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Educating Minority Children

Onnik Krikorian / UNICEF Armenia

FIOLETOVO, Lori Region It's not often that you encounter a village that makes you feel like an outsider in Armenia but this is one of the few that do, and in every sense of the word. It's not that the residents of this ethnically homogenous village made up of Russian Molokans don't like visitors. It's simply that their presence is not considered essential for Fioletovo to survive and prosper.

The Molokans are Russians that split from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th Century. Fioletovo, a village inhabited by less than 1,500 people, is the largest community outside of Yerevan. Their total population in Armenia stands at just 5,000 although 14 years earlier, when independence was declared, there were approximately 12,000 Molokans living in the republic. Since then, most have left.

To call the community closed isn't something of an overstatement. In fact, it's not too far from the truth. Apart from venturing out of Fioletovo and nearby Lermontovo to sell their famous sauerkraut at market, the village instead resembles a traditional Russian enclave cut off from the rest of Armenia. You might even be forgiven for thinking you had entered a settlement somewhere deep in the heart of Russia.

Many consider the Molokans as something akin to the Amish in the United States.

True, the Molokans use motorized vehicles but otherwise, alcohol is forbidden as is marriage outside the community. And, for the more strict adherents to the faith, so is television. Streets are impeccably clean with every other house sporting a fresh coat of paint. The men wear long beards that haven't been cut in years while most of the women cover their heads.

Their fiercely blonde and blue-eyed children are unable to communicate in any language other than Russian.

And herein lies the problem. As idyllic and refreshing as the scene might be, the situation in terms of education is just the opposite. In fact, according to a recent survey of education in national minority communities by the Hazarashen Armenian Centre of Ethnological Studies, Molokans continue retaining [their] virtues over education and thus, the inertia of perceiving education as secondary continues.

The report, conducted for The Ministry of Education and the National Statistics Service of the Republic of Armenia was made possible through the financial and technical support of UNICEF. It follows a generic survey on education in Armenia held during 2001. Then, UNICEF discovered that school drop out rates for national minority communities, in addition to those made up of refugees, were twice the national average.

As a result, one of the recommendations from that 2001 report was to conduct a new assessment but specifically focusing on national minority communities. Although Armenia is considered a largely mono-ethnic country, 2.2 percent of the population comprises ethnic groups such as Yezidis, Assyrians, Russians and Jews. The report chose to focus on the three largest in the republic the Yezidis and Kurds, the Assyrians, and the Russian Molokans.

We discovered that there were no problems whatsoever in the Assyrian community, says Marine Soukhudyan, UNICEF's Education Project Officer. Historically, as well as culturally, the Assyrian community values education highly and does everything it can to ensure that their children receive a normal education. Of course, there is still a problem with the availability of textbooks and this is a serious issue for every minority community in Armenia.

Like the Molokans, the Assyrians receive much of their own education in Russian but the textbooks that exist are mainly leftover from the soviet era and do not comply with the requirements of the new curriculum. There is also an insufficient quantity of teaching materials in minority languages but Soukhudyan says that the National Institute of Education in Armenia is currently contacting intellectuals within each community to address this problem.

However, she says that there are more serious concerns. For example, during the last 15 years, only a handful of children from minority communities entered higher education, she explains. We also discovered that in Yezidi communities, children attend school for two to five months on average per year. At first, we thought this was connected to poverty but later, we discovered that this reflected an attitude within the community towards education.

With the exception of the Assyrians, the Molokan and Yezidi communities prioritize labor, continues Soukhudyan. There is also a great difference between attitudes towards education for girls compared to boys. In many communities, grade 8 is considered the end of the education cycle. This is mandatory under Armenian law but the real picture is hidden away by many other factors.

Children from national minority communities are instead expected to tend the fields and shepherd livestock rather than attend school. The UNICEF-funded report also noted that some Molokan families have even been known to pull their children out of school as early as the second or third grade.

Parents think that 3 years of education is enough for a child to know how to sell milk, cabbage and count 10 eggs which means that the child will be able to earn money, says the report, summarizing the attitude of Molokans in Lermontovo towards education. Having a full stomach is better than having an education.

Education in minority communities is therefore seasonal and governed by the agricultural calendar. At the same time, because teachers in rural communities are also engaged in farming, they have no interest in recording low attendance figures because they too are absent. Soukhudyan calls it a mutually beneficial situation for both teachers and the families of schoolchildren.

Indeed, when the survey team for the report visited Lermontovo in August during harvest time, there was not a single child in the village. Even pre-school children had been sent to help their parents in the fields. Every year, they work there until mid October and sometimes, the beginning of November.

Even so, school work is still marked as satisfactory although children have learned little or next to nothing. In some cases, especially in Yezidi communities, pupils and teachers cannot even communicate with each other. In these communities, while the teachers are Armenian, each new intake of children from Yezidi families can hardly understand anything other than their mother tongue.

Textbooks are also in Armenian but it takes two or three years before Yezidi children can understand the language, says Soukhudyan. Until then, the child's development is frustrated and, actually, prevented. There are some Yezidi teachers, of course, but as they generally come from other villages, there is also the problem of transportation, especially during the winter months.

Instead, Armenian teachers sometimes use body language instead of words to explain and impart knowledge to students.

And while adverse socio-economic conditions faced by rural settlements, as well as the poor upkeep of village schools, are detrimental to education, the main problem is cultural. This is especially true for females. There are those who even consider education dangerous for a girl, says the report. They reason that an educated woman may have ideas and not be as obedient to men.

However, despite these obstacles, there are children in minority communities that would like to enter higher education. In the Yezidi village of Zovuni, for example, one girl cries as she tells of her inability to study French when she finishes school. Another Yezidi girl says that if given the opportunity, she would like to study, and later teach, Armenian language and literature.

Key to effectively addressing this issue, however, will be to launch a public awareness campaign highlighting the importance of education among national minority communities. The Governor of the Aragatsotn region in Armenia has already committed himself to supporting UNICEF in this endeavor. In particular, there will be a specific focus on teaching Yezidi and Molokan children the Armenian language from an early age, especially in pre-schools.

UNICEF will also supply 100 schools in 5 regions of Armenia with school in a box kits that contain essential supplies to meet the needs of 8,000 schoolchildren. The kits will also be supplied to vulnerable Armenian communities, especially those situated in depressed border regions.

It is my dream to become a doctor, says one girl in Lermontovo, but how can a Molokan enter university? We can't receive a higher education because we don't know Armenian. Nobody here does.