The heat assaults me the second I step out of our hotel just off Republic Square.Yerevan is dry, but August temperatures easily climb to 105 F, something I’m not used to as a Canadian. I will myself not to complain—I’m here for only three weeks.
Turning into the square, I spot the regulars on my way to City Supermarket: the elderly sunburnt woman with one leg, panhandling as she leans against a concrete block; the pot-bellied man selling lottery tickets from his little cart while he argues about politics with his smoking buddies; the expressionless man shuffling along in socks and slippers, his mint-green mid-century baby carriage piled high with sunflower heads and corn ears for sale; weary-looking women meticulously sweeping storefronts and sidewalks to earn a few coins; and a colorful assortment of locals squatting along the curb with herbs, figs, peaches, and other produce arranged on towels or tarps in front of them, hoping they sell more than they take back home.
These are my people—Armenians just like me—but I feel as if I’ve stepped into a foreign culture, or perhaps another time. They not only speak a different dialect, but they also seem to move to a different rhythm, their gait and posture less relaxed than mine. I live in a country known for its friendly and overly polite citizens, so although this is my third visit to Armenia since 2013, I am still taken aback by the dearth of smiles and common courtesies. It’s not that Armenians are rude—they are simply overwhelmed by their circumstances, and most don’t have the energy to feign cheerfulness. Even so, I catch glimpses of modernity and Western influence amidst the poverty and old-world atmosphere: girls bustling about in trendy ripped jeans, their “on fleek” eyebrows arched as they chatter excitedly on their cell phones, hoping for a destiny far removed from that of their dadigs (grandmas); shiny Mercedes zipping around clunky old Ladas; and sleek shops juxtaposed against ancient structures. These indicators of wealth are deceiving to the casual observer on the street, however. While there is a handful of extremely wealthy people in Yerevan, the homes we visit give a much clearer picture of life throughout the rest of the country. Rare outward luxuries come at the price of poorly maintained houses, meager diets, and neglected health.
A middle-class Montrealer, I’m caught somewhere between the two extremes. Not so for Emmy Manukyan. This has been her world for 32 years. Armenia isn’t just her birthplace or hometown. It’s part of her essence and has shaped her outlook on life and the world. Though she is honest about the political, societal, and economic problems racking the nation, she still speaks proudly of Armenia: “It’s an ancient yet modern and welcoming country with a powerful history, beautiful nature, rich culture, and delicious traditional cuisine.” Such expressions of patriotism are common here, but the reality is that many natives would jump at the chance to emigrate and have a better life elsewhere. Indeed, most of the families we encounter there have at least one male relative working in Russia or another country. And while some provide for their families back home, others are never heard from again, mainly because they get caught up in their new lives and leave their old ones behind. But Emmy scoffs at the suggestion she may leave one day. “Even if everyone leaves and I am the last person here, I will stay. I will be the one to turn off all the lights.”
We met Emmy in Armenia in 2012, after a stranger on the street offered her a copy of a devotional book my father had written, which we also hand out freely as part of our family’s missionary work in Armenia. An avid reader, Emmy hurried to the nearest park, sat down, and started reading. She continued reading after returning home and finally decided to write my dad a thank-you note. Several months later, my parents met her during one of our mission trips. “I can say for sure that ours was a meeting orchestrated long before by God,” says Emmy. “I got to know Him closely with the help of Mr. Hovsepian.”
A journalist with the prestigious Armenia TV, Emmy works on a program called Sharp Angle, which focuses on helping people in need. She has seen her share of suffering and adversity over the years, not only in people around her but also in her own life. “My childhood was not a sweet one,” she says, “but I don’t recall those days with sadness.” Armenia had fallen on hard times in those years, and she remembers queuing to buy bread to eat instead of playing with her friends, trying to buy oil to avoid freezing to death, and studying by candlelight. “My childhood was spent getting older, silently.”
As if that were not enough, she later developed eyesight problems and still wears noticeably thick glasses. “My parents did everything to help me with this, but the doctors said there was no solution. My poor eyesight has never hindered me [from living] a full life, however—I used to get excellent marks at school.”
Emmy once dreamed of becoming a doctor but believes God had a different path mapped out for her, one that allowed her work in journalism to make a difference in people’s lives. Rather than shy away from pain, she meets it head on without waiting to assess whether she has the resources or ability to help. She has the will and courage, and she’s proven that those qualities go a long, long way. In the last five years, Emmy not only has grown spiritually but also has become one of our ministry’s most faithful partners, going out of her way and using her natural gift of compassion to bring God’s Word and a ray of hope to everyone she can reach. She does all this, not from a place of privilege and affluence—she sometimes waits several months for a paycheck but manages by living frugally—but out of a genuine desire to better the lives of others.
“My parents taught me to help people in need, and I always follow this advice,” she says. “I can’t just think about myself.” While many of us may be willing to forego luxuries or extravagances, Emmy shrugs at basic comforts because she can always find someone in far worse circumstances than her own, and she’s not content to let that stand. Emmy’s fairly new relationship with Christ has magnified her desire to minister to others. “For me, faith is directly connected to living, creating, seeing good, and doing good,” she says. “I feel God’s presence both when I’m happy and when I’m sad. He is inside me, in my heart. He gives me strength and determination. I don’t deny I am sinful, and I don’t pretend to be holy. Pretending so would lead to being Pharisaic, which is no less a sin.” Emmy recognizes the miracle of salvation in her life. “It’s like a new person was born in me. It’s only God’s power that can change you and make you a tool in His hands to be a blessing to others.”
While my father and I were in Armenia last August, we heard from a young woman who had recently lost both legs in a car accident. She was too far away for us to schedule a visit, but Emmy jumped at the chance to help. She traveled about 80 miles round trip by public transportation to meet Gohar and give her a Bible, devotional book, gospel tracts, and money we had provided. On two other occasions, Emmy took us to meet struggling families. One was caring for a blind 10-year-old boy who dreams of becoming a famous singer; the other was looking after a 12-year-old with brain damage—the girl mutely gazed at us with large, innocent eyes as my dad prayed with her mother, who wanted to receive Christ as her Savior. These were unusual visits for us, but they make up a normal part of Emmy’s life from week to week.
A year ago Emmy was approached by a 19-year-old boy who needed heart surgery. His family could not afford the care he needed, and he was in grave danger. Tapping into her network, she managed to raise funds for his operation and, later, for his education. Today, he is not only healthy but also employed. “Many families in Armenia live in terrible conditions,” she says, “and the sad thing is that this number is increasing day by day. I dream that people will be healthy, carefree, and happy. It is terrible to watch smiles disappearing from people’s faces every day.”
Emmy clings to her dream of one day opening a medical center where the sick can get treatment free of charge, the homeless can have a place to sleep, and the hungry can enjoy a meal. She is encouraged that other philanthropists share her vision and believes they can work together to make this dream come true. “What I really wish is that the medical center would only be needed for births because people are healthy and don’t need a hospital.”
When I observe Emmy’s earnest and extravagant generosity, I have to take a good, hard look into my own heart and question whether I am truly willing to give of myself the way Christ calls me to. I find myself not only wanting to support people like Emmy, who are doing His work in places like Armenia, but also tentatively seeking ways to emulate her example where I live. Whether I’m there or here, every person God gives me an opportunity to impact is one of “my people.”
Photography by Piotr Malecki