strong cells of society.”