30 years after the earthquake, while rediscovering Gyumri, we are at Shirak Centre’s Chalet Gyrmri, this beautiful place which contains guest rooms, a meeting place, a hall of celebrations and we are about to step in to meet with the center’s director Vahan Tumasyan who will tell us the origin story of this beautiful place and will also tell us about all the projects they do for the city’s residents. Hello, Mr. Tumasyan. Hello. Welcome. It is unusual for someone to come in by knocking on our door. Is your door always open for everyone? Yes. It’s always open. Let me start showing you the place. We usually start down here and then go upstairs. This is our wall of photos from the Leninakan period. These photos were taken in the 1960s. The reason why our space is called chalet is because we used the French model of a cottage and everything has been constructed using reclaimed wood and old stones. For construction, we only spent money on the gathering of these materials. After the earthquake, when the buildings had collapsed, all of these beautiful stones were dumped with construction waste. It is beautiful and people from everywhere admire it but if someone were to ask me what was the most valuable item here dear to me I would say it is the materials we used for construction. These things for a hundred years interacted and incurred the energy of the people and the place and that is why when people ask how we have managed to recreate this aura and I ascribe it to the parts that made this place. I want to say one thing, kids were talking outside about what is older the neighborhood or our building and one said when this building was here no one had even thought about building this neighborhood when in reality it was built in front of their eyes when in reality it was built in front of their eyes but it perfectly blends in because we were able to maintain the style. Shirak Centre also has a story just like this building. We were fighting for societal rights and were also included in the commission assigning apartments to those affected by the earthquake and with international grants were able to identify communities of temporary housing and provide targeted assistance. At that instance, we realized that this is such a complicated process that not one but a dozen organizations would be needed to tackle all the challenges. At once the response was unprecedented because people, especially donors from the diaspora had been misled and now everyone could see people’s dire conditions. Had the real estate in downtown Gyumri not been rapidly sold to people who built whatever they wanted but instead would have kept it for multi-story apartments with shops on the first level, and the city would be able to breathe because the city has up to 120,000 people now but it was built for 400,000 people. When the city is not densely populated it takes a toll on the people too who cannot easily meet and interact due to distance. For example, one district is 10 kilometers away from another and only a few families live here and a few live there and when you go to downtown there is a feeling of emptiness. Sometimes in the evening when I go downtown and don’t see anyone I go insane thinking that could it be that the whole town has emigrated and I am the only one left walking among the ruins. Even now, thirty years later, some 2300 families live in extreme poverty. There are dozens of building unsafe for habitation which are not just dangerous for ecological reasons, God forbid a little tremor and the inhabitants of those buildings will perish under the ruins, they also contribute to the depressing mood. When I say that we need to clear the city from the temporary shelters, I don’t just mean to give the people housing, I also want to change the heavy mood. Over the years a condition of temporary shelter developed among these families and now it feels that two different communities live in the city: people who live within the city and have apartments and those who either inhabit run-down communal living spaces of the former factories or they live in temporary housing units. Now we also have a problem of integration. The families that live in isolation in those units they do not participate in the life of the community which brings further isolation and complexes. All the societal ills manifest themselves in those temporary shelters. The youth have chronic illnesses, their education is cut short, premature marriages, early divorces, broken families, families without a husband and all of these are packed together and require immediate attention. I understand that as much as you put your efforts into this problem, the solution is above the means of a single NGO, how do you see the future of this situation? The sooner the authorities understand that this problem needs to be prioritized and solved so we can close this chapter and move forward, the better. If not, then this will proceed for another thirty or a hundred years and this is going to be the disgrace forever engraved on the Armenian people because this is not just an issue for Armenia or for Gyumri, this is a challenge for all Armenians that we have faced a single disaster of this nature and have not been able to handle it. This does not bring us any honor. And this shameful mark of a “disaster zone” or “temporary shelters” is for all of us to bear.