When Mery Chalyan’s father fell ill along with the worries for his health came the anxiety of how to cover for his medical bills. Then 28, Chalyan decided to travel to Russia seeking for a decently-paid job she could not find in her native Nagorno Karabakh. It was 2014. By then, fellow Karabakhi Marietta Mnatsakanyan had been back from her seasonal work on the shores of Ukraine’s Azov Sea and decided never to leave again -- to look after her ailing mother.
Chalyan, 31, and Mnatsakanyan, 51, are the two faces of the women from Nagorno Karabakh splitting their life in two as they travel for seasonal work to provide for their families. Lack of opportunities are at the root of the 12.9 percent unemployment rate which rises to 13.8 percent among women - for them tradition also play a role as women are supposed to stay at home. When family budgets grow tight though also women leave and figures from 2017 showed that 1,500 people travelled to Russia seeking work - of these 16 percent were women.
Employed in small trade and restaurant for up for four months per season, women do not have it easy though. Even seeking a better future is a challenge with young women gathering courage against social norms that want them at home and older ones opting for migrating with their husbands.
A degree in business management did little for Mery Chalyan who, since graduating in 2007, only worked in various grocery shops in Martuni, the town of 4,500 people where she was born and raised.
“I earned about 35,000 drams ($75) a month. Meanwhile I had to buy on credit food worth double of my salary from the same shop.”
It was not sustainable and her family was running the risk to lose its apartment. Chalyan thought the time had come to seek for opportunities beyond her known world. In 2014 she consulted with some relatives living in the Russian city of Stavropol and soon after travelled to Dzhubga, a resort city on the Black Sea some 170 kilometers north of Sochi which is home to a large Armenian community.
Family connections are the main network used by Karabakhi women seeking work abroad, mainly because they feel safer and less likely of being exploited - but it can still happen.
“I found work in a cafe belonging to a relative of my mother’s. I worked for four months from 7am until 2am, weekend included for 1,000 rubles ($15) a day,” she sighs – not exactly a dream job.
She changed job as soon as she could and since then she’s been working in a grocery shop, mainly catering for tourists.
“I like working in the local bazaar, it is easier and I earn more, depending on the day. My employer provides for accommodation and food. I send all I make back home to my family.”
Chalyan awaits customers in Dzhubga. The town on the Black Sea is a popular summer resort for Russian and it hosts a sizeable seasonal Armenian workforce. (photo” Chalyan’s personal archive)
Mery Chalyan in the shop where she works as a seller in Dzhubga, Russia. The 31-year-old has been working in the Russian sea town every summer since 2015 (photo: Chalyan’s personal archive)
Mery with her colleagues from the bazaar. They are having dinner together after work. (photo: Chalyan’s personal archive)
At the end of September when the last tourists leave the city, Chalyan packs her suitcase, shops for presents and head back home - what she makes in those three-four months make up for the rest of the year in Martuni and covers all the medical expenses.
It is increasingly difficult.
“Each year it becomes harder to say goodbye to my colleagues and friends there. Of course I miss my parents, but during these four years that small town became for me as a second home”, Chalyan admits.
Marietta Mnatsakanyan wakes up early in the morning. Washing and drying the herbs she needs to make the zhingyalov hats, Nagorno Karabakh’s typical flatbread stuffed with finely diced herbs, requires patience and time. And to make scores of them that the 51-year-old will then sell patience is paramount.
“It started by chance. I always cooked them for my family, then one day a relative called and said that someone wanted to buy some. The word spread and today my zhingyalov hats are the main source of income for the whole family.”
In 2007, pressed by financial constraints Mnatsakanyan decided to leave her native town of Martuni but social norms have it that should not go alone. Her husband, Yura, went with her. In 2007 the couple moved in Kyrylivka, a small town of 3,500 on the Azov Sea in southern Ukraine. They had to leave behind their four children, the youngest was only six, and Marietta’s mother looked after them.
The couple rented a kiosk for about 30 hryvna a day (roughly $6 at the then exchange rate): Marietta would cook food on-the-go during the day and Yura would attend the barbecue in the evening.
The zhingyalov hats were a hit, but she had to adapt to the Ukrainian taste and branched out into chebureki, Ukraine’s typical deep-fried pastries filled with minced meat.
“I had no idea what chebureki was before going to the Ukraine, let alone knowing how to bake them. I had to learn quickly and it paid back, before long people started queueing up for my pastry would be 20 metres long; everyone wanted to try. ”
Their children stayed behind with Marietta’s mother. It was hard but their seasonal income paid the bills, provided for the kids’ education and it allowed them to purchase a car. The remaining nine months of the year Marietta would work in a local bakery, Yura would do mechanical repair.
In 2013 her mother got sick and being abroad for a third of the year was no longer an option. After a few first months in a local bakery Mnatsakanyan decided to set up her own business.
Zhingyalov hats are a popular staple, and good ones sell fast. Each costs about 500 drams ($1.50) and she sells about 40 per day, making enough for the family to get by.
“At the beginning we did everything ourselves, like collecting greens, but customers have increased and I was left with little time to cook. This year my son Artak had to leave for the mandatory army service and I had to find a someone who could deliver me fresh greens on everyday basis”, she explains.
Season work is a practise of the past for Mnatsakanyan: being home is all she wants, yet she look at those years as a key passage in her life to assume a better living for her family.