When refugees from Nagorno Karabakh started arriving in his hometown of Oshakan in September, Razmik Mnatsakanyan wanted to help.
After the war broke out, an estimated 120 refugees sought safety in Oshakan, a small town 26 km from Armenia’s capital Yerevan.
While state agencies in the area responded to the refugees’ immediate needs, like housing, food and clothing, Razmik, 21, and two friends decided to use their experience establishing NGOs before the war to create a new project to help women refugees earn money.
With financial support from the Armenian Educational Institution, the three set up a temporary sewing factory in the town’s cultural center and created "Artsakh women for Artsakh," a sewing collective that makes eco-bags. Artsakh is the official name of Nagorno Karabakh in the Armenian language.
“Our main goal was to help women refugees forget about their daily worries during the war,” Razmik said, adding that the work also helps them earn a bit of money “so at least they can meet their own needs.”
“Artsakh women for Artsakh” was the only initiative of its sort in the region; two other efforts to help empower women from Karabakh were started in Dilijan and Yerevan.
During the war, more than 30 women were hired by Razmik and his friends to sew bags, which were sold locally and online. More than 1000 bags were produced and sold for 3000 drams (about $6).
For every bag sold, the seamstress received half the sum or 1500 drams. The rest was used to cover expenses.
At one time, the factory was employing seamstresses from all ages: Razmik noted that a 12-year-old girl sewed some bags. The oldest employee was 69.
Anna, 22, learned to sew so she could take part. “When we first came to Oshakan, 25 of us lived in a guest house. It was very difficult psychologically, and on top of that, we all missed home,” she said.
Her sister and grandmother also joined the initiative, at times even sewing bags at home.
Arevik, 31, a teacher from the village of Sargsashen in Karabakh, heard about the factory when she arrived in Oshakan during the war. At first, she started sewing the bags to help distract her from her problems: her village was ceded to Azerbaijan in the ceasefire and she and her family lost their home and all their belongings.
But the money she earned was nice, she said, and helped her care for her two small children.
Today, she and her family plan to move back to Karabakh but the future is still uncertain.
Razmik and his friends hope their project can continue to help women like Arevik once they are resettled.
Co-founder Marjan Abrahamyan, 21, said the experience taught them more about the Karabakh people and inspired them to want to do more to help them recover from the war.
Most of the women have already gone home; 55 refugees remain in Oshakan although many of them also plan to return to Karabakh.
For now, the Oskhakan factory continues to operate, providing women with orders they can work on from home. Eventually, Marjan said they want to expand to open a second factory in Sarushen, a village in Karabakh.
There are also plans to expand production to include clothing, according to co-founder Vache Vardanian, 21.
“For now the Armenian Educational Institution continues to support this initiative in Nagorno-Karabakh as well. I will implement educational programs there in the future as I believe that’s the only way out of this difficult situation,” Vache said.
“I want to produce competitive products. Today I can see hope in these people and their village. And I believe we will succeed. This program will become a great channel between Diaspora Armenians and Artsakh people.”