“It is an urgent and top priority that Tavush schoolchildren study in a safe environment. Not only are they in constant danger but the village people are as well,” said Ayo! Community Director Helena Melkonyan.
Planned and organized by Ayo!, an initiative of Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR), the Protective Walls Project consists of building barriers around schools in Aygepar, Chinary, and others villages located along the Armenian-Azeri border. Situated in Tavush, one of Armenia’s poorest regions, these villages continue to be victims of sniper fire.
While a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been in effect since 1994, violations have occurred since then, even escalating over the past year. The recent crisis in Ukraine has proceeded to further divide the two nations based on their relationships with Russia, and more shootings were reported over the summer. Two houses struck by sniper fire recently burned to the ground. “When [snipers] see movement they shoot in that direction,” said Ayo! Project Director Armen Anmeghikyan.
Staff members of FAR, who work closely on development initiatives in the Tavush region through the organization’s Breaking the Cycle of Poverty Project (BCPP), first came up with the idea for the wall after sniper fire killed two people last winter. The government shut down some of the roads and then constructed alternative routes between Berd and Ijevan with protective walls around them.
“If there was a need for a protective wall for the road, what about those villages along the border?” said Eric Baghdasaryan, economic development manager for BCPP, who engaged with local communities that supported the idea of constructing a wall around the communities’ schools. “The mayors I spoke with said it was especially dangerous as children cannot play freely because of the fear of being shot at.”
$350 collected in 1.5 hours
Baghdasaryan, along with other FAR staff members, proposed the idea as an Ayo! project in order to raise the funds needed to carry it out. Ayo! is a crowdfunding initiative that seeks to support local solutions for local problems in Armenia. And it has garnered great attention.
Since its launch, the Protective Wall Project has resulted in groundbreaking response as more than $4,000 has been raised by Armenians in Armenia alone. This includes the roughly $350 collected in just 1.5 hours during a fundraiser in front of Yerevan’s famed Moscow Theater over the summer. Passersby were encouraged to save a life by purchasing stones at $.25 each, which symbolized the tufa stone needed as a base material for this wall. No. 128 school in Yerevan raised roughly $800 on September 1st when students brought in donations of at least 1,000 AMD each in lieu of flowers for their teachers for Knowledge Day.
The action was encouraged by the news agency Yerevan Production (www.imyerevan.com), which had previous profiled Ayo! as one of the 10 best start-ups of 2013. Famed Olympic wrestler Arsen Julfalakyan even declined the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and instead pledged to donate to Ayo!’s Protective Walls Project, while nominating the Ayo! team to do the same. They eagerly took up the challenge with flair by jumping into a swimming pool (see www.youtube.com/watch?v=9CxbBtmOHUc), sparking responses and donations and further inquiries about how to help.
“You know immediately when a project really speaks to you, and this is one of those projects,” said Melkonyan, who spent a great deal of time with villagers in the area. Melkonyan, together with the rest of the Ayo! team, has been integral in taking support for this project to new, unprecedented heights. “This project has the purpose of not only protecting but also saving lives.”
Following consultations with Armenia’s Defense Ministry, it was decided that the wall would be made of tufa stone and would be 70 meters long, 3 meters high, and 30 meters thick. Once the necessary funds are secured it is expected that the wall will take less than a month to build.
Tensions on the border escalated over the summer and the situation has been called a “mini war,” increasing the urgency for assistance. Along the border, fear is pervasive. “When they use big weapons, the mothers come weeping. We’re scared, too. What if a mother picks up her child and they get hit on their way home? So, we tell them to wait here. We want peace. We don’t want war,” said Rita Gabrielyan, a resident of Aygepar who works at the local school. “If they put a wall by our courtyard, we could take the kids out to play. Otherwise, we never take them outside. The children would at least be protected from the automatic gunfire. Soldiers shoot indiscriminately and one weapon could kill a child. What can I say? That would be terrible.”
Once completed, the wall will serve as a first layer of protection against firefighting and will also successfully hide children from the sight of anyone firing from across the border.
“This is the most crucial project Ayo! has ever had,” said Anmeghikyan. “Every day matters. The sooner we raise the necessary funds, the sooner we can sleep knowing that the children, who have nothing to do with the war, will have a safe environment to study.”
Each day, village residents and their children are at greater risk of being injured or killed by gunfire. The Ayo! team is working hard to see that more awareness is raised and that this wall is constructed as soon as possible. But it’s not enough. Greater support for this project is crucial and we ask you to take a stand. Visit www.weareayo.org and protect vulnerable Armenians today.