Interactive city budget

Women of borderland Berd community
have their vision of overcoming social hardships.

<photo/video >
The glossy colorful stack of yarn turns into toy animals in the hands of local women. The work jogs on and the silence is occasionally lightened by a smile, or a rapturous glance at the characters that are born of thread. Women confess every single toy they knit bears part of their souls.
"There is more than work in this to us. Knitting characters is like getting counseling. This job gives women a chance to earn for their families and is a way of regaining self-confidence. These toys helped me pay for my son's tuition," says Aspram Papyan, 41, who joined the Berd Bears project by the Berd Women Resource Center in 2010. Most of the characters born here are Aspram's creations.

Berd, a town some 202 km from Yerevan, is located in Tavush, the north-eastern region of Armenia bordering Azerbaijan. Following the administrative optimization on November 5, 2017 Berd now comprises one urban and sixteen rural communities.

Tavush borders Georgia and Azerbaijan. Its section of Armenia's state borders extends to 400 km, 352 of which are shared with Azerbaijan. Most of the rural communities in the region are borderland settlements. Non-governmental organizations and investors of the region are oriented at creating jobs for locals within programs implemented there to prevent migration from Tavush.

According to town administration the number of unemployed people officially registered amounts to 265 out 9864 population of the community; the administration admits, though, the number of the jobless may well exceed the official figures. Many of the male population of the town look for jobs abroad; those who stay mostly opt for contract-based military service. Most of women are engaged in education and agriculture; they are the main workforce in newly opening positions.

The Berd Bears project founded in 2011 by Berd Women Resource Center is aimed at encouraging women entrepreneurship.
Currently the foundation employs 12 women; on Christmas Eve, when the toy bears of Berd are on high demand around the globe, the number of registered employees reaches 45.
“Most of our beneficiaries are unemployed women, who used to work at the Berd relay switch plant. When the economic crisis hit the country women started knitting for their families,” says Anahit Badalyan.
Teddy bears of Berd have gained people’s hearts across the world and have become both the symbol of the town and the main source of income for local women and their families.
Zhanna Yeghikyan, 38, a mother of three, is the lead knitter in the crochet group. She joined the project in 2012. Zhanna says for the local women the project is an opportunity to work and to provide for families.
Aspram Papyan, 41, is the author of most of the toys.
Zhanna says the idea of making bear the symbol of the project came up when one of the women brought a knit bear to one of the gatherings. The women work in two groups: one of them knits the toys, and another one makes the fittings and details. Toys are hand-made from tip to toe. The Berd Bears toy is the most popular item among many other toys manufactured by these women.

The Berd Bears project was kick started with support from Jinishian Memorial Foundation; soon, the financing from the foundation came to a close, and the project became self-supporting.

Anahit says with support and guidance by honorary consul of Finland and Norway to Armenia Timothy Straight, and upon the initiative of Sister Hannah, the knitted creations by the women of Berd went on global sale through the project's website, social media, and partners networks (www.berdbears.com). The sales skyrocketed when the project hit the ground of the Kickstarter online platform reaching out to the markets in the Northern America, Europe, Asia, as well as Australia.

"We have needle-knitted bears of all sizes; we have crochet miniatures, finger puppets, and key chains. A group of teenage girls is bead-weaving. We have exported some ten thousand crochet pieces, and 200 bears mostly to US, the Netherlands, Germany, Finland, Norway, France, and Great Britain," says Anahit.

The Berd Bears have passed a safety certification in Sri Lanka and have been recognized environmentally safe for adults and kids.

With the potential of the region's women in mind, the Berd Women Resource Center has recently implemented program Berd Berry, supported by the UN Global Environmental Foundation. At the bottom of the program there are environmental intentions.

Anahit underlines the program aims at saving endangered species of some berries, which have appeared in the Red List (including wild blueberry, cherry plum): the area of growth of those plants is confined to the territory of Tavush. Berries are grown by communities located on higher altitudes, where natural conditions are more favorable. The project engages unemployed women, who have land lots adjacent to their households.

Households are expected to become centers of sharing experience and attracting visitors.

The program, which started in 2016, involves twenty five households from Verin Karmiraghbyur, Berd, Navur, and Itsakar communities. The produce includes cultivated species of black and red current, raspberry, and blackberry.

