Vaghazin’s Village School: A Different Frontline

Author: Knar Babayan

Edition: Unseen Borders

A village of 30 people was not the frontline Veronika Shahnazaryan and Narine Vardanyan had planned for as rookie reporters. Yet when they visited Vaghazin in the summer of 2017, they realized that a frontline can also be a run-down village school. Teaching the 10 pupils in the isolated hamlet of Vaghazin, about an hour and a half to the west of the Nagorno-Karabakh town of Shushi, was a challenge they decided to embrace, notwithstanding the challenges.

“After university, I had various jobs, but I wasn’t satisfied,” explains Shahnazaryan, who, together with Vardanyan, graduated in journalism from Yerevan State University in 2017. “But [they were] routine jobs. I was bored. My father encouraged me to get engaged, do something meaningful.”

Shahnazaryan and Vardanyan responded to a call for teachers from the Nagorno-Karabakh administration and Yerevan-based non-governmental organization Teach For Armenia. The NGO focuses on expanding educational opportunities for children in Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh by recruiting graduates and professionals to teach for a minimum of two years in the most underserved and isolated schools.

Vaghazin’s is certainly one of them.

A satellite view of the hamlet, nestled among high mountains and rolling meadows, shows a handful of limestone coverings against an array of roofless buildings -- a grim legacy of the conflict between Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan. The 1994 ceasefire put the full-fledged war on hold and people slowly started repopulating the houses. Yet life there is harsh and, soon, the inhabitants got on the move again in search of opportunities elsewhere. Out of the 50 families who lived in the village in the early 2000s, only eight remain today, for a total of 30 permanent residents, according to official data.

The population drain took its toll on the education system as well. With only 10 pupils, Vaghazin’s school cannot organize its students, aged between 7 and 17, according to grade. Nonetheless, the school has 10 teachers so that all curriculum subjects will be taught, according to Nagorno Karabakh’s education law. Some must double up. Shahnazaryan, for instance, teaches both English and Russian, while Vardanyan focuses on Armenian language and literature.

Shahnazaryan and Vardanyan live together in a house provided free-of-charge by the village council. It is a few yards away from the school. The sign on the door reads “Teach Love in Your Liberated Fatherland.”

Inside, the walls of the only room are plastered with portraits of Armenian poets and artists, like Minas Avetisyan, Yeghishe Charents, Paruyr Sevak. They hang next to images of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Ernest Hemingway -- freedom fighters and life-changers, the two women say. Quotes from Hemingway and the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin are pinned on the windows’ shutters.

Narine Vardanyan, 23, talks on her mobile phone in her house’s only room. The Armenian mobile network is available in Vaghazin even though the village is about 55 kilometers from the border. The girls switch to an Armenian provider to call their relatives in Armenia. The coverage is sketchy due to the high mountains.
Narine Vardanyan (center) during one of her Armenian language class. The young teachers mobilized various of their friends and acquaintances to get a printer and two computers for Vaghazin’s school. They also organize different extracurricular events, including trips. When they took the school’s pupils to Yerevan last fall, it was the first time the children had ever seen a large city.
Veronika Shahnazaryan (right) teaches Russian numbers using hopscotch (“klasiki” in Russian). She accepted the offer of a long-term teaching position in Vaghazin instead of giving one-off lectures. Contributing to the development of Nagorno Karabakh has always been one of her dreams as her father’s family hails from the region.
Veronika Shahnazaryan plays with Belka, her neighbors’ dog. Born and raised in Yerevan, the 22-year-old teacher struggles at times with adapting to her new life and the village’s basic living conditions.
A view from Vaghazin over Nagorno Karabakh’s mountains. Until the war with Azerbaijan in the early 1990s, the village included about 150 families, mainly ethnic Kurds. At the end of the conflict, ethnic Armenians from either Armenia or other parts of Nagorno Karabakh settled in the village.
Foreign language teachers, mainly for Russian and English, are in short supply in village schools across Nagorno Karabakh. Vaghazin’s former English teacher used to travel to a neighboring village 3 kilometers aways as well to teach. For four years, until Veronika Shahnazaryan’s arrival in 2017, the school had no English teacher or English-language instruction.
Life in Vaghazin is not easy for Narine Vardanyan. “You miss your friends. They would be drinking [together] in a bar while you are here [alone],” says the 23-year-old, who graduated with a degree in journalism from Yerevan State University in 2016. “You miss the beautiful streets of Yerevan and its bars while you are in a village where there are no shops. Yet you know that you give love to these kids and they may keep that love forever.”
Twice a week, Veronika Shahnazaryan (right) gives private English language classes to 18-year-old Alina Mkheyan, who is preparing for entrance exams at both the Yerevan Art Academy and Armenia’s National University of Architecture and Construction. She wants to become a designer.
“The schoolchildren have developed a strong connection with us,” says Narine Vardanyan, with a smile. “They didn’t even want us to leave for Yerevan for the New Year. They wished that heavy snowfall would block the road.” In January 2018, Vardanyan started traveling three times a week to Movsesashen, a village about 15 kilometers away from Vaghazin. Movsesashen’s school has 13 pupils. The village has no internet.
Veronika Shahnazaryan (left) and Angin Mkheyan, the mother of Shahnazaryan’s private pupil, Alina, chat over dinner. The Mkheyans moved from Yerevan to Vaghazin in 2000. They were one of the first families to settle in the village. The Nagorno-Karabakh government gave them a house and a few cows to start their life. Alina Mkheyan’s youngest brother, Sargis, now 16, was born here at home.
Narine Vardanyan and Veronika Shahnazaryan collect firewood together. The two note that, though they’re teachers, they themselves also learn something new everyday. Their house, given to them by the village free of charge, is heated only by a wood-burning stove which they had to learn how to use.
Belka is Veronika Shahnazaryan’s best friend in the village. She jokes that, if not for him, she would have already left Vaghazin. Narine Vardanyan says the dog is her friend’s way to cope with stress since playing with him relaxes her.

Two beds, three rickety chairs, an old table and a wood stove complete the interior. There is no running water. The bathroom is an outhouse in the yard. The two young women have had to adjust.

“Loneliness can be suffocating at times,” sighs Vardanyan, as she looks over the snow- capped mountains that surround her new world.

Isolation is at the heart of the village’s hardship. There is no healthcare and the closest first-aid service is in Vardut, seven kilometers away. Vaghazin got electricity only in 2006.

The closest shop and large settlement are 50 kilometers away -- the 1,900-person town of Berdzor, better known as Lachin. Karabakh’s main town, Stepanakert, is over 90 kilometers away, at the end of a potholed strip of tarmac.

To get around, people rely on their cars or the community-owned UAZ, a Russia-manufactured off-road vehicle common throughout the former Soviet Union. It doubles as both an ambulance and a bus. But winter can defeat even the UAZ. Then,  heavy snow completely isolates the village.

Yet the village will survive as long as there are children and a school to educate them,  Shahnazaryan and Vardanyan believe.

“We’ll do our best and then we’ll leave Vaghazin in a year and a half,” Vardanyansays. There will be “new teachers to continue our work.”

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