A Month in Armenia

As I look back, I can’t believe it’s been a month already since I left my home in Colorado to serve as a Kiva Fellow in Armenia. It has felt much longer with incredible experiences, both positive and negative, that will surely shape my future in ways that I have yet to discover.

Where in the world is Yerevan, Armenia?

When I told people that I would be going to Armenia as a Kiva Fellow, the first response was always “WHERE IS THAT?” Most mixing it up with Romania or to my Spanish speaking students back home- “Alemania”( Germany). I could understand their difficulty – as it is such a small country that it is abbreviated “Arm.” on many maps.

I was anxious and enthusiastic as I boarded a plane after training at Kiva headquarters in San Francisco, and set out to learn all I could about this tiny country in my 3 ½ months as a fellow with SEF International in Yerevan. This excitement was only mildly lessened by the 27 hour flight + 8 hour layover in London on the way.

I had the good fortune to overlap in time with the previous fellow working with SEF- Abhishek. He was invaluable to me as he helped with everything from setting up a cell phone on my first day, showing me around the city, and introducing me to all of his wonderful friends, who quickly accepted me into their group as their newest family member.

Of course, in any new place, one discovers many trials and reasons to be grateful for what we have access to in our home countries. For example, I quickly discovered after moving to an apartment on the 11th floor why most Armenians try to live below the 6th floor. Consistent access to water is something that just doesn’t happen on the floors above this level. Pumps are inefficient in these old Soviet structures and water doesn’t always reach those of us living at higher levels. There is also a limited supply and once the water is gone, there’s nothing that can be done. To solve this issue, many people have storage tanks in their apartments and if mine wasn’t always leaking, I would have better access to water throughout the day. Electricity and gas are quite expensive and highly unreliable as well. This takes some planning, but does not deter from the awesome experience of living in Yerevan.

During my first few weeks, the wonderful and welcoming staff at SEF were very busy catching up on figures from the end of the previous year and were off to a slow start as the holidays lasted well into the second week of January. (Christmas is celebrated on January 6th here ). I learned that it is customary for borrowers to repay any loans they can and start the year off with no debt- an excellent custom, I think-and so we saw a few early repayments on loans that were not due in full for another year. SEF offers Kiva borrowers the opportunity to take either small business loans to improve their shops with inventory, air conditioning, ovens, and more, or to gain access to agricultural loans. SEF serves 6 regions in Armenia and offers a unique 36-month term on agricultural loans which allows farmers to weather the difficult seasons and take advantage of the profitable seasons before repaying. I understood quickly how organized and efficient SEF’s office and staff are. They are a growing institution and each member holds a significant workload and responsibility, but they all made time to greet me and welcome me to the team- conveying all the while how important they feel their partnership with Kiva is. Borrowers were slowly trickling back into the office to get new loans and we enjoyed some down time so I took the opportunity to get to know the city.

Walking the streets of Yerevan- with infrastructure that is obviously influenced by both Europe and Russia- you can find anything you desire from fashion, a variety of restaurants, coffee shops and beautiful parks with mini-amusement park rides. The capitol, however, does not reflect the rest of the country by any means.

With an average annual income of around $5000 per year, and a struggling economy, Armenia has suffered the loss of a quarter of its population since independence in 1991 in an exodus for better economic situations elsewhere. Armenians hold fiercely onto their national identity and make consistent efforts to unite the 3 million Armenians actually living inside these borders with the 8 million Armenian diaspora who are spread all over the world. Armenia has been conquered and carved up so many times that each generation has had to start anew. Once part of the Persian empire, then the Ottoman empire, then the Soviet Union, dealing with genocide, wars, restricted religious freedoms, and trouble along two borders, Armenians know how to handle adversity with patience and resiliency.

It is this spirit of resiliency that I most admire at the moment. I was involved in a very bad car accident this past weekend while riding home in a taxi. Three cars collided and we are still unclear as to how many people didn’t make it. One person passed away for sure and the car was on fire when I left the scene. I was lucky to walk away with only a dislocated hand and two sprained ankles.

Aside from being shaken up, I am doing fine now thanks to my incredible new friends that have dedicated each day to bringing me food, flowers, candy, cake, cheering me up, and mostly making me feel cared for and taken care of in the same way I would be at home. My Kiva Coordinator at SEF, Rouzan, immediately dropped everything at work to pick me up and took me to the best doctor in town to get x-rays done and make sure I was ok. I don’t know what I would do without the amazing people that I have been blessed to meet in the past three weeks and am in awe of the caring nature and warmth of the Armenian people.The doctors were kind and patient and a woman even stayed with us for four hours to translate at the hospital even though it was very late and she didn’t even work there.

I have also been grateful to the staff at Kiva and my fellow Kiva Fellows around the globe for their emails, phone calls and tremendous support. Working in developing countries involves many risks. Kiva Fellows have taken time off of work and left their lives of comfort knowing the risks involved to learn first-hand what a difference microfinance can make on the ground to those that need it.  While it is not always glamorous, or 100% safe, it certainly entails excitement and opportunities for growth and this is truly a wonderful network to be a part of.

I know that each day will bring me closer to full health and mobility and am grateful for the opportunity to continue my fellowship with the fantastic, caring people at SEF. Business at SEF is picking up and new loans are coming in. If you would like to make a difference in the lives of their borrowers please consider lending today. We are hoping to surpass the 100 member mark on our lending team Team Armenia, and are very close. Join today and help us to get the word out to family and friends.

Caree Edson is a Kiva Fellow (KF14) serving in Yerevan, Armenia with SEF International.  She is becoming quite adept at using just her left hand for everything she needs.  To find out more about becoming a fellow click here.

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