Mary Dallakyan, participant of the berry project, village of Navur, Tavush
Navur is one of the villages seated high in the mountains, some 211 km far from Yerevan, and is only 13 km away from the border with Azerbaijan.
Mary Dallakyan shows the variety of herbs growing on her land.
The knitted covers made by Mary protect the trees in wintertime.
“I try to grow various species of herbs. And when I am told it won’t grow, I always say it will. My garden is sort of a laboratory,” Mary says.
The green beans growing between the berry beds in Mary’s yard help her pay for her son’s tuition.
Her days start and end in the garden: she speaks to the plants as she works. Mary says she loves working alone.
Asya Ginovyan, Mary’s 78-year-old mother-in-law, has raised her five children alone, working all her life in this land lot.
Berries such as cherry plum turn into jams which do not contain heavy metals.
Mary Dallakyan has fixed a table and some chairs out of the used tires in one of the corners of her garden. The garden itself is a natural pharmacy with variety of traditional medicinal herbs (artemisia, thyme, wild and cultivated mint, horse radish, sun-root). In another corner of the garden one can find cherry plum, barberry, blueberry, and blackberry, which bring fruit twice a year.

"At the moment we are only making investments; crops are expected in some three years. I have planted green beans between the beds of berries. I have paid off my son's tuition with the profit the beans brought me for four years while he was studying," says Mary, 37.

Mary believes women can change a lot, if there were more opportunities. She says there are many women like her growing berries and gathering fruit on the slopes of Mrghuz, the highest mountain of Tavush. The gathered berries of cherry plum are used to make jam.

Fund for Armenian Relief (ARF) has been implementing Overcoming Poverty in Tavush program starting from 2013, which has so far embraced more than 700 households. The project envisions material support, as well as family stabilization initiatives, and creation of job openings; besides, it intends to give its beneficiaries opportunities of starting small businesses of their own.

Valya Apresyan, coordinator of the ARF Berd office says Start Your Business entrepreneurship program has started in four communities of the region – Verin Karmiraghbyur, Choratan, Norashen, and Artsvaberd earlier this year. The program is intended for families with two and more minor children.

"It involves 168 people from four communities. The program has two purposes: one, to share knowledge with locals, and second, to develop people's aptitudes. Participants will come up with ideas that will be then developed into business programs; they will take part in the main competition as a next step. The best fifty will be short-listed for financing. The financing, about AMD 500 000, does not expect any interest returns and is not subject to repay. The successful participants will get a right to apply for a bigger loan, partly as a donation, partly for no interest, however, on a condition of return," Valya Apresyan explains.

Three years ago Russia-based Suren Yeritsyan built the first production line of the Tavush Textile in the borderland village of Choratan, which is 223 km from capital Yerevan.
In 2015 the government of Armenia temporarily waived taxes for those entrepreneurs, who would invest in borderland communities; Yeritsyan, turned to be the only businessman to take the challenge by starting a work gloves production line.

The enterprise in Choratan is located only 5-6 km distance from Azerbaijani military outposts, only 300-400 m away from Movses village; another production line operates in Artsvaberd.

Varuzhan Baghmanyan, head of Choratan administration, says the enterprise has changed the life in the community; people get salaries; pay off debts and loans, and feel useful.

"This is a model of how emigration can be prevented and immigration can be encouraged by starting production in a village," says Baghmanyan.

In 2018 a production line of the Tavush Textile has been opened up on the territory of former relay switch factory in Berd, were 220 people are currently employed.
There are two lines operating in Berd: one manufacturing work gloves, and another one doing their latex coating.
Many families, which had left Berd years ago, are back and are currently employed at Tavush Textile.
“I was looking forward to an opportunity of work. The production is crucial for everyone here, because there is hardly any other choice,” says Anush Badalyan, a mother of three.
Anush works as an operator; she collects the gloves knitted by the machine, ties them up in bundles, and packs in bags.
Head of production Tigran Tchughuryan says the total number of people employed in all the production lines of the enterprise operating in the region reaches 850.
The gloves are exported to Russia and Ukraine. The daily income of an average worker ranges from AMD 5000 to AMD 8000 depending on the responsibilities and loads.
"The most important thing today is that the productions which open up in the region are a major factor in preventing emigration; many newly started families are back to their homes, and work in the company. This makes our borders stronger," says Tigran Tchughuryan.