Managing Director Kim Hartzner returns home | Mission East

Managing Director Kim Hartzner returns home

Kim Hartzner listening to Arman´s heart
Kim Hartzner helping Mary walk

"I’m more enthusiastic than ever about this work," says Mission East’s Managing Director, Kim Hartzner, who has lived in Armenia for the past two years. Now, he and his family are returning home to Denmark. Their memories are full of people and stories from a country where disability still carries a huge stigma.

They planned to be away for just one year. But as the return date approached, Kim felt that he still had much more to do in Armenia.

"It is really difficult to leave children like Hovannes, Sveta, Arman, Marine and all the others. I have followed them closely for a long time. I have seen how they have grown despite their disabilities. And I am as proud of them and of what they have achieved, as I am when my own sons come home with good grades or beautiful drawings they have created in kindergarten."

But not all the memories are as positive. When working with disabled and vulnerable children in Armenia, you must be ready to see and experience things that will to stick in your mind for a long time.

Disabled daughter tied to bed
In July, Kim visited Gegharkunik, which is one of the two new regions where Mission East is starting to expand its work. Here he met a family who tied their 16 monthold daughter, Shushannik, to the bed every night and blindfolded her.

They really believe this helps the little girl to sleep. Not because there is anything wrong with her but just because it is common practice in this area. Instead it delays her motor skills, indeed the whole of her development. Not to mention the psychological trauma the poor child grows up with. It is completely mad. But they don’t know better and no one has ever bothered telling them before," says Kim, adding,

Therefore, we have made it our job."

4 years old and can only count to ten
In the same region Kim met 14-year-old Teresa Matevosyan. When she was two years old she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and as severely mentally handicapped. At one point her hip was dislocated but her mother was told that there was nothing to do about it. She even says that doctors told her not to take Teresa to rehabilitation. It would only be a ‘waste of time’ anyway. Teresa has sat in her wheelchair ever since, unable to move, with recurring pain in her right leg and with increasing spasms in her muscles.

"In any Western country she would have been offered surgery for her hip, and Teresa would have received offers of rehabilitation," says Kim, who is a trained doctor.

"Instead, she is now chained to her chair. Her mother puts tissues between her legs because she can’t afford diapers. She is 14 years old and does not know the names of different colours, and can only count to ten. At night she often wakes up with nightmares, so she almost never sleeps. It really crushes my heart to see how ignorance has allowed the destruction of Teresa’s life. Who knows what she could have achieved if she had only received help in time?

No wheelchairs in the capital
"Every single case goes straight to the heart. To be able to give a child value and get it to believe in itself for the first time in life…! That is a strong feeling. But the most important thing for me is that we make a difference at national level. I don’t want to see a case like Teresa’s again in a few years from now. We can’t allow these children’s problems to be hidden until they are 14 years old, when treatment is too late."

Therefore, Kim spent much of his time in meetings with mayors, governors and ministers to get the Armenian authorities to engage in the fight for the rights of the disabled.

"Over the last two years, I have felt as if we are in the process of cleaning up a room where there has been no cleaning for the past 17 years. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there is very little that works as it should, especially in the school and the healthcare system where the disabled have been left so terribly in the lurch," says Kim.

"People with physical or mental handicaps are still regarded as lesser human beings. In the capital, you don’t see any wheelchairs. Disability is a huge taboo in this country – a problem that very few talk about or do anything about.

A problem which most people believe is better off in a dark corner at home. In Armenia, disabled children are the dirty laundry which no one wants others to see."

Apres, Hovannes!
If Kim does not lose courage in the middle of all the poverty and injustice, it is because of the hundreds of children who make progress as individuals.

"When I see a small Downssyndrome child like Hovannes clapping to himself, it touches me deeply. It is so moving to hear Anni (his psychologist) say "apres, Hovannes" ("well done, Hovannes") and then see him be happy, because he can put two bricks on top of each other. These children have experienced defeat after defeat. It feels really good to be able to give them some small victories instead."

For Kim, there is no doubt that Mission East is fighting a hard battle in Armenia. But he is convinced that by showing parents, doctors, teachers and authorities that - against all expectations - the children here can have a much better life, we are taking a significant step.

"When you have been there and seen the difference with your own eyes like I have you can only become more eager to help. And I am indeed very eager to help these people," says Kim.

From the Mission East magazine, September 2008

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